Category Archives: Navi

The Fall

    Our world, and the joy and serenity of Yom Tov, were rocked by the shocking news of the arrest of a colleague of mine. The allegations, even if false, are still dreadful. And if true, they are criminal and despicable – criminal, and thus to be dealt with by the law with all the penalties that pertain to such crimes; and despicable, because they encroached upon and desecrated one of the holy of holies of Jewish life, the Mikveh. The immediate reactions of anger, sadness and disgust were all justified.

As usual, the media misrepresent some essential aspects of the ramifications of this sordid matter. My colleague did not “set the standards for conversion in America,” that, presumably, would now be questioned. He chaired the committee that formulated policies and standards. It was a small committee, on which I also served. The policies and standards were deliberated at length, voted on and approved by the committee, and then by the RCA Executive Committee. They are not the standards of one person but of an organization, or, better, a classic and traditional articulation of the Torah’s standards for conversion. The standards remain valid and proper.

So do the conversions supervised by my colleague. The sensationalists looking to sow fear and apprehension in order to exacerbate this calamity are suggesting that past converts will now have their status questioned. Such speculations are unfounded. No rabbi converts a non-Jew as an individual but as part of a qualified Bet Din of three. If the only rabbis who could serve on such a Bet Din are those rabbis that are free of sin, then there would be no Batei Din and no rabbis. Absent proof of some tawdry arrangement between candidate and the conversion court, and assuming – as always – that the primary prerequisite of conversion was satisfied – a sincere acceptance of mitzvot – then all past conversions are valid.

He also did not “supervise the 13 conversion courts in the United States.” That is the responsibility of the Beth Din of America. Indeed, he has not served as chairman of the conversion committee for more than a year. Converts should rest easily and continue to grow in love of Torah and mitzvot.

Therein lies the biggest problem caused by the eruptions of immoral conduct by rabbis, which does occur from time to time. The expectation of moral perfection in the rabbinate is encouraging and in some ways appropriate but all – being human – will occasionally fall short. Granted, there are some sins that are more grievous than others and some failures are inexcusable – especially those in which the practice of the rabbinate is corrupted. I would love it if all rabbis (myself included) were above reproach – personally, I am troubled when rabbis talk during chazarat hashatz, not to mention other sins  – but that is an unreasonable benchmark that is often maintained by layman (and the media) to allow non-rabbis to rationalize their own misdeeds, along the lines of “if Rabbi ….can do that, then I can do this.”

That sentiment is more a hollow convenience that it is a rational reflection, as we are all judged by one standard – those set by G-d in His Torah. The piling-on that accompanies any clergy scandal coalesce those genuinely troubled by the desecration of G-d’s name and the shame brought to the religion, and those who use such outrages to rationalize their own lack of commitment, enjoy pointing out the hypocrisy of others (always others), or exploit the opportunity to declare that, if such could happen, there is no G-d, no Torah, no objective morality, etc. I sense that each person truly knows in which group he or she would be found.

The question that always lingers in every such case is…how?? How could a person drawn to G-d’s work stoop so low, fall so precipitously, and stumble so badly? It is a fair question, and I take comfort in the reality that it is an old question dealt with by our Sages when it first presented itself in ancient times.

Here are excerpts from the last chapter of my second book, “Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, 2009) that deals with the sins of the sons of Eli, the High Priest in the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Those sons were the leaders of a corrupt religious establishment, who in addition to seizing more of the sacrificial offerings  than they were entitled, also abused women.

The sons of Eli were more than greedy, and yet, their father was powerless to stop them. “And Eli was very old, and he heard all about what his sons were doing to all Israel, and that they would lie down with the women who gathered at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (I Shmuel 2:22). Our Sages dispute whether the sin depicted was literal or figurative. The Talmud (Shabbat 55b) insists that “anyone who says that the son of Eli sinned [in the grievous way described] is simply in error.” Rather, the sons of Eli “delayed the bird offerings” of women who had given birth and required this act of purification to resume normal marital relations with their husbands. The sons of Eli – the Gemara intimates that it was Chofni’s idea in which Pinchas did not participate but nor did he protest – trifled with the intimate relations between husbands and wives. They would arbitrarily permit one woman to return to her husband and compel a second to wait another day, for no valid halachic reason. Why would they engage in such strange, capricious behavior? It was a power play.

The two vices that can overwhelm susceptible clergymen are money and power, and both failings – the inevitable product of greed and arrogance – were dominant in Eli’s sons. They used the sacrificial order as their own personal kitty, and provided themselves with the legal justification for their theft. And they toyed with people’s private lives, essentially teaching an entire generation that Torah had no substance, depth or meaning, that its injunctions were capricious, and that its laws could be amended by the powerful and well connected as it suited them. Their society learned these lessons too well, and the Tabernacle – and the sons of Eli themselves – were doomed. In due course, the Philistines attacked, killed Eli’s sons, captured the Holy Ark of the Covenant (to the disbelief and horror of the Jewish people, who had wrongly perceived it as an invincible icon), and precipitated Eli’s own death when he heard the bad news; he “fell backward off his chair…breaking his neck and dying…” (I Shmuel 4:1–18). The Tabernacle in Shilo was destroyed after 369 years of existence.

Religious corruption – i.e., the corruption of religious elites – is endemic in the life of any religious society, if for no other reason than that the greatest among us are still flawed human beings. The combination of money and power is volatile and lethal – whether controlled by clergy, politicians or business moguls. To act as God’s agent is a heady experience, but also one fraught with personal temptation and peril. … Although it is unseemly and distasteful, to say the least, it is surely no reflection either on the Torah (which is acutely aware of human foibles) or on the vast majority of rabbis who serve God’s flock with distinction and faithfulness. It is disturbing and unacceptable, but not altogether shocking.

Indeed, the Navi made this very point in a subtle way. After each crime of the sons of Eli was depicted, the text notes: “And Shmuel was ministering before God, a lad dressed in a linen robe…. And the lad Shmuel grew and progressed and was good, both with God and with people” (I Shmuel 2:18, 26). For every son of Eli awash in a swamp of corruption, there is always a Shmuel who serves God in purity, and sparks a religious renaissance – and many, many more than one. And for every Jew who assumes he can obey the ritual law while cheating and conniving his fellow man – or who kindly serves others while oblivious to the God of Israel – there are thousands of Shmuels who are “good, both with God and with people.””

Clearly, it is not a new problem. That does not – and should not – lessen the shock when failures occur and are exposed, it does not excuse the commission of crimes or the violation of the rights of the innocent and pure. Would that such miscreants be uprooted from the clergy, if not from the Jewish people and the world entire!

But let us not expect perfection from anyone – just decency. And when the standards of decency are breached, there is a price that must be paid. Let us not once again make the mistake of confusing Judaism with Jews and using the sins of any person to justify the watering down of observance or belief. The Torah is perfect. No human being is. That is why there are human courts to deal with crimes and the Heavenly Court to deal with immorality.

In the wake of such scandals, we should all repent a little more, learn a little more Torah, do a few more mitzvot, and grow in our love and appreciation of our fellow man. Rather than roll around in the mud and gloat in the misfortunes of a human being, we should strive to be better people and let the proper authorities deal with the law, the alleged victims and the alleged victimizer.

Cult of Alcohol

The Wall Street Journal ten days ago (February 9, 2013) featured a front page article entitled –“After these Jewish Prayer Services, Things Come ‘To Life’ at Open Bar,” with the sub-heading, “To Woo Worshippers, Synagogues Compete with Food and Booze.” The article was quite expansive about a number of shuls that serve very elaborate feasts every week, with lavish food and abundant drink, like the banquets of Achashveirosh in his time. Why? “In the face of dwindling attendance…the sumptuous food, fine wines and liquors are a way to help draw congregants.” Whatever it takes, I guess. Thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent per week on food and alcohol, with faithful Jews their enthusiastic consumers. No tuition “crisis” there.
In one shul, the rabbi has an “adviser on food and drink.” In another, a dedicated volunteer brings a gigantic bottle of $500 Scotch every Friday afternoon. In still another, the rabbi boasted about the “quality whiskey” served in his community: “the perception is, the more expensive the bottle, the more prestigious the Kiddush.” Not to be outdone, a Conservative rabbinic leader claimed, in essence, that Conservative Jews are just as good (or bad) as the Orthodox. “Finding a really good kiddush – that’s a blood sport in the Jewish community,” he said. At least he had the good sense to decry the “cult of alcohol” that exists in our world. One non-Jewish on-line commentator asked: “Where do I go to convert?”
It is fascinating that not one person I spoke to – within and without our community – was not embarrassed by the article, even people who drink alcohol. Moreover, I know that some of the rabbis quoted were horrified by how they were made to sound, and didn’t quite grasp the gist of where the reporter was going. And it is hard to resist the lure of being quoted in the newspapers, especially prestigious ones.
Rabbi Heshy Weinrib found “very upsetting” the nonstop orgy under the guise of spirituality, and Rabbi Heshy Billet spoke about people in his shul in years past leaving davening to drink, and coming back drunk and loud, and so liquor was banned. Period. Even for Kiddush. The article drily notes: “Some members left in protest.” Big loss, I’m sure. But the most telling statement was by Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, who said: “Once upon a time, some people went to synagogue to talk to G-d. Nowadays, more and more people come to see their friends. The prayers and sermons are a distraction. Conviviality goes better with a drink.” Is he right? It certainly seems so.
We can yell “Kiddush, Kiddush” as much as we want and think it is somehow rooted in holiness, and exult “l’chaim” and think liquor is really life; we can speak until we are blue in the face about the “mitzvot” we can fulfill with wine and liquor; we can preach about the importance of Kiruv (Jewish outreach) whatever the methodology used – even if underage college students are plied with free liquor to induce them to participate in “Jewish” activities; and we can really believe that what is most critical in shuls is getting bodies into seats and dues being paid. But what is missing from all this is one word –God. Where is G-d in all this? What does any of this have to do with G-d?
This travesty sheds light on verses from the tragic vision of Yeshayahu that have always troubled me: “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? G-d says. I am satiated with ram-offerings and the choicest of fattened animals…” (Yeshayahu 1:11) Traditionally, we understand the problem as insincerity – as bringing offerings in the Temple in a mechanical way, without repentance or genuine commitment. But that is true of the Korban Chatat or asham or even some olot (sin-, trespass-, or ascent-offerings) but what does that have to do with shelamim – with peace-offerings that are brought on festive occasions or as personal expressions of gratitude? There is no repentance or sincerity required for shelamim! So why did the prophet castigate those as well – what he referred to as the “fattened calves”?
The answer is that even shelamim require at least an acknowledgment of G-d and recognition of the holiness of the Temple. Indeed, the Bet HaMikdash also hosted a perpetual feast. Many of the offerings brought had to be consumed pursuant to a rigid system – a day and a night for some, or two days and a night for others. They had to be eaten in the vicinity of the Temple, so, in fact, in the Temple and its environs, people were always eating and drinking. But they came to “seek out G-d’s presence” (Devarim 12:5); to come to the Bet HaMikdash for the purpose of eating and drinking? For that the prophet admonished us in the harshest terms: “Who asked you to come and trample My courtyards?” (Yeshayahu 1:12). Indeed, who asked them to come? Apparently, G-d does not want them there – even for kiruv purposes, even to put bodies in seats, even to attract attention in newspapers. For the end result of such an edifice is churban – destruction. The building does not last, because it does not deserve to last.
King Shlomo stated (Mishlei 15:8) that “the offering of the wicked is an abomination to G-d,” and the Vilna Gaon commented here that “offering” means shelamim, the peace-offering that is purely voluntary and not at all for atonement – and yet it is still an abomination to G-d. But “His desire is the prayer of the upright.” He continued (ibid 15:16): “Even a little done with fear of G-d is better than a great abundance acquired with turmoil and commotion.” That is as true in life as it is for shuls and places of holiness. Quality matters more than quantity.
It is easy to build a shul: it is infinitely more difficult is to do it for the sake of Heaven, to serve only G-d and not man. That is much more complicated. Indeed, all people and all shuls struggle with the dichotomy between what is done and what is done “l’shem shamayim – in honest and heartfelt service of G-d. And all shuls wrestle with the dilemma that Professor Sarna highlighted – how to strike a balance between the people who come to shul to talk to G-d and the people who come to see their friends, between those who see the shul as a place to daven and learn Torah, and those who see it as a social environment in which davening and learning are just two of several possible functions and activities.
All shuls struggle with that, even ours. We don’t always get it right – but I like to think we are more successful than most, in keeping the lid on what is unsavory or at least frivolous and promoting what is most wholesome and virtuous – what enriches the spirit and not the body – even if that will not earn us front-page attention in the Wall Street Journal. The body finds it sustenance out there in the world, but the soul finds its enrichment in here, in the places designated for holiness. That is the uniqueness of a shul that is easily lost amid the cacophony of clinking glasses.
We drive away the divine presence when we sully His holy places and transform them into saloons that host prayer services. But we gain eternity and sanctity, and with it the spread of His presence, by focusing on true service of G-d and surrender to His will.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky Speaks His Mind – The Jewish Press 3/25/09

By Elliot Resnick, Jewish Press Staff Reporter

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? Continue reading

Shmuel Bet: David Kindness and Betrayal

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Shiur Originally Given on 11/7/2005

Shmuel Bet: David & The Beis Hamikdash

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Shiur Originally Given on 3/20/2005

Shmuel: Amnon and Tamar

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Shiur Originally Given on 12/19/2005

Great Stories from the Nevi’im: Shaul and Dovid – The Final Confrontation

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Shiur Originally Given on 1/5/2004