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Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim

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Judges for Our Time

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Judges for Our Time
Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim
By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Gefen Publishing House, 2009, 216 pages
ISBN: 978-965-229-437-1

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 19, 2009

Steven Pruzansky addresses age-old questions of all Bible readers in an engaging eye opening manner: Is the Bible relevant today? Does it inform its readers about the future of Judaism? The author, who answers "yes" to both questions, has been the rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey since 1994. He also has a Juris Doctor degree, which he received in 1981, and practiced law for thirteen years. This is his second book. The first, published by Gefen in 2006, addresses contemporary lessons from the Book of Joshua.

Rabbi Pruzansky recognizes that the title "judges" does not refer to a judicial function. He portrays the judges as more than mere charismatic military commanders who rose when an occasion demanded a leader to save the Israelites from belligerent nations. The judges are men and women devoted to God and His Torah, with an overriding mission to bring their coreligionists to proper divine worship.

He reads the biblical book, which he titles by its Hebrew name Shoftim rather than Judges, as much more than a volume of history. "Properly understood," he writes, "Shoftim provides a window into our world" and to the future of Judaism. The problems described in Judges not only confronted the ancient Israelites when they first entered Canaan over three thousand years ago, but are "potential pitfalls of modern statehood" in general and individual Jews in particular today and in the future.

The rabbi approaches his subject with the conviction that God was and is present and involved in human affairs daily, and that the State of Israel should not be pluralistic like the United States, but a country that accepts Torah laws as its constitution. He understands that the more than dozen judges mentioned in the biblical book served the Israelites consecutively, that they did not overlap, and that the period of the judges lasted 366 years. He generally accepts didactic elaborations contained in post-biblical Midrashim, which the Book of Shoftim does not even hint, literally. Thus the judge Otniel, for example, was not only an accomplished military general who stepped forward to save his people from danger, as told in Judges, but a biblical scholar who spent hours daily in Bible study. The judge Ehud, to cite another example, was only successful in killing an enemy king because he was one of four people who died without ever committing a sin. Additionally, the non-Israelite Goliath, who David slew, was a descendant of the judge Samson.

Rabbi Pruzansky spends some sixty pages, over a quarter of his book, discussing the most famous and perhaps most interesting and problematical of the judges, Samson. The Bible depicts him as an unusually strong man who fought against Philistines as a lone wolf, alone, seemingly against the consensus of his people, who intermarried, and who was seduced and foiled by Delilah.

Steven Pruzansky sees Samson as some Midrashim show him. Samson is "the leading Torah scholar and spiritual guide" of his age. He taught his people Torah for some twenty years "between his skirmishes and intermarriages." His "one-man wars enabled the people to focus on rebuilding their spiritual lives free from the terror of the Philistines." Pruzansky explains that Samson married non-Israelite women as a two-pronged strategic subterfuge to ingratiate himself in the enemy camp and to seemingly separate himself from the Israelites so that the Philistines would not seek revenge for his deeds against his people.

Pruzansky explains that although Samson's strategy was inspired and even directed by God, Samson failed because living among the non-Israelites turned his heart and mind. He fell in love with Delilah, who was using as a tool to his task. Samson "was harmed by his prolonged exposure to the decadent society of the Philistines. He infiltrated it, but, in turn, it infiltrated him as well" even though he was protected by a divine plan and his Torah studies.

So, too, many Jews today, the rabbi teaches, have well-meaning and seemingly cogent goals, that fail because of the temptations of the non-Jewish secular environment.

Yet, despite the danger, he continues, Judaism needs leaders who are proactive and have the courage to "risk their spiritual lives and even their physical existence - to assist other Jews, to bring them back to Torah, to conquer the land of Israel from ruthless enemies, and to infiltrate behind enemy lines - like" the Jewish spies who forfeited life and family to live as Arabs. He emphasizes the declaration attributed to the British statesman Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." He offers over a dozen examples of modern Israeli heroic Samson-like acts.

Since Samson is depicted as an observant Jew devoted to Torah law, questions arise. How could this leader violate Jewish laws, such as living as a Philistine? How could Samson kill seemingly innocent non-Israelites? How could he commit arson? Pruzansky analyses these and other questions and offers answers.

This reading of the Samson story, one example among the more than dozen judges, serves to show how Pruzansky sees the Book of Judges teaching how Jews should behave today and in the future.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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