Rarely does a leader’s passing shake the foundations of the community, but Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was no mere leader. He was a beacon for multitudes of Jews around the globe, who, with great integrity, combined the best Judaic scholarship with the modern culture. He carved out a place for others to emulate his kindness and goodness.  And unlike his biblical forbearer, Rav Lichtenstein reached and lived in the Promised Land, and even helped shape its destiny.

Rav Aharon was born in Paris, but grew up in the United States. After completing his studies under Rav Yitzchok Hutner at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, he received rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University, and later earned a doctoral degree in English Literature at Harvard University. After teaching Talmud and English at Yeshiva University, he joined Rabbi Yehuda Amital, in 1971 as Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He was a close student of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and married his daughter, Dr. Tova Soloveitchik Lichtenstein. After decades of teaching, Rav Aharon was officially recognized for his brilliance and awarded the Israel Prize for Jewish Literature in 2014.

Rav Aharon was a wise and fierce defender of the principle of Torah U’Maddah (secular study alongside Torah study):
Man's inherent dignity and sanctity, so radically asserted through the concept of tzelem Elokim (humans created in the image of G-d); his hegemony and stewardship with respect to nature; concern for his spiritual and physical well-being; faith in his metaphysical freedom and potential—all are cardinal components of traditional Jewish thought...How, then can anyone question the value of precisely those fields which are directly concerned with probing humanity? (Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict, 245). 
I first read this passage when I was studying on a hilltop in Gush Etzion. I had just come out of studying with an ideological group that condemned the legitimacy of the humanities and secular philosophy. This passage, among others, gave me the inspiration to spend my evenings immersed in poetry, philosophy, and the best of literature, after the long days in the beit midrash. Even more so, it inspired me to go back to graduate school. I viewed this approach not only as more spiritually liberating but, to a greater degree, more intellectually demanding.

Of the many revolutionary moments in his life, Rav Aharon wrote about an incident that encapsulates the great tragedy of Orthodoxy and Torah life - something that I think about often. One day, he encountered an Arab man in need of help while a group of ultra-Orthodox boys ignored him. “A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalyim,” he wrote:
I was once walking with my family in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging by their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul, based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, "If he walks about bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asrot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce….” I wrote R. Soloveitchik (his teacher and father-in-law) a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, "Children of the age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him." My feeling then was: Why, Ribbon shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara but help him. (Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, By His Light, p. 249) 
This remains a radical conclusion from this Torah giant. His life was dedicated to the beit midrash and Jewish learning, yet, he always felt that moral responsibility must trump Torah knowledge should the appropriate occasion occur. This was his greatness: To raise the bar of Jewish learning to the highest level while simultaneously raising its moral bar.
Rav Aharon did not shrink from exposing himself to criticism, fair or extreme. He corresponded with opposing rabbinical authorities in the hope, that through direct communication, one could "draw people closer together." After Israel's quick victory in 1967, many Religious Zionists believed that it would violate halakhah to give back any of the conquered territories. But Rav Aharon agreed with Rav Soloveitchik that saving lives was the paramount Torah value, and therefore trading land for lives was permissible. As part of the 2005 agreement to withdraw from Gaza, the settlement of Gush Katif had to be evacuated and turned over to the Palestinians. Rav Shapira issued a halakhic ruling that IDF soldiers had to disobey any order to force Jews from their homes in order to turn them over to non-Jews. At this point, Rav Aharon sought a dialogue with his opponents, arguing that the decision was politically legal —regardless of whether one agreed with the policy— and that encouraging rebellion against Israel could spur catastrophic consequences. While there were Religious Zionists who, unfortunately, resorted to calling those who opposed them "evil" and "fools," Rav Aharon kept a respectable attitude toward those who advised the IDF to defy the Israeli government.

Rav Aharon exhibited physical as well as moral courage when he denounced acts of extremism that he believed perverted religious values. On Purim in 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a physician and military reservist from the settlement of Kiryat Arba, murdered twenty-nine worshipers and wounded more than a hundred at a mosque in Hebron, continuing to shoot until he was killed by survivors. While then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called the massacre a "loathsome, criminal act of murder," many in the religious community were either silent or appeared to support Goldstein. Indeed, Goldstein was eulogized at his funeral and afterward as a "holy martyr" (kadosh) who had been "lynched by non-Jews," with the strongest denunciation being that some might regard that his "final act was improper."

Rav Aharon felt it was his duty to respond with moral strength and with unusual anger:
…I must vigorously protest against what transpired last night before all of Israel and the entire world. A person, whatever his previous merits may have been, departed this world while engaged in an act of awful and terrible slaughter, tevah ayom venora, and thereby, beyond the crime itself, desecrated the name of Heaven, trampled upon the honor of the Torah and mitzvoth, and sullied the image of Kenesset Yisrael, … 
In spite of accusations that by acknowledging the current government and its pursuit of a peace agreement he was legitimizing Palestinian terrorists, Rav Aharon instead continued to appeal to the religious community against remaining silent and granting honors to "a mass murderer."
Only a year later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli. In response, Rav Aharon delivered a powerful address in which he extolled Rabin as a "rare" combination of military and political hero. Although Rabin was violently opposed by Religious Zionists in the settlements, to Rav Aharon, Rabin had been their ally. And for Rav Aharon, the means were as important as the ends: "There is importance not just to what is given back, but also to how it is given back; not just to the contents of policy but to how it is carried out." Addressing the National Religious community in particular, he declared that Rabin's "cold-blooded murder" had caused "great pain and distress…”
This shame, that our state, our people, should have fallen to such a level, should be felt by everyone—religious, secular, right and left.  For to the extent that we feel any sense of unity within Am Yisrael, to the extent that we feel like a single body, then the entire body should feel shamed and pained no matter which limb is responsible for this tragedy. We should feel deep shame that this method of supposedly solving conflicts has become part of our culture. 
Rav Aharon acted on this conviction throughout his life. As "price tag" attacks by right-wing Israelis leveled damage on Palestinian property (and at times lives), Rav Aharon responded on one occasion by traveling to a mosque destroyed in a price tag attack with new copies of the Quran, and apologized for the actions of misguided Israelis.
At a time when the entire Middle East appears to have lots its sanity, the guidance of Rav Aharon is sorely needed. He demonstrated leadership once again when he publicly announced support for the TAV — the ethical seal that supported workers’ rights at kosher restaurants. He could have just worried about the texts studied in the beit midrash but he was also concerned for workers, “invisible people” in society. He was spiritually brave when he also stated publicly that even if halakhah should forbid saving an idolatrous gentile on the Sabbath, he would save him and then repent. Human dignity was of paramount significance.

Jewish life has moved to the extremes of secularism at one end and fundamentalism at the other, and reconciliation, Jewish unity, and cooperation are growing ever more distant. In Israel, this dichotomy between secularism and fundamentalism is even more pronounced. Rav Aharon stood adamantly in the center: He refused to swerve from piety, learning, and observance but he was equally unwilling to diverge from his universal moral principles and bold spiritual leadership. As a result he consistently supported the vulnerable no matter who they were. If we wish to continue his legacy, we must ask ourselves: Can Religious Zionism and Orthodoxy avoid radicalization and parochialism after Rav Aharon is no longer alive to guide us? We pray his thousands of students will emerge with the same clarity and conviction.

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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