Anti-disengagement Column Fuels Speculation About Author

By Jennifer Siegel

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
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A pseudonymous column calling on American Jews to withdraw all support of the Israeli government has triggered a rush to identify the Orthodox rabbi who wrote the piece.

The essay, titled “Leaving Israel Because I’m Disengaged,” appeared in the September issue of the Englewood, N.J.-based Jewish Voice and Opinion, a publication that adamantly opposes Israeli concessions and has sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The essay was signed with the pen name “S.A. Halevy,” which was identified in an editorial note as “the pseudonym of a powerful, important rabbi in the tri-state area who was a force in the National Religious movement.”

Since the issue’s release on September 15, speculation on several Orthodox Web sites has swirled around Steven Pruzansky, rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N.J., because his Hebrew name is Shmuel Aryeh Halevi. Also, a previous article using the same pseudonym published in the July 2004 edition of the New Jersey publication reported on an event at Pruzansky’s congregation and quoted the rabbi’s introductory remarks.

Pruzansky, who drew criticism for his condemnations of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin before he was assassinated, did not return calls seeking comment. A widely distributed e-mail attributed to Pruzansky denies that he was the author of the column.

Susan Rosenbluth, editor and punlisher of the Jewish Voice and Opinion, would neither confirm nor deny that Pruzansky is the author. But she said she knew the author, and reiterated that he is a “prominent” Orthodox rabbi from the tri-state area. Rosenbluth denied speculation that she herself wrote the piece.

The essay, which sharply criticized the Israeli government for evacuating Jewish settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank this summer, asserted that Israel has “deteriorated into just another oppressor of the Jews.” It called the chief rabbinate of Israel a “useless institution.”

The settlers themselves were also criticized. “[They] did not defend their homes as normal people in other countries have done,” the author wrote, adding, “but participated in… a ‘ceremony’ of eviction….Something is missing: If Arabs come to destroy their homes, they would defend them to the death, but if Israelis come, they will just leave.”

While such views have been aired publicly by Orthodox Zionists in Israel who opposed the disengagement plan, their Modern Orthodox rabbinical counterparts in the United States generally have rejected the notion that the Gaza pullout represents an existential crisis. The two main Modern Orthodox organizations in America, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, chose not to take a position on the disengagement plan.

Some observers attributed the approach of America’s Modern Orthodox rabbis to the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the movement’s religious leader for much of the 20th century. Soloveitchik taught that the messianic process has its ups and downs and insisted that the Israeli government and military were permitted religiously to make territorial comprises.

The author of the recent essay seemed to take aim at Soloveitchik’s followers. Religious Zionists “posit a redemptive process of hills and valleys, stops and starts — with the loss of Gaza and Samaria just another valley before the great hill,” the author wrote. “It could be true, but at its core, the line of reasoning is a tautology, and so self-justifying as to be irrefutable.” The author also called the O.U. and the RCA “spineless” for failing to oppose the disengagement plan.

In a section of the essay arguing that American Jews should not provide financial support to the Israeli government, the writer suggested that charitable dollars were better spent on local causes, and specifically mentioned Project EZRAH, a social services agency in Teaneck. It was the only charity mentioned by name in a list that included generic references to “yeshivot that are in deficit” and “mikvehs that need renovation.”

Pruzansky has found himself in the middle of controversy before. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, withdrw his membership from Pruzansky’s synagogue in protest over his condemnations of Rabin. Nearly a decade later, in the spring of 2004, after the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Pruzansky declared from his pulpit that Jewish critics were endangering their fellow Jews by attacking a film widely hailed in the Christian community; as such, he argued, these critics could be considered as belonging to the religious category of rodef, or pursuer, a rabbinic legal term that describes an assailant who threatens Jewish lives and may be killed to preempt the danger.

Soon after his sermon, in an interview with the Forward, Pruzansky said he did not mean to suggest that someone could kill Jewish critics of “The Passion.”

A petition is being circulated by members of Pruzansky’s synagogue, calling for steps to alleviate an “atmosphere of tension, conflict and stridency that is increasingly pervading” the congregation. The petition calls for sermons dealing with political topics to be “presented with respect and tolerance for other perspectives,” and argues that “no individual or group of individuals should be subject to public scorn or abuse, for any reason, by the lay or religious leadership.”

An organizer of the petition drive, who asked not to be identified, said that the effort predated the current flap over the pseudonymous essay about Israel.

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