Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck is no stranger to controversy.
A lawyer and the rabbi of the biggest, oldest, and arguably the most prominent Orthodox synagogue in town, Rabbi Pruzansky has strong views, which he often lays out strongly and at some length in his blog, rabbipruzansky.com.
Over the years, Rabbi Pruzansky has angered many people — and made many friends — with harshly worded attacks on Yitzhak Rabin, soon before he was murdered; on President Obama’s re-election, which he blamed on stupid greedy people wanting “free stuff”; on the Jewish Week, which he compared to the Nazi propaganda rag Der Sturmer (although later he said the comparison of course was purposely ludicrous), and on Israeli Arabs, for whom he advocated severe mass punishment, possibly including deportation. Earlier this year, dismissing Hillary Clinton as a “liar, a crook, an active participant in the largest pay-for-play scheme in the history of mankind…,” he also called her “an awful speaker, shrill when she tries to be passionate…” Instead, he endorsed Donald Trump.
In that endorsement, on March 17, he touched on a theme that has resurfaced in the last few weeks — the theme of victimhood, which he sees as an occasionally improperly assumed mantle. “People have had enough of the moral posturing of the faux victim, which has resulted in nothing less than in the increase of the numbers of faux victims and even the possible causes of victimhood,” he wrote in that March post. “People are tired of having to whisper the truth because murderers, evildoers, or sinners will have their feelings hurt by it, even unintentionally.”
As a result of the uproar in 2014, centered on the Der Sturmer and Arab controversies, which resulted in a short-term need for police protection, Rabbi Pruzansky agreed to have an editor look at his posts before he put them up.
According to Steven Margulies of Teaneck, who is the president of Bnai Yeshurun, “independent editors have been reviewing the posts before release.”
All this sets the stage for two recent posts.
On March 31, in a very long post called “A Novel Idea,” Rabbi Pruzansky wrote about what he sees as the debased climate on intellectually barren, sexually dangerous college campuses.
“Relations between the sexes has, allegedly, become so strained that the liberal media speaks incessantly about a ‘rape culture’ on campuses, wherein brutish men have their way with women in numbers approaching an epidemic,” he wrote. “Or so it is claimed.”
Next, he wrote that because women and men see sex and need love differently, they disagree on basic definitions. They often see the same thing through entirely different lenses, and report and understand it differently. “That is to say,” he wrote, “the couple was dating, grew close (sometimes after a two-hour date, I suppose; people bond much more quickly these days), retired to someone’s quarters and quickly consummated their…friendship. Soon after the ‘friendship’ ended, the woman, feeling used, as she was by the lecherous man, files a complaint for sexual assault.”
The best argument against the fallacy that a rape culture exists, he wrote, is self-evident. “If indeed there was a ‘rape culture’ on American campuses, no intelligent woman would want to attend college,” he wrote. “The fact that more women attend college today than men itself belies the accusation.”
His solution is straightforward and based in Jewish law.
“Here’s a novel idea, one that has been tried before with great success but has fallen into desuetude, apparently, on college campuses,” he wrote. “It will solve all these problems, the ‘rape culture,’ the ‘he said/she said,’ the feelings of rejection by the party who had an emotional connection with another person who just sought a physical connection. It’s called… abstinence, self-discipline, or chastity. It involves waiting until marriage to engage in intimate acts, and then in a relationship in which the couple genuinely loves each other. It is preceded by a joyous ceremony known as a wedding, which too involves contractual obligations that are grounded in mutual respect. Problem solved…”
That post lay fallow for about two weeks, and then people started noticing it. A deluge of angry responses followed. Rabbi Pruzansky was accused of victim-blaming, of not taking rape seriously, and of not understanding that marital rape exists.
He responded to his critics with another post, on April 13, called “Culture Wars — Update.” There, he repeated his arguments, perhaps in even more strongly worded language, accusing his opponents of seeing the world in black and white — black, men, bad; white, women, good.
“No one ever ‘deserves’ to be raped, as some hideously perverted my words,” he wrote. “But do not walk into a field clearly labeled ‘Danger: Mines!’”
His conclusion was clear. “Heeding our moral laws can only benefit men, women, marriages, families and society itself. That was and is my point. The fruitless debate over statistics aside, I would hope that even the professional feminists can subscribe to that.”
The reaction to these blog posts was loud, although, strikingly, much of it was only semi-public; posted to social media, on Facebook, in widely circulated emails.
Stories about the posts have made it into the local press, and into British papers too; the Independent and the Daily Mail both reported on it online.
One organization responded; Jofa, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, demanded that Rabbi Pruzansky withdraw as a speaker from a June 26 “yom iyun,” a day of learning, devoted in this case to teaching and inspiring children. More than 30 local Orthodox institutions already have signed on, and Bnai Yeshurun is to host it. Rabbi Pruzansky in fact will not speak; now the battle is over where the conference is to be housed.
The pressure to respond to the ongoing situation, particularly given the yom iyun, and the fact that it’s a huge local locus for emotion, has posed a problem for many area Orthodox institutions and their rabbis, who are reluctant to criticize a colleague.
The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents a large number of centrist and modern Orthodox rabbis, and of which Rabbi Pruzansky has been a vice president, has been pressed to take a position.
It did; first in a Friday, April 15, JTA Wire Service story, in which it said, “While Rabbi Pruzansky raises some important points regarding sexual behavior on college campuses, the RCA rejects the tone and much of the substance of his recent comments regarding rape.”
In a longer statement, posted on the group’s Facebook page, Rabbinical Council of America — RCA, on Saturday night, the organization elaborated, carefully distancing itself from the way in which Rabbi Pruzansky voiced his opinion while expressing its dismay over what it calls the “overkill that has become the response to his blog entry.”
Rabbi Shalom Baum, who heads Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, is the president of the RCA. He declined an interview, ceding to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, head of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, who is a past RCA president.
“I think people need to realize that for the RCA to have taken a public position concerning a member rabbi’s personal blog means that there is a great discomfort with, as the RCA said, both the tone and some of the substance of what he says, and that taking a public posture in such a circumstance comes only when the RCA has reached a certain point,” Rabbi Goldin said, choosing his words with great deliberation.
“What people need to realize, what needs to be recognized, is that the RCA is a member organization of over 1,000 rabbis, and it cannot and should not monitor the individual communications of each of its members,” he continued. “It is only when a situation rises to this level in the public eye that the RCA will be moved to comment. Of major concern here were the sensitivities involved, and the pain of those who have been hurt by others.”
David Cheifetz of Teaneck, who was sexually abused when he was a child, is a strong advocate for victims of sex abuse.
“I am shocked and disappointed on multiple levels,” he said. “Obviously Rabbi Pruzansky is a controversial figure, who enjoys and perhaps seeks controversy, but I would say that as opposed to some of the extraordinarily offensive things he has said in the past — for example, about Yitzkak Rabin or Israeli soldiers or killing Arabs — they were all on Israel-related issues, and we know that there is a spectrum of perspectives within the Jewish community. And we also know that on occasion he has delved into American politics in a way that some might take umbrage at — and others may not.
“But this was different. He was getting into a topic that does get written about in right-wing circles, but someone could make the same intellectual arguments about the culture of rape and the risk of accusing someone wrongly without offending rape victims. But he, on the other hand, essentially put the onus on women, and on rape victims, in a way that is completely unacceptable and offensive.
“There are rape victims in every community, including our community. It’s not just that you are offending women, you are potentially triggering rape and sexual abuse victims by talking dismissively about their plight. It shows tremendous ignorance of the complexity of the emotional mindset and manipulation in many instances of rape and abuse.
“Not all this stuff takes place at knifepoint.
“But then let’s face it. As an individual person, I can get up and say any moronic thing that I want to say. But he is not an individual person. He is the rabbi of an influential synagogue. He used to hold a leadership position in the RCA, and he is still a member in good standing. He is a member of the RCBC” — the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, where Rabbi Pruzansky is a past president — “and he has won all sorts of awards and gotten all sorts of recognition by the Orthodox Union, and all the other major organizations out there.
“So the key question is what is the red line? What does this guy have to do for people to say that it’s not acceptable in our society? In any society? What does it take for people to say dayenu? It’s enough?”
Mr. Cheifitz praised the RCA’s Saturday night statement. “They deserve credit, understanding that it is an umbrella organization,” he said. There was one paragraph that bothered him because it focused too much on self-protection, but otherwise “it was a strong statement.”
Online response to the statement has not been as kind; many Facebook comments dissect its wording and find it wanting.
Tikvah Weiner of Teaneck is an educator, the co-founder and director of the Idea School Network, and chief academic officer at Magen David Yeshivah High School in Brooklyn (and also an op-ed writer and blogger for the Jewish Standard). “As someone who works with students, I find the language that we sometimes hear about gender to be frightening,” she said. “The lack of shame that I sometimes hear when boys speak to and about girls is startling. We have to be careful about how we are teaching our young people to talk, and to relate to each other.
“The basic point of Rabbi Pruzansky’s talk was about promiscuity on college campuses. That’s something that we as a religious community should address. We should be talking about issues of modesty and the importance of respect and love and entering a relationship in a mindful, religious way. But that’s not what he did. Instead, he contributed to the lack of respect and understanding between the sexes. That is the opposite of what we are trying to do.
“We are trying to enable our young people to understand and respect each other, not to reduce men and women to stereotypes.
“At some point we have to say that enough is enough, and that silence is acquiescence.
“I have friends at Bnai Yeshurun, and I understand their position. I went there for years, for the very same reasons — for very good reasons. But at some point it’s not okay. We have to ask ourselves as a community — and now, with the advent of social media, as a global Jewish community — what it is that we want? What are the values we want to espouse?
“If you are the rabbi of a shul, and you want to preach this in your shul, and your congregants are okay with it, then that’s your choice. It’s kind of like your home. Those are the values of your home. Everyone has different opinions and values, and we can agree to disagree. But Rabbi Pruzansky put those values in the public sphere, and the public is responding, and now the congregation has to decide how to respond.
“That is what we are asking. Is it okay for Orthodox Judaism to be represented in this manner to the world?”
Cheryl Rosenberg of Englewood is the president of Ben Porat Yosef, an Orthodox elementary and middle school in Paramus. “It’s really sad that so few leaders in the community have come out against it,” she said.
“The community is enraged and in an uproar, yet the leaders of the community are silent,” she continued. “They are literally silent. They are terrified to speak out against a rabbi.
“It is just baffling. He is not saying that we should be more strict on Shabbat, or we should wear our skirts longer. He is saying that women who are crying rape are falsely accusing men of raping them.
“That is insane. I used to work for the ACLU; I educated doctors about emergency contraception in the emergency room. It’s a subject I really know about. I unfortunately have friends who were raped in college and did not report it. I have friends who are sexually abused within their marriages, which Rabbi Pruzansky said can’t happen.
“They can’t speak about it. And the more our leaders are silent, the more they will not be able to speak out about it. Rabbis should know that they have members in their congregations who are suffering abuse in their marriages and can’t talk to them about it.”
Ms. Rosenberg did not agree with Rabbi Pruzansky’s idea that women would not go to college if sexual abuse were a danger on campus. “I went to Penn, and there was plenty of sexual abuse and rape and sexual violence, and we all chose to go to college,” she said.
“We were all smart women who decided that we deserved a college degree, despite violence on campus. It’s unfortunate that women even have to consider that when they decide where to go. Women know that they are not entirely safe on a college campus, though, and they still choose to go.”
Jofa has many members in Teaneck, including Judy Heicklen, who was its immediate past president. Its current president, Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, said that since it began its campaign to remove Rabbi Pruzansky from the roster of yom iyun speakers, and possibly to change the venue, “I have had tons of schools call me — in confidence — to thank me. We are the critical mass, we are the community, and we are saying that we cannot tolerate his behavior, his language, or his sentiments any more, in any way. This is the power of numbers. This is bigger than Jofa, bigger than the schools listed. The community is saying no more.”
According to a source at the Frisch School, an Orthodox high school in Paramus — who did not want to be named because the school’s policy does not allow employees to talk to the press — Rabbi Eli Ciner, its principal, spoke to the students in a way that many of them described as sensitive, using the opportunity to discuss the issues that were brought up in Rabbi Pruzansky’s blog post and were being discussed in the community.
Other community rabbis discussed the situation in their shuls on Shabbat; none who were reached agreed to be quoted.
Rabbi Pruzansky responded to a request to discuss the situation by email:
“I stand by my words in both posts. The criticism is unfounded and in some cases motivated by an anti-religious agenda that I reject. Any fair, intelligent reading of my remarks makes it clear that my focus was on the culture of promiscuity on campus that has to change for the health and well-being of our young men and women in college.”
Bnai Yeshurun’s president, Steven Margulies, also emailed in response to a invitation to comment.
In confirming that Rabbi Pruzansky’s posts have been edited, he added, “Those editors are not officers or directors of CBY nor do we control them in any way. They are independent.”
He also addressed the position in which the synagogue finds itself.
“Over the past few weeks our shul has been the center of great controversy,” Mr. Margulies wrote. “Every healthy organization, large or small, is likely to have an extreme diversity of opinions. Our shul is no different.
“Some members agree with the rabbi part of the time, some agree with the rabbi all of the time and others will never agree with the rabbi. Whether a reader agrees or disagrees with the rabbi’s blogs, it would be incorrect and unfair to assume that any particular member or members of our congregation agrees or disagrees with him.
“In a world and community that allows a free interchange of ideas, painting entire groups with a broad brush, based solely on affiliation, is exceedingly unfair and uncalled for. Our shul has consistently been a place of warmth and inclusiveness for women and men, and not only for our members but also for the entire surrounding community. We host the largest number of minyanim, shiurim and other programming in the local community and many members of the surrounding community and communities benefit greatly from our congregation and what it offers.”