Repentance for Life

I am delighted to announce that my new book, “Repentance for Life,” has been published by Kodesh Press and is available for purchase at Kodeshpress.com, the finest stores and on line. It is most appropriate for this season of repentance.

Enjoy – and may we all use this time of repentance to come closer to G-d and to each other!

Ask the Rabbi, Part 14

For almost two years, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. Here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at Jewishpress.com

Is it proper for an adult to change his/her given Hebrew name?    

Halacha provides for rare occasions when a person is allowed to change his/her name. Most commonly, we add a name to a person who is seriously ill in an attempt to change the decree. This accords with the Gemara’s statement (Rosh Hashana 16b) that a “name change” is one of four acts a person can perform to have a decree overturned.

Rambam included this procedure as one of the “ways of repentance,” that penitents change their names to indicate that they are no longer the same person they were when they sinned. This is not done routinely – the paperwork alone would be too onerous if we did it annually – but it is common for baalei teshuvah to shift from use of their secular names to their given or acquired Hebrew names. This is the most prevalent type of name change.

The Tzitz Eliezer (20:38) also records a case in which a man was named after two aunts – his non-observant parents assumed it would not matter – and was urged to change his name to something more masculine.

Some people change their names because a kabbalist informs them that their given names are somehow inappropriate (even if they are ordinary Hebrew words and have positive connotations). Ain li esek b’nistarot; this type of esoterica is way above my pay grade. Nonetheless, I would suggest extreme caution before following that path. We should recall that a more effective means of changing one’s mazal is “shinui ma’aseh,” changing our deeds, the essence of repentance. Assuming that a name change without repentance will accomplish anything is to assume that we can fool G-d and activate these shortcuts that bypass the normal modes of reward and punishment. It is far better to change our deeds than our names.

Is it proper for children to ride on scooters and bicycles on Shabbos?

This is a hotly debated area of halacha and there are two factors that must be considered beyond the halachic particulars: the age of the child and the standards of the community.

It is appropriate, if not mandatory, for Jews to adhere to the community standards in dress, custom, observance and deportment. Thus it is clear to me that scooters are more prevalently used on Shabbat in Israel than in America, for example, although undoubtedly Jews who return to America from Israel having seen the use of scooters permit them to their children. It is commonplace in Israel, a rarity in America.

Sefaradic communities are much more lenient in this regard than Ashkenazic communities because of the lenient opinion of the Ben Ish Chai (Rav Pealim 1:25) who permitted riding a bicycle where there is an Eruv. There are many who hold that the Ben Ish Chai retracted this opinion. Nonetheless, most poskim (Ashkenazi and Sefaradi) prohibit riding on Shabbat, primarily because of the fear that the vehicle will require repairs, a forbidden act on Shabbat.

Aren’t bicycle repairs quite uncommon? I thought they were, until last year I spent Shabbat in a Sefaradi community (in the US) where cycling is common, went for a walk in the afternoon, saw a teen with a kippah whose bicycle chain had come off, and who was expressing his frustration in extremely colorful ways. I exclaimed, as the Gemara states (Shabbat 12b): “How great are the words of our Sages!”

Notwithstanding the lenient opinion, it is best to be stringent. But this should not apply to young children, certainly not those who ride tricycles. Once a child reaches the age of chinuch, it is best not to ride bicycles, and even use of scooters should halt by age 10.

Is it proper to daven in public in a large minyan (such as at a highway rest stop or in an airport)?

Yes, assuming that the minyan does not interfere with the movement of others and always remains considerate of the rights, needs and purposes of the people who frequent rest stops and airports. Don’t block the sidewalk or concourse!

That being said, there is a tremendous Kiddush Hashem that is brought about by joining diverse Jews in davening, and especially in unusual places. (I once davened Mincha with a minyan in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. There was no shul in the vicinity.) It makes a positive impression on passersby and can even induce Jews who would not otherwise daven with a minyan (or daven altogether) to participate. It reminds everyone that, wherever we are, our Torah responsibilities come first and our sense of nationhood is predominant. That is a great lesson for children – and for ourselves.

These days, it is particularly worthwhile to reinforce our Jewish identity in public and to proclaim to all our pride in being Jewish and serving Hashem.  As Rema notes at the beginning of Orach Chaim, we “should not be embarrassed in front of people who mock us for serving Hashem.” We are honored and privileged to be able to serve the King. We must not be aggressive in carrying out our duties but nor should we ever shy away from them.

While traveling once in an Arab country, I noticed that every service station has a little mosque designated for prayer, just as I have seen Muslims in airports and rest stops in America stretch out their prayer rugs and perform their devotions. Obviously, then, we should be proud and fearless in serving Hashem together with our fellow Jews. It is not only proper – it is laudable.

Questions for Rabbi Pruzansky

I am delighted to announce that my new book, “Repentance for Life,” has been published by Kodesh Press and is available for purchase at Kodeshpress.com, the finest stores and on line. It is most appropriate for this season of repentance. As part of the book release, the Five Towns Jewish Times interviewed me, and I present here their questions and my answers.

  1. What inspired you to enter Rabbanus?

It was always a dream of mine from the time I was a young. I had grown up watching my father Wallace Pruzansky a”h and then Rav Berel Wein both practice law and succeed in the Rabbinate. That became my career path as well, as an attorney and then a Rabbi. And I was privileged to learn from my rebbe muvhak, Rav Yisrael Chait of Yeshiva Bnei Torah of Far Rockaway, how to convey the timeless and sophisticated ideas of Torah in a way that would be receptive to modern minds. I owe all of them a great debt of gratitude. My objective always was to open minds to the majesty and profundity of Torah and try to shape the world according to the Torah.

  • What are the most critical issues affecting Klal Yisrael in contemporary society?

We are now suffering the consequences of two generations of assimilation and intermarriage. Both have engendered a loss of Jewish identity (except in a shallow ethnic sense) and a concomitant distancing from Torah, mitzvot and support for Israel. Worse, estrangement from Judaism is perceived as just another choice. In a society where religion itself is not valued, and personal autonomy is cherished, Jewish commitment has become even harder to convey to children. It can only be reversed by conceding there is a problem – we are not there yet, outside the Orthodox world – and then focusing on Torah education and increased observance of mitzvot.

  • To what do you attribute the insidious spread of anti-Semitism?

Jew hatred has been a persistent phenomenon, as the sages taught us, since we received the Torah at Sinai. The face and targets of the hatred change from time to time but it will exist until Moshiach comes. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out quite cogently, Jew hatred was first religious in nature, then it became racial and now it is nationalistic. There are Gentiles – to be sure, not all, and I believe not even most – who resent our existence, our faith, our connection to G-d, our value system, our homeland, our success and our status as the chosen people. They will never be mollified. Education can persuade a small handful of these enemies but most are implacable and uneducable.

  • What can be done to quell this cancer?

Unfortunately there is no cure for what Jean Paul Sartre once called a “passion,” and therefore not subject to rational dialogue. Obviously, priority should be given to Jewish self-defense, especially in an era when the police have often retreated from confrontations with evildoers. What compounds the problem is that Jew hatred – alone among the hatreds of various ethnic groups – has its defenders, apologists and overt supporters. Only attacks on Jews are greeted by some voices, cited by the media, saying that “they deserved it.”

       We should not have any illusions that there is a panacea. There isn’t. Jew hatred will always be a facet of exile and, ultimately, only Aliya solves the problem. That is not because there is no hatred of Jews in this part of the world – we know it exists – but at least in Israel the response to Jew hatred is building the future. It is a positive, affirmative response. In the exile, the response can only be defensive, with survival the sole purpose.

5. Do you feel that we, as Jews, should be more politically active? Please elaborate.

   I have always thought it critical that Jews become active in politics, and not just for parochial Jewish interests like support for Israel or funding for Jewish education. The Torah presents to the world, through the Jewish people, G-d’s morality. We are privileged and obligated to disseminate that to the nations, especially in the current environment in which each person or group fabricates its own values and virtues – many of which are antithetical to Torah. We sell short ourselves and our mission when we are apathetic about the propagation of Torah values. Thus I am delighted to serve now as the Israel Region Vice President for the Coalition for Jewish Values that in just a few years has made quite a difference on the American scene.

  • What was your objective in writing this book?

I wanted to share the thoughts on teshuvah that I had transmitted during the 26 years I was privileged to serve as spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey. Frequently, at the conclusion of my Shabbat Shuvah Drashah people would come up to me and say, “you must publish this!” So, now I have!

  • What are some of its unique aspects?

What struck me over the decades, and I think will surprise the reader, is the multifaceted nature of teshuvah. There are so many areas of life that can be enriched through probing the area of repentance generally. Teshuvah entails more than just feeling guilty, begging forgiveness, and moving on. It is life transforming, and done properly makes us better, wiser, and more thoughtful people. There are 18 essays in the book that encompass many of life’s issues and challenges, and repentance is at the core of all them – ranging from happiness, the ways of peace, love of Jews and the land of Israel to forgiveness, children, suffering, the world to come and fear of sin.

  • What message would you like to convey to my readers?

We are on the cusp of a new world order. The last few years have shaken so many assumptions that we have about life. So much that we have taken for granted has been shattered. The norms of our lives have been upended. We should try to ascertain what the divine message is in all of this and act upon it. Perhaps the ideas contained in my book can facilitate in part our personal preparation for the new era that will soon dawn, we pray, with the coming of Moshiach.

Religion and the State of Israel

Published today in the Jewish Press

     The recent trial balloon floated by a few Haredi officials in Israel advocating the separation of religion and state as a pained response to proposed government reforms in matters of religion blithely ignores the awful ramifications of such a decision and begs the existential question of why must there be a Jewish state altogether on this planet. It misconstrues, if not completely negates, the very premise of a Jewish state.

      The trite answer cannot be that Israel is the only place where Jews can feel safe. Jews can be attacked anywhere including in Israel. And that answer elides the more fundamental question of why is it important that Jews survive at all? What would be missing from the world if there were no Jews or Jewish state? There would be a drop off in scientific and intellectual achievement and civilization itself would suffer, but neither incentive has precluded evildoers from trying to destroy us for the last 36 centuries. Why, then, do we want a Jewish state to exist and thrive, and what can be done to make it a truly Jewish state and not just a state of Jews?

       These questions confound many Israelis but they certainly have not been cogently answered in the Haredi world, which has struggled to articulate a vision of precisely why a Jewish state is G-d’s vision in the Torah for Jewish nationhood and what it should look like. The great drama of Jewish history – a nation exiled from its homeland due to its sins only to be promised by G-d that its sovereignty would be restored at the end of days – has played out before our eyes…and largely been greeted with indifference or perplexity. For too many Jews, the return to Israel has not included a return to mitzvah observance and Torah study – the very premise of our residence in Israel. For too many observant Jews, the return to Israel has spiritual but not national implications. Life in Israel need not be much different than religious life in Poland or the United States, aside from a handful of mitzvot observable only in Israel. Both are fundamental errors.

      One of the more egregious mistakes has been the failure to contribute to the Jewishness of the state, and that is one reason why the religious infrastructure is under assault. “Jewishness” has been reduced to ensuring the technicalities of observance – kashrut, marriage, divorce, conversion and Shabbat. To be sure, those are vital undertakings that are now being threatened by the short-sighted, tendentious and foolhardy reforms being contemplated by the current minority Jewish government.

      Nevertheless, the “Jewishness” of the state should be informed by far more than the provision of the abovementioned services, which, after all, is what the religious establishment always did in the exile. There should be a concerted effort not only to provide kosher food but also to impart to the public why Kashrut (and Shabbat, Torah study, taharat hamishpachah, etc.) matter. Additionally, the great failing of the last century’s religious establishment – truth be told, Haredi more than Religious Zionist – has been indifference to the application of Torah to all aspects of statecraft. There is a Jewish way (probably several) to do politics, conduct foreign affairs, guide an economy, craft a legal system, administer an army, ameliorate the plight of the less fortunate and improve the lives of the citizens. That should have been uppermost in the minds of the religious leadership rather than just being religious functionaries.

      What is lacking, in short, is embrace of the vision of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who perceived Israel as not merely a haven but the only place where the Jewish soul truly comes alive. It is not just the continuation of Jewish life in Vilna or Kovno but in a new location. The Torah life in the exile was enriching in its own way but it lacked a national component. In the exile, Torah was not the foundation of the society and the prism through which all facets of life were viewed. The struggle was for individuals to keep the Torah amid physical and religious challenges to it and find a way to accommodate the demands of exile while retaining fidelity to the Torah. That had varying rates of success depending on a range of influences but even where Jewish life was successfully maintained the Torah could hardly be perceived as the constitution of the society.

       The Jewish state is designed to be different or it need not exist at all. If there is no desire to fashion a Jewish state whose institutions and politics communicate the ideals and values of Torah then it is not surprising that outsiders (especially ones motivated by their own agendas) will perceive the utility of the rabbinic establishment only in terms of the provision of services, which to them means only sinecures, jobs, patronage, money and power.

       That approach is not only false but, if people believe it, also does a great disservice to Torah.

      The answer should be not the separation of religion and state but the true integration of religion and state. There are Israelis, religious Jews too, who foolishly look to the United States as the paragon nation where the wall of separation between religion and state has succeeded. Don’t be misled. The First Amendment religious freedoms precluded a national church in America or laws that infringed on freedom of worship. It was not meant to create a secular state. Last I checked, the most important Christian holiday of the year falls annually on December 25, and that is observed as a legal national holiday. Congress and most state legislatures still begin its sessions with a chaplain’s prayer and the government subsidizes any number of activities of a religious nature.

      America’s decline in the last half century has been accelerated by the rejection of its Judeo-Christian heritage and its unconscious embrace of the new religion of secular progressivism – a religion that has its own deities, saints, holidays, commandments and value system, and which is mostly antithetical and hostile to Torah.

      Is that what these Haredi spokesmen want? A separation of religion and state in Israel would not be replaced by a vacuum but by an alternate set of values, none of which is designed to foster Jewish life.  Obviously, government support for Torah study would halt.  The ultimate justification for Jewish sovereignty would erode. The mere suggestion betrays an exilic mentality and a gross misunderstanding of what the Jewish state should be.

       So here is an alternative approach. The religious public should strive to create a more Jewish state.  Infuse all national institutions with Torah values – and in yeshivot, teach how that should be done. Share the beauty of Torah, Shabbat and mitzvot with all Jews. Appreciate the contributions of all Israeli Jews and acknowledge the wondrous times in which we live and the divine blessings that have been bestowed upon us. Surely the ingathering of the exiles and Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel are not insignificant occurrences that can be belittled because they occurred differently than people had imagined they would.

      The thirst for Torah in Israel is greater than the thirst for kosher Coca Cola. While providing the latter, we should prioritize the former. When that succeeds, the flirtation with the separation of religion and state will disappear amid the glories of the Torah reborn in all its fullness in the Jewish state that is the manifestation of G-d’s kingship on earth.