Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, modern Orthodox visionary, dies at 81

Lichtenstein headed a prestigious religious-Zionist yeshiva and won the Israel Prize for his contributions to rabbinic scholarship.

Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the foremost proponent of modern Orthodoxy in Israel, passed away Monday at the age of 81, eliciting grief from across the religious and political spectrum.
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.
Lichtenstein joined one of the great Lithuanian rabbinic dynasties when he married the daughter of noted Talmudist and philosopher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the seminal figures in American centrist and modern Orthodoxy, from whom he received ordination, and later went on to teach Talmud at Yeshiva University.
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.
He also served as the head of the kollel at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.
While he was awarded the Israel Prize for Jewish Literature in 2014 for his scholarly works and was considered one of the preeminent thinkers within the rabbinate, he was remembered by his former students and fellow scholars for his temperate and self-effacing attitude and emphasis on developing a moral persona.
“Rabbi Lichtenstein was one of the most special human beings I ever had the privilege of knowing,” Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the founder of the Efrat settlement and the Ohr Torah Stone network of schools and institutions.
Riskin, whose time at Yeshiva University overlapped with Lichtenstein’s, said that he stood in awe of the scholar’s erudition and personal comportment.
During lectures, when Soloveitchik would be at a loss to remember where a particular reference could be found in the Talmud, it was Lichtenstein who would step in and inform him of the correct place to look, Riskin recalled.
“He could quote poetry and Shakespeare and he could quote philosophers… and in addition to all of that there was a probity and an integrity and an ethical sensitivity that I have never seen in anyone else,” he said.
He recalled two incidents that he said illustrated Lichtenstein’s sense of fair play.
When he first came to Israel, the ultra-Orthodox Yated Ne’eman newspaper published an article banning yeshiva students from attending classes with Riskin because he ran a program featuring noted Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz, a female.
“Lichtenstein strongly came to my defense. He was really the only rabbinical figure to do so, and he tried very hard to get [leading ultra-Orthodox leader] Rabbi [Elazar Menachem Man] Shach to meet with me,” Riskin recalled.
Years later, Lichtenstein would lead a delegation to visit a mosque destroyed in a “price-tag” attack where he “returned Korans and apologized,” Riskin further recalled.
When he heard of Lichtenstein’s passing he burst into tears, he said.
“He was one of a generation. He was a giant, a very, very modest giant, and I’m sure all of us [who knew him] will feel greatly his loss,” he said. “It’s a tremendous loss because we are living in a world in which the rabbinate is not necessarily representative of integrity to the highest degree; the rabbinate is certainly not regarded as a field in which people are very knowledgeable in secular learning and philosophy and thought; and Rav Aharon was very unique.”
Rabbi Yossi Bloch, who both studied and taught at Har Etzion, said that he felt “bereft.”
“Everyone knew Rav Aharon as an intellectual giant, which of course he was, but if you had the privilege to get to know him, even a bit, you learned about his warmth, his smile and his voice – in English and in Hebrew, in prose and in song.”
It is this warmth that led religious leaders from both ends of the Judaic spectrum to eulogize him.
“In an era marked by far too much religious division, Rabbi Lichtenstein was a powerful, consistent and influential voice calling for – and living – a demanding but open-minded Judaism,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, while Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, called him “a brilliant Torah scholar, respected rosh yeshiva and a religious leader to many Jews, whose memory should be for a blessing.”
Lichtenstein was also part of the Takana forum of rabbis, which deals with complaints of sexual harassment in the religious school system. In 2006 the group ordered Yeshivat Hakotel head Rabbi Mordechai Elon to no longer have contact with students.
In a statement on Monday, the Tzohar rabbinic association, which is known for offering Orthodox religious services outside of the state rabbinate and with whose formation Lichtenstein was involved, called him one of the “rabbinical giants of religious Zionism and… a true genius in his mastery of both the worlds of Torah alongside culture and literature.”
Rabbi Yosef Blau, the president of the Religious Zionists of America and a senior rabbi at Yeshiva University, said that Lichtenstein “was the highest exemplar of centrist Orthodoxy and religious Zionism, combining greatness in Talmud and Jewish thought with a humanism rooted both in Torah and the best of Western thought.”
The author of a great number of religious works, Lichtenstein was described by his yeshiva as having “combined sovereign mastery of the vast expanses of Torah knowledge with breathtaking analytic depth and sharpness.”
Israeli political leaders were also quick to praise Lichtenstein, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describing him as “a Zionist with deep roots, [who] had a sharp mind and taught thousands of students.”
“A year ago, when I bestowed upon him the Israel Prize, I saw stand before me a rabbi, teacher and great educator,” Netanyahu said. “He was a sharpas- a-tack, grassroots, quick-witted Zionist.”
“Rabbi Lichtenstein will be remembered as a Zionist leader and Torah scholar of unparalleled stature,” he said. “He nurtured many thousands of students at Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut. He loved the Land of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Torah of Israel.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein called Lichtenstein a special person and an inspiration.
“He was a first-class role model of uncompromising integration of commitment to tradition and the halachic world with moderateness and modernity, between old and new, Torah and higher education,” Edelstein said.
Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett said Lichtenstein was “one of the greats” who “combined higher education and following Halacha in clear language, while staying connected with the public he taught and led.”
Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan called Lichtenstein “a tremendous scholar who taught generations of scholars in great depth and continued the learning method of the wise men of Brisk, which he learned from his father-in-law, Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik.”
MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said Lichtenstein was one of the people in the religious-Zionist population with whom she found a common denominator, and she would speak to him and other rabbis from Yeshivat Har Etzion about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
“His Judaism was smart, accepting and reconciling, without compromising on his principles,” Livni stated. “He left behind an inspiring Jewish worldview.”
According to Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University, while Lichtenstein served in a variety of positions at the flagship institution of American modern Orthodoxy, “that doesn’t begin to capture his essence or his influence. He was one in a generation, and his unique Torah perspective and worldview has shaped us all, but his towering goodness stands first and foremost.”
He is survived by his wife and six children. The funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at his yeshiva, followed by burial on Har Hamenuhot in Jerusalem.
JTA and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.