Rav Avigdor Miller on The Man who Dresses like a Rabbi
But first, I need to give a bit of background:
We all have some kind of sore spot on our nefesh. It’s a place that’s vulnerable to pain, like a severely sunburned patch of skin.
So mine is being treated like I don’t exist.
Also, my husband and I served as rabbi and rebbetzin for a small shul in the US and also as part of a kiruv group in another place, so I saw a lot from the inside as far as rabbis go.
Is That You Talkin' or a Bumble Bee Walkin'?
That question was part of the reason why we were there.
I’m Ashkenazi, my husband is Sephardi, and another rabbi told me that some poskim say the wife should take on her husband’s nusach while some say she should stick to her own familiar nusach.
So we went my husband’s rabbi to get a decisive answer.
And the rabbi acted like I hadn’t said anything. He just looked away and didn’t say a word -- not even a grunt.
I felt very embarrassed and confused. Had I said something wrong? Or was he thinking it over? Perhaps he hadn’t understood me with my heavy American accent?
I glanced at my husband, who also seemed taken aback, but after a long and uncomfortable silence, the rabbi started talking to my husband about something else.
I was really confused.
Also, just for knowing, the rabbi would look at me directly (in a modest manner) and address me directly at other times. So it wasn't that he refused to talk to or look me in the face by custom.
At a pause in the conversation, I waited a moment and then politely said something like, “Excuse me, kavod harav, um…I was just interested in knowing what nusach I should daven now?”
He looked at me in an odd way, then turned away and made no response.
So I said, “Um, the thing is I davened Ashkenazi until now, but now I’m supposed to take on Sephardi minhagim…” I faltered because he still made no reply. “So, uh, I heard that some poskim say one way and some say another and, uh, I was just wondering which nusach I should daven?”
He frowned and looked away from me.
Now, instead of feeling mildly confused or a bit taken aback like a normal person might, I felt devastated—because this is my sore spot. I’m way too oversensitive in this area.
At this point, my husband got up the guts to politely re-ask my question and the rav looked at him, frowned, and made this irritated motion with his hands and shoulders.
And my husband immediately raised his palms in surrender, “Okay, sorry, sorry! Never mind. Ah…” And my husband changed the subject.
When we got home, I burst into tears as I asked why the rabbi treated me so. My husband tried to make a joke out of it and quipped that apparently the rabbi wanted to rely on my husband.
“So why didn’t he SAY that?” I cried. "Why did he act like I don't even exist?"
My husband shrugged apologetically. He grew up in a traditional immigrant Moroccan neighborhood in Eretz Yisrael, where respect for people who learned Torah was sacrosanct and he couldn’t bring himself to speak about his rabbi any further.
To compound things (and I'm revealing this with my husband's consent), my husband’s father died very suddenly when my husband was a teenager, and he always missed the closeness they’d shared. So he instinctively sought a father figure in his rabbi.
And this rabbi could be very warm and friendly when they learned or spoke together, and such paternal warmth is what my husband understandably craved—but the rabbi could also be irritable and sharp and prone to short bursts of frightening temper. (I saw it once and it froze me speechless—and all because his wife brought the wrong coffee. Cripes.)
What I didn’t know at the time was that this rabbi has a lion-like temper (which was why my husband got nervous when the rabbi got irritable and why my husband was hesitant to push the rabbi to answer the innocent—and very simple!—shaila).
And as I also saw several times, this rabbi can be very friendly and warm toward people, then treat them with disdain or hostility. (And he did this to me, sometimes acting like I didn’t exist as he did above, or being really nice and then with a paternal smile, plunge his verbal dagger into my nefesh.)
Eventually, we drifted off from him and much to his credit, my husband eventually managed to overcome the very understandable desire for some kind of father figure.
In other words, despite his hasmadah in learning and the tremendous intellectual knowledge he possessed, this rabbi's Torah learning remained stuck in his head only and never managed to fully flow down to his heart.
You could definitely see the influence of Torah on him, but there was still a lot missing.
And some people are like that.
Derech Eretz Kadma L'Torah
Of course, we’re all flawed and even someone who learns Torah for years can still exhibit flawed middot at times.
Only Hashem is perfect.
But this rabbi's extreme behavior exhibited itself regularly.
And we need to use caution when choosing a rav. Just because someone has a lot of Torah-learning in his background doesn’t mean he is a Torah personality.
For example, when a regular frum Jew asked Rav Avigdor Miller how to deal with a learned rabbi’s lack of derech eretz, Rav Avigdor DIDN’T say, “Gevald! Why aren’t you giving him the benefit of the doubt? Who are you, a lowly regular Yid, to judge such a big talmid chacham?!”
Rav Avigdor knew that rabbis can lack derech eretz. So he recommended that the regular Jew write the rabbi a polite anonymous letter.
Here’s the original Q&A:
Is it permissible to rebuke a talmid chochom or Rav who doesn’t greet me with a seiver panim yafos and even ignores me when I greet him?
Can you rebuke somebody who is more learned than you, if he has a certain fault?
But what you should do is write him an anonymous letter. A polite anonymous letter.
That’s the best way.
And I’ll tell you, that this is a method which, if used properly, can be a very big toi’eles, a very big help, in other situations as well.
TAPE # E-244 (August 2000)
How Can We Know which Rabbi to Follow?
It’s an excellent and vitally important question.
So first of all, it’s important to pray for this.
Both Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender (Words of Faith) and Rav Michel Dorfman recommended saying “Utaknenu b’aitzah tovah milfanecha” (said in Maariv and Bedtime Shema) with as much kavanah as you can regarding this issue.
Then you can see whether the rabbi behaves more or less according to, say, Orchot Tzaddikim or not.
In the above example, I’d already learned a bit about the Torah ways of derech eretz and treating people with courtesy and compassion—even if those people aren’t really cool hotshots like yourself [sarc].
So the rabbi's very obvious lack of derech eretz (which I saw on several occasions) combined with the fact that he obviously knew how to behave with derech eretz (as he did so when he wanted to at other times) could have told me that he wasn’t the real deal.
And regarding his bizarre flares of rage?
Well, I’d already learned that Shlomo Hamelech declared in Mishlei that anger rests in the bosom of fools.
And I’d already learned that the Gemara states that anger is like worshiping an idol.
And here’s the Rambam’s Yad Hachazakah, Chapter2, Halacha 3:
“Anger is also an exceptionally bad quality. It is fitting and proper that one move away from it and adopt the opposite extreme.”
It was confusing at the time because in those days, there was tremendous pressure on baalei teshuvah to find a rav (any rav!) and many stories showcased how blind obedience to a rav reaped a satisfyingly happy ending.
There are also many stories showing rabbis acting oddly and later revealing profound and legitimate reasons for such behavior.
But they were tzaddikim with ruach hakodesh—which is very different than the vast majority of rabbis who most certainly do NOT possess ruach hakodesh or tzidkus. So you needn’t assume your rabbi’s unhalachic behavior is the result of profound holiness.
Anyway, I thought the problem was me and that if I only had enough emunat chachamim, everything would be fine.
(But things didn’t work out and I learned a big lesson: Intellect is NOT the same as wisdom. And we shouldn’t place our emuna on a “walking encyclopedia,” but only on a real true chacham.)
So it’s not easy and it takes some time, but that’s one way to go.
This is what Rav Avigdor Miller suggests in Recognizing a Gadol Hador:
- See who other gedolim are calling a gadol.
- Do great rabbanim from outside his group consider him a gadol?
Courtesy, Not Crony
We should not start gossiping about a rabbi’s—or any person’s—bad traits unless there is a halachically mandated benefit in doing so.
We must always find a good point in every Jew—the more good points, the merrier.
However, on the subject of rabbis, you don’t need FOLLOW them if they aren’t up to par.
If their views conflict with those mentioned in STANDARD halacha and mussar, you DON’T need to follow them.
Yes, you treat them with same courtesy and respect as you do any human being.
But you don't need to follow them.
Their opinions and hashkafahs aren’t kodesh kedoshim—unless that rabbi truly embodies Torah haskafah.
So if they aren’t representing Torah truth (and long gray or white beards with impressive rabbinical attire and rabbinical degrees don’t AUTOMATICALLY determine their level of Torah truth), you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) follow them.
Rav Avigdor Miller on the Yeshivah & the Sane Asylum
Are the Reshaim Endangering Us?