The Litvak Pluralist

by Gil Student In Search of Torah Wisdom

Extreme religious pluralism is spiritual chaos, even when severely limited. If you accept as equally authoritative every Orthodox rabbi, even just the giants, then you will be forced to contend with their conflicting views and attitudes through either ignorance, dissonance or harmonistic gymnastics. The best citizen of a pluralistic society knows firmly his own approach and is therefore able to sift through the incompatible views he inevitably faces. Pluralism is politeness, not surrender.

I find that this is often lost in even Charedi circles. On one side we have extremists who denounce all who disagree with their narrow path. On the other we have syncretists who blend various traditions into a distorted and inconsistent whole. Politeness, some may call it political correctness, prevents the middle ground from stating publicly that what Rabbi X said is not “my approach.” But there are exceptions.

R. Yisroel Miller’s In Search of Torah Wisdom: Questions You Forgot to Ask Your Rebbi is a refreshing example of principled pluralism. He is a Litvak, a yeshiva devotee, unafraid to state his views but also uninterested in fighting. R. Miller was a long-time student of the Lakewood yeshiva and satellite kollel before becoming a community rabbi. He does not mention any family relation but he was clearly influenced by R. Avigdor Miller, as seen in his attitudes and many specific citations.

In this book, R. Miller discusses philosophical issues of communal importance, some of the touchpoints of controversy. He neither shies away from them nor uses them as opportunities to denounce others. Instead, he eloquently explains how an intelligent person can accept Da’as Torah, reject banned books, embrace Torah over science and treat biblical figures as saints (among many other topics). His views are nuanced and defy stereotypes but they are hardly progressive.

R. Miller adopts the views of the mussar yeshiva, unsurprising given his background. He sees Torah as the center of life, both as a subject of study and a focus of life. It also means that he reveals a somewhat condescending view toward those who are not Torah scholars or appreciate other values. Just consider the subtitle (“questions you forgot to ask your rebbi”), which implies that even many yeshiva graduates are ignorant of crucial philosophical issues. (I happen to agree and I recognize my condescending attitude.)

Chassidus has many positive aspects but also many negative, and R. Miller’s teachers considered the negative decisive. Religious Zionism? R. Miller’s critique points right to its flaws, with which I find trouble disagreeing although I don’t think the flaws undermine the entire enterprise. Secular education has value for earning a living and science, when taught by someone Orthodox, strengthens religious faith. But literature and language (beyond a basic capacity for clarity) are not in the Yeshiva tradition, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch notwithstanding.

I found R. Miller’s explanation of a Yeshiva prayer service particularly interesting. I cannot recall any book discussing this so frankly. When we pray, we strive for an atmosphere of pleading for our lives. In the Yeshiva world, “[t]hey worked to try to feel that they were standing and speaking before Hashem, and that Hashem was actually listening to every word…” (p. 87). But serious prayer is difficult and those who do not or cannot strive for such a lofty ideal have other ways to find meaning. Singing in shul is fine for some people but the Yeshiva world strives for a higher plane of spiritual connection. Condescending but honest and polite.

Chumros, stringencies in practice, are good but fraught with spiritual danger. They must be adopted carefully. Avoiding a Chillul Hashem through proper behavior is good but wrong. We act properly because we are a chosen people who maintain high standards because that is what God wants. Even though great rabbis in history offered reasons for specific commandments, that can only be at most a secondary subject of interest. We follow the Torah because God commanded us to.

Above all, R. Miller is charming and polite. His strong opinions are softened by his gentle demeanor. In doing so, he models better pluralistic behavior than the most open-minded activist. He does not say that everyone is right but that we can all live together without losing our distinctness. He will stick to his opinions but will do it pleasantly, so we can all live together in harmony. I don’t agree with much R. Miller writes but I greatly respect his gentle steadfastness. The best books are those with which you disagree, which challenge you and force you to respond. R. Miller’s book reminded me what I love about the Yeshiva world and why I cannot be a full part of it.

This review first appeared on the Hirhurim – Musings blog.

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