The Rebbi You Wish You Had Yonoson Rosenblum | Tuesday, July 30, 2013
We are already well into summer, when many of us have more free time for reading than during the year. To those whose summer reading tastes do not run to escapist page-turners about shark attacks or haunted houses, I’d like to commend In Search of Torah Wisdom: Questions You Forgot to Ask Your Rebbi by Rabbi Yisroel Miller.
In Search of Torah Wisdom is by no means light reading — it touches, in one way or another, the most basic issues of Jewish belief and conduct — but it is reader-friendly. Divided into nine sections and 75 or so separate chapters, there are many pesuchos and stumos that allow the reader to think about what he has just read and absorb the implications.
For once, the title (and particularly the subtitle) pretty much describes the book. This is not a work for baalei teshuvah, though baalei teshuvah will also benefit from it. Almost every question posed presupposes a level of sociological knowledge of the Torah community and at least the amount of Torah knowledge that every yeshivah student will absorb by osmosis over a decade or more.
In Europe, yeshivos were primarily elite institutions. The ubiquitous poverty of Eastern Europe dictated that only a small percentage of Jewish young men could pursue full-time Torah studies long past bar mitzvah age. Only those of exceptional ability or with exceptional desire to learn continued in the great Lithuanian yeshivos.
But because the yeshivos were elite institutions, with much smaller student bodies than many contemporary yeshivos in both Eretz Yisrael and abroad — for example, Mir, Beis Medrash Govoha, Chevron, or Ponovezh — the talmidim had a far greater chance of forging a deep personal connection with one of the legendary figures, such as the Alter of Slabodka or Rav Yerucham Levovitz, who viewed their roles as helping each talmid reach his fullest spiritual potential.
Many contemporary yeshivah students and kolleleit never succeed in developing a close connection with a rebbi who can develop their understanding of a Jew’s relationship to Hashem and prepare and guide them for life’s inevitable ups and downs. Too frequently the effects of that lack of relationship, and the consequent failure to develop a solid foundation of Torah knowledge and self-understanding, is only felt years after leaving yeshivah or kollel.
Without a relationship with a rebbi, yeshivaleit are unlikely to develop the behirus hadaas (clarity of understanding) that is the subject of Rabbi Miller’s final chapter and the goal of his sefer. No book can replace a personal relationship with a rebbi, especially one who knows the talmid well, and Rabbi Miller makes no such claims. But it can provide a taste of what such a relationship might be like, and why a talmid would benefit from being able to discuss crucial issues.
The style of In Search of Torah Wisdom recapitulates in some respects a personal discussion. I would guess each of the questions deals with an issue that troubled Rabbi Miller himself, or that he was asked about, in his more than three decades as a rav and teacher — in most cases both. Those questions fall into two basic categories. Either they are ones that we instantly recognize as having troubled us, but which we never fully resolved. Or they are questions that stun us into wondering: How could I never have asked myself that question?
The “answers” are not presented as the definitive statement on the topic, nor even as a comprehensive statement of everything the author has read or thought about the topic. The number of citations is moderate, and never designed to show off the author’s erudition.
Rather, each answer offers an approach to thinking about the issue that in its ostensible simplicity and elegance suggests that the response is the result of many years of contemplation. By offering less than could be said about most of the questions, the answers become the beginning of a conversation and point the way toward further lines of inquiry.
RABBI MILLER is a thinker, someone who must work matters out for himself, not just follow the herd. I suspect that one of the reasons he decamped for the relative solitude of Calgary, after nearly a quarter century at the helm of a major congregation in Pittsburgh, was the desire to be freed of many of the communal distractions to which rabbis are subject, in order to spend his day in study and thought, as well as interacting with individuals at a deep personal level, at crucial junctures in their lives.
I first met him when he was one of the featured speakers at the Sunday morning session of the annual convention of Agudath Israel of America. The topic was “Living a Life of Spirituality Amidst Material Plenty,” and I still remember his description of how he and his wife invited the entire Pittsburgh community to the wedding of one of their children without blowing a hole in the family budget: They served cold cuts, buffet style, on paper plates. Clearly this was someone who thought things through for himself while retaining a reverence for his own mentors, in particular his uncle, Rav Avigdor Miller ztz”l.
Something of the dialectical cast of his mind can be garnered from a comment in the midst of his discussion of religious Zionism: “As in so many other controversies, the arguments on both sides had merit. And, as in so many other controversies, most writers on either side seem never to acknowledge that the other’s arguments might have any merit at all.” That ability to see multiple sides of an issue is essential for any life guide.
In Search of Torah Wisdom is not just theoretical, as when Rabbi Miller deals with the question of what is unique about the ikarim of emunah or the Aseres HaDibros. It is not the work of youth, but one that bears the marks of experience, of one who has witnessed close up, and perhaps experienced, life’s disappointments and trials. The chapters on dealing with suffering or working on bitachon are the products of one who has wrestled with these issues. He does not just recite pat answers.
Startling insights are interspersed throughout In Search of Torah Wisdom, as well as fascinating historical examples hinting to a wide erudition. But one senses that the author’s purpose is never originality for its own sake, but clarity — for himself and for his readers.