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The Litvak Pluralist

 

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.

 

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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

14 Responses

  1. Kovner says:

    He is not a son of R’ Avigdor Miller zt”l. There is another “R’ Yisroel Miller” who is.

  2. Litvak says:

    Nice review. I especially enjoyed the first two paragraphs, which, in my view, are spot on.

    I will quibble some ‘re the labeling and portrayal of R. Miller shlita using the general and vague term ‘Litvak’, when a more precise description, such as ‘Yeshivishe mussar devotee’, would be more fitting.

    There are various types of Litvaks, something that should be pointed out to the younger generation today, some of whom think that a Litvak means someone who learns in kollel indefinitely, wears a black hat, and is strongly opposed to and ignorant of worldly knowledge, based on the fact that such types exist today.

    Historically, however, there were and are a variety of Litvak types. Not all are Briskers, or even Ponevezhers, or Mirrers. Telz is not Mir, is not Brisk, is not Ponevezh, is not Grodno, is not Baranovich, is not Novhardok, is not Slabodka, is not Chevron, and so on. And stateside, Lakewood is not RJJ, is not Mir, not YRCB, not RIETS, etc. In Lita in the old days, only a very small percentage of people learned in Kollel.

    Re Rav Miller shlita’s background, I believe that he is a nephew of Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l.

  3. emma says:

    “Historically, however, there were and are a variety of Litvak types. Not all are Briskers, . . . . In Lita in the old days, only a very small percentage of people learned in Kollel.”

    That last point is what I was thinking. I my grandfather a”h was a certified litvak with an 8th grade education (if that) and a small business… When I was growing up litvak refred to a certain personality/culture, having very little to do with learning per se.

  4. Hoffa Araujo says:

    Rabbi Miller left Pittsburg to teach in Calgary, Alberta. Since he has arrived, I understand that he has had a profound influence on the small Jewish community there.

  5. cyberdov says:

    To my mind, true pluralism is not just the live-and-let-live ethos you describe, but actually acknowledging value in other approaches, even while not necessarily subscribing to those approaches.

  6. joel rich says:

    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.
    =================================
    I would say Condescending and lacking in self awareness but honest and polite. One could just as easily say , Crying in shul is fine for some people but the Chassidic world strives for a higher plane of spiritual connection.

    IDoes all prayer really always need take on the tone of pleading for one’s life, even the shevach and hodaah?

    I have to agree with R’ Cyberdov, I may choose what works for me/my group but one should at some point realize that shivim panim actually has meaning.

    KT

  7. micha says:

    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.
    ======
    The first sentence is inconsistent with the second. It is the Yeshiva Movement which says that learning Torah is the center of life. Mussar taught that giving to others is front and center, and fixing one’s middos with an emphasis on one’s yir’as Shamayim (to be better at giving) is a very close second. Torah study is part of that self-repair, not the end-all.
    Think of REEDessler’s Qunterus haChesed (in MmE vol 1), the Meshekh Chokhmah
    on Devarim 28:61 (translation: Part I, Part II and Part II) or R’ Shim’on Shkop’s intro to Shaarei Yosher (available here as bilingual PDF).

  8. Litvak says:

    I see that I left out two large ones, NIRC, and Chofetz Chaim, in my list of Litvak Yeshivish types above,. But of course, there are other types as well.

    “Singing in shul is fine for some people but the Yeshiva world strives for a higher plane of spiritual connection.”

    I think that even hard core Litvaks sing in Shul at times. Maybe not usually on regular weekdays, but on Shabbos you might find some of it. And especially on occasions such as Rosh chodesh, Yom Tov, and esp. Yomim Noraim. It varies.

    R. Joel Rich: “Does all prayer really always need take on the tone of pleading for one’s life, even the shevach and hodaah?”

    I don’t think Rabbi Miller meant the latter types. One cannot judge from a brief review, however fine it is.

    As to what a Litvak is, I would say that a love of learning makes a Litvak, ahavas Torah, using your head….As the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch said, שיהא המוח שליט על הלב – the seichel/intellect should rule over emotions (even a misnaged can accept that, no?).

    A Litvak is also someone who places the experience of listening to Hashem (learning the תורה הקדושה), above talking to Hakodosh Boruch Hu (tefillah) (invoking the famous saying – was it from R. Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik z”l? – that davening is us talking to Hashem, while learning is Hashem talking to us).

    Of course, not all Litvaks were/are misnagdim either, but for purposes of simplification here, we are using the term Litvak to mean a non Chassid, as is widely done.

  9. shmuel says:

    “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.)”

    A thought question (without implying that the answer is (in all situations) one way or the other: Who has a higher degree of shleimus as a Jew: (1) the person who has all the characteristics of R. Miller or the author of the post (certainly assuming that their positive characteristics are many and varied) including the “condescension” mentioned, or (2) the same person with the same characteristics except that they have NO such condescending attitude, but instead they (for example) purchase the sports illustrated swimsuit issue each year and enjoy it?

    I think different people will probably have different answers to this thought question –R’ Gil and other readers, what do you think and why?

  10. joel rich says:

    R’ ShmuelI don’t know how to measure shleimut, and I’m not familiar with the concept of a awimsuit issue (OK-guess which one of those statements is false) but in your thought experiment I would guess that if I were to estimate the total impact on delta frumkeit due to interaction with these 2 individuals, the 2nd would likely (assuming he didn’t share the swimsuit issue with others) have a greater impact. If neither of them “shared” their “weakness” (i.e. the first individual didn’t let on how condescending he was), then it would be a wash. My experience is that condescension is harder to hide then Playboy (oops , I meant swimsuit issue)
    KT
    KT

  11. shaul shapira says:

    “IDoes all prayer really always need take on the tone of pleading for one’s life, even the shevach and hodaah?”

    No. Those are said joyfully. :)

    Mir Yerushalayim sings Lecha Dodi. The week Abbas went to the UN security council to ask for a state, the chazzan was an englishman (from Artzot HaBrits). Lo Sayvoshi was sung TTTO of Ooztoo eitzah ve’sufar.

    Also, not all Chassidim sing. Stolin screams. (You have to be there to understand.)

    As to the book, I skimmed it and generally found that the most interesting parts are contained in the questions rather than the answers.

    It’s also interesting that he considers R Shach to be the epitome of Daas Torah, but quotes from the LR anyhow. That would square with R Avigdor Miller ZT”L.

  12. Yisroel H says:

    Shmuel: The condescenders only have a problem with their “musings”; the Swimsuit Issue fellow will have a problem with his “hirhurim”!
    Seriously, I would have to be a little fruitier to compare apples & oranges like this. Halachically, the condescenders are transgressing a ‘lav she’biKlalot’ of “VeAhavta leRayacha Kamocha”, while the swimsuiter is transgressing the ‘lav she’biKlalot’ of “veLo Taturu Acharei… Eineichem”. But, if the condescenders just look down at the opinion, not the person, they can remain aveirah-free. The swimsuiters though, unless they can see these women as “white geese” – i.e. parsing apart their G-d given beauty from their overtly flaunted sexiness – will always be in Halachically problematic territory. (Their wives, who may not be in the top 1/100th of 1% in feminine allure, and whose flaws can’t be hidden from view or airbrushed away, may have some objection, as well.)
    For now, I’ll look down my nose at both of them – in the most loving & respectful way of course…

    Some points: 1) Rabbi Yisroel M is renowned for being so “real”, for truly & deeply caring about people, for his empathy. There is no condescension in his personal demeanor or interactions.
    2)There was a miller in almost every town. Any resemblance to RAM, in word or deed, is purely coincidental.
    3) There is a real difference between shevach & hoda’ah proffered as bookends for a plea for your very life, and the shevach & hoda’ah of, let’s say, Shabbat Zemirot.
    4) Even when you downplay singing as a form of Tefillah, you can value it as a way to create an atmosphere of Tzibbur – a cohesive social unit – or to arouse emotions that could intensify Tefillah.
    Realistically, in a Yeshiva they might do 2 songs for Hallel, in a shteibel, six. The Yeshiva songs might be more soulful; the shteibel’s faster paced. Rarely have I found an anti-singing bias in Yeshivot – though there is resistance to the songs of the American Synagogue.
    (An unnamed Rosh Yeshiva [of Lakewood pedigree] told me not to sing during Kedushah as it is disrespectful to sing during such an awesome prayer! …And I still don’t, out of respect to him [though he's not my Rebbi Muvhak]!)
    5) The Yeshiva tends to stress the euphoria after a Tefillah well-prayed, or after a piece of Gemara’s logic is well-understood, as the Simcha in the service of Hashem. Chasiddim tend to stress the setting of the mood for study & prayer using Simcha.
    Yeshivot tend to stress Strength of Will & Mind in self-control; Chasidim might stress creating a counter-fantasy, or using Imagination & Self-Awakening as keys to self-control.
    Very different, but I’m not sure where they truly are at loggerheads…

    Bottom Line: I’m one of those that are quite happy being a Yeshiva person, nibbling from the best of the Chasidic & Modern worlds without becoming a part of them, and I don’t find the incongruity Gil mentions gnawing at my soul.
    Is it because, as the Chazon Ish stated, “Man by nature does not abhor falsehood”? Or because paradox is a healthy and normal part of a well-lived life?

  13. [...] a recent review by Gil Student of R. Yisroel Miller’s In Search of Torah Wisdom: Questions You Forgot to Ask Your [...]

 
 

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