'Values in Halakhah': Lichtenstein's views on humanism in Jewish law - review

The central thesis of the book – supported by careful text analysis – is that Halacha itself reflects and promotes many humanistic values. 

 RABBI AHARON LICHTENSTEIN in 2008. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Are humanism and religious Judaism compatible? 

A newly published posthumous collection of essays by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015), Values in Halakhah: Six Case Studies, contends that they are.

Lichtenstein grew up in the United States, where he received an excellent Modern Orthodox education, earning rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University and a PhD in English literature at Harvard. He was a close disciple of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the acknowledged mentor of American Modern Orthodoxy, and later became his son-in-law. 

Lichtenstein moved to Israel in 1971 to join Rabbi Yehudah Amital (1924-2010) in developing Yeshivat Har Etzion (founded in 1968). Under their joint leadership, it became the elite institution of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel. Unlike most other yeshivot, from its very beginning Har Etzion had a positive attitude toward the pursuit of secular knowledge. 

Even in Israel, Lichtenstein often peppered his high-level Talmud classes with references to the classics of English literature. Aside from educating generations of young Israelis (and students from all over the world who came to study at his yeshiva), he was a public intellectual who took forceful moral positions on Israeli societal issues.

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

The essays of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein translated and published

This posthumous volume was edited by a student of his, Rabbi Reuven Ziegler (also an American who moved to Israel). It contains four essays Lichtenstein wrote in English before he made aliyah, and two he wrote in Hebrew shortly afterward, which have been translated.

He formulates a terse working definition of humanism as “a worldview which values people highly.” 

In that sense, Judaism is, of course, highly humanistic. A secular worldview often conceives of people as specks in a vast random universe. Judaism teaches that human beings, created in God’s image, are the only creatures capable of having a genuine relationship with God.

Religious Judaism may be centered on obligations to God, but Jews “act for the sake of humanity because of religious conviction and obligation.”

But is this perception also reflected in the details of Halacha? While Lichtenstein acknowledges that the tension between halachic detail and the perceived needs of human beings is sometimes troubling, the central thesis of the book – supported by careful text analysis – is that Halacha itself reflects and promotes many humanistic values. 

Lichtenstein writes about Halacha with unusual clarity, making it understandable even to those with limited background. Additionally, the book is filled with allusions to the classics of literature and philosophy, many of which can best be appreciated by those with vast secular erudition.

One case study centers around Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as Rama (1530-1572, Poland), who once performed a wedding on Shabbat (an action generally prohibited by Halacha) for an orphan bride under unusual circumstances, and then wrote a responsum to justify his decision.

Lichtenstein shows how Rama considered pressing human need to be one of many factors in his decision.

In other words, Rama did not say that human needs set Halacha aside, nor that halachic demands prevail come what may. 

Human need constitutes one of the many halachic factors that Rama or any other responsible rabbi considers. And sometimes it tilts the balance to a surprising leniency.

Lichtenstein also shows how the human factor can lead to stringent positions. In an example from the world of business ethics, Rabbi Yair Bacharach (1639-1702, Germany) was approached by the Jewish textile merchants of a particular city. They were finding it challenging to observe hasagat gevul (the halachic rules about unfair competition), and the rabbinical courts were getting bogged down by endless claims of alleged infractions. The merchants proposed a solution. They would all undertake to forgive any infringements, thus simplifying the business. 

Rabbi Bacharach refused. 

Lichtenstein explains that nonetheless, from a strictly financial law point of view, individuals who would suffer monetary loss (due to unfair competition or any other financial infraction) are entitled to proclaim that they forgo their right to complain about the loss.

But Bachrach, in Lichtenstein’s astute analysis, understood that the laws of hasagat gevul were not intended solely to protect individuals. 

They have a greater humanistic goal, that of creating a society where businesspeople do not indulge in cutthroat competition. The merchants, therefore, had no right to take action that would create a society where aggressive competition was tolerated.

While most of the book shows how humanistic values are reflected in legal texts, Lichtenstein also presents strong spiritual arguments for caring about the needs of others, particularly the disadvantaged.

Based on a text by Maimonides, Lichtenstein concludes that “the pursuit of equity, the implementation of social justice, the dispensation of kindness, the generation of love, the preservation of dignity – all are integral aspects of imitatio actorum dei (imitating God’s deeds).” 

Referring to Greco-Roman culture, he writes that those civilizations, “knew much of friendship and something of love but relatively little of compassion.” 

Lichtenstein thus reveals that “in a very real sense this [humanistic] spirit [of concern for the needs of others] constituted [the Jews'] specific contribution to the classical world.” 

Values in HalakhahBy Rabbi Aharon LichtensteinEdited by Rabbi Reuven ZieglerMaggid Books360 pages; $29.95