Mourners attend a funeral service for Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.
(photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
Thousands of mourners gathered in Alon Shvut on Tuesday for the funeral of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, viewed by many as the leader of moderate religious Zionism and one of the world’s true Torah giants, who died Monday at the age of 81.
Friends, family and admirers packed the Har Etzion yeshiva’s beit midrash (study hall) for the ceremony, which was punctuated by tears and cries of pain.
The number of mourners on hand swelled to the point where video screens of the funeral were set up in other parts of the yeshiva’s main building as well as in multiple outdoor locations.
The funeral opened with the reading of Psalms and then moved on to a number of eulogies.
Among the rabbi’s eulogizers were his sons – Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, Rabbi Yitzhak Lichtenstein, Rabbi Meir Lichtenstein, Shai Lichtenstein – and daughter Esther Rosenberg.
Mosheh started out chanting and sobbing the words of Psalm 97 “Light is sown for the righteous, radiance for the upright,” which his father recited with special feeling on Yom Kippur.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear because you are with me,” Lichtenstein continued.
The rabbi spoke of the impact his father had on many generations of students dating back to 1970 when he became head of the yeshiva.
Mosheh recounted many personal memories relating to family celebrations of Passover, Simhat Torah, holding hands with his father while walking to the synagogue and accompanying his father in flights to followers across the globe.
Mosheh also quoted his father quoting John Milton, highlighting Lichtenstein’s appreciation of non-Jewish literature and highlighting his integration of Torah and philosophical scholarship.
He also noted that his father had been a leading advocate within the Orthodox community of 12-year-old girls having bat mitzva ceremonies, before they became a standard aspect of modern Orthodox religious life.
Many of the speakers talked about Lichtenstein’s fierce commitment to building religious- Zionist institutions in Israel and to the State of Israel more generally.
His son Yitzhak said that whereas his father was known as “a moderate, he was an extremist” against anger and in favor humility.
Yitzhak, who has a somewhat more right-wing religious leaning than his father, also appeared to apologize, if only out of respect, to his father for not having followed “your ways” in all areas.
“You were a soldier of Torah who stood at guard duty,” Rabbi Meir Lichtenstein said. “But you were more than just a soldier, you were a general of Torah.”
In a touching story, Meir retold how his father normally blessed his children before they went to sleep, not after the Friday night blessing over the wine, but did not get to bless his children on his last Shabbat, as he went to sleep first, and “there was no tomorrow for you.”
Esther Rosenberg, the head of the Migdal Oz women’s seminary, talked about her father seeming to “ascend to the heavens on Yom Kippur.”
His son Shai Lichtenstein recalled how his father taught him to ride a bicycle, finally letting go for Shai to ride on his own. Shai said that now that his father has left the world, he feels the same way on a much deeper level.
Born in France in 1933, Lichtenstein’s family fled to the United States when he was seven years old, where he gained a reputation as an erudite young scholar. He completed his bachelor’s degree and rabbinical studies at New York’s Yeshiva University before moving on to Harvard for a PhD in English literature.
A staunch religious Zionist, Lichtenstein made aliya in 1971 when he was asked to head the fledgling Har Etzion yeshiva jointly with the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital. Lichtenstein’s son Mosheh currently serves as one of the yeshiva’s heads.
Lichtenstein also served as the head of the kollel at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.
Sam Sokol contributed to this report.