By YOSEF RAPAPORT, Hamodia
Rabbi Chaim Miller has newly released Rambam: The 13 Principles of Faith: Principles VI & VII: Prophecy. This is the second volume of his series on Maimonides, as expounded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, tzt”l.
Rabbi Miller has also published The Kol Menachem Haggadah, both Ashkanazic and Chabad (Nusach Ari) versions. Rabbi Miller lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he devotes his time to the publishing house Kol Menachem.
YR: My first question: who is Rabbi Miller?
CM: I was born in London, England. I am 37 years old. I did not grow up religious. My family was affiliated with Orthodoxy but not observant, although we fasted on Yom Kippur and did a few other things. From about the age of 16, I underwent a gradual transformation, becoming more observant and attending yeshiva for 4 or 5 years.
Actually, my first contact with Orthodoxy was not Chabad but Ohr Sameyach, through Rabbi Jonathan Dove. He had a campus program at Leeds, where he ran Shabbatons. I started exploring and eventually ended up going to Chabad’s Ivy League Torah Study program in the Catskills.
YR: Why did you become more interested in Chabad?
CM: Chassidus appealed to me. Actually, I had a distant connection with some Lubavitchers. One of them, a shaliach in London, suggested that I go to a Chabad program. I was interested in learning chassidus.
YR: What exactly is the Kol Menachem Institute? What is its mission?
CM: I started this with Rabbi Meyer Gutnick, a philanthropist originally from Australia who now lives in Crown Heights. We intended primarily to work on the Rebbe’s teachings – to research them, gather them together. In his lifetime, the Rebbe spoke every almost every week, at least 20 times a year, each time for many hours. Toward the end of his life he spoke at least 3 times a week. The Rebbe wrote very little himself so his teachings are scattered over many volumes.
YR: This is a massive undertaking of teaching and publishing the 13 Principles. It is the cornerstone of Jewish faith. What inspired you to go ahead and do this work?
CM: As I said before, I didn’t grow up frum. I was always looking for meaning and emunah – what is it we Jews believe? Growing up frum, you’re automatically given emunah. You’re breathing it in.
Also, nowadays, there are enormous communities of ba’alei teshuva who are seeking these things. I wanted to make Jewish thought available in a way that would engage an adult. I also think it is useful in the mainstream frum community. Even frum yidden need to refresh and think about these things, otherwise we risk our observance becoming dry and mechanical.
We must be careful, though. There has always been a fear that too much philosophizing about the 13 Principles might lead to kefirah, chas veshalom. Some rabbonim, in fact, maintained we shouldn’t read any kind of chakirah or spend time thinking about such things, lest we start thinking in the wrong direction. So I wanted to write a sefer that doesn’t have the ta’am of sefer chakirah, etc., rather, a book that has a yeshivishe flavor.
YR: more “what,” than “why.”?
CM: Exactly. I wanted to enable a natural osmosis of emunah that comes from learning sefarim around the 13 Principles. Not a polemical book trying to debate — is Torah true? Does G-d exist? People could pick up this sefer and read what chazal have to say about these topics – read rishonim, ba’alei mussar, etc. In that way, frum yidden are able to learn, not in a critical way, but in the ruach of chazal and chachomim.
YR: You bring and cite rishonim and acharonim that are relevant, with the actual Hebrew side-by-side with the English translation. What are you trying to achieve?
CM: We focus on the principles themselves. We’re trying to be very loyal to the topics Rambam discusses in the original perush hamishnayot when he first brings in the 13 Principles.
We try to take that Rambam and go through the rishonim and acharonim and find out what has been said on these topics since the Rambam.
YR: So you bring in different views, as well. Is this to clarify? Like learning Gemara, you bring down divisions and opposite views in order to understand what the other is thinking.
CM: Absolutely. My intension in bringing Rebbe’s Torah is not only for people interested in what the Rebbe had to say. There is more general relevance. Not too many sefarim really bring all the different views on emunah together and discuss them. As I said, the Rebbe was very broad; his sichos are a useful tool. It is like a shiur. You begin to see how everything fits together. Particularly in terms of schools of thought: schools of chassidus and chakirah differ in ways emunah is understood. The Rebbe showed an underlying unity behind all of this.
YR: What has been the reaction of people reading this? What is the feedback you have been getting?
CM: Boruch Hashem, very positive. The first volume, on Principles 8 and 9, had a large print run and we had to reprint it in less than a year.
YR: An entire audience is coming closer to Yiddishkeit. Yet when you open the book, it is definitely not a bare-bones sefer. Even people well-versed would appreciate it.
CM: This is not a watered down introduction to Judaism. It doesn’t presume any prior knowledge, so it is definitely accessible for a beginner, but it is very rich in texts and ideas so it would be of much interest to bnei torah and even to talmudei chachamim.
YR: Could Kol Menachem be called the intellectual force of Chabad? Of what Chabad is trying to say?
CM: Different than that, more than that. There are three areas of Chabad: kiruv – Yidden should do one more mitzvah; the movement itself – join Chabad, become Chabad, learn chassidus. This is a different thing. The Rebbe was a giant in Israel. He spent much of his time teaching and his ideas are of relevance to a very broad audience. So this is separate from the other two things. We are very much focused on this third part, how the entire Jewish people could benefit from his teachings.