(RNS) — “Is Dennis Prager stupid or evil?” asks Jonathan V. Last in The Bulwark this week about the conservative radio talk show host. The occasion for this metaphysical query was Prager’s recent comment: “During the AIDS crisis, can you imagine if gay men and intravenous drug users … had they been pariahs the way the non-vaccinated are? But it would’ve been inconceivable.”
Last goes on to quote a series of right-wingers who did in fact treat gay men with AIDS as pariahs — Prager himself just seven years ago declared, “Like heterosexual AIDS and so many other crises, this has been entirely manufactured by the left.”
Among those other crises, he claims, is climate change. But I digress.
Prager’s comment is part and parcel of his personal refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Before becoming the Christian right’s favorite Jewish “tummler,” Prager held himself out to be a serious educator of his co-religionists. If he wasn’t a rabbi, he’d attended a yeshiva as a boy and claimed to know the Jewish tradition that he purveyed.
So what would that greatest of all Jewish educators, the 12th-century rationalist sage Maimonides, have thought of Prager’s anti-vax position? Let it be noted that, in addition to writing widely on philosophy and Jewish law, Maimonides was doctor-in-charge at the court of the Egyptian Sultan Saladin.
In the latter capacity he had zero patience for those who refused medication out of religious conviction. Here’s what he had to say about them in his Judeo-Arabic commentary on the Mishnah (as translated by Maimonides scholar Sarah Stroumsa):
According to their confused and stupid logic, if a hungry man grabs bread and eats it, (an act) which is sure to cure this painful suffering, does this mean that he stopped relying on God?! They should be told: “You fools! (majanīn (sing. majnūn): madmen, or more generally senseless fools.) As I thank God for the food which He provided me, which alleviates my hunger and sustains me, in the same way I thank Him for providing a medicine which heals my illness when I use it.
To be fair, Prager has not behaved like someone who thinks his religious faith is all that’s needed to protect him from disease. Last month he told his listeners that he had contracted COVID-19 on purpose in order to achieve natural immunity, adding that he also sought to combat it with monoclonal antibodies, zinc, azithromycin, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.
So maybe Maimonides would have held back from calling him a majnūn. But, according to Stroumsa, he had other words to discredit theories and intellectual endeavors that he considered pseudo-science.
If he happened to be listening to Prager on COVID-19, he might well have had recourse to the same terms he applied to the Sabaeans, Arabian people who used cultic and magical practices to influence spirits and control the natural elements of the sublunar world: khurāfat wa-hadhayānat — old wives tales and ravings.