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”

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A Review of In Search of Torah Wisdom: Questions You Forgot to Ask Your Rebbi

by Mordechai Torczyner In Search of Torah Wisdom

When I received an email regarding Rabbi Yisroel Miller’s new book, “In Search of Torah Wisdom: Questions You Forgot to Ask Your Rebbi”, though, I was interested. I know of Rabbi Miller’s work in Pittsburgh, and I have had the chance to visit his lovely community in Calgary, and everything I have heard has been impressive. The premise of the book – providing answers for contemporary challenges – is interesting. And I would love to hear how Rabbi Miller would address the questions he asks in the book. So I agreed to review it.

The good news is that this book is exactly what it pledges to be: The Introduction addresses the reader, asking, “Perhaps, dear reader, you are a Jewish man who attended a good Yeshiva Ketana, Mesivta High School, Yeshiva Gedola and maybe even spent a year or three in kollel. Or, you are a Jewish woman who attended a Bais Yaakov elementary school and high school, and a top seminary. After all that learning, you can surely answer the following basic questions:” And it continues to list questions related to Jewish belief and Jewish life, such as, “In what way does the idea of bitachon, trust in Hashem, obligate us to act differently even if we don’t feel a sense of trust?” and “Why do great rabbis issue bans on books when such bans only increase their sales?” The author invites the reader, “If you would like to know – or feel that as a Jew you should know – the answers to these questions, then read on.” The author does an excellent job of selecting good questions, and formulating them in challenging ways.

For each of these questions, the book lays out “the answer” for a reader who wants to be told it rather than go back to sources and figure it out himself – and today, that applies to many, many readers. In explaining concepts like “Elu v’Elu” and fundamentals of faith, Rabbi Miller articulately expresses beliefs enshrined in Jewish tradition. In defending controversial conservatism, such as book condemnations and halachic resistance to change, Rabbi Miller provides a perspective which challenges modern cynicism regarding rabbinic leadership and authority.

If you would appreciate answers which have their sources alongside them, though, this is not the book for you. Statements like page 47’s “Can Torah leaders make mistakes? Of course… However, such errors are very rare…” would benefit from sourcing.

Also, the author has made what was probably a conscious decision to omit Continue reading “A Review of In Search of Torah Wisdom: Questions You Forgot to Ask Your Rebbi