Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Something to Yell At: R. Avigdor Miller’s Books and Audiocassettes

The most insulting thing my older brother has ever said to me was that he thought I would like R. Avigdor Miller (1908-2001). I had no idea who R. Miller was at the time so I took no offense. My brother explained that R. Miller was not his personal taste but a lot of people at his yeshiva liked him and I might as well. Sometime later, when I started high school at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, I was at a local seforim store buying school books when I came across a shelf of R. Miller books. I picked up one of them, Awake My Glory. I got back to my room and eagerly opened the book. To my horror, I discovered that I had spent $10 on a rant about the evils of atheism, evolution, Christianity, Zionism, and Reform Judaism. Eager to demonstrate the economic principle of loss aversion, I did not stop at the introduction, which set out R. Miller’s agenda. (To his credit, one could never have accused R. Miller of lacking clarity or of trying to hide his agenda.) Instead, I read the entire book. Not satisfied with that, and perhaps desirous of raising my blood pressure to new heights, I soon discovered that Torah Vodaath had a lending audio cassette library with R. Miller’s lectures. I started listening to them diligently to yell at them. This was still in the early days of the internet so the ethos of “someone on the internet is wrong” was still new to my teenage self.

I am sure I could write a book on the topic of why R. Miller was wrong and when I was a teenager, I dreamed of doing so. As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate the limits of trying to argue against people like R. Miller. His books are readily available within the Haredi community and you can read them for yourself. You can also find clips of him speaking on YouTube. He had a rather distinctive voice. I use it as the basis for Professor Pippy Poopypants from Captain Underpants and other such characters when reading to my kids. Either you are going to be repulsed by R. Miller, in which case you hardly need a book by me, or you are not, in which case there is something deeply wrong with you and nothing I can write is going to fix that. My interest here is to explore why it was that I came to passionately loath R. Miller almost instantly even as it was hardly obvious that I would have such a reaction.

I was a yeshiva kid, R. Miller’s target audience, and my own brother thought I was the kind of person who would like R. Miller. I liked being right and had little patience for people who disagreed with me. It was around this time that I discovered Rush Limbaugh, who my teenage self found to be perfectly congenial. So, what was it about R. Miller that I found so repulsive? I suspect it was the fact that R. Miller blatantly espoused a worldview in which people like him were good and the entire rest of the world was bad without the cover of telling stories that only implied that.   

The most important thing you need to understand about my religious background is that I was raised Haredi but in Columbus, OH, where my father was a rabbi, and in McKeesport, PA, in my grandfather of blessed memory’s shul. While my father saw his “home planet” as Haredi New York, he was not raised in that world and did not raise his children there either. I spent the school year in Columbus Torah Academy where most kids were not Orthodox and spent the summer in Haredi summer camps like Camp Torah Vodaath and later, after it closed, at Camp Rayim. I was raised with American culture, including movies, television, and regular trips to the public library.

There is an irony in this as it was my father, and not his Haredi friends from his “home planet” who was being traditional. My father was raised this way and so were his friends, even those who lived in New York. It was not practical, in the 1950s and 60s to raise children any other way. There was essentially no Orthodox publishing or music industry. Parents had no choice but to allow their kids to consume American culture, which was less obviously problematic at the time anyway. Also, keep in mind that the post-war generation was still focused on entering the middle-class and gaining social acceptance for themselves. Walling oneself off from American culture was simply not an option for them.   

It was my father’s friends who changed. They made the decision, under the influence of people like R. Miller, to raise the children of my generation without American culture. They had the luxury of living in Haredi enclaves and no longer having to worry about what the gentile neighbors might think. They had Artscroll, Feldheim, Suki & Ding, R. Shmuel Kunda, Mordechai Ben David, and Avraham Fried to raise their kids. It was no longer necessary to take the chance of exposing kids to secular books let alone movies and television so those things could be disposed of. I find Haredi rabbis to be quite open about this, apologizing for the “leniency” of their parent’s generation as something necessary under the circumstances but no longer.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the early educational value of many Haredi audiocassettes produced for my generation. Thanks to my exposure to Orthodox media, Jewish studies in kindergarten and first grade were largely a waste of my time. Like any good cultural education, Orthodox media gave me the basics of Jewish life without my having to be conscious of learning it. This is particularly useful for keeping people in the fold. It is difficult to reject things that you never consciously learned in the first place. What you never consciously learned is simply what “normal” people do.

Growing up in Columbus, OH listening to religious story tapes and only actually being in Haredi society during the summer, it was easy to not realize that a major culture gap existed. An incident that does stick out in my mind was when I stormed off from the dining room table because my bunkmates were using the n-word and making racist jokes. The head-counsellor, one of my father’s best friends, supported me and said that the kids were out of line. He assured me that he was raised not to use such terms. What I took from this encounter was that the yeshiva system was about producing people like me and that my bunkmates were jerks whose values did not reflect the system in which they and not I lived.

What I did not consider at the time was the protentional Faustian bargain the head counsellor and the Haredim of his generation were making with my generation. If you had told him that the price of raising non-racist kids was that these kids would not be religious, would he be so quick to oppose racism? It was not so farfetched to believe that there is an inverse relationship between Jewish kids being raised with a strong subconscious distaste for non-Jews and the religious drop-out rate. As an inner-city black person, the “schwartze,” was a pretty useful stand-in for not-Jewish and certainly not-Haredi, so why not use him as the embodiment of what you were trying to oppose.

Being Haredi is hard. What can they offer kids to make up for the long school hours, and the forgoing of American culture? In return, kids can be rude to secular teachers and make racist jokes about black people. To be clear, it is not that anyone ever openly made this argument. It is simply a matter of following the incentives. If you have the kind of society you would expect from such an agreement then it becomes highly plausible to imagine that, at the very least, this agreement has been made subconsciously.

The camp culture was filled with more subtle forms of hate that I failed to appreciate at the time. We were fed a steady diet of stories in which Catholic priests kidnapped Jewish children in order to force them to convert to Christianity or murdered Christian children to set up blood libels. One of the rabbis gave his priest villains the name Father Shmutz (dirt). The Golem was a popular character in the stories I heard at camp. The nuance of defending the Jewish community against anti-Semites was often lost. One example I remember had a golem going into a church to beat up Christians in modern-day America. For those trying to understand this sensibility, I recommend R. Gershon Winkler’s Golem of Prague, one of my favorite Jewish books growing up. The villainous priest, Thaddeus, is obscenely over the top. Murdering a Christian for the purposes of framing the Jews is the culmination of a streak of villainous deeds. It is rather ironic that Haredim would turn the blood libel around and use it against Christians.

During the year, the head counselor put out a radio show called Chassidic Tales of Inspiration. He sent us a case of audio cassettes of the show for my older brother’s bar mitzvah. My younger brother and I listened to them to death and could quote long passages from our favorite stories. To the head counselor’s credit, he really was a fantastic storyteller and he was not even the best at camp. That being said, looking back, there was some really problematic material. For example, one of the stories has a Father Francois murder a Christian child in order to set up a blood libel. He gets caught by the not very Jewish trope of being forced to shake the corpse’s hand which then does not let go. The head counselor told this story not to a few friends after getting drunk on Purim but on the radio as if anti-Semites do not exist and do not pay attention to Jewish media with the intent of making the point that Jews hate Christians.  

Before anyone walks away with the impression that Haredi summer camps are simple hate fests, it should be stated that this head counselor was one of the most thoroughly decent, loving, not hateful people that I have ever met. I am positive that, as with racism, he would have denounced any attempt to use these anti-Christian stories as the basis for interacting with actual Christians. He was not trying to convince us to hurt Christians or even to hate them. That being said, as with racism, teaching us to not hate Christians was certainly not his priority. Parents were not paying good money to send their kids to camp so that they could become more tolerant of non-Jews. If hating non-Jews was a side effect of an educational system designed to make sure that, at a deep gut check level, there would be no plausible alternative to Haredi Judaism then so be it. All the more so if the medium of story-telling allowed him to Pontius Pilate himself of all responsibility. (If you do not know who Pontius Pilate was, you have clearly never read the New Testament and are a terrible Jew.)   

That is what is so dangerous about stories. They are not inherently normative, telling us what we should do, so you cannot say that a story teaches people to do certain things. For example, it would be the height of absurdity to claim that World War II era Looney Tunes cartoons with Bugs Bunny killing Japanese soldiers teaches people to kill their Japanese neighbors in the twenty-first century. And yet stories do have lessons even as their authors can always deny them. Furthermore, stories can become even more pernicious when you consciously disbelieve the message. It becomes all the easier to miss how the subconscious still believes. You cannot rationally escape a belief system that you never reasoned yourself into in the first place.   

My father sent my older brother to the Yeshiva of Scranton and then to South Bend. He was thrown out of both of them for refusing to comply with school restrictions on secular books and TV. By the time I was ready for high school, he was already leaving Orthodoxy. My father was determined not to repeat the same mistakes with me. He, therefore, sent me to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, his and my grandfather’s alma mater. By the time I arrived in the Fall of 1997, there were only a few high schoolers in the dorm. This meant that the school would not be policing me like a regular yeshiva high school student and I would be able to read secular books without interference. In fact, the dorm counselor wrote me a note so I could get a library card from the Brooklyn Public Library.

As I mentioned at the beginning, it was at this point in my life that I discovered R. Miller.  He did not tell stories with a particular set of Jewish values to be simultaneously consciously ignored and subconsciously accepted as an inarguable reality of how the world works. Instead, R. Miller came right out with his ideology. It is not as if I were an atheist, a Christian or a Reform Jew. I was pretty neutral then about evolution and my Zionism was, as it still is, more pragmatic than principled yet I could not shake the sense that I, as a practicing Jew who valued general culture, was R. Miller’s real target. It is not as if atheists, Christians, or non-Orthodox Jews were ever likely to read his books.

Once I became alerted to R. Miller's existence, I began to notice his pernicious existence all over the place. It was not just that his lecture tapes were being lent out by the yeshiva. An older friend, with whom I studied with on a nightly basis, informed me that he attended R. Miller’s weekly lectures. I do regret that I never took advantage of the opportunity to join him and contented myself with yelling at his tapes. I am sure I could have found it in myself to behave myself in a public setting. One of the rabbis recommended R. Miller to me when I got into a theological discussion with him, unaware that I already detested the man.

As with the head counselor, I am willing to give R. Miller’s fans at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath the benefit of the doubt. When I asked people about R. Miller’s claim that Zionists and other secular Jews were responsible for the Holocaust or his willingness to make sweeping general statements about entire groups based on the problematic statements and actions of some of its members, they acknowledged that R. Miller said things that were out of line. He was a zealous person and the important thing to take from him was not to cherry-pick his most extreme claims but to focus on the larger picture, his love for God, the Jewish people, and his willingness to unapologetically say things that other people would not. Notice how that last statement implicitly defends R. Miller most troublesome statements even as it pretends to distance itself from them.

As with black jokes and blood libeling priests, the point was never really to convince us that non-Orthodox Jews caused the Holocaust. Rather it was to inculcate us with a sense of disgust to the non-religious. The fact that we did not really blame them for the Holocaust would simply make it difficult for us to locate that disgust with such a claim and we would conclude that our opposition was simply based on the “facts.” If some kids might go over the deep end and take these claims literally, the rabbis could deny any responsibility.

I did not last long at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. This was not the fault of the administration, which treated me with great indulgence. I look back on my time at Torah Vodaath with great fondness. I certainly cannot blame R. Miller as he never even met me. That being said, my lack of friendships with anyone my own age took its toll on me emotionally and I became clinically depressed. Later on in life, I would be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Coming into an awareness that society was not designed for someone like me certainly did not help my mental wellbeing. By January my father had to bring me home. For the rest of high school, I attended the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, MD where my parents had just moved.

Even here, I could not escape the specter of R. Miller. Our Jewish History class used him as a textbook. As a historian, R. Miller functioned as a kind of Haredi version of the 1619 Project in which occasionally legitimate skepticism regarding mainstream sources was used as cover for the wholesale acceptance of rabbinic sources.

There is an important lesson here about skepticism. Skepticism and belief are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. To be skeptical about something most always mean skeptical in contrast to something else. I take science and the historical method very seriously as tools for understanding the world. This is what allows me to treat the Haredi version of reality with skepticism as lacking by comparison. Without such a sincere belief in the methods of science and history, I would probably be one of those people who actually like R. Miller.  

As I have gotten older, I have mellowed a bit regarding R. Miller. This is strange because I am significantly to the left religiously now than I was as a teenager. I still consider myself religiously observant. This is not the case with my older brother, who abandoned orthodoxy during high school. The biggest difference between us was that none of the rabbis I encountered over the course of my education ever truly wronged me. I respected their decency and their kindness to me even as I disagreed with them about theology. It was R. Miller who made me aware that I was not really part of the Haredi world. Without him, I could have continued for far longer to focus on how much I personally liked and respected my father’s friends from his home planet (in contrast to most of the kids my age) and only hear what I wanted to hear about their theology. In this sense, R. Miller deserves credit for his honesty and willingness to openly say things that most people in the Haredi world had the good sense not to say. If I came to despise the man personally, despite never actually meeting him, that was me and my need for the Haredi world to be something to serve my needs, something it was never designed to do.