Review of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values

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by  Rabbi Gil Student

Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel writes in his introduction that the term “encyclopedia” in the title is “a bit presumptuous.” Even though this is the first of a projected four-volume series, the task of encompassing the entirety of Jewish thought in any encyclopedia seems impossible. The Torah is described as being “longer than the earth and broader than the sea.” Indeed, each of the volume’s thirty-nine essays lacks a systematic and unified style, perhaps because the topics are so expansive. Yet the essays contain so much material, rich in depth and breadth, full of insight and contemporary relevance, that we can forgive the title. This book might not be an encyclopedia but it is a gold mine of Jewish values. Masterfully combining Biblical, legal and philosophical texts, Rabbi Amsel, director of education at the Destiny Foundation, an educational media foundation, gives each topic extensive treatment. Each essay seems like a well-organized, multi-hour lecture on the topic (rabbis and teachers take note!). Continue reading “Review of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values

Vision from the Prophet and Counsel from the Elders

by Gil Studentvisions

Torah expertise requires, at a minimum, mastery of the entire corpus of primary literature. Detailed familiarity with the texts is a necessary but insufficient requirement of Torah greatness. This includes the Bible, yeshiva curricula notwithstanding.

On the description of Moshe’s receipt of the tablets on Mt. Sinai, Rashi (Ex. 31:18) quotes a midrash that compares Moshe to a bride. Just like a bride wears 24 ornaments, so too a Torah scholar must master all 24 books of the Bible. Why, we can ask, does the midrash locate this sensible requirement in the second half of Shemos, which largely discusses the building of the Mishkan?

I suggest that the passage immediately preceding that verse discusses the obligation to observe Shabbos. The Mishnah (Shabbos 115a) states that you are forbidden to study Kesuvim, the third part of the Bible, on Shabbos because it detracts from attendance at the rabbi’s lecture. The Gemara (ibid., 116b) quotes a later debate whether the prohibition only applies to the location or the time of the lecture. Regardless, we see a clear limitation on Bible study.

You might have thought that this deemphasis on Bible study implies its unimportance. The midrash teaches us that we should not mistake practical priorities with abstract values. Even though local concerns require lowering the urgency of Bible study on Shabbos, in the end you cannot be a scholar without mastering the Bible. You might not find time to study Kesuvim on Shabbos but that is no excuse for ignorance.

We once discussed a chapter-by-chapter method to gaining familiarity with Continue reading Vision from the Prophet and Counsel from the Elders

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 Continue reading “The Litvak Pluralist”