Morality: It's not a luxury Ethical behavior is what it's all about, says Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, novelist, screenwriter and interpreter of Judaism to both Jews and non-Jews.



Ask Rabbi Joseph Telushkin a question, and he will likely reply with a story or a joke.

It's the best way, he explains, to communicate profound truth.

So when this man, one of the most prominent interpreters of Judaism to both Jews and non-Jews, is confronted with a query about what thread runs through his diverse body of work, he responds with a story about the great first-century sage, Rabbi Hillel.

Hillel was asked by a would-be convert to define the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot, Telushkin says.

"What's hateful unto you, don't do unto your neighbor," Hillel replied. "The rest is commentary. Go and study."

Doing the right thing, he says, is the key to everything.

"One of the greatest thinkers of Talmudic Judaism puts ethics at the center" of religion, Telushkin says. "The thread that flows throughout everything I write is: What does God demand of us in terms of ethics? The reason is because of my conviction that an error has been made in which the word 'religious' has come to mean, for most people, being ritually observant.

"This could lead to the terribly false impression that ethics is a kind of an extracurricular activity," he says. "So what I want to do is restore ethics to their proper place in Judaism."

Telushkin, who will speak tomorrow at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills as part of the 1998 Jewish Book Festival, has expressed that theme through a diverse body of work. He has written "Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History,' a work he intended for a Jewish audience but a volume that has found appeal among non-Jews as well.

After readers on the lecture circuit kept asking questions about the Bible, he wrote a book on Biblical literacy. And he is working on a book on living out Jewish ethics, one day at a time.

But it's not all academic for Telushkin. He also has written three murder mysteries in which the hero who solves the cases is a rabbi. "He uses his rabbinical knowledge to solve the crimes. He uses parallels from the Talmud," he says, referring to the voluminous commentary on the Torah.

He has even taken to writing for television, having recently penned three episodes for the legal drama "The Practice." He sees nothing strange about being a rabbi/ screenwriter.

"It's a question of trying to take some of the values you have and bringing them to a program that's going to be viewed by many millions of people," he says.

And Telushkin, 50, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and four children, has made Hollywood his congregation, by serving as the spiritual leader of Synagogue of the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, where he flies in to lead services the first Friday of each month. One of the most famous members of that congregation is Kirk Douglas, who has re-embraced the Judaism of his youth.

The medium doesn't matter, Telushkin says. The message does: "I'm obsessed with getting people to think about what's right and wrong."

Often, among Jews, those values are communicated through humor. In his book, "Jewish Humor," just published in paperback, Telushkin argues that the jokes his people tell reveal deep truths about the struggles they face and what they value at particular points in their history. For example, in the earlier part of this century, much Jewish humor poked fun at a very unfunny subject: anti-Semitism. Jews used humor, Telushkin says, to point out its absurdity.

"Humor became a weapon against anti-Semitism," he says. "As anti-Semitism has declined, jokes dealing with anti-Semitism have declined."

Jewish humor nowadays is more likely to deal with family relations. "We know the Jewish community is intimately connected to the family," he says. "But humor allows us to see the flip side of it." He illustrates, of course, with a joke.

There are these three elderly Jewish women who are sitting on a bench on Miami Beach, each one bragging about how devoted her son is to her.

The first one says: "My son is so devoted that last year for my birthday he gave me an all-expenses-paid cruise around the world. First-class."

The second one says: "My son is more devoted. For my 75th birthday last year, he catered an affair for me. And even gave me money to fly down my good friends from New York."

The third one says: "My son is the most devoted. Three times a week he goes to a psychiatrist. A hundred and twenty dollars he pays him. And what does he speak about the whole time? Me."

Although ethics has always been in the background of his work, in his most recent works, Telushkin addresses it more explicitly.

The most common ethical issues, and the most important, Telushkin would argue, do not involve weighty dilemmas of grave evil acts. Rather, he says in his 1996 book, "Words That Hurt, Words That Heal," we cause the most harm by opening our mouths to the people we see every day: Our families, our friends, our co-workers and acquaintances.

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