Monday, September 14, 2009

Alternatives To R' Avigdor Miller's Approach

My fellow Bais Yaakov and Yeshiva students, I have something I wish to say to you. It has to do with R' Avigdor Miller and his works. It is probable that you have been told to read his books or listen to his lectures. And the truth is that his words and pieces can contain much beauty and inspiration. I particularly enjoy his work Praise, My Soul. The problem arises when one reads his works and automatically assumes that everything he says is straight-up Torah without any personal beliefs or philosophy thrown in. To the contrary, many times there are alternatives to R' Avigdor Miller's approach. It is my wish to demonstrate some of these alternatives to you. I shall work with some excerpts from Awake My Glory.

1. Paragraph 575. These two trends are dependent on each other. In the degree that Jews harmonise with each other and do kindness to each other, in that same degree does the Shechinah approach and come closer to them. (By Jews is meant observant orthodox Jews; reform or conservative or any other kind of irreligious Jew is not a Jew. An observant convert to orthodox Judaism, be he black or brown, is a Jew.) - page 168

Let's consider what R' Avigdor Miller wrote here. "By Jews is meant observant orthodox Jews; reform or conservative or any other kind of irreligious Jew is not a Jew." Can that truly be the Torah approach? Does that make logical sense to you? A Jew who is not observant can be anyone from a tinok she'nishba to a Jew who has sinned. But he is still a Jew, something which we see throughout Tanakh and the Gemara. We have Jews who are totally non-observant, consider R' Elazar ben Dordea (Avoda Zara 17a)! And they are always considered Jews who perhaps have sinned, not suddenly written off as not a Jew as all.

For an alternative approach, see what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (The Rav) states in The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Volume 2, page 20. Here is the excerpt:

12.09 Jewish Peoplehood

Related by the Rav to his Talmud class at Yeshiva University on Israel Independence Day, April 23, 1969.

Being part of the Jewish nation means participating in one destiny and experiencing the solidarity of the Jewish people. The American Jew is exposed to the danger of total assimilation on both the religious level and also in losing his feeling for Jewish peoplehood.

There is the danger in the United States that even if the American Jew remains observant, he still will not feel that he is part and parcel of the Jewish people. I saw this in Germany. I knew Jews in Germany who were observant to the last iota. One Orthodox rabbi in Germany told me about his relationship with Polish Jewry. At least with the religious Poplish Jew he felt that he still had something in common. However, with the nonobservant Polish Jew there was little in common. The rabbi named a German politican and claimed that he had more in common with him than with the nonobservant Polish Jew. He and the German politician shared the same German culture and German national aspirations. This German politican later supported the Nazi party! The rabbi declared that vis-a-vis Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski [1863=1940; the last Rabbi of Vilna]: "I still feel a relationship and have something in common; but with the nonobservant Polish Jew, what do I have in common?"

The feeling of being part of the Jewish nation and the awareness of the togetherness of all Jews was lacking. This man was a leading German rabbi, and I can testify that his observance of the Torah was meticulous. Nevertheless, these were his words, and I am apprehensive that a similar viewpoint will evolve in the United States.


The Rav states that to be a Jew is to feel that one is part of the Jewish nation, which includes all Jews, observant or non-observant. His approach is the total opposite of R' Avigdor Miller's. Indeed, the Rav sees it as a failing and a flaw to feel as R' Avigdor Miller did.

Let us move on to some excerpts regarding R' Avigdor Miller's approach to women (in Judaism and in marriage):

2. Paragraph 1095- (There cannot be two kings. The marriage-relationship is twofold. 1) The wife is submissive. This is not only Jewish but natural. There can be no harmony when there are two commanders. Without this indispensable condition the home is disordered. "Arrogance is unbecoming to a woman" - Megillah 14B. For a man it is not an ornament, but for a woman it is as if she wore a mustache. 2) The second, but equally essential foundation: a man must always demonstrate respect for his wife. This is "the way of Jewish men that...honor and support their wives in truth" as stated in the Jewish marriage contract. "He honors her more than his own body" - Yevamos 62B, and "A man must always be careful with his wife's honor"- Bava Metzia 59A. He is the captain, but she is the First Mate whose counsel is respected. She cannot be made a doormat, she need not beg for money, she deserves some assistance in the house chores, and the husband sides with her against his kin. He must express frequent appreciation and give words of encouragement, and he should remember his wife from time to time with gifts, big or little. Husband and wife should always say "Please" and "Thank you" and never forget to be always polite to one another.) - pages 339-340

Paragraph 1105. Before marriage it is imperative to ascertain the young woman's attitude toward feminism and "women's rights" and careerism. It is out of the question to build a Jewish home, or any home whatsoever, if the prospective wife has been tainted with these anti-natural and anti-social preachings. The woman's career and happiness are in her home: absolutely and entirely. Her husband, her children and her home are the expressions of her personality and her Free Will, and they are her chief forms of serving G-d. The modern orthodox "Rebbetzin" with a college degree and a job in secular professions is a misfit even in a non-Jewish home. The ideas of revolt against a husband's authority and the unrealistic dream of equal leadership in the family, lead only to unhappiness and failure, and very frequently to divorce. A Beth Jacob girl should be wed soon after or before graduation. Every day after she leaves the Beth Jacob marks another step away from idealism, for the street and the office and the secular school have an unfailing effect which increases from day to day. It is never a simple matter to achieve harmony in the home; effort and wisdom and fear of G-d are required. But with the additional burden of feminism, all problems become aggravated; and like all the unnatural and anti-social affectations of the libertarians (342) this leads only to failure and unhappiness.

Under no circumstance should any member of the family be subjected to the influence of a non-observant psychiatrist or psychologist or counselor. - pages 344-345


To challenge this idea that a woman is utterly submissive to her husband and by rights must be ruled by him one need look no further than the love between the Rav and Dr. Tonya Soloveitchik, his wife, to whom he dedicated his masterworks and whom he consulted regarding everything he produced. It is clear that this was not a relationship between a man and a woman whom he ruled and commanded, but rather between equals, intellectually and emotionally so. The Rav wrote gorgeous pieces regarding the love he felt for his wife; one which particularly resonates with me is in his work On Repentance where he speaks of how he woke up one night due to a thunderstorm outside and remembered the window was open downstairs. Horrified, since a draft could make his wife sicker than she already was, he ran to close it. Only then did he remember that his wife was dead. He compares the thunderstorm to the kol ha'shofar and otherwise elaborates upon this, but the point of the story is that this marriage was a relationship between equals and the wife was certainly not submissive. She critiqued her husband and helped crystallize his thoughts; nobody 'ruled' over the other.

Recall that the husband ruling over his wife is a curse that God punished Eve with- see Genesis 3: 16-

טז אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה אָמַר, הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ וְהֵרֹנֵךְ--בְּעֶצֶב, תֵּלְדִי בָנִים; וְאֶל-אִישֵׁךְ, תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ, וְהוּא, יִמְשָׁל-בָּךְ. {ס} 16 Unto the woman He said: 'I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.'

Surely one would not immortalize a curse by turning it into a positive trait? In the same way that ideally one would wish for a world in which man does not earn bread only by the sweat of his brow, and during which the ground only produces thorns and thistles, so one does not ideally wish for a husband to rule over his wife- these were punishments from God, not the ideal. This is the reason that there was rejoicing when Cain was born; the curse was lessened slightly for he was able to produce from the ground (something other than thorns and thistles.) How much the more so ought we to attempt to reach a state where the man and wife mutually respect one another and see one another as equals instead of acting out a curse.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic piece!
Thanks for expressing and supporting your points so brilliantly! One of your best posts ever!

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Whoah, that's pretty extensive. I mean, like I've said here in the past, I love Rav Miller, and used to visit him often, but he has of course said his portion of weird things. I once heard him say "it's a mitzva to hate the Modern Orthodox" (though I'm afraid people don't understand that he meant those pre-50's American Orthodox who didn't at all believe in things like hair-covering for women and learning Torah..but Modern Orthodoxy has obviously changed a great deal).

He once said about Ateret Torah (famous Sephardic yeshiva) "Everyone is wearing hats and jackets; it looks like Williamsburg!" As if Williamsburg Judaism is more legitimate than ours..

..he said one should not wear sneakers outdoors.. ..or drink outdoors..

But anyway: As you imply, his universally acceptable messages far outnumber and outweigh the ones that we find unacceptable.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Also wanted to mention: About Feminism; it's a fairly new concept and one cannot accept traditionalist religious authorities who were born in the beginning of the last century to accept it immediately.

And: Rav Soloveichik himself was, for the most part, a product of his Lithuanian-Jewish culture. One cannot 'blame' Rav Miller for conforming to 'normative' Lithuanian-religious belief if "the Rav" himself did as well (albeit to a lesser extent).

Something else I forgot to mention in last comment: As opposed to Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Miller had a very limited interpretation of "ohr la'goyim". He said that Ghettoization was and is the best thing for Jews...

Dana said...

why are bais yaakov girls taught not to pursue a higher education when they are persuaded to marry someone who learns in kollel? wouldn't it be best that they attain the highest level of education possible in order to secure for their families better jobs so that they may support their husbands in their learning?

Anonymous said...

you are so confused, it's scary.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:02 pm, it's you who is coming across as confused. Chana's thoughs are crystal clear and a pleasure to follow.

Well done!

Anonymous said...

The challenge is Chana that R' Miller's worldview is a seamless one -imho the same absolute certainty that you previously admired on the watermelon seed (see recent discussion of this approach on hirhurim) drives his approach on the topics you disagree on.

Joel Rich

Commenter Abbi said...

I'm with Dana. Who's bringing home the bread in this Rav's fantasy world?

I love these chareidi gems that sound "holy" on paper but make absolutely no sense in reality.

DTC said...

BTW, not all meforshim agree with the object of the pronoun in Genesis 3:16

non mouse said...

on you first point on who is a jew in the context of the quote is referring to the narrow issue of the closeness of hashem to his people. not the technicality of being a jew for any other purpose.

rav soloveichik certainly is in agreement with rav miller that a tinok shenishba has a "din" of a non-jew as far as yayin nesach etc. and they surley both agree that you cant sell your chometz to a non religois jew too.

i hope i was clear enough

aaronswish said...

Holy canolis! I've read some of R. Miller's works. I haven't read most of them because I was so turned off by what I did read that I was forced to conclude that there was simply nothing that I was going to gain from them.

But even so.... I actually wondered whether some of the excerpts here were misquotations or something. Don't worry -- I'm aware that unfortunately they're not...

I hardly know what to say. "By Jews is meant observant orthodox Jews; reform or conservative or any other kind of irreligious Jew is not a Jew." Huh? Where does that come from? Where is there even a source in the Torah for that? Where in Tanach? Where in chazal?

I'm just mystified -- I've rarely seen such a plain example of people reading into the Torah what they think or wish was written there. Sorry -- the idea that non-religious Jews are "not Jews" is simply contradictory to both the Torah she'bichtav and Torah she'bal'peh. I know of no other way to describe it. It's that clear. To see an "orthodox rabbi" pen those words is simply painful -- they're false.

As to the section on women and the male/female roles in the home... in general I find the issue so personal and subtle that it seems useless to issue generalized proclamation about what "should" be. I think in some respects women do generally tend towards greater submissiveness.... I also think it's important for most men to have some area in which they're basically in charge.

But so what? Aside from that, sweeping assertions about what a home "must" be like are IMO wastes of time. To make a good home a man and woman need to work with themselves and each other, and find a balance that works.

For some people it'll be the way that R. Miller wants. For others, it won't. And declaring that there's only one "kosher" way is a recipe for inducing guilt and anguish in people who don't meet that recipe -- which frankly would be a disgusting but realistic outcome for an announcement that is meant to do good.

"The modern orthodox "Rebbetzin" with a college degree and a job in secular professions is a misfit even in a non-Jewish home." That is cheap and obnoxious -- and it is worthy of no further response.

On another issue I'll echo Dana's question above: how the heck is a family supposed to support itself if the husband is learning in kollel and the wife is barred from taking a serious job? Food stamps? Welfare? Was this just written in an age before kollel became such a widespread expectation?

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

aaron: Re last question- Well before. Rav miller wasn't exctly the biggest proponent of kollel himself. He just wanted the traditional(/naturalistic?) roles to be kept. It was written in the 60's, when having a 'creer' was strange even for non-Jewish American women...

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...


the only way i know said...

Rabbi Miller was a very great man and in my opinion, although Chana does a good job of expressing what she finds difficult to accept or understand, I think that many things are still open to interpretation and need not be put down . For example the submissive wife of Rabbi Miller's description does not - to me - seem in contradiction with Rav Soloveitchik's loving marital relationship where 'equality' reigned. I can very easily see a scenario where the Rebbetizen dedicated her entire life to the benefit of her husband's growth (submissiveness??!) and thereby gained his utmost love and respect in ways that not only did the Rav possibly feel she was equal to him, but he probably loved and respected her more than himself. Her 'submission' as an ally to his path in life, was possibly one of her greatest strengths.
Anyway - I would think long and hard before making light of Rabbi Miller's words (not that you did, Chana, but in case anyone decided that they were great enough to put down his teachings before reaching a level that he was on)

Anonymous said...

I think non mouse explained r millers first quote rather well...

aaronswish said...

the only way i know,

I don't know what "level" R. Miller z'l was on. But truth is truth. To claim that "reform or conservative or any other kind of irreligious Jew is not a Jew" is simply contrary to the Torah.

And imagine if a reform or conservative rabbi made such an inane claim, perhaps in the context of "explaining" why members of his synagogue are not obligated to keep the mitzvot. Orthodox Jews, particularly scholars and rabbis, would be incensed at such a ridiculous claim that runs counter to everything in the Torah.

Whatever "level" R. Miller occupied, it was apparently not high enough to prevent him from making such an absurd declaration.

As for a wife's "submissiveness", some of R. Miller's piece is sensible: "He is the captain, but she is the First Mate whose counsel is respected. She cannot be made a doormat, she need not beg for money, she deserves some assistance in the house chores, and the husband sides with her against his kin."

But it's also pedantic.

What does this really contribute to anybody's (well, any man's, since that's whom it seems directed to) understanding of marriage and a male-female relationship? I see virtually no serious depth in his piece: simply one man's vision of what marriage "ought" to be.

But who cares what one man believes everybody's marriage ought to be? Everybody's marriage is too personal, too subtle, and too networked with countless factors and variables to permit any intelligent program to emerge from a prescription as generic, coarse-grained, and almost Manichean, as R. Miller's. How is his writing any different from what a religious conservative, or fanatic, of any Western faith might write? That doesn't make it wrong per se but it does make it entirely non-unique.

I also think that R. Soloveitchik's relationship with his wife is nothing short of an inspiring love story.

the only way i know said...


I can't imagine a man of truth such as Rabbi Miller stating inaccurately that a reform or conservative Jew is not a Jew. But I also read what Chana quoted from his book and I see that's what he says. Therefore, I would wonder what exactly it is he meant. The inaccuracy of the words seem contradictory to the Emes in his nature and so I wonder what it is he really meant. But he isn't here to explain his words. Therefore, I must say 'I can't understand his intention', but I can't say 'he is wrong' since I imagine that his intended meaning was something truthful. I know this probably sounds naive to you, but I believe that he was a great man so rather than say he doesn't know what he's talking about and is an outright apikores by writing something so contrary to the Torah (G-d forbid) - I'd rather believe that at this time I can't understand what it is he was trying to say.

By the way, I found the description of the Rav's relationship with his wife beautifully inspiring and I described in my comment what I felt was strong and loving and found it no less special than you did - though by your last comment it seems to me that you felt I was putting it down in some way. I did not.

Lastly, I do understand your point and feelings regarding his description of what marriage 'should be' in his view - and without question my initial reaction is to feel irritated by the way he expresses certain things. But I've learnt over the years that my annoyance is many times a product of something I don't want to 'see' or maybe my judging something too quickly or not wanting to collude with an idea that I find highly against my nature and towards which I feel rebellious. I'll do that first. Try and figure out what is annoying me that much.

Also, I believe that Chana's title says it all. ALTERNATIVES.
There is not only 'one way' in the Torah. In many instances there are alternative ways and approaches. Different ways we can serve G-d. I would have it no other way and that's wonderful. I get to be uniquely me. But I also understand that our leaders are great and if something they say is seems resoundingly untruthful then I fear it is I who need clarification rather than them.

Anonymous said...

when i read this is will be entitled to comment

but before then

more on chana from

Ben-Yehudah said...


You make a good point about "being a Jew." However, there is an opinion, that a true min, apikourus, meshumad, or kofer... "...ein k'yisrael klal klal." {paraphrasing the Rambam}

One may not marry him, count him in a minyan

However, his [ex] wife receive a get from him before remarrying.

So, there is a basis for what he is saying.

I think R' Hayim Zimmerman has some interesting things to say about the status of tinoq shenishba.

I think more and more Jews could fit into this category, even according to the Rambam {the nonobservant/nonbelieving grandson of a Jew who goes off the derech...}

emeslyaakov said...

Many have expressed wonder that Rav Miller excluded nonobservant Jews from the need for Jews to harmonise with each other and do kindness to each other.

This wonder is either naivete or purposeful straying from an obvious, plain truth.

A mechallel shabbes b'pharhessia - a public Sabbath desecrater - is considered to be like an idol worshipper. Not for all purposes perhaps - his wife requires a get, but he does not count in a minyan, you may not eat his shechittah or drink his wine and you may not save his life. If he is a copher, i.e. he denies Torah min Hashomayim or various other ikkarim, then his din is moridim v'lo ma'alin - we push him into a pit and do not save him if he has fallen into a pit.

Whether the vast majority of nonobservant Jews fit into the category of tinok shenishba bein ha'acum (an infant who was captured and raised by goyim and therefore does not know the Torah)and therefore we may save them, is a machlokes. But to act as if the basic concept is wrong, is ridiculous.

Certainly declared enemies of Hashem and the Jewish people such as Meretz, Shomer Hatsa'ir and their ilk are to be treated as exactly what they are - enemies. So too reform and conservative rabbis.

The attempt or intent to classify all nonobservant Jews as tinok shenishba probably started in my youth (I am now 59) or slightly before that, and perhaps today's yuoth are even farther removed from Torah than we were, but again perhaps not. I was raised by nonobservant parents in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Most of my friends were Jewish. Most of them had at least orthodox grandparents. Some had orthodox aunts, uncles or cousins. We knew what kosher was. We knew that one wasn't suposed to drive or turn on lights on Shabbes. We knew that the Torah forbade pork. those who went to the reform temple knew what tephilin are, even if we had never seen them. Our parents didn't teach us that the Torah was not binding, they just didn't observe the laws of the Torah, and therefore we didn't. Is that a tinok shenishba? And that was n Virginia. Until I was 17, I had never seen an orthodox Jew who wasn't someone's grandparent, but we still knew that the Torah required us to do and to refrain from doing certain things. What about the Jew who was raised in New York or Israel, where there is and was an abundance of orthodox jews? Can they be classified as tinok shenishba?

I certainly will not give the definitive answer on that, but to say that it is farfetched to understand things in their plain and simple way - which is that a mechallel shabbes b'pharhessia is a like a goy, and a copher is to be pushed into a pit is ingenuous at best.