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“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.
I’m not saying there’s a consensus in everything. For instance, one of the selichos has a prayer which invokes the angels, which [seems to violate] the fifth principle of faith. I don’t think there’s a consensus in that area.
You write in the appendix of your new book that “[t]oday we understand that [Ma'aseh Merkavah and Ma'aseh Bereishis] refer to Kabalistic teachings about creation and G-d.” However, Rambam clearly writes that Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to Aristotelian metaphysics. How can you state categorically that we now know it refers to kabbalistic doctrines?
I was writing from a historical perspective. The Rambam was operating in the absence of information. He didn’t have access to the kabbalistic tradition which he thought had been lost.
I’m convinced that if the Rambam would have known about the kabbalistic tradition, he wouldn’t have said that Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to [Aristotelian metaphysics].
But why are you assuming that he would have embraced Kabbalah had he known about it? Great rabbis, Rav Yaakov Emden for example, famously rejected parts of the Kabbalah.
True, Rav Yaakov Emden challenged the authenticity of the Zohar. But again, although the academic world holds that the Zohar was authored by Moshe de Leon in the 13th century, I think it’s universally accepted in the Orthodox world today that Rav Shimon bar Yochai wrote it. If you stood up in a yeshiva anywhere in the world and said the Zohar is a 13th century text, I think they’d kick you out.
You also write in the book that the Guide to the Perplexed is a “highly apologetic” work. Why assume it to be an apologetic work and not a reflection of what the Rambam actually believed?
There are contradictions between the Guide and his other writings. For instance, the Rambam famously says in the Guide that the scientific views espoused by Chazal are not Torah. They are just the science of the time, which is now outdated and you don’t have to accept. That seems to be clearly at odds with his statement in Perek Chelek that denying any part of Chazal is heresy.
Maybe the Rambam meant that one must accept the halachic traditions of Chazal as well as certain key, widely acknowledged aggadic traditions, but that one is free to reject aggadic statements made by individual amoraim as well as the scientific portions of the Talmud. Many Orthodox Jews, certainly in the Modern Orthodox community, believe this.
Maybe in the Modern Orthodox community. To their credit, they’re the only ones who are really thrashing out these issues, trying to get to the bottom of them.
The traditional Orthodox community I think has always shied from theology, which could be partially due to the influence of gedolei yisrael who said you shouldn’t study the Moreh or get too philosophically inclined because you might become a heretic. But while that might’ve worked in the ghettos, I think nowadays we’re involved in the world and if you don’t have a sophisticated understanding of Judaism, and you do have a sophisticated understanding of the world, there’s going to be a tremendous imbalance. I think we desperately need to get back to theology.
Young kids in our communities all over the world are getting disenchanted because Judaism is just a lifeless dogma for them, enforced by social pressure. Social pressure is not enough. We’ve got to have a vibrant Yiddishkeit, and it is vibrant in the books. It’s fascinating, it’s compelling, and it’s what drew me in from a secular background. I think we need to overcome this fear of indulging in theology.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
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