Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Cheshvan 5762 - October 24, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Rabbi Mordechai Miller: He Changed the Face of Torah Jewry

by M. Samsonowitz

Part II

Rabbi Mordechai Miller, the principal of the Gateshead Seminary, passed away on 3 Cheshvan last year at the age of 79 after spending more than 50 years educating thousands of Jewish girls throughout the world. He was one of a handful of "Rabbi Chiyas" who arose after World War II of whom it could be said that Torah Jewry owes them its existence. He had a major share in the renaissance of Torah Jewry today. The impact of his life's work cannot be summarized by a chesed organization or a flourishing community but by the entire dynamic Jewish world that exists today.

Rabbi Miller's Teaching and Methods

Rabbi Miller taught hashkofoh to all three classes in the Sem. (The Seminary has a three-year teaching program and all students take the same curriculum. The classes are called T1, T2, and T3, with the third-year class being T1.)

Many students felt that Rabbi Miller's hashkofoh class was the best class in the Sem. In this class he addressed issues of how a Jew should perceive the world at large and by which principles he should conduct his life. What is "love" and how is it fostered? How does a Jew see technological progress? Why is it important to be a giver and not a taker, and when is giving really taking? What is truth? What is free will, and what is the level of your free will? Also, materialism and spirituality -- pros and cons.

His profound perception of daas Torah enabled him to view world affairs through a Torah perspective. He wrote an article called "Space Exploration" analyzing this world- shaking event when it transpired from a Torah view. Ever so often he took the top class and offered them a class on "Current Events" which was unusually riveting and of course timely.

One student said that after years of dry lessons on religious texts, her exposure to Rabbi Miller's shiurim finally showed her that Judaism is a living philosophy that has something relevant to say about every aspect of life. This feeling was shared by many of the students.

Another one of Rabbi Miller's popular shiurim was Midrash, which covered the same parshiyos being studied in Rabbi Sternbuch's Chumash classes. Besides these, Rabbi Miller taught nevi'im, rishonim and acharonim, and also a spellbinding series on the five megillos. At times he gave classes on history of education, commonly considered the most boring subject in the curriculum but which somehow took on new life when Rabbi Miller taught it. He taught passages from Sha'arei Tshuva in Elul and gave general shiurim on timely topics before Shavuos, and Rosh Hashonoh, the two holidays which the girls spent in the Seminary.

He had everything at his fingertips. He could be asked to speak on the spot and would come up with a brilliant speech without preparation, including exact quotes. Even so, he always took seforim to his classes and insisted on reading from the texts. He prepared for each Seminary lesson, despite having taught many of them dozens of times before.

It was not only the content of Rabbi Miller's classes that was engaging. His delivery often had the girls mesmerized. His voice was resonant and extremely clear. He knew how to emphasize a certain point by lowering and raising his voice, and he sprinkled dramatic pauses in particularly poignant and important lessons. He measured each word he said, and talked with the same economy reserved for written texts. His shiurim generally contained double the content that most people would have expressed given the same time. Sometimes girls forgot to write their notes and just listened, fully absorbed in the lecture.

And if that wasn't enough, there were his witty jokes. Some teachers who joke become irreverent, coarse or garish. Rabbi Miller, however, had the power of wit refined to an art. He used his wit and jokes to achieve several goals, all of which endeared his shiurim to the girls and none of which took away from the extreme respect and veneration which his students felt for him.

He used it to shower attention on girls who needed it. He used it to wake up an inattentive, drowsy class. And he used it to create an easy, enjoyable atmosphere in class so the heavy dose of hashkofoh he was giving seeped into your consciousness without you realizing it.

He was a master at concocting puns on the girls' names, and was able to come up with a humorous comment even on a posuk's sources or a random occurrence that happened in class. Some of his witticisms were actually self- deprecations since he was a man who had no time for his own ego. Rabbi Miller's witticisms were so beloved to his students that when in the last decade the Seminary began distributing his Shabbos shiurim to former graduates, the organizers included a section on Rabbi Miller's latest witticisms.

The Shabbos Shiurim

Rabbi Miller was famous for his Shabbos shiur which was given on Shabbos nights or afternoons, depending on the time of year. Until two decades ago, he constructed each week a new shiur whose vast range of sources was stunning. The way Rabbi Miller often built his shiur was to think about a midrash or Chazal, find a contradictory midrash or Chazal, and then work out how to resolve the contradiction. This approach to reaching the truth by merging contradictory aspects was a method he had learned from Rav Dessler.

After meditating the entire week on the ideas he wanted to express in his Shabbos shiur, he finally sat down on Thursday night to write the basic outline of what he planned to say. He practiced it once before delivering it before the Seminary. In later years, he often repeated earlier Shabbos shiurim.

Rabbi Miller had a number of educational devices which kept enthusiasm high among his students. He hosted the top class on two occasions in his home -- on Purim, and on the last Shabbos of the school year, before they left to pursue their individual destinies. The latter event was especially anticipated since on that occasion Rabbi Miller would take out the "Yellow Book" and finally give answers to the knottiest questions raised by the class in the past three years which he had been unable to answer. One girl had been appointed to record such questions in a "Yellow Book" throughout the three years.

An Advisor to the Sem Girls

His educational duties, as substantial as they were, were not the only thing he did in the Sem. Rabbi Miller made himself available to speak with any girl who needed advice. Every year hundreds of girls availed themselves of this opportunity. They were treated to an earnest listening to their dilemmas, and short but trenchant advice.

Although Rabbi Miller appeared to be an intellectual who had reined his emotions in, the girls discovered that a soft heart existed underneath the commanding voice. Girls who were invited to his Shabbos table were surprised when he melted into tears while singing some particularly moving zemiros.

The importance of his availability and advice must be understood in the context of those times. Even girls who grew up in bnei Torah homes suffered from lack of clarity concerning the direction of their lives. One girl from Europe who learned in Gateshead in the early 1950s had survived the Holocaust and grew up in a religious home, but she was bothered by many questions. It was Rabbi Miller's shiurim which gave her a direction for life, and gave her "clear and simple answers." She says feelingly, "I feel he is my spiritual father. Till today I received his shiurim because I felt I needed his inspiration. Each time he came to visit Eretz Yisroel, I always went to the Gateshead Chug to hear his shiur. I always felt I was gaining a lot."

A student from a chassidic home in London reminisces: "I think I can honestly say that all my life views came from him. He put everything in the right perspective, and with such ease and wisdom. Without him I wouldn't have married a ben Torah."

A student from a Litvish home in the U.S. says that what sticks out in her mind is the feeling that Rabbi Miller cared about the girls, and that he was a grandfather figure. He conveyed this in the way he taught the girls. For instance, he would tell them, "I'm teaching you this because it's very important for you" and the girls felt he meant it.

Another student mentioned that while she was not close with Rabbi Miller when she learned in the Sem, a more personal relationship developed after she had married and moved to Israel. "I was always impressed that he would ask about my children each time he met me. At Sem meetings in Israel, I could hardly remember the many faces and names but he remembered girls even after 20-30 years had passed. He would ask us, `Does this classmate still live in Lugano? This student from Strasbourg sent her daughter to study by us.' When we printed a book of my son's chiddushim, I brought him a copy with an inscription: `Shelo vesheli -- shelcho hu.' "

No one knew how he could remember thousands of girls even decades after they had left. When students visited him decades later, he would remind them of things they had said and done when in Sem.

One of the more unusual challenges that Rabbi Miller had to face were brilliant girls who came to study in Gateshead and were rather smug about their abilities. Rabbi Miller had special methods to deal with them.

One of them decided she wanted to learn gemora from the text and asked Rabbi Miller to teach her. He agreed and gave her a passage from the Maharal, asking her to prepare it and come to his home. When she showed up, he showed her that she had completely misunderstood it. He did this same thing a few times until she was sufficiently deflated. But rather than be upset, she realized that he was investing in building her, and bringing more balance in her attitude. This woman went on to head a seminary of her own.

Thirty years later she phoned Rabbi Miller and he recognized her voice right away. He acknowledged her, "Yes, I still have many of your questions in the Yellow Book. You gave me food for thought."

The range of issues affecting the girls that Rabbi Miller had to deal with, encompassed every facet of human life. His assistance included the following:

* A student who suffered from cancer asked him what to study for chizuk. He told her which pages of which seforim to read.

* A former student who suffered bitter tribulations wrote him regularly for advice which greatly helped her. He sent her a letter full of advice the week before he passed away.

* Another student had to marry off a few sons, and she asked him what she should do for chizuk. He recommended a certain prayer to say when going back three steps in Shemoneh Esrei.

* Students frequently asked his advice concerning shidduchim and buying an apartment. A girl from Europe was offered a boy from the U.S. but didn't want to go out because she felt the U.S. was too far away. He told her pithily, "I've heard of marrying a boy but I haven't heard of marrying a place."

* A girl wanted to know whether she should close on a shidduch, and she called him when he was in the hospital receiving treatment. He had to leave his bed to reply to her on the cellular phone. He told her "Mazel tov!" and that night the couple drank Lechaim.

* A girl from a divorced family wanted to marry a boy whom her parents opposed. After Rabbi Miller talked to the parents, they agreed to the shidduch.

The Tribulations of Admissions

For a person who was so unassuming and self-deprecating, Rabbi Miller had to weather the extreme reactions which erupted if he rejected a particular girl's application for the Seminary. The situation became especially difficult in the last two decades of the Sem when the number of girls who were rejected numbered every year in the hundreds.

To a friend who asked him during the period of registration "Vos macht ir?" Rabbi Miller tartly replied, "Ich mach son'im (enemies)."

Once he received an angry letter from a person whose granddaughter had been refused. In the letter, the man complained that refusing to accept his granddaughter in the Seminary was an embarrassment and a blow to the family's prestige. Due to his natural humility, Rabbi Miller became upset and considered whether to apologize. He was advised that the problem was the other person's, and he should not respond.

Nonetheless, the letter remained in Rabbi Miller's desk. When asked why he kept it there, he replied, "I want to keep this as a reminder how much it hurts a family when their daughter is refused. This way, I'll be more sensitive to people's feelings when deciding whom to accept."

A Jew who had an apartment in a resort area told Rabbi Miller that it would be an honor for him if Rabbi Miller would use the apartment during vacation. But Rabbi Miller turned down the kind offer. He explained to his son, "If I take the apartment, then I'll be indebted to this Jew. Then if this man has a friend who has a daughter who he wants in Sem, he might approach me and gratitude would force me to take the girl even if it's not good for the Seminary."

Rabbi Miller was extremely careful not to let his personal needs affect the Seminary. He considered himself no more than a "guardian" of the Seminary who is bound to make decisions for the Seminary's good. If he felt it was against the Seminary's best interests, he wouldn't even take in relatives.

He was continually badgered by people who begged him to take in girls because "You'll save the girl" or "You'll save the family." He would reply, "I can't save the family or girl at the expense of the Seminary. I'm merely an employee here. It's not mine."

Even when refusing a girl, he would make it clear that it wasn't a question of a better or lesser girl, but simple limitations of space. His tone was always apologetic. He would tell disappointed parents, "Your daughter is in very good company -- there are many other good girls who were not accepted." Never would he say that a girl wasn't up to standard.

Rabbonim and other notables would write letters pressuring him to accept a certain girl. There were cases in which he knew that there were educational problems, but he would never divulge these or stigmatize a girl when giving a negative answer. Before accepting a girl, he would inquire of teachers who had taught the girl previously, and would check grades and previous reports. He had his connections everywhere since there is hardly a Jewish school the world over that didn't have teachers from Gateshead Seminary.

The pressure he had to face every year from hundreds of girls who wanted to be accepted in his Seminary was the most difficult thing in his life. The fact that he was limited in how many girls he could take did not reduce the pain he felt for those he had to refuse.

He once asked Rav Shach if he should expand the Seminary to take in more girls although it would be at the price of having a deep impact on each girl. Rav Shach told him to keep the Seminary at the size it was, predicting that eventually more seminaries will open up and girls will find the Seminary that suits them.

Contact Through the Years

The camaraderie generated by the Gateshead Seminary among its students carried on for years later. The "Gateshead Chug" of former students living in Israel would gather together around Succos and Pesach to hear either Rabbi Miller or Rabbi Sternbuch speak. It was a thrill to relive the excitement of a Rabbi Miller shiur after the passage of so much time. On this occasion, many Sem girls also sought to speak with him and get valuable advice.

The last time Rabbi Miller was in Israel, he gave the Gateshead Chug for the first time in Kiryat Sefer (instead of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem). He introduced himself, "Thank you all for coming to listen to an old man. Three things happen when you get old: You lose your memory . . . and the other two I forgot." After this witty opening, he went on to give an eloquent speech.

Communal Involvement

In addition to his teaching, Rabbi Miller was involved in the Gateshead community in numerous official and unofficial ways.

The city of Newcastle was across the river from Gateshead and in the early years of the last century the Shomer Shabbos Jews who lived in Newcastle had decided to separate from their irreligious brethren by moving to the small town of Gateshead on the other side of the river. Despite the ideological distance between the two, the Gateshead community provided basic Jewish knowledge to Newcastle Jewish children in the form of an afternoon cheder which was run by Reb Dovid Dryan, the Gateshead shochet who had also founded the yeshiva. Struggling with the budget and his other communal concerns, Reb Dovid one day called a community meeting in Rabbi Miller's home in which he announced he could no longer continue the cheder. That night he went to sleep and didn't wake up.

Rav Dessler called a new meeting and announced that the religious Jews of Gateshead must continue to provide Jewish education for the Newcastle Jews. It was Rabbi Miller who undertook the administration of the cheder. He insured that there was a building, teachers, and all the provisions necessary for its running. Rabbi Miller also attended the ceremonies at the end of the year when prizes were given out. This cheder still functions today, nearly 60 years later.

Rabbi Miller joined the Boarding School Board and for years served as the president. This entailed attending meetings, making policies, and raising funds for the dormitory junior high school which he continued doing despite the toll that age took of him.

In addition to his teaching at the Sem, Rabbi Miller also gave private chaburos to bochurim and yungerleit. On Friday night he taught a select group Derech Chaim. On his 79th birthday, he announced to the group that he would like to drink a lechaim with them thanking Hashem for allowing him to retain his faculties and speech.

Crystal Clear Advice

Gateshead's Jewish citizens, among them the kollel yungerleit in town, frequently took advice from him. He was considered one of the town's prominent scholars of whom the community was proud.

On one occasion, askonim reported that families with low income were eligible for a certain grant and some yungerleit considered applying for it. Before they took that step, they first decided to ask Rabbi Miller's opinion. He advised against it, because he felt it would take away from the veneration and respect in which bnei Torah are held. (At the time, there were few kollel yungerleit and he felt it was important to maintain the high esteem in which they were held.)

The Gateshead shul once held a meeting of the baalebatim to find a solution for the primary school's shaky financial situation. The suggestion was made to put a community tax on the milk to solve the crisis. Rabbi Miller disagreed, and instead suggested that the tax be fixed according to seats in shul. His rationale was that the food tax would fall more on young bnei Torah families with many children and expenses, who could not easily afford to pay tax. He recommended instead taxing the older, more established baalebatim who had more seats in shul. The other members of the committee suggested a compromise that half the tax should come from shul seats and the other half from milk. But Rabbi Miller disagreed and insisted that the tax come entirely from shul seats. In the end he prevailed.

Rabbi Kohn, his partner in running the Sem in the last 12 years, mentioned that Rabbi Miller's advice was always thought through to the end before he made a decision. Nor did it take a long time to reach a decision. He had a rare ability to see the outcome of a certain matter and how it would affect people.

End of Part II

Rabbi Miller's Witticisms: His Names

(To a girl called Angela who had raised her hand): "What is it, mal'ach?"

When reprimanding a girl called Yaffa: "Zeh lo yaffeh!"

To a girl called Schreiber: Yes, Miss Writer.

To a girl called Pels: Let's see what Miss Mantel wants.

To a girl called Garden: It's Miss Horticulture, is it?

To a girl whose family name was Morore: Yes, Miss Charoses.

He used to call a chassidic girl "18 minutes away" because he forgot whether she was from Williamsburg or Boro Park and she had furnished the explanation that Boro Park was "18 minutes away" from Williamsburg.

Rabbi Miller's Witticisms: His Puns

To a girl called Eiss who was raising her hand: Miss Eiss, before you melt away tell me what you want. (Also, during a hot day in the summer) Are you still with us in this weather?

To a girl called Silver whom he caught whispering to a friend: "You know, speech is silver but silence is gold."

To a girl called Rena who whispered in class: "I see that we are in a ohalei tzadikim because I hear kol Rena."

To a girl called Sara Brocha: "Sara is not always a tzoroh. She can also be a brocha."

To a girl who sneezed in class: "You must be a tsnee- zdik girl."

To a girl who forgot to say `Thank you': "Did you say thank you? Don't mention it."

When someone ripped a paper in class: "Who is having a ripping time?

When he was told that of twins, Rochelle was older than Dina, he commented: "Very good, because if she would have come after Dina [=dinner], she would have remained hungry."

"You don't know the answer? Should I give you a dog?" (hint = hundt [Yid.])

When a girl called Chanie didn't know the answer to a question: "Honie, you seem to be stuck on this." (Chanie = Honey)

To girls who explained that the grandmother of a certain girl had told them the reason why she was coming back late to seminary: "Sounds like a bubby maase to me."

"Are you ready? No? So what color are you?" (ready = red- y)

To a girl who told him the class was up to perek daled, posuk gimmel: "Does anyone see anything fishy about this posuk?" (daled-gimmel = dag = fish)

"Helen now wants to be called Channah. There goes another Hellenist."

When discussing the subject of luxuries and bringing up appliances such as refrigerators and freezers: "Frankly, these things leave me cold."

When a girl called Greenbaum came back to Sem late: "Miss Greenbaum, all the green trees have turned brown already!"

To a girl who asked for help from the classmate next to her named Angela: "When you need help, you should turn to Hashem, not to angels."

When discussing the law that if there is no hair in a spot, then it is not tzora'as: "This is one good quality about being bald."

When told that a girl called Rochel would be coming back late after vacation after noticing that other girls hadn't yet returned: "That's how it is with sheep. One sheep follows the other."

Hearing the wind blowing through the classrooms and corridors: "There is really a lot of ruchniyus (=ruach) in Gateshead."

When a girl told him of a precious sefer that her family owned: "I'm sure if you'd keep it for another 200 years and then sell it, you could live on it for the rest of your life."

"Does it make sense? Well, if it makes no sense you can't make tea on Shabbos." (sense = tea essence)

Vintage Rabbi Miller "Don't get up to ask questions. I'll get an inferiority complex."

"I couldn't hear you -- I didn't have my glasses on."

"Do you remember Avsholom? No you don't, he was before your time."

"There are two speeds in this class: dead slow and stop."

"Everybody here looks so sad. Is this a seminary or are we in a cemetery?"

"You should not sharpen pencils with razor blades."

"Often what you think is a good buy is really a `good- bye.'"

Rabbi Miller's Witticisms: Rabbi Miller's A-B-C

When he pronounced a difficult word and one of the girls in the class asked him to spell it, he had his own "alphabet" that "helped" them spell the word properly: "Ay for horses, C for yourself, O for a glass of wine, I for example, M for Sis, 'Ell for the wicked, Q for 1-1/2 hours, T for two, U for example, Vive la France, and X for breakfast."

Private Chumros

by R. Moshe Dovid Spiro

He had certain private hanhogos. Once somebody met him on a plane. As R. Miller was eating his meal, he seemed to that person to be sitting in a rather awkward position. The observer was puzzled. He could not detect any reason or necessity for this.

Little did he know that R. Miller had a principle not to lean back when eating. This principle was kept on the ground and in the air.

He often left over some food on his plate [as Rabbenu Yonah advises in Yesod Hateshuvoh]. When asked why he did so even on Shabbos despite mitzvas oneg Shabbos he replied: HaRav Dessler held that kevishas hayetzer applies even on Shabbos.

His source for this illustrates an interesting approach to deriving hashkofoh from halochoh: The Torah mandates bris miloh on Shabbos despite the fact that if involves a melochoh.

The Positive Side of Olam Hazeh

by R. Moshe Dovid Spiro

For R. Miller, olam hazeh pursuits were not something objectionable but rather an intrinsic part of the pursuit of olam habo. In the words of the Mesillas Yeshorim (Chap 26): A person who sanctifies himself elevates gashmiyus actions into holy pursuits. In the process he raises mundane matters onto a spiritual level.

However, this madreigoh is obviously not for everybody. Indeed many a person may fool himself into thinking that he has reached it. R. Miller -- when discussing this -- explained a method of testing on what level a person truly stands. He summed it up in his characteristic way in a pithy phrase: "If you can say no, you can say yes."

In other words: you can only claim that you are eating tcholent on Shabbos solely for the sake of Shabbos if you have no personal grievance against the cook when the tcholent gets burned.

In his own life the following interesting episode shows his own madreigoh in his attitude to the preservation of his financial assets.

R. Miller was a trustee of a mosad which -- unbeknownst to him -- ran into serious debt. In English law the trustee has unlimited liability. As a result -- after protracted legal procedures -- the Royal Bank of Scotland demanded three million pounds sterling (more than $5 million) from R. Miller!

Matters came to a head and the bailiff entered his home in order to assess the value of all his personal possessions and assets. Even the large number of seforim did not escape his notice and had to be justified for his use as being his "professional instruments." Everything unnecessary was in the firing line.

At that stage friends suggested various schemes of putting his possessions outside the reach of the long arm of the bank. After considering the matter, R. Miller refused to do this.

He explained his decision in a revealing way: The assets given to me from Above, he said, are for the purpose of providing me with peace of mind in order to pursue my tasks of avodas Hashem undisturbed. These complicated schemes will require constant vigilance. They will divert my mind from avodas Hashem. To retain the possessions while losing their spiritual benefit is pointless!

In the end -- unforeseen at the time -- the mosad was able to negotiate a compromise with the bank and the demands against R. Miller's possessions were dropped.

If he could say no, he could also say yes. If he could say a resounding "No" to retaining his possessions, he could also say a resounding "Yes" to using them for the sake of Shomayim.


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