‘A child born in Paris in 1933…’ Rav Aharon Lichtenstein – A Tribute

Last week the head of the yeshiva which I have studied at for much of the last decade, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, was awarded the Israel Prize, the state’s highest honour, for his contributions to Torah literature. Those who know him from his writings recognise him as one of the most profound and significant Orthodox thinkers of our time. Those who know him in person find that his prodigious scholarship and learning is only matched by his middot, his sensitive, humble, and deeply ethical personality.

In honour of his 80th birthday last year I was asked to write a piece forAlei Tzion’s Degel journal, which I share here now to try and capture something of my own experience and appreciation of this giant.

‘A child born in Paris in 1933…’ Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at 80 – A Tribute

On Friday 10th May of this year, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein addressed several thousand of his students who had gathered together from across Israel and overseas to celebrate his 80th birthday at Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush), the institute of which he has been rosh yeshiva since 1971.

‘When I think that a child born in Paris in 1933, who had to flee Europe for America, should be standing here today…’ began Rav Lichtenstein before his voice cracked with emotion.

For the last fifty years, Rav Lichtenstein has been, and continues to be, one of the foremost leaders of modern orthodoxy and religious Zionism. He is one of the towering figures of our community whose gadlut b’Torah compares with any one of this generation’s gedolim, and whose character traits of humility, kindness and sincere and deep religiosity are attested to by all who have come into contact with him[1].

Rav Lichtenstein was born in France in 1933 and, with the rise of Nazism, left with his family for America as a young child. Settling originally in Chicago, where his father, Rabbi Dr Yechiel Lichtenstein, was a noted Jewish educator and school principal, the family relocated to New York in order to allow their sons precocious Talmudic skills to develop. Through his mother’s connections with the Torah elite of New York, tutoring was arranged with such luminaries as Rav Yitzchak Hutner at Yeshivat Chaim Berlin. From there he moved to Yeshiva University, where he counted Rav Aron Soloveitchik, and above all his future father-in-law Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, as his greatest mentors. In the 1960s he pursued a doctorate at Harvard in Renaissance English Literature – a time which left a lasting impact on his overall thought and vision – before returning to Y.U. as a rosh yeshiva where he helped regenerate theKollel and taught both gemara and English literature. In 1971 he made aliyah with his family and accepted an invitation from Rav Yehuda Amital to serve as joint rosh yeshiva of the recently founded Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion, a position he has occupied ever since. Over the last 40 years, a number of books of collected essays have appeared, Leaves of Faith I and II,and Varieties of Jewish Religious Experience, a collection of adapted lectures, By His Light[2], and eight volumes of Talmudic works, Shiurei HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, on rarely studied areas such as Taharot, Dina D’Garmei, and Horayot as well as better trodden masechtot such as Bava Batra, Bava Metzia and Gittin.

The interested reader will be able to get the fullest and best picture of his thought from these works, as well as quite a number of essays written about Rav Lichtenstein by others[3]. This piece is not intended to be a critical overview or an in-depth analysis of Rav Lichtenstein’s life and work. Nor does it address what is arguably Rav Lichtenstein’s most significant achievement: the continued development and further refinement of the conceptual-analytic method of Talmud study (the Brisker method) that originated with Rav Chayyim Soloveitchik, and that was carried on by his children and grandson Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rav Lichtenstein’s father in law[4].

Rather this essay is intended as a student’s appreciation of his teacher, by way of a collection of thoughts and anecdotes. Hopefully they will communicate something of the experience of studying in close proximity to Rav Lichtenstein for a number of years, and capture some aspects of his teaching and personality that make him modern orthodoxy’s pre-eminent rosh yeshiva.

Complexity and Passion

A number of years ago I sat in on a question and answer with Rav Lichtenstein with some visiting high school students from Manchester. One asked the obvious question for an eighteen year old formulating his gap-year plans, ‘what is it that makes your yeshiva unique?’ After a few moments of insisting that there were many wonderful yeshivot to choose from, Rav Lichtenstein came up with the following formulation about what he hoped characterised Yeshivat Har Etzion. There is a tension, Rav Lichtenstein explained, between two values: complexity and passion. Complexity entails being able to see multiple sides to an issue – the understanding that no single perspective captures the whole truth, that our own deeply held convictions will not necessarily be shared by others, for perfectly valid reasons. Passion entails a sense of absolute commitment to a cause, a love and determination to see a task through, to be bound up totally in one’s belief.

Passion does not naturally lead to complexity for passion is far easier to engender when one views the critical issues as black and white – when you are right, and the other is wrong. Complexity does not naturally lead to passion, for an appreciation of multiple angles and perspectives can leave one disinclined to commit to any single perspective. Said Rav Lichtenstein, his hope for the unique character of the yeshiva is that a synthesis is attained between passion and complexity – not a lukewarm halfway house, which pays lip-service to one without truly fulfilling the other, but a true and deep combination; to be as passionate as possible on the one hand, and as sensitive to nuance and complexity as possible on the other.

On hearing or reading these words an understandable response is that such a fusion is admirably idealistic, yet in practise unattainable. We all know in ourselves that we often achieve one of these values at the cost of the other. Yet all who have come into contact with Rav Lichtenstein recognise in him an exquisite balance of the two. I have never met someone as passionate as Rav Lichtenstein, nor anyone as complex as him, with such an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an issue, not only in the study of a sugya, but when engaged in public debate or helping a student address a delicate and personal issue. In my mind this should be a central aspiration not only of Yeshivat Har Etzion, but of modern orthodoxy as a whole, and Rav Lichtenstein’s example provides a model for us all.

When to judge and when to withhold judgement

A corollary of Rav Lichtenstein’s constant tendency to see the many sides of any given issue is that he is frequently unwilling to pass judgement where many would expect a firm condemnation. This struck me most forcibly as a shana aleph in a discussion with Rav Lichtenstein upon returning from a trip to Poland. We related how we had been shocked to see at the Majdanek death camp, residents of the adjacent town of Lublin treating this place of cruelty and immeasurable suffering in an utterly nonchalant way: a mother had pushed her child’s buggy through the camp as a shortcut and we had seen young adults taking driving lessons past the gas chambers. We expected Rav Lichtenstein to articulate our disgust but instead he responded that we should not judge them so harshly; we cannot imagine what it is like to grow up and live beside such a place, with a complicated mix of feelings of guilt, denial and incomprehension. I learnt on that day that judging others,even when they appear to be clearly in the wrong, must wait until the perspective of the person being judged has also been considered.

But if Rav Lichtenstein avoids for the most part condemning others, it is all the more powerful when he does express a firm judgement. Once he had received a letter from a heavily pregnant woman reporting that, on a bus from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion, none of the many yeshiva students had given her a place, leaving her to stand for the whole journey – ‘is this what you teach your students?’ she had asked. Visibly shocked, Rav Lichtenstein stopped the yeshiva’s morning seder (the only time in over forty years) and made furiously clear that if he knew the identity of any of those who had remained seated he would have no hesitation in expelling them immediately from the yeshiva. As in Rav Amital’s famous story of the crying baby[5], Rav Lichtenstein views limmud Torah, as pointless if not an outright desecration, if it is not combined with awareness, sensitivity and concern for those beyond the walls of the beit midrash.

Secular Education

It is rare to have a conversation with Rav Lichtenstein without a reference being made to one of the pantheon of great authors, poets, or philosophers. One legendary story of the 1970s has Rav Ovadiah Yosef approaching Rav Lichtenstein after a shiur saying that he was familiar with all the sources quoted bar one; ‘who was this Rav Dostoyevsky?’

With time spent with Rav Lichtenstein, one appreciates that his broad erudition is not simply a serious side hobby that he believes to be worthwhile but at the very heart of his personality as an evedHashem and rosh yeshiva, and serves as the frame of reference that he feels most comfortable in which to express himself. As an example, his most recent sefer to be published is on Horayot, a little-studied tractate dealing with the nature and authority of the Sanhedrin and its rulings. The shiurim contained in it are of a standard with the very best of the Brisker method, first pioneered by Rav Chayyim Soloveitchik a hundred years ago which have since taken over the yeshiva world. Yet in the introduction to the work, it is the political philosophy of Edmund Burke that is cited to explain the revolutionary nature of the mishna’s line that a ‘mamzer talmid chacham takes precedence over an ignorant Kohen Gadol’[6]  – a statement which pre-empts by a millenium the conviction that now lies at the heart of the Western political tradition, that a people has the right and responsibility to overthrow a corrupt and illegitimate regime.

Burke features in the introduction to a work of serious Talmudic scholarship, not as superficial window-dressing, but because of the conviction that Masechet Horayot, is both eternal dvar Hashem and at the same time of relevance to the most important political questions of authority and legitimacy that have occupied mankind for thousands of years.

But Rav Lichtenstein’s Torah uMadda is not quite the same as that of his father-in-law’s. Where Rav Soloveitchik utilised Kant, Kierkegaard and others to provide him with concepts and categories to probe religious experience, Rav Lichtenstein turns to literature rather than philosophy to express the richness and drama of religious life and history. This particular take on Torah uMadda is best expressed by an analogy that Rav Lichtenstein occasionally uses. Any given object – a table or a vase for instance – reflects upon the one who produced it. The more sophisticated and complex the object, the more impressive is the mind, skill, and labour of the artisan. There is no more complex and sophisticated ‘invention’, claims Rav Lichtenstein, than that of the human mind and personality, and there is no discipline that better captures its nature than literature. If so, the argument goes, through the study of literature – in combination with limmud Torah – do we come to a deeper and more powerful appreciation of the Creator of mankind, HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

This then is the Torah uMadda of the poet rather than the philosopher, which states that a familiarity with the best of general culture vastly enriches one’s appreciation of the nuances, depths and beauty of life, history, and personal relationships. For the hundreds of students who have studied at Har Etzion before going onto pursue secular degrees, the impact of a rosh yeshiva who gives such value and legitimacy to secular studies is integral to an overall ideology that sees the religious Jew as both contributing to, and benefitting from, involvement in the wider society.

Family

It is a sad but clearly observable phenomenon that many great thinkers and leaders, in the Jewish world and beyond, although numbering many close students have strained and difficult relationships with their immediate family members. And this is not surprising, for the responsibilities and stresses of those in positions of leadership mean that those ostensibly closest to them can struggle to forge the necessary emotional relationship with the individual behind the public persona.

Alternatively, and perhaps simultaneously, a tension exists between the intellectual or spiritual idea that absorbs the individual, and the seemingly mundane responsibilities of family. As James Wood put it in a piece in The New Yorker entitled Sins of the Father – Do Great Novelists Make Bad Parents, ‘There is something vulgar and absurd… in the notion of a Mrs. Plato, a Madame Descartes. You cannot commit to taking out the garbage while also solving the problem of the cogito… Can a man or woman fulfil a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?’.

Given this, it is one of Rav Lichtenstein’s proudest accomplishments, that this could never be said of him. Together with his wife Dr Tovah Lichtenstein, the couple have lectured and spoken publicly for many years on the strategies and values they view as necessary for building strong and loving Jewish families in the modern world. Indeed, as they have grown older, it is this aspect of their many achievements that has stood out more and more. A friend related to me that he had asked Rav Lichtenstein recently how he coped with the vacuum created now that he has stepped down from giving shiuryomi, his regular gemara class, that he has given for the last fifty years. The answer was simple: that the joy and pleasure he takes pride in is that of having his family around him.

Fittingly, the day of the 80th birthday celebrations began with all six of his children giving simultaneous short shiurim on an aspect of limmud Torah that they connected with their father.

His daughter,Mrs Esti Rosenberg, who is the head of the Migdal Oz seminary, spoke about her father’s identification with the Ramban, and focused on a specific piece of his commentary to Devarim ch.4.The Ramban draws our attention to the juxtaposition of the end of verse 9:

והודעתם לבניך, ולבני בניךAnd you shall teach your children and your children’s children –

with the beginning of verse 10:

יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלוקיך בחורב The day you stood in front of Hashem your God at Horev –

Although ostensibly the verses form part of separate clauses to one another, the Ramban, building on Chazal, interprets their proximity as indicating a fundamental component of Talmud Torah – that of העברת המסורה, or the transmission of the tradition. In the Ramban’s reading, this obligation to pass on the Torah to coming generations, both its content and the means by which to approach it, is not an external or technical addition to the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, but essential to its very definition. Such an understanding, explained his daughter, was central to Rav Lichtenstein’s approach to his life’s work as a father and educator and explained his determination to learn with every one of his children individually for an hour every Shabbat as they were growing up. His other daughter Tonya, expressed a similar sentiment when she said on the film accompanying the occasion, that as children growing up they had never felt any gap or disconnect between their home and their father’s role – the yeshiva was their family and their family was the yeshiva in a natural and unquestioned way.

In many places Chazal give expression to the tension inherent in being devoted to two absolute values: that of family and the study of Torah[7]. Part of Rav Lichtenstein’s legacy to his students is in providing a model that is able to cope with this tension, to demonstrate absolute commitment to each of the values without compromising one’s responsibilities to the other.

 ¤

As I conclude this essay I think back to one of the first times I appreciated the zechut of being a student of Rav Lichtenstein. The summer of 2005, the yeshiva was studying BavaKamma and the country was torn over the policy of disengagement from Gaza that Ariel Sharon’s government was intent on pursuing. On the Tuesday of that week Rav Lichtenstein delivered a masterful introductory shiur klalli to the yeshiva on the topic of Dina D’Garmei (indirect causation of damages) deploying his knowledge and conceptual-analytic methodology to excellent effect. The following day from precisely the same position at the front of the Bet Midrash, Rav Lichtenstein delivered another speech to the whole yeshiva. This time however, the topic was not a Talmudic sugya, but his vehement rejection as wrong and dangerous of the call, by other leading figures in the religious-Zionist camp, for soldiers to disobey orders if instructed to evacuate settlements in Gush Katif. The decision to serve in the Israeli army, argued Rav Lichtenstein, must mean putting national unity and cohesion above even our most cherished personal values. Standing in such stark contrast to the opinions of so many other Zionist rabbis, Rav Lichtenstein’s statement was reported widely in the Israeli media the following day, and was a rare example that summer of a major public figure attempting to reduce polarisation rather than exacerbate it.

Looking back on the juxtaposition of those two speeches with the hindsight of eight years, they capture something of the uniqueness of Rav Lichtenstein. The synthesis of the erudition, nuance and moderation that characterises the best of Modern Orthodoxy, with the sense of historical moment and concern for the Jewish people as a whole, which Religious Zionism aspires to – and underpinning that combination, a love and knowledge of Torah with the ability to impart it of a world class rosh yeshiva and Talmid Chacham.

 

Ben shemonim l’gevura[8] May we continue to be blessed with Rav Lichtenstein’s leadership and teachings for many years to come.

 

[1] In a wide-ranging and at points not uncritical review of Rav Lichtenstien’s published work, Alan Brill writes: “Orthodox Jews of all leanings, myself included, have the deepest respect for, even awe of, R. Lichtenstein’s piety, learning, and humanity. He is the ideal rosh yeshivah—erudite, humble, and moral.”  “An Ideal Rosh Yeshiva”. Edah Journal 5:1 (Tammuz, 2005)] (PDF), available at www.edah.org/backend/JournalArticle/5_1_Brill.pdf

[2] The lectures that comprise By His Light can be viewed at http://www.vbm-torah.org/develop.html

[3] An enormous bibliography of towards a thousand pieces of Rav Lichtenstein’s published and unpublished work has been compiled by his students over the years and has been most recently updated by Rabbi Dov Karol. It can be found at http://etzion.org.il/vbm/archive/Bibliography-web.htm In addition a recent blog – pagesoffaith.wordpress.com – has been launched that transcribes Rav Lichtenstein’s thoughts on contemporary issues.

See also the article by Brill in footnote 1 above. The most in-depth analysis of Rav Lichtenstein Talmudic work has been written by his student Rav Elyakim Krumbein, “From Reb Chayyim and the Rav to Shi’urei ha-Rav Aharon Lichtenstein – The Evolution of a Tradition of Learning” in The Orthodox Forum work, Lomdus: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning , ed. Yosef Blau available at www.yutorah.org See also the response in the same volume by Dr Avraham Walfish.

[4] The published Talmudic works mentioned above received the Rav Kook Prize this year, with the committee concluding that ‘in these books Rav Lichtenstein puts the Brisker learning methodology to deep and impressive use, and opens up traditional Talmudic lamdanut for the current generation’. In the essay cited in footnote 3, Rav Elyakim Krumbein argues convincingly that Rav Lichtenstein’s Talmudic work represents not only outstanding articulations of the Brisker methodology, but the actual forward development of the method, contrasting it with both Reb Chayyim himself and Rav Soloveitchik.

[5] Rav Amital’s most oft-cited story, and the one which he frequently said he had in mind when founding the yeshiva, concerned Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Once Rav Schneur Zalman was studying Torah when he heard the crying of his infant grandson. He rose from his studies and soothed the baby to sleep. Meanwhile, his son, the boy’s father, was too involved in his study to hear the baby cry. When R. Zalman noticed his son’s lack of involvement, he proclaimed, “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear the cry of a baby’s cry, there is something very wrong with his learning.”

[6] Mishna Horayot 3:8

[7] See for example Ben Azai in Yevamot 63b

[8] Pirkei Avoth, Ch. 5

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2 Responses to ‘A child born in Paris in 1933…’ Rav Aharon Lichtenstein – A Tribute

  1. Pingback: A Palpable Absence – Rav Aharon Lichtenstein 1933 – 2015 | joe wolfson

  2. Pingback: On The Second Yahrzeit Of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l | joe wolfson

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