Rabbi Steven Pruzansky used to be a lawyer. Today he heads the largest synagogue in Teaneck, New Jersey. A graduate of Columbia University and Yeshiva University’s Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, Rabbi Pruzansky assumed the pulpit of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in 1994. He previously served as the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim in Kew Gardens Hills for nine years.
A strong supporter of Israel, Rabbi Pruzansky does not hide his strong right-wing views on Israeli politics. These views have earned him both admirers and detractors (Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman quit Bnai Yeshurun over them).
A noted author and lecturer, Rabbi Pruzansky just completed his second book, Judges For Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim (Gefen). The Jewish Press recently spoke with him.
The Jewish Press: In the book, you write at some length about Samson’s unconventional military tactics and their possible current application. Can you elaborate?
Rabbi Pruzansky: I think the basic idea of Shimshon’s battles was an attempt to provide the people of Israel with plausible deniability. In other words, he conducted himself as a lone wolf, distancing himself from his native population, even committing acts that would manifest a severance between him and the Jewish people (intermarriage for example) in order to inflict damage on the enemy that could not be traced back to the Jewish people. And in that he was very successful.
From that I deduce a methodology for fighting an asymmetrical war between a state and, say, a terror group. Today the western world is trying to combat an enemy that basically is faceless and nameless, and does not necessarily have a political address, and yet can inflict grievous harm to civilian populations. How do you fight such an enemy? Shimshon shows one approach, and that is to basically infiltrate their society and inflict damage on them – and then to retreat and disappear. In other words, fight them on their battlefield rather than trying to engage the enemy on our battlefield, which is always a nightmare in terms of the actual combat as well as the moral and political aftermath.
In discussing Samson you cite Rav Kook, who characterized the Old Yishuv (Jews living in Palestine before the first aliyah) as possessing “healthy souls but sick bodies” and the New Yishuv as possessing “healthy bodies but sick souls.” Can you elaborate?
The point was that one of the reasons why Shimshon was necessary was because the people had no interest in liberating themselves from the yoke of the Philistines. The Jews were content to be subservient – to live their lives and observe the mitzvos. It didn’t matter to them that they had lost their nation or that they couldn’t build the Jewish state.
I analogize that to what Rav Kook said about the Old Yishuv: that they were very content to live lives of Torah and mitzvos, but weren’t interested in implementing that life in a national context. Conversely the New Yishuv was interested in building a state, but uninterested in infusing such a state with Torah and mitzvos. What Rav Kook desired were people with healthy souls and healthy bodies – people who wanted to live a personal life of Torah and mitzvos, as well as realize the Torah’s ideal of a people whose nationhood and political state is endowed with a sense of holiness and Torah and mitzvos.
You made it to the pages of The New York Times when Abraham Foxman quit your shul in 1995. Can you address this?
I really can’t because I was only here a year, and I had only met him once or twice. His main years of activity at Bnai Yeshurun preceded mine.
But I think in retrospect that it was at that time – 1994, 1995, really at the worst stage of the Oslo process – that the government of Israel tried to silence a number of outspoken American rabbis or leaders. I have no evidence of this, but I just sense that because around the same time I was attacked, a few rabbanim in Brooklyn were attacked, Dov Hikind was attacked – all the people who seemed to speak out publicly against Oslo somehow found their names brought up in the media as official targets of one individual or another.
If I recall correctly, we all started to be attacked by a variety of sources both in and outside of Israel right after a group of over 100 rabbis went to Capitol Hill to lobby against the Israeli government’s concessions in Oslo. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Would it be fair to characterize you as being on the far right of the Modern Orthodox political spectrum?
I’d like to think I’m right in the sane middle. Everyone to my left is an idiot; everyone to my right is a maniac [laughs].
I don’t agree with your characterization, although I do think that many of my colleagues are perhaps less outspoken about Israeli politics than I am – either because they feel they can’t have any effect or because they don’t want to offend even a minority in their shul that would disagree with them. I, on the other hand, think that Jewish lives are at stake and it really makes no difference whether those Jewish lives are in the old Soviet Union, Venezuela or Israel.
You can’t simply say, “Well, people voted for it, therefore we have to accept it.” There’s a certain objective morality that exists and it’s the rabbis’ job to articulate it. If the rabbis are not going to do that, then I think they’ve failed – at least in that aspect of their mission.
Some rabbis have criticized the Rabbinical Council of America for its new Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS), which they see as a turn to the right and an infringement on the autonomy of community rabbis. As a member of the GPS Committee and Rosh Beit Din L’Giyur of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, what is your response?
I don’t think their criticisms have any merit at all. They’re perfectly entitled as rabbanim to convert anyone they want to convert. The question is, what’s going to be the general acceptance of their conversions .
Accepting a convert is not a personal process; it’s a national process. And the process has to be based on nationally accepted standards. You’re not talking about non-Jews converting and joining one rav’s shul; you’re talking about a non-Jew converting and joining the Jewish people.
Granted, there’s a certain flexibility built into the process because you’re dealing with human beings. On the other hand you want to make sure that a convert who walks out of the mikveh and wants something to eat knows what brachah to say, where to buy the food, how to observe Shabbos, how to put on tefillin, etc .
In addition, Israel’s rabbinate has had its own problems with conversion and they’re looking for greater standardization. They want to be sure that if a ger from America presents himself or herself in Israel for aliyah or for marriage that they can rely on the American converting body without having to do their own investigations, which are tedious and very hard and unpleasant to do.
To what do you attribute the growth of the Teaneck Jewish community since your arrival at Bnai Yeshurun 15 years ago?
I’d like to think it’s my good looks [chuckles].
The truth is that Teaneck is unique. There are 12 shuls and all the rabbanim get along, so it’s a very cohesive community. We all agree on kashrus, the eruv and the mikveh. We don’t look for machlokes; if we disagree on something we work it out in private. There’s a sense of camaraderie that exists, which I think makes for a very strong community.