Monday, November 19, 2012

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

I occasionally receive emails asking if I would like to review a new book. I generally decline [how many reviews have you seen on here?], for two reasons: 1) I don’t have time to read the books I already intend to read, and 2) I have no interest in publishing a negative review, and I tend to find some pickable bones I feel are significant. So I generally decline.

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 nuance. Indeed, at various points in the book (such as pg. 41 and pg. 65), the author notes that Torah scholars tend to issue public pronouncements which lack nuance and depth and sensitivity because they are afraid that a mass audience will miss their point, and only in private do they speak with thought-provoking insight. Unfortunately, this book occasionally goes the same route.

Sometimes the author chooses not to respond to a key part of his own question, such as when asked about the virulence of rabbinic disagreement (pg. 36 and pg. 64); he justifies the existence of disagreement without addressing the troubling virulence. At other times, the author simply re-frames the question as a statement; for example, on page 103 the author asks regarding young men who "plan to remain in kollel all their lives," "Shouldn't they be productive members of society?" and replies without elaboration that they are as productive as other members of society. I would have appreciated hearing what Rabbi Miller would have answered an individual, instead of the public pronouncement.

As I said at the outset: The book's premise is strong, and the book does provide serious food for thought. It is not everything I would have wanted, but I'd recommend it nonetheless.


  1. Perhaps because not all questions have answers and we're afraid to say it

    as r'ybs put it:
    I remember that once I was studying Talmud with my father. I asked him why the Talmud did not resolve the problem under discussion in so many cases. Instead the Talmud concludes with the phrase teiku (“stalemate”). Why was no conclusion reached by the talmudic sages? My father explained to me that a Jew must apprehend that he cannot understand and comprehend everything. When a Jew learns that there are halakhot which are ambiguous, then he will also come to the realization that there are other areas that are not clear-cut. In matters of faith, teiku will also be encountered. The greatness of Abraham, our forefather, was that he knew how to say “Here I am” (Genesis 22:1) even though he did not understand the request that God made of him. The basis of faith is teiku. If a Jew does not master the concept of teiku, then he cannot be a true believer. It would not hurt if the rabbi possessed the courage and resoluteness to admit to teiku.
    Joel Rich

  2. I was also going to post something based on RYBS. Not exactly RHR's point. More pointing out the centrality of dialectic to his worldview. For that matter, to philosophy since Kant in general.

    Is Hashem in heaven? Is He everywhere?

    Are our lives supposed to be a quest for perfection, or for closeness to the Creator? What about when these two ways of viewing the goal conflict -- do we emphasize the precision of davening on time, or the passion of kavanah even if it requires davening late? (Assuming we can't fulfill both obligations.)

    To RYBS, any question involving the human condition with inevitably lead to dialectics, and in fact the central arena of free will is in weighing and choosing among conflicting values -- each of which having their truth.

    I think Yahadus is more often a framework for asking more productive questions than a set of answers. Of course, it's much harder to attract baalei teshuvah if you aren't offering quick and elegant-seeming answers. OTOH, if the problems of life had quick and elegant answers, there would be a lot less life necessary.

  3. Joel, Micha-
    I assume you are both addressing my comment that I would have liked to see the answers footnoted more. If so, then I do think that many of his questions have footnotable answers (whether these are "the answer" or not). I am very behind the concept of questions which must be left as a dialectic (which I once heard R' YGB explain as the meaning of machloket shesofo l'hitkayem), but I wouldn't apply it all that broadly.

  4. GIve me more than a 60x8 window that has no "save draft" feature, and I would invest the time to try to put together a real reply.

    But this is a blog comment chain. You have the soapbox, we're just responders. It's not a forum designed for this kind of discussion. And the subsequent generation, social media (FaceBook), is even less designed for discussion. That's why Avodah has not kept up with the times... there is little out there to replace the old-fashioned email list.

    I think it's a natural consequence of Kant that the more fundamental the question is to the human condition, the more likely it is to have a dialectical answer.

  5. I definitely hear, Micha. I would add, too, that because blogs are designed as quick reading, messages (posts or comments) of real depth are skipped.

    Witness the lack of response to Rabbi Dr. Mescheloff's guest post on Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy two weeks ago. I would invite you to do a guest post on this, but I expect the result would be the same.