Reflections of a Non-Talmid
It was not the small number of personal interactions with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l that made the greatest impression upon me. To be sure, I could detect greatness, humility, lomdus. But I wasn’t around them long enough for them to change who I was.
It was not even some of his remarkable writing – although I certainly gained from it. His piece arguing for the existence of a morality dwelling outside of Torah texts continues to be the platform of discussion of the subject, which ever side you are on. His long monograph comparing and contrasting arguments for and against secular study remains the seminal modern treatment of the subject. (Scrupulously fair, in my reading he does a better job explaining the latter than the former.) The honesty of a Tradition article a few years ago blew me away. It asks painful questions (and provides no answers) as to whether our romanticized views of marriage and intimacy are really consistent with Torah texts, or the product of our desire to be PC. Even more important to me was his response in a Jewish Action forum about reasons for belief. (Genius that he was, his honesty made him forego an opportunity to distill belief into a product that could be mass-produced and shared. Instead, he argued that belief came easy to him because he had spent time with three rabbeim – Rav Hutner, R Aron Soloviechik, and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik – in whom Hashem’s greatness itself shone through. He knew that his experience was not replicable – that none of his readers could aspire to the same experience, but he answered honestly nonetheless.)
Not being a talmid, I’m sure I missed hundreds of other examples, like the one that a reader sent yesterday:
And yet, fundamentally, relatively little has changed in regard to the halakhic tragedy of shevi’it. Awareness of the mizvah has been heightened; more and more observant Jews have been sensitized to it; and greater effort is expended in coping with the basic halakhic issues. Nevertheless, the essential reality remains. For most, shemittah exists, to the extent that it is experienced at all, more as a problem than as a value, as a mizvah that confronts us with the challenge to circumvent it more than with the impetus to implement it. To be sure, its impact upon producers – and I don’t mean just neglected lawns – is more vivid than upon consumers; and of the latter, those who heed the view of R. Moshe di Trani (the Mabit), against that of the Bet Yosef, that the sanctity of shevi’it must be observed with regard to non-Jewish produce, are more affected than those who do not. And yet, the underlying fact is beyond challenge. Overwhelmingly, we have lost the vision, we have been left with an obstacle course – and that is hardly how we should strive to experience a halakhic lifestyle. Would we, for even a moment, countenance relating to our weekly Shabbat as we do to our septennial one?
To me, the greatest impact came through his addressing a disquieting concern by example. I was zocheh to observe real gadlus, and sometimes spend time in its company. The experience was transfiguring. Yet the frum world in which I live elevates bitul to a virtue. Sometimes it seems that the way we keep people on the straight and narrow depends on training them to despise everything else. Where would that leave someone who truly understood, relished and loved other kinds of knowledge? I have met talmidei chachamim who were well versed in other disciplines, but their interest in them seemed more on the order of knowing them so that they could better reject them.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein didn’t just know Milton and Spenser. He appreciated them. He delighted in them, and countless other authors. Despite this, his feet drew him always to the beis medrash, where he found learning to be his delight of delights, towering over any other endeavor. He was a masmid when he was young, and remained one his entire life. (Devotion to learning went hand in hand with devotion to teaching. A vignette contributed by a talmid, David Weinberg, is instructive: I remember being startled from my yeshiva bed at 4 am during the First Lebanon War by a hand that was shaking my shoulder. It was Rabbi Lichtenstein, making rounds of the dormitories to personally awaken his students for early Talmud class, so that he could fly-off to southern Lebanon just after 7 am prayers to visit his students on the battlefront. When the Rosh Yeshiva himself pulls you out of bed because he can’t imagine cancelling a Talmud class, you don’t dare roll-over and go back to sleep! And you learn a lesson or two in self-discipline, dedication, and comradeship.)
In short, Rav Aharon mechayev es ha-modernim.
Yehi zichro baruch.
Very nice tribute to R’ Aharon zt”l. I was not a talmid (though I heard him several times and read several things he wrote) but felt an aching sadness upon hearing of his death (and still do) – as I felt we lost a truly singular role model and connection to our mesorah.
Though I am far from an expert I feel you set up too much of an either/or in your last paragraph between R’ Aharon’s appreciation for secular literature and “l’havdil” his 100% devotion to learning Torah. I dont think his learning came “despite” appreciation for literature. I dont think you are exactly saying this but it seems you are glossing over an important point. My understanding is that his study of world literature to his devotion to learning and avodat Hashem. It doesnt seem too difficult to understand for anyone who enjoys poetry etc. Why shouldnt it contribute to deeper thinking about Hashem and our purpose here on earth? Each on his own level of understanding. Perhaps the sicha R’ Aharon gave on Frost’s “Stopping by Woods…” – available on the internet – gives a some insight into his “lover’s quarrel” with the world.
Personally what really inspired me from the hespedim is hearing how “normal” he was – esp. as a devoted father – in the “normal” sense of focusing on each of his children individually – devoting hours a week with each – as well as devotion to each Talmid. How is it possible for a man to seem to spend all of his time learning, all of his time teaching, very much time with his family (they had priority), much time on Clal issues, all while being a genuine Anav and if you take the testimonies at face value – he seemed to believe he was just one of us.
I could be wrong but having all of these qualities together to such an extreme (along with his extreme geonut) in one person – both very much of this world while living a dedicated life beyond most of our reaches – is truly truly unique.
We have lost much.
Although I have certainly known Rabbi Lichtenstein to be the famous son-in-law of Rav Soloveitchik, I never met him, nor have I yet read the many books in English that I have of his. I had heard that his intellectual level was so off the charts, that I have felt intimidated to read his works, that it would take a whole lot of slow, hard work to even try to understand anything that he wrote.
Nevertheless, the impression I am getting about the man based on what people have been saying about him these last few days, was that his Torah learning was so extensive and so deep, that I cannot help but think that he was in the spiritual footsteps of the Vilna Gaon. I have also heard that even if his Torah learning had not been especially remarkable, that he would have nevertheless made a huge impact in our Jewish community, in the sense that one could never meet a kinder man who was more sensitive to the feelings of others. To me, then, it sounds like Rabbi Lichtenstein exactly lived the life of the ideal Jew, of what all of us should aim to achieve, even if most of us will never reach his spiritual heights. As for his relationship to secular knowledge, my impression is that he was more Centrist Orthodox (Rav Hirsch) than Modern Orthodox.
As a student who entered RAL ztl’s shiur in 1965, almost fifty years ago, stayed for 2 years and maintained a (limited) connection until I last spoke with him for a few minutes 3 and one half years ago, I continue to think his unique form of genius is often under appreciated. His fundamental skill was in creating, organizing and relating concepts, stressing what is relevant and dismissing what is not. He was a walking Encyclopedia Talmudit; everything categorized and cross-referenced. I learned over a lifetime, that what he would say, “a distinction without a difference” often requires a fair degree of discernment, to which one strongly advocating a position will often be blind. He, however, taught us to attempt to see things through the lens of the author of the text in question and was always able to isolate the relevant issues at hand. Facile comparisons or meaningless distinctions would last only long enough to be unceremoniously dismissed. Whether in limudai kodesh, political issues or in my professional secular interactions, whenever I hear protagonists differentiating or comparing events, I have appreciated his disciplined methodology and in some limited measure tried to apply it.
His ability to see multiple perspectives, did give him a cautious bias, and a level of tolerance; however, when the issue demanded it he was able to be resolute. As he cautioned, “don’t mistake tolerance for a lack of principles.”
Many have commented about his chesed. I often felt that what we saw as chesed he saw as just what yashrus required. It is hard to imagine how someone who always appeared so normal can have accomplished so much. What need also be said is that he (and Rav Amital ztl) produced a number of talmidim who approximate his yashrus.
yehi zichro baruch
While I very much appreciate this tribute, I find the line “Rav Aharon mechayev es ha-modernim” to be really unnecessary and divisive. If you want to be honest about his legacy, it would be just as appropriate to write “Rav Aharon mechayev es ha-haredim” – to suggest that R’ Aharon’s Zt”l gadlus in both Torah and Limudei Chol is only an inspiration and an imperative for Modernishe Jews implies that Ultra-Orthodox Jews have nothing to learn from him. This man was unquestionably a Talmid Chochom that should have been cherished by all of Klal Yisrael – to compartmentalize him as being only relevant for MO community is a really sad and pathetic statement on the current state of our people. Yehi Zichro Baruch
[YA – No, you’ve read it in the very opposite way I intended. By “modernim” I meant those who do have interests and distractions – for good reasons and not so good reasons – besides pure limud Torah. I meant everyone I know, haredi and MO. We don’t have the focus and single-minded devotion that pulls us back to the beis medrash and never any other place. We are modernim because, like it or not, we are half-immersed in the modern world. While we can sometimes be jealous of those with more focus or stamina, we rationalize that we have yitzrei hora that those roshei yeshiva don’t have. R Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l is mechayev us, because he shared the interests – and his feet still drew him back inexorably to the beis medrash, like Chazal’s description of Dovid Ha-Melech. It should have been evident from everything else that I wrote that I think that his legacy is for all bnei Torah, regardless of affiliation. I’m sorry if that wasn’t abundantly clear.
Thank you for the clarification – shabbat shalom!
thank you for this and the other tributes to RAL tz”l. One small point, your piece like many others refered to RAL’s two main teachers as the Rav and R. Hutner. For some reason, R. Lichtensteins close relationship with R. Aron Soloveitchik zt”l keeps getting left out. He had a decisvie impact on RAL, especially onhis spiritual and moral persona. HE was one of the three “sources of faith” mentioned in the article.
Also, i dont understand the chiluk between Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy nor the realtionship between Centrism and R. Hirsh. These terms are used in all sorts of ways by different people and as such are not very helpfull.
[YA – Rabbi Daniel Feldman just called and proved you correct, and my memory more fallible. It turns out that the article I referred to was reprinted days before the petirah of RAL in a special edition of Tradition magazine. (The issue also contains reactions to the original article by Aaron Segal and Rabbi Sholom Carmy – one of my favorite contemporary thinkers.) But you are entirely correct. RAL does mention R Aron Soloveichik as a rebbi, and even contrasts what he absorbed from him with what he learned from the other two. I am going to modify the text itself to reflect this.]
“you are entirely correct …. I am going to modify the text itself to reflect this”
– kol hakavod!