Celebrating complexity

A tribute to Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.

April 21, 2015 03:37
4 minute read.
Aharon Lichtenstein

Yeshivat Har Etzion students study with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein in this file photo. (photo credit: COURTESY YESHIVAT HAR ETZION)


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When practiced by the sophisticated modern man, Judaism is sourced in the most advanced and complicated thinking, not in amulets and kabbalistic incantations. Religion probes the most difficult quandaries of human existence, metaphysical presence and purpose, identity and spiritual makeup. It seeks to bridge ancient devotions with contemporary sensibilities. It seeks to embrace both the particularistic and humanistic aspects of nationality. It aims to authenticate and guide our creativity and drive for success in all fields of human endeavor.

It is more relevant and needed than ever in the modern age.

I learned much of this approach to Jewish religious life and thinking from Rabbi Dr.

Aharon Lichtenstein, dean of the multifaceted and magnificent Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion, and last year’s Israel Prize laureate in Torah literature, who died Monday.

Since moving to Israel from the US more than 40 years ago, Lichtenstein taught the highest- level Talmud, Halacha and Jewish thought to his tens of thousands of students. He did so while simultaneously validating their service in the IDF as a religious obligation and their subsequent pursuits of university education as a natural outgrowth of their religious personalities. The rabbi, who earned his doctorate in English literature from Harvard University, taught that intellectual openness is a hallmark of true Orthodox Judaism, alongside single-minded devotion to Torah study and adherence to halachic boundaries and values.

Lichtenstein taught that critical thinking and humanism characterize the worshiper of God, not slavish and blind devotion to self-proclaimed prophets and closed-minded soothsayers. He taught that full involvement in Israeli society and a passion for social justice are key religious obligations, not the isolationism and jingoism that characterize too much of ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist communities today.

Lichtenstein’s views were pathbreaking on a range of critical issues, including the value of secular literature from a Jewish religious perspective, the nature of holiness, religious humanism, religious-secular relations, the role and status of women in studying Torah, attitudes to the non-Jew, the meaning of Zionism from a religious perspective, the methodology of the study of the Bible and the Talmud, Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria, and more.

It’s not surprising that some of the boldest leaders of today’s religious-Zionist community are students of his academy. In a landmark address at his 80th birthday gathering two years ago, Lichtenstein pointedly devoted his remarks to exhorting his students to expend even greater effort on influencing the moral and religious character of Israeli society – through intellectual and social leadership, not coercion.

Lichtenstein’s unique and meticulous approach to Talmudic analysis – recorded in many published volumes – will live on as testament to his brilliance.

But so will his profound articulations of devout faith – both childlike and super-erudite – for modern man. At the core of his oeuvre is deep love for God and his dedication to the learning of Torah as a supreme religious value, notwithstanding his appreciation of general culture, secular literature and scientific investigation.

What especially stands out for Lichtenstein’s students, of which I was privileged to be one, is his humility and modesty.

Everyone could only be impressed by his approachability and lack of airs. Everyone could only be amazed at the unpretentious way in which he shared leadership of the yeshiva with its founder, the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital. No one could forget his devotion to his blind and mostly deaf father, to whom he chanted the prayers out loud, and whom he led along the lanes of the yeshiva gardens with incredible patience. No one could fail to notice his sincere respect for his distinguished wife, Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, and his attentiveness to the education and pioneering careers of his children.

Everybody learned from Lichtenstein’s unassuming nature and tolerance – qualities that make his insistence on high moral and intellectual standards and ritual exactness all the more impressive.

Alongside Amital, Lichtenstein raised a generation of disciples who are both like him and unlike him: admiring of his great mind and religious integrity yet independent thinkers who often dissent from his political and public policy views; scholars who follow his approach in study yet seek to expand its horizons; community activists who embrace his inclusive approach yet find deeper stirrings in religious-nationalist romanticism than he did.

I suspect that in his self-effacing way, Lichtenstein was enormously proud of the alumni who have absorbed his nuanced teachings, who view him as a revered leader yet dare to pave their own ways within Orthodoxy and who seek both to emulate and go beyond him.

To my own sons (one of whom is currently studying in Lichtenstein’s yeshiva), I say: Seek the rich life of religious rigor, constant study, broad-mindedness and societal commitment that Lichtenstein so bravely modeled for us.

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