The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
“My particular passion was the teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.” Born to an unobservant family in London, Rabbi Chaim Miller first encountered the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings as a student at Leeds University. “His discourses impressed me in terms of their tremendous intellectual depth and brilliance,” he recalls.
Today, he is dedicated to disseminating these teachings to as wide an audience as possible. His Kol Menachem publishing house, which he founded in 2002 with philanthropist Meyer Gutnik, has already produced a number of popular works with extensive commentary culled from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s public discourses and writings – the Gutnik Chumash, the Kol Menachem Haggadah and two books on the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith.
The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rabbi Miller about his background and Kol Menachem’s latest volume, The 13 Principles of Faith: Principles VI & VII.
The Jewish Press: What inspired you to become observant?
Rabbi Miller: I was searching. I was a spiritual seeker, philosophizing about life. It never struck me that Judaism really had it. Judaism to me was just dry ritual, attending this soul-destroying synagogue and standing up and down when the ark opened. It didn’t strike me that there was anything profound there.
But then at Leeds University I attended a series of lectures on the theological elements of Judaism run by Ohr Sameach. Then, through some Chabad shluchim, I discovered Lubavitch and the chassidic idea, which I found very compelling. It was really this strange discovery that there could be this philosophical depth in Judaism.
Why are you currently writing a series on the Rambam’s 13 principles?
Well, this is getting back to my original passion. You see, I embraced Orthodoxy because of the brilliance of its theology. The first thing all kiruv organizations teach you is theology – the meaning of life, G-d, theodicy, revelation, etc. They get to the essence of Yiddishkeit. But then, after you’re done with those introductory courses, they say, “Now you’ve graduated, go learn Gemara.”
The mainstream Orthodox community is not particularly theologically orientated and [beliefs are] largely retained by social consensus and social pressure, and there was an element of disillusionment when I discovered that. So there’s two things you can do. You can sit and grumble, or you can try to redress the balance.
How would you characterize your contribution? In what way, for instance, is your book different than other books on the Rambam’s principles?
There are two strands of theology. There’s the medieval philosophical tradition – Rambam, Saadia Gaon, Kuzari, etc. – and then you have the kabbalistic, chassidic tradition. I’m interested in both, but they’ve never really been presented together in one whole unit. So half the book is just little passages of classic texts from both the philosophical and the kabbalistic traditions. The other half is lessons, or shiurim, based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
One of the Rebbe’s passions was theology; most of his discourses veer off at some point into a theological discussion. But there’s almost 200 volumes of his teachings, and his theological discussions are scattered all over the place. They were never organized, systematically analyzed, or laid down before.
Professor Marc Shapiro wrote a popular book on the Rambam’s 13 principles, in which he demonstrates that many great rabbis throughout the generations rejected various elements of the Rambam’s principles. Have you read that work, and, if so, what’s your opinion of it?
I think he’s incorrect. In one of his footnotes he quotes the Chasam Sofer, who writes that there is an idea of consensus regarding matters of faith. [Shapiro dismisses the Chasam Sofer as a lone opinion], but I think the Chasam Sofer was essentially presenting the traditional Orthodox view.
There is a process of consensus. Obviously you can’t just decide what the truth is by a vote. But what actually happens is that the arguments get refined over the years. There’s a debate, various viewpoints are put out there, and then it’s thrashed out. So you actually get a consensus through discussion. It becomes clear what the truth is.
So although there are rishonim who held that God has a body, I think it’s universally accepted today that God doesn’t have a body.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).
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