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.