Bokser was born in Poland, and emigrated to the United States at the age of 13 in 1920. He attended City College of New York (BA, 1928) and Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary, followed by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (ordained, 1931) and Columbia University (PhD, 1935). He taught for many years as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Queens College, City University of New York.
His first pulpits were Bronx, NY, and Vancouver BC in CA. He served as the rabbi of Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, New York for his entire life, starting in 1933 and remained in that position for more than fifty years. He had a two year period as a United States Army chaplain during World War Two, stationed at Camp Miles Standish in Massachusetts. During WWII, he organized aid for Jewish soldiers.
Bokser was an advocate of social justice, taking a position in favor of the construction of a housing project for the poor in the middle class community of Forest Hills. During this episode called the Forest Hills housing controversy 1966-1972, he was in constant contact with many leading politicians and building developers.
He fought against the death penalty in NY state.
He served as a program editor for the "Eternal Light," the Jewish Theological Seminary's radio program; a lecturer on homiletics; and a participant in the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion and the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, both Seminary-run programs. Bokser heard Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook speak in New York in 1924 and became an avid student and great proponent of his teachings.
Bokser and his wife had two children, His son was the scholar of Rabbinic Judaism, Baruch Bokser. His daughter Miriam wrote "The Holy Name" on the universal aspects of Jewish mysticism and similarities with the mysticism of other religions.
He stressed the Rabbinic sages and the Talmud as the source of Judaism. "This is not an uncommon impression and one finds it sometimes among Jews as well as Christians - that Judaism is the religion of the Hebrew Bible. It is, of course, a fallacious impression. . . Judaism is not the religion of the Bible" (Judaism and the Christian Predicament, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967, p. 59).
Similar to Heschel, Bokser affirms revelation and even the special status of Sinai, but revelation is always framed in humans by mans. "Man receives a divine communication when the divine spirit rests on him, but man must give form to that communication; He must express it in words, in images and in symbols which will make his message intelligible to other men. Out of this need to give form to the truth that is revealed to him, the prophet places the stamp of his own individuality upon that truth."
Bokser argued that Christian antisemitism had desensitized Germans to the heinous character of Nazi propaganda. However, in the post-war period Christian religious and lay leaders have insisted that Christians must play a role in correcting the problems of the social order. (Judaism and the Christian Predicament)
Active in interfaith, Bokser composed the following prayer in the style of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.
When prayers rise
In synagogue, church and mosque
God prays for His world.
May it be the will of My children
To accept My gift of life,
And allow me to lead them
Toward the light.
Rabbi Bokser was active in the Rabbinical Assembly of America, and was a member of its law and standards committee. He is most famous for writing the minority report 1951 responsa against driving to synagogue on the Sabbath.
In the same year he permitted a Cohen to marry a divorcee
In 1981, he advocated holding bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls on Sabbath morning in the main sanctuary. His synagogue was still traditional to the point that he received a public outcry in the local press and letters to him.
In 1983, he permitted holding funerals in a synagogue.
Pharisaic Judaism in Transition (1935),
The Legacy of Maimonides (1950),
The Wisdom of the Talmud (1951),
Selihot Service; United Synagogue of America; 1964
Judaism and the Christian Predicament
Jews, Judaism, and the State of Israel (1973),
Abraham Isaac Cook: The Lights of Penitance, Lights of Holiness: The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems, translation and introduction by Ben Zion Bokser, from the Classics of Western Spirituality., Paulist Press, Inc., New York / Mahwah, N.J.
The Essential Writings of Abraham Isaac Kook (Paperback) Ben Yehudah Press (reprint), 2006 ISBN 0-9769862-3-X