Lichtenstein’s legacy

Israel’s 67th birthday was preceded by the passing of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of the most influential and original thinkers of modern Orthodoxy.

April 21, 2015 21:40
4 minute read.
Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein

Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 Israel’s 67th birthday was preceded by the passing of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of the most influential and original thinkers of modern Orthodoxy.

Lichtenstein, who co-headed the Har Etzion Hesder Yeshiva with the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital, had a unique approach to the State of Israel.

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He rejected the haredi attitude which sees the establishment of the state as a fundamentally flawed project, because it was undertaken primarily by non-believers and because it did not wait for the arrival of the Messiah to precede it.

But Lichtenstein’s position was also different from that of many modern Orthodox Jews. Unlike religious Zionists influenced by the thought of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook – who saw inherent holiness in Jewish sovereignty because it embodies “the foundation of God’s throne in the world” – Lichtenstein had a more pragmatic approach.

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A book entitled In Quest of Your Presence [Mivakshei Panekha] that is made up of conversations between Lichtenstein and Rabbi Haim Sabato, novelist and head of the Birkat Moshe Hesder Yeshiva in Maale Adumim, the Torah scholar articulated his views on a number of contemporary issues, including his perspective on the State of Israel.

Lichtenstein believed that Jews had an obligation to “take hold of the scepter of history” when they were given a chance to establish a Jewish state.

“The Zionist position, including the religious and the rabbis among them, believed that not only were Jews able or permitted to take hold of the scepter [and create a state], they had an obligation to,” Lichtenstein said.

The creation of a Jewish state was for Lichtenstein the best possible political decision that could be made under the circumstances; not without spiritual dangers, but nevertheless necessary. Lichtenstein distanced himself from hyperbolic talk of the realization of biblical prophecies or the “advent of the flowering of the redemption.”

He even rejected the idea that the State of Israel represented a “Hegelian knock on the door of history.” Rather, he spoke of a place with tremendous potential for Jewish creativity.

He recognized the very positive aspects of Israeli society, but he did not deny the negative aspects as well, which included not just a disregard for religious faith but crime and violence, incompetence and corruption.

This is not to say that the State of Israel lacked all religious meaning for Lichtenstein, if we assume that an article written by his son Mosheh reflects his father's approach.

As Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein notes in an article entitled, “Holiday of the Renewal of the Covenant,” which he wrote in 2002 and which is reprinted in the Koren publishing house’s new prayer book for Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, Lichtenstein the son argues that the Jewish people’s resolve after the Holocaust to establish a Jewish state was a reaffirmation of commitment to their Jewish identity.

“Rather than scatter to the four corners of the Earth, to remote lands whose inhabitants had never heard of the Jewish people, many survivors headed specifically toward the Land of the Patriarchs,” wrote Lichtenstein.

By doing so, Jews reversed a trend of secularization and abandonment of Jewish identity that had reached its apex in the first half of the 20th century. Lichtenstein refers to this as the “reinstatement of the covenant of the patriarchs in the modern world.” Jewish identity was strengthened not just among Jews living in the newly created Jewish state, but also among the Jews of the Diaspora.

Lichtenstein did not attribute inherent holiness to the State of Israel, as some religious Zionists do. At the same time, unlike the haredi rabbinic leadership, he viewed its establishment as a positive and paradigm-changing event that presented enormous opportunities and challenges.

This eminently pragmatic approached might help explain his tremendous success as an educator and his moderation as a spiritual leader. Thousands of students have graduated from his yeshiva over the years and have become some of Israel’s most influential rabbis, who combine an intimate involvement in Israeli society with Torah scholarship.

Lichtenstein was one of the leading proponents of the hesder military service model that balanced a commitment to the defense of the state with intensive Torah study. As a Torah scholar with a PhD in English literature from Harvard, he embodied a synthesis of secular and religious learning.

Politically, Lichtenstein was moderate. He did not sanctify the Jewish settlement project in Judea and Samaria and was open to compromise in exchange for peace.

Lichtenstein’s death is a major loss for Orthodoxy and for Israeli society. But his legacy, which provides a deeper understanding of Independence Day and the meaning of Jewish sovereignty, lives on in his many students and admirers.

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