Rabbi Pruzansky, JOFA, And Free Speech

by Rachel Rocklin

As a rebbetzin living in Teaneck, I want to address Rabbi Steven Pruzansky’s recent blog post on campus assault, and his follow-up which appeared here.

Rabbi Pruzansky presented a viewpoint that has been expressed many times before – namely, that the existence of a widespread campus rape culture has been exaggerated, and that many cases of reported sexual assaults differ from traditionally understood criteria for this crime.

Moreover, he suggested that upholding traditional sexual mores may lower one’s chances of being involved in an assault. Whether one agrees with him or not, variations of this perspective have appeared – from writers ranging from Heather MacDonald on the right to Camille Paglia on the left – in publications as different as Time, U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard, among others.

While the tone of Rabbi Pruzansky’s prose was more typical of a political pundit than a pulpit rabbi, it should not be shocking that an Orthodox rabbi advocates abstinence before marriage. Nearly every Orthodox boy and girl is raised in a countercultural manner when it comes to intimacy, learning halachot concerning negiah, yichud, and tzniut. While these practices certainly do not immunize anyone from the danger of assault, Rabbi Pruzansky believes they may lessen the risk.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) mischaracterized Rabbi Pruzansky’s words, claiming he engaged in an “attack on women,” gave rapists “a free pass,” and placed “blame squarely on the victim.”

JOFA has every right to disagree with a rabbi’s blog entry, but it has no right to distort the truth about what he wrote in order to discredit him. While Rabbi Pruzansky’s article was written in what many might consider a harsh and sarcastic tone, he did none of the things of which his critics accuse him.

Slandering another Jew, let alone a rabbi, is bad enough. Yet JOFA’s dishonesty and mischaracterization were coupled with another illiberal move. It pressured the organizers of a local educational conference to ban Rabbi Pruzansky, the rabbi of the largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, from speaking there. Ostracizing and silencing someone in this manner, for political and religious views that fall within the normative range of civil discourse in a national debate, is not appropriate behavior in a liberal society.

While the circumstances were radically different, there are elements of Rabbi Pruzansky’s treatment here that call to mind my own family’s story. My father, a Russian philosopher and refusenik who opposed the Soviet regime, was fired from his university job and blacklisted for disagreeing with the Communists.

Even though the circumstances differed, I cannot help but be struck by some parallels with JOFA’s attempt to blacklist and silence Rabbi Pruzansky. In America, ideas are not banned or censored when they offend people. Instead, they can be vigorously debated.

In one public statement, the director of JOFA stated with confidence that Rabbi Pruzansky “should not be in a position to preach about values we want to pass on to our children.” I would respond that one important value I want to pass on to my children is that free speech is precious, and that it requires us to hear out difficult arguments, even when we dislike them.

There is a difference between disagreement and demonization. Even if we vehemently disagree with an opinion, mischaracterizing someone’s words in order to discredit him is inappropriate and inconsistent with Jewish law and Jewish values. As a community, we should strive for a loftier standard of behavior.

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21 Responses

  1. Robert says:

    JOFA is a manifestation of  rejection of tradition that Rabbi Gil Student recently wrote about as the first step towards idolatry, that is, the elevation of secular values above God. 

  2. Sam Karchi says:

    Very well said.

    We need to actively oppose the attempt of the liberal faction to denounce and delegitimise the opinion of Orthodoxy.  

  3. Shmuel W says:

    Yasher Koach Rebbetzin Rocklin for an excellent and (in my view) absolutely correct article. The O in JOFA is questionable btw as it is an organ of the OO/NC movement which derives its value system from outside Torah hashkafos and mostly from militant feminism.  What is slightly hypocritical, is when OO/NC people are called out for the kefirah that consistently emanates from their institutions (this website gets a lot of credit for that) they get upset for people “distorting” what they say.

  4. dr. bill says:

    I appreciate your ability to read charitably; the lesson applies equally IMHO to JOFA and to a good deal of the continuous criticism, particularly of midrash inspired commentary of OO figures.  However, your analogy between JOFA and the former Soviet Union is the sort of over-the-top rhetoric that got us here in the first place.  JOFA unlike the former Soviet Union cannot summarily dismiss Rabbi Pruzansky; his congregation has the obligation of deciding what it might want to do this time and individual members can also vote with their feet.   I did take note of your bringing a set of opinions from a wider political base.  I also took note of your mildly critical characterization of his political versus rabbinic tone.  However, as an old boss used to say – you don’t get out of a hole by continuing to dig.
    No doubt JOFA’s tone has much to criticize; I would not choose many of their leaders as my Rabbi.  You write – “As a community, we should strive for a loftier standard of behavior.” I believe that applies across the board, not just JOFA, but Rabbis Pruzansky, Gordimer and Menken, and to many commenters on this blog, myself included.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      why is the analogy over the top? The common denominator  between the FSU and JOFA is the suppression of free speech. Focusing on R Pruzansky’s rhetoric, as opposed to the attempt at suppression of the same, is IMO a critical mistake.

      • simon fleischer says:

        JOFA is not trying to silence the man. They are trying to remove him from positions of leadership within the Jewish community on the grounds that he is unfit. Presumably, you would do the same if your shul hired a rabbi who openly preached values you found abhorrent, wouldn’t you? If your shul hired a rabbi who wrote openly about gay marriage and giving land back to the Palestinians and freezing settlement building? Wouldn’t you want him removed from his position of leadership? He should keep his blog and write and write and write until the cows come home. He just shouldn’t be a speaker at a conference on parenting, and shouldn’t be heading committees within the RCA. You may disagree. You may think he in fact represents Jewish values well, and therefore should be your leader. But don’t reduce the discourse by creating a straw man. It really does no good, and is inaccurate.

        [NO! The inaccuracy is who is trying to remove whom from where. Rabbi Pruzansky is not the rabbi of their shul, but of someone else’s. He is popular in his shul; those who see his politics as a problem have lots of other places to join. JOFA, et al, are trying to remove him from someone else’s shul!]

      • simon fleischer says:

        Do you have evidence that JOFA et al is trying to remove him? As far as I know, they requested only that he be removed from the conference. What exactly are they doing, other than simply stating they think he is unfit? Is there some insidious plot afoot, that you know about? And who exactly is et al? Yes, people who were offended by his article, as well as articles he has written in the past, are making their voices heard– I fail to see what could possibly be so wrong with that. In fact, if they truly believe he is doing harm to the larger cause of Orthodox Judaism, don’t they have an obligation to make their voices heard? And when so many more right wing leaning rabbis write articles and essays essentially throwing Open Orthodox rabbis out of Orthodoxy, do you protest their articles? Do you write to Rabbi Gordimer, chiding him for the way he criticizes left wing rabbis? And let’s be clear– Rabbi Pruzansky is also a person of some importance in the RCA, not just a local shul rabbi. Don’t we all have a stake in who runs the RCA? Which would entitle any of us to advocate for his removal from any RCA position, wouldn’t it? And even if this were not the case– protests of this sort, by outsiders seeking to implement change in an institution they find corrupt or harmful, happen pretty regularly. It’s hard to imagine you really think it’s objectively wrong for outsiders to protest. 

  5. Nachum Boehm says:

    The First Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with free speech, as was done to the posting’s author’s father in the Soviet Union. Here, there are no free speech issues as the government is not involved.

    JOFA (and many frum people unaffiliated with that organization) is not using force of power to suppress R. Pruzansky’s speech. Rather, they are advocating against giving R. Pruzansky a platform (that nobody else gets) from which to express what they consider to be abhorrent values.

    Rabbi Pruzansky wants to express himself in a way that offends people? No government action can stop him. But if his words cause a backlash, such that private citizens agree not to give him a platform from which to address the public, then those are consequences he has to deal with. That has nothing to do with free speech.

    • Arthur says:

      Don’t be absurd Nachum Boehm, it has everything to do with ability to exercise free speech and expression.  No, it’s not a first amendment issue, but you’re the only one who brought that up so you’re just debating that (obvious) point with yourself.  What’s happened here is part of a culture, recently dominated by the left (but in other periods the right) that believes one is entitled to, and should, silence speakers with whom they disagree rather than debate and disagree with them.  And that’s a terrible thing.

  6. Tamar says:

    This is an excellent, calm and collected account of the sad reality of what seems to have happened to Rabbi Pruzansky! JOFA and its supporters should be ashamed of themselves for their conduct. Thank you for writing!

  7. Arthur says:

    Yesterday, Curt Schilling was fired from ESPN for advocating for single-sex public bathrooms (a view shared by tens of millions of others). This is how America works today – although it seems only those who hold traditionalist views lose or risk losing their jobs for expressing themselves.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      There is a fair and proven way of retaliating against PC views that are aided and abetted by the corporate world-don’t patronize their products or media-that’s why I dropped the NYT in favor of the WSJ, even though the WSJ has a poor sports section. That’s also why I have a Mozilla browser on my PC, and avoid Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as well.

  8. Shalom says:

    Why do the dominant “isms” of the day all resort to boycott? It is more inherent than a lack of creativity.

  9. joel rich says:

    “While Rabbi Pruzansky’s article was written in what many might consider a harsh and sarcastic tone, ”


    I wonder if Rebbitzen Rocklin agrees with this characterization? Does R’ Pruzansky? The average reader? The group from his synagogue that is reviewing his blog posts?

    Without blaming the victim, I think it’s fair to say that such a style may yield harsh exchanges more often than a less combative tone.



    • DF says:

      I had the same thought as Joel Rich above. It appears to me the author was injecting these “while”- disclaimers in an attempt to appear objective. She used the phrase, in fact, three separate times.  That’s too much. One should not be afraid to voice full-throated approval when necessary. R. Pruzansky’s article was 100% correct and in perfectly good taste. No disclaimers necessary.

  10. Nachum Boehm says:

    Arthur: perhaps you are not aware that R. Pruzansky’s right to free speech does not exist in a vacuum; its source is in the US Constitution. 

    • Arthur says:

      Perhaps I’m well-versed in and published on the subject. No matter that, you wrote below that this is not a first amendment issue, though no one had said it was.  Now you’ve replied with what seems to be the opposite of your earlier view.  I suspect you’re just arguing just to be contrary.  At any rate, I don’t understand what point you’re trying to express.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Rebbitzen Rochlin deserves a huge Yasher Koach for addressing the issue at hand in a manner that illustrates the PC show trial that JOFA is engaged in with respect to R Pruzansky and why it is obvious that JOFA no longer merely seeks discussion of its highly problematic POV but now demands the shunning and  silence of anyone and presumably the far larger percentage of the MO and Charedi worlds that differ with the same.

  12. simon fleischer says:

    You wrote: “Slandering another Jew, let alone a rabbi, is bad enough.”

    Let’s assume for the moment that many actually found Rabbi Pruzansky’s words offensive and potentially harmful to the greater cause of creating a society in which women who are assaulted and raped feel safe enough to come forward and reveal their pain (and every responsible law enforcement and psychological group openly discusses this is indeed a problem). Let’s assume that some of those who protested Rabbi Pruzansky’s words in fact spoke from this place of honest pain. Is it really so surprising to say that someone who espouses such a point of view would be, in their eyes, an inappropriate leader of the Jewish community? You’re right, of course, that in our society we allow for the public discourse to include even voices with which we vigorously disagree. But the standard for rabbis is much, much higher than that. If you feel a rabbi has failed to meet said standard, it makes perfect sense you would advocate for his dismissal. This has nothing to do with liberalism or conservatism. It’s simple the nature of religious leadership. Conservatives do the same when they argue against more liberal forms of Judaism. More right wing Orthodox groups do this when critiquing more left wing groups. Rabbi Pruzansky is, of course, entitled by law and ethics to keep his blog. Those of us who feel he has left behind Jewish values in his blog entries are in turn entirely reasonable in arguing that he should not be allowed to speak at a conference on parenting, or even serve as a leader in the larger Jewish community because his views are un-Jewish. You, in turn, are reasonable in arguing that he should be allowed to retain his post, if you in fact believe his blog is a rational and ethical representation of what Judaism teaches and advocates. This cannot be reduced to a disagreement between those who believe in free speech and those who don’t, as you argue at the end of your article (subtly associating those who want him removed from positions of leadership with communists– a nifty if remarkably inappropriate rhetorical move!). This is about the responsibilities and burdens of leadership.

    Turning this into a free speech issue, or a liberal vs conservatives issue– filtering everything through the single dominant lens that drowns out real discussion in favor of pseudo-political mumbo jumbo– does no one any good. It certainly doesn’t allow anyone to hear the other side and maybe learn or change or grow. It certainly allows for no nuance. Isn’t it possible, for example, to argue that he crossed a line and should learn the lesson JOFA is trying to teach, even while believing he is a good man who should keep his job because he has much to offer? In fact, that’s what the RCA said. Or do we all just need to pick a side and dig in, like some sort of silly grade school dodge ball game? For many, this isn’t about politics but about religion and ethics.

  13. Joe Hill says:

    JOFA isn’t Orthodox and I wouldn’t treat them as such when discussing them.

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