Monthly Archives: October 2015

Interview with Rabbi Steven Pruzansky: Country Preacher

Recently, I interviewed Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn about his new book. In that book, the only rabbi mentioned by Einhorn as his personal friend was Rabbi Steven Pruzansky. That, in turn, lead to this interview giving the world further insight into the Right Wing side of Modern Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, a synagogue consisting of over 600 families located in Teaneck, New Jersey. He has served there since 1994. Pruzansky graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in history, and received a JD degree from Cardozo School of Law. He practiced law for 13 years as a general practitioner and litigator in New York City until assuming his current pulpit. Pruzansky was ordained at Yeshiva Bnei Torah of Far Rockaway, New York under the guidance of Rabbi Yisrael Chait. He is a trustee of the RCA on the Board of the Beth Din of America, as well as a dayyan on the Beth Din itself. He also is a member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

When asked about his Orthodox affiliation, he replied

Labels are hard for me. The two primary rabbinic influences in my life – Rabbi Wein and Rabbi Chait – defy easy labeling. I choose to fly solo, taking the best from a variety of different movements and when necessary distancing myself from those movements on certain issues. I’m happy to be RWMO, but that doesn’t fully categorize me either. I’m a voice in the RCA but not that influential… Most of the organizational and rabbinical politics accomplish nothing and, frankly, bore me…  I prefer to see myself as a “country preacher.”

Pruzansky’s down home preaching has made him both a role model for some and a problematic lighting rod of controversy to others. One of my former students, who currently serves as rabbi in a major Modern Orthodox pulpit, has a congregant who forever urges him to be more like Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, urging him to use Pruzansky as a role model. On the other hand, some consider Rabbi Pruzansky as a Jewish Jeremiah Wright tainting all those applaud his sermons.  (See here, here, and here.) Regrettably, I expect both sides to hassle me over this interview.

My interview with Pruzansky, however, is not on his politics, his controversies, his view of President Obama, or his views of Open Orthodoxy. Rather, I turned to his books in order to understand his basic religious message.  He is the most articulate of the local Orthodox rabbis, and he has written three books:   A Prophet for Today: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Yehoshua (2006), Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Shoftim (2009) and his latest, Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility (2014).

Pruzansky - cover

The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility (2014) is a clearly written and direct work reflecting his sermons and preaching. The message is that we have to make proper decisions in our careers, marriages, child rearing, and financial dealings.  We have to take responsibility of our lives with its necessary challenges of career, marriage, and child rearing.  The book is a musar book emphasizing self-sufficiency, right choices, and a (very) strong Protestant work ethic. Even quotes from popular works like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers belie a concern for the formula for success.

The work is a model of the implicit Centrist Orthodox critique of the Haredi life. One should plan for a career, not get married until one support a family, don’t let rabbis make your decisions, no learning while supported by others, and not to expect miracles in life or politics.

The country preacher’s thoughts on the book of Genesis show the importance of free enterprise, the necessity of the small state rejecting the state giving free handouts which make us into slaves, the importance of being anti-union, the fundamental importance of being pro-private property, and the necessity of gun ownership. The book is solid musar for Republican values – with some nativism and tea party ideas included.  The book surprised me in how much it was built on yeshivish musar works and not YU related works. But unlike those musar works, here we have a proud use of personal responsibility  for one’s worldly life.

Arguments on the topic of personal responsibility have been hot one in recent years. For example, there have been numerous shows on FoxNews by Bill O’Reiley among others on the topic of personal responsibility (here, here and here),; Nicholas Kristof penned a response, Now, there is a recently released study by the political scientists Mark D. Brewer and Jeffrey M. Stonecash, Polarization and the Politics of Personal Responsibility (2015), which argues that the idea of personal responsibility is the fundamental divide in the US today between liberal and conservative and the notion of personal responsibility can be used to sort out the current divisions surrounding race, gender and religion.

The book is gold mine for an anthropological study of upper middle class Centrist Orthodoxy. If we want to compare Pruzansky’s message to an opposite work, I would recommend the works of Rabbi Avraham Twerski’s musar. Twerski also deals with the contemporary anxiety of making money and the struggles of family life, but Twerski does not stress responsibility, rather he stresses the importance of turning to God, seeking comfort in prayer, coping with stress, maintaining one’s self esteem by being part of community, and assureing his readers that God will extend his mercy to the unemployed like he helped the Jews in Egypt. A message like Twerski’s creates a very different religious anthropology than that created by Pruzansky’s message.

Pruzansky’s book can also be compared to the 16th century Polish Rabbinic homilies- by the Kli Yakar, Levush, Maharashal Maharal and others– on wealth, family, and responsibility as discussed in the still untranslated work by Haim H. Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (Jerusalem, 1959). Unlike the poverty of Rabbinic Jews in the 19th and early 20 th century, the upper middle class concern with making wealth of the 16 th century  Polish city Jews deserves comparison to our own age.

The other volume discussed in this interview  Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Shoftim (2009) uses the book of Judges to understand contemporary Israel politics. Modern Israeli politicians are compared to the flawed ancient Judges, ethics are learned from the prophet driven battles, and the need to utterly destroy one’s enemy is learned from the battle against the Canaanites.  The volume makes use of many of the recent Israeli Religious Zionist commentaries produced in Hardal yeshivot on the book of Judges that seek to draw modern political messages from the early prophetic books.

I thank Rabbi Pruzansky. Read the interview, learn about this country preacher, one of the leaders of Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy.

pruzansky picture

The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.

1) What is your message of personal responsibility?

First and foremost, it means the assumption of personal decision-making about one’s life choices. Major issues in life must be decided by the individual and cannot be outsourced to others. Only in that way can the individual’s unique personality be expressed and realized. Add to that the importance of accepting responsibility for failures or mistakes, which builds character and deepens integrity, and provides a platform for learning from one’s experiences.

2) What is the need for self-sufficiency?

Ultimate decisions on choices of spouse, career, place of residence, etc. must be made by the individual (even after he or she consults and receives guidance from others); otherwise, the person is living someone else’s life.

No person, however, is ever completely self-sufficient. We rely on family, friends and community to provide us with the framework and infrastructure in which we can grow, live and thrive. But we should strive for self-sufficiency in terms of decision-making.

For some, the advantage to having another person make critical life decisions for a questioner is that it frees the questioner from having to take any responsibility for his decisions. For others, that might relieve them of the insecurity engendered by those very decisions. For most, I would think, it deprives them of the capacity to develop and enrich their personalities and to live as free people.

I note in Parshat Lech Lecha: “Individuality is not only a blessing but a fulfillment of God’s will in creation. We are allowed – even encouraged – to pursue our individual talents and destinies, all within a Torah framework. We may become Jewish doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, inventors, scientists, businessmen, entrepreneurs and thinkers. To live in a box stifles creativity, and the attempt to produce cookie-cutter children grows stale…”


3) What is the esteem gained by being part of the Jewish people?

To be a member of the Jewish people is a privilege and a gift. In essence, it is to be entrusted with carrying G-d’s moral message to the rest of the world. One naturally should feel pride in the assignment, but that pride should not feed one’s ego. Rather it should be used as motivation to fulfill the mission that G-d granted us. Indeed, it should induce humility – the humility of the servant executing his tasks on behalf of the king and knowing that the sense of nobility he feels is not innate in him but a reflection of his role as servant.


4) Should people go to rabbis to make decisions for them?

A person should always consult others before making a major decision about which he is conflicted, just to hear other ideas and perspectives. But for a person to allow another person to make a major decision for him is abdicating one’s own humanity and living someone else’s life. That is essentially slavery (avdut), and the antithesis of the image of G-d (tzelem elokim) and right of free choice we were given. Rabbis can have greater insight at times, but I don’t subscribe to the notion that rabbis necessarily have divine inspiration and an unerring perspective on world affairs.

Rav S. R. Hirsch spoke of the tzelem elokim as man’s capacity to be a free-willed being. A failure to exercise that capacity is essentially dehumanizing. Of course, it has to be exercised with care. Man not only possesses a nefesh hasichli – spiritual and intellectual inclinations – but a nefesh habehami – animalistic tendencies – as well. One must be careful to use his gift of the image of G-d (tzelem elokim) to promote the former and harness the latter.

5) You define the goodness in matriarch Sarah’s life as successful. How is the Torah’s goal success?
   Faithfulness to Torah certainly does not guarantee wealth, but why would we define “success” by the size of one’s bank account? Sadly, too many people are afflicted with that mentality. Chazal spoke of the virtues acquired through poverty, although they didn’t of course recommend it. The poor and the rich are both in challenging situations, and that is the basic test of man: to be able to serve G-d under all circumstances, and we are all therefore placed in different circumstances. But faithfulness to Torah produces success as we should define it – being a proper servant of G-d, at peace with G-d and man, blessed with family, and a lack of any sense of deprivation. etc.

6) When is it OK to blame the victim – such as Dinah- for not showing personal responsibility?
   We don’t blame the victim enough in our society. Usually the victim plays some role in his victimization – usually but of course not always. It is the concept in torts of contributory negligence, which is perfectly logical but rejected by most people when it comes to their personal lives. Distinctions are necessary – of course, im ain deah, havdala minayin? (without knowledge, how can we make distinctions?) – and not all cases are identical. Even in torts, contributory negligence is adjudicated by percentages, 1% to 99%, and everything in between.

That being said, no person has the right to harm, molest, assault or otherwise take advantage of any person, even if the victim is responsible for his bad choices. The onus of guilt remains on the perpetrator. Thus, contributory negligence is a matter of civil, not criminal, law. A criminal cannot excuse his crime by saying the victim should have known better than to walk in a dangerous neighborhood. Chazal were clear that Dina went out looking for trouble and found it – but that is a moral lapse. It did not give anyone the right to attack her.


7) How does revelation on Sinai connect to the value of responsibility?

If man was created as a free-willed being capable of being held accountable for his actions, part of Creation has to entail the revelation by G-d of His will and morality to mankind.

That is how the Jewish people enter world history, never to leave it. We were liberated from Egypt in order to be free-willed beings who can receive His Torah, serve G-d and transmit His morality to others. The Torah is misplaced if it is given to human beings who are not responsible for their actions. We have to use our minds to understand G-d’s will as best we can and control our bodies – rein in our impulses – to serve him as well.


8) Why and how do people need limits on their lives?

It’s this week’s sedra – כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֪ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו. (“Man’s inclinations are towards evil – i.e., instinctual gratification – from his earliest youth.”) Man’s animalistic tendencies will emerge unless they are constrained and redirected elsewhere. Man left unchecked – by Torah, law, conscience, society, etc. – will naturally try to consume, abuse and torment others. Man left unchecked lives a pure animalistic – animal soul nefesh habehami existence, seeking only to gratify his physical needs as best and as frequently as he can. That is why we were given the Torah and the nations limited by the Noahide laws.

9) What do you say to someone poor and born into a cycle of poverty with lack of models for responsibility?
Personal responsibility includes responsibility for others, especially the needy or downtrodden. Far better than the handout is the personal involvement in their lives – mentoring, guiding and, when necessary, easing them through and out of financial hardship. But we do not believe that circumstances define a person. Hillel “obligated the poor” (mechayev aniyim) to achieve and lift himself up as he did, (Yoma 35b). If it is done by one, it means it can be done by all.

Nonetheless, growing up in hardship – whether the inner city or the Pale of Settlement – makes it more difficult, and that’s where character and values are indispensable. What ails society today is not the dearth of money but the dearth of values. So many people have money and still have corrupt values.

10) The approach in the book has little on mizvot, ritual or Torah, almost everything on marriage, finances, child-rearing, career, and stress of life. What does this say about the community and its issues? What does it say about your approach to the rabbinate?


Nothing! We are defined as a people of mitzvot but that was not my intention in writing. There are many books that deal with the technicalities of Jewish observance. But one can be a Shomer Mitzvot – and be corrupt, even have idolatrous leanings, and not at all feel a connection with G-d. Those are greater focal points for me, because I assume observance of Mitzvot.


11)  If this is the Torah perspective, then why have there been so many rabbinic scandals- both financial and sexual- in the last few years?

It seems like a lot, but in actual numbers it is not that many in real terms. More than 3% of Americans are either in prison or on parole. What percentage of rabbis are miscreants? Far less. Of course that is small comfort when even one is too many. That being said, the Torah is perfect, not the Jews and certainly not the rabbis. A depraved person who learns Torah is lambasted by Chazal, because he will eventually use the Torah for his depraved purposes. Sadly, none of this is new.

12) Where do books you seem to have used like  Thomas Sowell and Frederich Hayek on economics, Frank Chodorov on libertarianism,  and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers fit into a Torah perspective?
In a general sense I am a big believer in “believe there is wisdom among the gentiles” “chochma bagoyim taamin.” If non-Jews have a particular insight into the world, or they frame a Torah concept in an especially enlightening way, then I am delighted to learn from them and use it. But “don’t accept that there is Torah among the gentiles” “Torah bagoyim al taamin” – they do not have a divine system through which they can sustain and transmit those ideas.

13) Is it just coincidence that the perspective in your book in favor of the small state, anti-union, pro-private property, pro free enterprise, and the importance of gun ownership is very similar to certain Republican platforms. If one is already a Republican with these positions, then why do I need Torah?

What’s the cart and what’s the horse? The Torah always has to be the foundation of all our ideas and values. To the extent that Torah ideas coincide in certain aspects to the Republican Party, I am gratified – for them. Good for them, but it doesn’t really affect us. In any event, the ideas and values in the Torah are of divine origin; the Republican Party platform? How shall we say it? Less so.

The puzzle then is why so many Jews are practicing Democrats – and the answer is that overwhelmingly they are not practicing Jews.    But when the Republican Party deviates or would deviate from the Torah, I would not hesitate at all backing away or repudiating that part of the platform. Bear in mind that politics in America is inherently secular but that Republicans are much more likely to be churchgoers and religious than are Democrats. That itself certainly plays a role in explaining the symmetrical aspects of the conservative philosophy and the norms of Torah.

14) Should shuls have gun clubs? What role does the gun club play in your shul?

The gun club is not officially part of Congregation Bnai Yeshuran  but most of its members are somewhat affiliated with the shul. We did offer (off premises) firearms training years ago for those interested many years ago. We also hosted karate for many years, which I consider quite similar. Self-defense is important for all Jews, a basic Torah requirement. We need not be squeamish about the right to defend ourselves. I do not believe we have any hunters in shul!

Judges-cover

Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim

1.       What is your concept of a national leader based on your book?

The ideal leader is a righteous autocrat who is wise, honest, humble and devoted to the welfare of his people. It is no coincidence that this models the philosopher-king; it should. The problem is that the theory is great but it is hard to find such people in reality, at least not in a sustained way. The failure of Jewish leadership in ancient times – and the accounts of the few exceptions – is the story of Jewish history.

2.       How is the leader to bring national solidarity?

National solidarity, for Jews, comes from a shared sense of commitment to G-d’s service and therefore our national destiny. We all have the same mission but we were all given different roles in that mission. The task of the leader is to actualize the fulfillment of the national mission by facilitating the performance of the individual roles.

3.       Why do we need pragmatic thinking in politics and to accept less than ideal judge who make  mistakes?

    I don’t think we have to “accept” poor leadership but the reality is that we have to endure it and overcome it. There is mediocrity in every field, so leadership is no exception. Personally, I think we are too hard on leaders who make mistakes. As long as they accept responsibility and have learned from them, they probably have an advantage over leaders who think they are infallible. In American politics today, there are no second acts. But Israel – and many other countries – has a habit of recycling leaders who have been rejected before. In fact, almost every prime minister in the last three decades has been booted out of office at least once and then restored – if not to the top job then to other top positions.

The world is divided into righteous and wicked, but most people are entrenched in that third category, the intermediates (beinonim). They will usually know what is right but lack the will to see it through.

4.   What is the concept of the degradation of community?
Often during the period of the Judges, when just part of the nation was attacked the tribes that were unaffected felt no need to join in the battle because they lost a sense of nationhood.. Too often, the Judges went to battle with just a small number of tribes, and even then participants had to be solicited. This happened to Gideon, Yiftach, and Shimshon’s case – when he had to fight alone – stands out even more. The sense of community – of nationhood – was lost, and as we saw, only a king governing from a new national center – Yerushalayim – could restore that unity.

5.  In your opinion, why should Jews (or Israel) ignore the Geneva Conventions and other human rights conventions?

I am not saying Israel should categorically ignore the Conventions, which have a value even if they have changed over time. It does purport to regulate the conduct of war between nations, and does it successfully except when it does it spectacularly poorly (such as when a nation chooses to breach it and suffers no consequences – Syria, 2013). Nor did it help Jews during the Holocaust.  But if one side in a conflict vitiates the Conventions, then it is foolish to abide by them and give the enemy the advantage. E.g., an enemy that hides behind civilians, that attacks civilians, that does not fight in military uniform, etc. – in that context, the Conventions should not apply. Indeed, most of the world would not similarly restrict themselves, and so Israel should not be subject to that double standard.


6.       Your position seems very different than those Roshei Yeshiva who teach that human dignity and human rights are never removed from a person. Do you have any thoughts on why you see things differently?

Not at all. I believe very strongly in human dignity and human rights because all human beings are created b’tzelem elokim. But I believe as well, and would be surprised if the other Centrist rabbanim did not, that human beings can so tarnish their image of G-d (tzelem elokim) that it is gone. That happens when a person becomes an animal, completely under the sway of the animal soul (nefesh habehami). Nazi murderers were in that category, like prehistoric man who did not possess an image of G-d.

I can’t believe that other Orthodox leaders would perceive them as human beings like the rest of us, just sinners. Those who wantonly stab innocent people because of their lust for Jewish blood are in the same category. Their image of G-d is so corroded that it is gone. That is why society executes those people.

Indeed, the executed prisoner is called the cursed of G-d. G-d had a certain plan for human beings when He created us and gave us an  Image of G-d. These murderers forfeited that and leaving them hanging from a tree is an “embarrassment” to G-d whose plan went awry. So hang them and take them down right away.

7.  How and why do we use the prophets  of Navi for guidance?

If we can’t learn from it, then there would have been no point in recording it for posterity.  I make this point in the introduction to the book on Yehoshua: “The Jewish people had many prophets…so why are only the words of 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses recorded? Only the prophecy that was needed for future generations was written down, and that which was not needed for future generations was not written down (Megilah 14a).”

In Rabbi Wein’s approbation (haskama) to that book he wrote that it is “an excellent piece of work and scholarship. The danger in it and the criticism that you will undoubtedly receive is in your attempt to fit event and insights from Sefer Yehoshua to the present-day Israeli scene. Many of the leading rabbis of our time have warned against attempting such comparisons.” Wein continued his words: “However, this is not a unanimous opinion for otherwise what is the purpose of studying Tanach…”

Those are the two sides. My efforts were along those lines: to extract from Yehoshua and Shoftim – the books that describe the initial conquest and settlement of the land of Israel – all the lessons that we can apply to the modern conquest and settlement of the land of Israel. The similarities are eerie. And if we can’t gain this wisdom from the Navi, “what is the purpose of studying Tanach?”Actually, we do not learn halacha from Navi but only from Chazal, but this is a different quest.

Advertisements