A scholar and a gentleman

The first comprehensive picture of Yeshivat Har Etzion head Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein's thought published in Hebrew.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Yedioth Ahronoth Books)
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Yedioth Ahronoth Books)
Rabbi Haim Sabato is unique among yeshiva rabbis for being not only an accomplished Torah scholar but also an award-winning novelist. His previous books have described the life-changing experiences of young religious soldiers during the Yom Kippur War and the struggles and successes of new immigrants to Israel in the 1950s. He has also written important works of Torah scholarship. However, the present volume is of a different genre. It consists of a series of discussions (in Hebrew) with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the head of the Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut (by way of full disclosure I have studied and continue to study with Rabbi Lichtenstein).
In the introduction to In Quest of Your Presence, Rabbi Sabato describes how he first became acquainted with Rabbi Lichtenstein: “I was a young student at Yeshivat Hakotel 40 years ago. One day it was announced that a visitor had come from America. An outstanding Torah scholar would give a class in the yeshiva.... From beyond the curtain we heard that he was unique in his personality and thought. He studied in university and was open to secular literature.... Rabbi Lichtenstein was for us from another world.”
Indeed, as the book aptly demonstrates, Rabbi Lichtenstein is unique. Born in 1933 in France, after the war he immigrated to the US with his family and studied with great, mostly European-trained rabbis. He eventually graduated from Yeshiva University and studied with the universally acknowledged intellectual leader of modern Orthodoxy in America, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who subsequently became his father-in-law.
After receiving his ordination, he attained a PhD in English literature from Harvard University and, at the invitation of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion, joined him as co-dean and made aliya with his family in 1971.
Among the book’s chapters are discussions on the value of secular literature from a Jewish religious perspective, the nature of holiness, religious humanism, what a religious Jew can learn from non- Jewish scholars, religious-secular relations, the value of teaching Talmud to women, the meaning of Zionism from a religious perspective, the methodology of the study of Bible and Talmud and his relationship with his primary teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.
Although many of the ideas have been published previously (in the English-language periodicals Tradition and Torah UMada Journal and in his two-volume book Leaves of Faith) this is the first relatively complete picture of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s thought published in Hebrew.
What strikes the reader is how different Rabbi Lichtenstein’s approach to most issues is from the prevailing mind-set in the religious world, certainly the ultra- Orthodox and even the national religious. First of all, his answers to Rabbi Sabato’s questions are always nuanced and marked by an ability to see both sides of an issue.
But more importantly, his worldview differs from that of most rashei yeshiva (“heads” or deans). For example, regarding whether one can learn from non-Jews, he comments: “There are people, non-Jews, whose mission in the world is one of creativity, whether it is literary creativity or moral creativity. People in whom you see greatness, spiritual and moral greatness. How can you not be astounded by Samuel Johnson, a man who ... attained a level of charity that I wish I could attain. Because he is a non-Jew I should ignore it?”
He continues: “Anyone who reads Shakespeare’s King Lear, if he is a sensitive person will be brought to tears. He will find there discussions relating to honoring one’s parents, the generation divide and relationships between parents and children.”
It’s hard to imagine another rosh yeshiva in Israel, or in that fact the United States, saying these words.
His teachings are also relevant to Israel society as a whole. Commenting on his first visit to Israel in the 1960s, he says, “I found here [in Israel] more idealism, more willingness to give, to contribute to something greater than myself. I also found that Israeli society is one of equality. To my great sorrow, since I made aliya there has been a decaying of these values.... But when I made aliya, the values of idealism and social equality spoke to me.”
Indeed, many of the leaders of religious organizations working for social justice have been inspired by Rabbi Lichtenstein and are proud to call him their teacher. While it would not be fair to describe Rabbi Lichtenstein as a feminist, he is perhaps the leading halachic authority alive today advocating for full equality for women in the realm of Torah learning.
“There are many women who I know with a real desire to serve God, to learn Torah in depth.... To our daughters, to our students, what should we give them if we don’t give them Torah? Should they read magazines for women? This is not enough, this is not serious or desirable,” he says.
And in contrast to the opinions of most religious authorities, even from the national-religious world, this includes teaching Talmud to women at the highest level, which he has done in the Women’s Beit Midrash in Migdal Oz.
The book has a chapter devoted to Zionism from a religious and theological perspective, but there is only limited discussion of the current political situation. The last third of the book deals with more specific issues relating to the study of Torah. For example, there is a discussion of the methodology of talmudic learning known as the Brisker approach. Rabbi Lichtenstein is one of its most foremost proponents, being perhaps most responsible for its spread throughout the world of national-religious yeshivot as many of the younger generation of rashei yeshiva are his former students.
The book also touches on the renewed emphasis on the teaching of Bible in yeshivot and the spread of hassidic and kabbalistic thought in the national-religious world.
There is also a wonderful chapter on Rabbi Soloveitchik, whom he continues to hold in the highest esteem.
Notwithstanding his appreciation for general culture and secular literature, at the core of his being is his love for God and dedication to the learning of Torah, which is felt in every page of the book.
Rabbi Sabato writes in his poetic Hebrew, “If a person should ask, ‘what can be learned from this book?’ I would answer: that the world is complicated and man is complicated.”
I certainly gained this from the book, but I also came away with something else – sadness.
As the book makes abundantly clear, Rabbi Lichtenstein is a unique spiritual leader, and while he has taught much Torah to his students, unfortunately many of his values have not been widely accepted in the world in which he teaches. One is left with the haunting question: what if the national-religious world had chosen to follow in his footsteps?
The writer is an associate professor of medicine and director of the Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his own.