Yom Kippur, sin and Dr. Laura

On Yom Kippur, Jews are asked to meditate on their sins, vow to make changes and then soberly face the future.

For 10 million-plus radio listeners, this probably sounds like calling in to talk with Laura Schlessinger. While most radio counselors offer moral cosmetic surgery, "Dr. Laura" has stormed ahead of the pack by performing radical operations -- with little or no anesthesia.

It all comes down to the Ten Commandments, she said. Basic moral laws are becoming even more relevant in an age of easy excuses and smorgasbord religion.

"Lots of people say `I'm not religious,' but when you ask them to describe their values they basically start quoting you the Ten Commandments," said Schlessinger, who last weekend delivered a Rosh Hashanah address entitled "Why Bother Being Jewish?" at the synagogue she attends. The High Holy Days end with Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown Sunday.

"Most of our moral laws come from religion," she added. "There's something above us that says some things are right and some are wrong. ... I find it hard to take anyone seriously who won't admit that."

Most moral mavericks quickly change their tunes when the tables are turned, she noted. Truth is, they "want the freedom to hurt other people, but then they don't want to be hurt."

Schlessinger has both a Columbia University doctorate in physiology and a post-doctorate certificate in marriage and family counseling. While many call her a conservative, she shuns labels and has even declined to create her own -- other than to call her blunt style "preaching, teaching and nagging."

Social liberals knock her because she attacks premarital sex, adultery and easy divorces. She says abortion is wrong and that children should be raised by their mothers and fathers -- at home. Most of all, she grills adults who put their own interests ahead of those of children. Meanwhile, some conservatives are not sure she's pure enough. Many question her acceptance of some gay and lesbian relationships. Others wonder about the sources of her moral code.

While baptized as a Catholic, Schlessinger converted to Judaism as an adult. She also has said that meditation and martial- arts training -- she has a karate black belt -- played roles in her "philosophical evolution." She recently offered this on-air summation of her faith: "I am as religious a Jew as I can struggle to be at this point."

Her personal strategy for handling tough issues is to match wits with her rabbi. She also keeps a file of letters and telephone numbers sent in by other clergy -- a valuable resource when handling religious issues on her show.

But most callers already know what's right and wrong, she said. The problem is that they just don't want to do it.

A self-proclaimed born-again Christian once said he was separated from his wife and shacked up with another woman. Yes, he knew this was sinful. His problem? Pangs of guilt. Another caller admitted that he felt guilty having sex with his girlfriend. He didn't want to marry her because she wasn't a Christian "like he is." An Orthodox Jewish woman asked for help solving a problem linked to driving on the Sabbath, which is forbidden in Orthodoxy. She got upset when asked to explain her statement that she already was living with her fiance.

Clergy must realize that it isn't enough, these days, to talk about "sin," said Schlessinger. At some point they will have to risk making sustained arguments in favor of virtue. In her bestseller, "How Could You Do That?", she noted: "I am saddened that too many pulpits don't challenge the folks in the pews (lest attendance drop?) about their personal behaviors in the context of moral choices, which ultimately give dignity to fundamentally animal behaviors."

Her show's popularity may be evidence of this sad silence. If people can't find practical answers in places that were once moral sanctuaries, they may turn to other forums -- such as talk radio.

"I guess," she said, "my program is filling that gap, somehow, for a great many people."