Aharon Lichtenstein is a leading figure in modern Orthodox circles. Indeed, his standing in the modern Orthodox camp goes beyond mere respect. For some, in both the United States and Israel, he has become a full-fledged cultural hero.
Born in 1933, Lichtenstein first attained star status as a young Talmudist at New York’s Yeshiva University in the 1950s, and his reputation has flourished ever since. (He graduated from Yeshiva College in 1953 and received his rabbinic ordination in 1959.) To begin with, there was Lichtenstein’s combination of brilliance and moral rectitude. Everyone at Yeshiva was aware that Lichtenstein was a genius, with an astonishing grasp of the Talmud. Students flocked to his Talmudic discourses, and consulted with him at all hours of the day and night about fine points of Jewish law. But Lichtenstein was more than a brain; he was also a person of the most exacting moral standards, who spoke out on issues of the day and led a student march to protest the starving of children in Biafra.
Lichtenstein also enjoyed star status as the son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the undisputed leader of modern Orthodoxy in the United States. Both men centered their activity on the Yeshiva campus. Lichtenstein attended all of Soloveitchik’s Talmud classes, afterward reviewing the material with senior rabbinic students. When Soloveitchik gave public lectures on religious themes, Lichtenstein was always present in the front row. The close bond between the two men was apparent to everyone, and Soloveitchik’s extraordinary stock of charisma began to rub off on his son-in-law.
One more fact needs to be mentioned: Lichtenstein has a doctorate in English literature from Harvard, mirroring the doctorate in philosophy his father-in-law obtained at the University of Berlin. For students attending Yeshiva, these advanced degrees were more than credentials; they were also passports to a form of Orthodoxy that legitimated involvement with Western culture. They demonstrated that it was possible to be Orthodox and modern at the same time—which was, above all else, what people at Yeshiva yearned for.
Lichtenstein’s standing in the modern Orthodox community is certain to receive a further boost now that KTAV Publishing House has released a hefty two-volume collection of his English-language essays. The pieces gathered in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning and Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living range from the early 1960s until today.
At a time when modern Orthodoxy is in retreat on a broad front, Lichtenstein’s vigorous championing of the modern Orthodox cause will gladden the hearts of the faithful. But with the publication of Leaves of Faith, the time has come for a more considered approach to Lichtenstein’s religious enterprise. The alignment of forces in today’s Orthodox society is radically different from what it was when Lichtenstein was a student and teacher at Yeshiva University. Prior to the 1970s, modern Orthodoxy was the dominant trend in Orthodox life. Now traditionalists rule the roost, and the influence of Yeshiva University, the leading modernist institution, has declined. Its proclaimed ideal of “Torah and culture” has been called into question by a large part of the Orthodox community.
Orthodox traditionalism, in both its hasidic and yeshiva versions, is strongly isolationist, seeking to limit the interaction of Orthodox Jews with the larger surrounding culture—as well as with their non-Orthodox brethren. From the traditionalist standpoint, Yeshiva University is an educational catastrophe, since it brings the forbidden general culture into the very precincts of Torah.
“Torah and culture” is clearly a key element in modern Orthodoxy, and Lichtenstein has addressed the issue in systematic fashion. The single longest piece he has written—a monster of an essay appearing in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures—carries the title “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict.” The identical theme is taken up in two substantial essays reproduced in Leaves of Faith: “A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View” and “The End of Learning.” In all three pieces, Lichtenstein mounts a powerful argument for what he terms the “Jewish value of humanistic culture” and the “spiritual value of a general education.” If this sounds like religious humanism, it is. In Lichtenstein’s scheme, “humanistic learning” leads directly to a “fuller manifestation of the spirituality of man.”
Lichtenstein’s commitment to “Torah and culture” has proved unwavering, even as the focus of his educational activity has shifted from the United States to Israel. In 1971, he became one of the heads of Yeshiva Har Etzion, a school combining advanced Talmud study with service in the Israeli army. While Har Etzion does not offer secular studies as part of its formal curriculum, Lichtenstein functions within the institution as an “apostle of culture.” He explained his position in a 1986 lecture: “I do not believe that my principled position concerning the value of culture has changed drastically over the last twenty years—although, at the level of educational implementation, contextual circumstances must obviously be taken into account. I held then, and hold ever more firmly now, that Torah is the heart of our personal and collective spiritual existence....I held then, and hold now, that this existence can be enhanced by the enriching and energizing force of general culture.”
In recent years, Lichtenstein has intensified his advocacy of “Torah and culture.” He refers to a “disequilibrium” resulting from Orthodox traditionalism’s growing assertiveness. He explains: “In the 1960s, there was no doubt but that the cause of Torah had to be pressed, massively and constantly. Today, we have, thank God, witnessed a resurgence of talmud Torah [Torah study] in all segments of the Orthodox world. Unfortunately...that has often been accompanied by what I would regard as an excessive decline of the cultural component. Hence the need to emphasize its importance in order to strive to restore an optimal balance.” Still, for Lichtenstein no less than for the opponents of “Torah and culture,” Talmud study in the classical mode is the touchstone of authentic Judaism. He champions culture for Orthodox Jews only as a supplement to a talmudic education; the absolute primacy of the latter is never questioned: “Torah,” he writes, is “primary and central, and all else ancillary.”
Lichtenstein’s passion for Talmud is as much intellectual as it is religious. This emerges clearly in “Why Learn Gemara?”—another essay in Leaves of Faith. On every page of the Talmud, Lichtenstein tells us, “one feels the freshness of virgin birth, the angular edge of rough terrain plowed and yet unplowed, the beck of meandering paths charted and uncharted. There is nothing distilled, nothing lacquered. The sense of challenge and concomitant invigoration is pervasive.”
Lichtenstein’s reliance on a conceptual mode of analysis in his talmudic discourses further contributes to his sense of Talmud study as an intellectual enterprise. Family loyalty is an element here, since the conceptual approach was pioneered by Rabbi Soloveitchik’s grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Brisker. The Brisker style of reading talmudic sources, Lichtenstein observes, is characterized by “incisive analysis, exact definition, precise classification, and critical independence.” Opponents of the conceptual method in the yeshiva world—and they are a minority today—argue that it reduces religious texts to a set of scientific notations. Lichtenstein argues instead that “the conceptual approach finds expression in the cutting of new keys....These, in turn, enter the world of learning and enrich its vocabulary, providing fresh implements and fresh impetus for those engaged in the perpetual quest lehavin u-lehaskil [to discern and understand].”
Since Lichtenstein stresses the primacy of a talmudic education and underscores the intellectual pleasures attendant upon it, readers may wonder why he does not go all the way and embrace the “Torah only” position. Why does he insist that cultural involvement is necessary for Orthodox Jews?
It is here that Lichtenstein’s religious humanism enters the picture, with an argument stressing the link between exposure to culture and the honing of a religious sensibility. Lichtenstein alludes to this when he observes that culture “can inform and irradiate our spiritual being by rounding out its cardinal Torah component.” In the essay “Torah and General Culture,” Lichtenstein spells out in specific terms how various disciplines contribute to the nurturing of a religious sensibility. The natural sciences “manifestly decipher and describe a divinely ordained order whose knowledge both inspires praise and thanksgiving to the Ribbono shel Olam [God] and stimulates our reverential response to Him.” Historical study enters the picture as a record of the “drama of conjunction and confrontation between providential direction and creaturely freedom.” As for the social sciences and humanities, they take the measure of man, who is the pinnacle of God’s creation.
Finally, there is great literature: “In reading [great writers] we...confront the human spirit doubly, as creation and as creator; Clytemnestra or Hamlet on the one hand, Aeschylus and Shakespeare on the other. As regards enriching our understanding of ruah memalela [man as a speaking spirit], imaginative artists have been more illuminating than theoreticians, not only because they have described more powerfully but because they have also probed more deeply. For sheer insight, can Locke or James compare with Dickens or Dostoevsky?” Lichtenstein concludes: “Far from constituting mere straying in alien fields, culture can become a vehicle for enhancing our Torah existence.”
And yet, even if we grant that general culture can promote what Lichtenstein calls “lofty ends,” why should a Jew turn to it? Or, as he himself puts the question: “Having been chosen as a covenantal community and uniquely endowed with the truest and richest of spiritual treasures in the form of Torah need we—nay, may we—mine alternative nodes?”
Here Lichtenstein’s argument takes a radical turn: He contends that culture holds riches unavailable through the Jewish tradition. It is, he writes, “preposterous to pretend to find in our own tradition that which, at a given level and with a certain range, simply is not there.” Lichtenstein continues in this vein:
Our moral and religious lights did not address themselves with equal vigor to every area of spiritual endeavor. Hazal [the talmudic sages] engaged little in systematic theology or philosophy and their legacy includes no poetic corpus.
An account of Rabbi Akiva’s spiritual odyssey could no doubt eclipse Augustine’s. But his confessions have been discreetly muted. The rigors of John Stuart Mill’s...educationare not without parallel in our history. But what corresponds to his fascinating Autobiography? Or to the passionate Apologia Pro Vita Sua of his contemporary, John Henry Cardinal Newman? Our Johnsons have no Boswells....
Where, in our treasure, shall we encounter a despondent and tragically deserted father to compare to King Lear? Of the thousands who have been imprisoned, who has left a record of his experience on a par with Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae or Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison? Do we have a paean of inspired passion to wedded love to match Spenser’s Epithalamion?
Such claims for culture are far-reaching. From start to finish, however, Lichtenstein’s discussion is framed in terms of religious humanism, with culture playing its assigned role as “handmaiden to the divine.” At no point in his analysis does culture assume an independent role. This is a matter of religious necessity: “Let me reiterate as vigorously and as emphatically as I can, that madda [culture] can only be championed when it is placed in proper perspective—as subsidiary if not subservient to Torah....The primacy of Torah is axiomatic. There can be no parity...much less a reversal of roles.” It is on this basis alone that Lichtenstein is prepared to endorse the involvement of Orthodox Jews in culture.
In making the case for “Torah and culture,” Lichtenstein has the advantage of being fully credentialed in both domains. As a yeshiva head, he enjoys automatic legitimacy in addressing Orthodox concerns; as a Harvard Ph.D., he has instant credibility in dealing with cultural issues. The combined impact of these two elements goes a long way toward explaining Lichtenstein’s remarkable self-assurance as an exponent of “Torah and culture.”
This self-assurance, however, also reflects the fact that Lichtenstein’s theory is modeled on his own experience. The evidence for this is found in a 1985 lecture, published in summary form in By His Light under the title “Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting.” Here Lichtenstein states categorically that an exposure to culture contributed in important ways to his own religious development: “Speaking for myself,...I can emphatically state that my general education has contributed much to my personal development. I know that my understanding of Tanakh [the Bible] would be far shallower in every respect without it. I know that it has greatly enhanced my perception of life in Eretz Yisrael [land of Israel]. I know that it has enriched my religious experience.” Summing up the matter, he observes that cultural exposure in college and graduate school made him aware, above all, of the “complexity of experience,” of the “moral, psychological, and metaphysical complexity of human life.”
Lichtenstein’s invocation of the “complexity of experience” in the context of a lecture on centrist Orthodoxy—what I term “modern Orthodoxy”—serves to alert us to an extraordinary act of projection on his part. Lichtenstein, in effect, refashions centrist Orthodoxy in his own image by identifying its “very essence” with the effort “to shy away from simplistic and one-sided approaches, to strive to encompass and encounter reality in its complexity.”
Lichtenstein maintains that the two make-or-break issues for centrist Orthodoxy are the affirmation of general culture and the embrace of the State of Israel. His treatment of Israel offers an interesting opportunity to see how the “complexity of experience” plays itself out in a specific Jewish context. Certainly, he has earned the right to weigh in on the subject, having packed his bags and moved to Israel more than thirty years ago, and he takes it as a given that “all that relates to Eretz Yisrael [land of Israel] and the State of Israel should, for spiritual reasons, be close to our hearts.”
Broadly speaking, Lichtenstein identifies with the religious Zionist camp in Israel. He is clearly set off from haredi types in attaching importance to Jewish sovereignty, even if it is embodied in a state that is “very, very imperfect.” In terms of practical politics, however, Lichtenstein’s pronounced dovishness makes him a dissenter within the ranks of religious Zionism. Affiliated with the tiny Orthodox Meimad faction, which advocates territorial compromise with the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state, Lichtenstein is sharply at odds with the majority of the students at his own yeshiva.
Two essays in Leaves of Faith—“Religion and State: The Case for Interaction” and “The Ideology of Hesder”—are classics in what we might call the “complexity genre” of thought about public life in Israel. Lichtenstein upholds Israel’s system of a state-established Orthodox Judaism, while seeking to contain its possible negative effects. Indeed, he rejects out of hand calls for the creation of a secular Jewish state: “The secularist prescription would avert some diseases but kill the patient....We are, by definition and constitution, a people of spiritual destiny and commitment.”
At the same time, however, Lichtenstein urges maximum restraint in imposing religious legislation:
Before a Jewish state institutes religious ordinances, it must evaluate empirically the overall impact of a given law upon the quality of national and individual religious life. It must ascertain whether the game is worth the candle. The possibility that the resistance engendered will outweigh any gain in observance or commitment; that individual personality will be impaired by the impingement upon civil liberties; that the spirituality and the independence of organized religion will be diluted by its increased affiliation with the state—all must be carefully considered, spiritual gain in one sector being balanced against possible loss in another.
In “The Ideology of Hesder,” the issue is military service for yeshiva students, with Lichtenstein championing the Hesder (“arrangement”) program that is in place at Har Etzion and several other religious Zionist institutions. Hesder runs over five years, with students engaging in full-time Talmud study, but leaving the yeshiva for two protracted periods—nine months and six months—of army training and duty. Hesder is attractive, Lichtenstein argues, because it “enables the student, morally and psychologically, to salve both his religious and his national conscience.”
As eager as he is to promote Hesder, Lichtenstein is unwilling to have it seen as an easy way out of the problems faced by the Orthodox in Israel. Indeed, he is at pains to emphasize that Hesder is “more of a challenge than an opportunity,” that in embodying a “conflict of loves, not just of labors,” it entails a “tenuous moral and ideological balance.”
Throughout his career, Lichtenstein has produced talmudic novellae, many available in a four-volume Hebrew series, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s Halakhic Discourses. Much of this material is highly technical: Specialists concerned with the laws of bailees, indirect property damage, sacrifices, and ritual purity (the topics covered in the four installments) will welcome them, but they are not aimed at the general reader. Happily, Leaves of Faith includes more accessible English-language essays in which Lichtenstein focuses on structural components of the halakhic system.
Lichtenstein’s exposure to culture is directly related to his overall theological stance—and so one might guess that his immersion in general culture would show up in his work as a Talmudist. In point of fact, however, his novellae are nearly free of any culture-added element. (I say “nearly” because they are written in colloquial modern Hebrew rather than standard rabbinic Hebrew, a usage that Lichtenstein explains by way of reference to the evolution of English prose style.) Lichtenstein’s novellae are models of complexity, but it is a complexity rooted in the world of traditional talmudic discourse. The Brisker mode of analysis is showcased in the pages of Lichtenstein’s four-volume series. Elyakim Krumbein suggests that the result is “a vast methodological expansion of the familiar Brisker Torah”—a view seconded by Rabbi Shalom Carmy, who insightfully compares Lichtenstein’s “possibilities” model with the approach of his father-in-law.
Lichtenstein is well aware that the modern academic study of the Talmud yields a radically different picture than that which emerges in a Brisker analysis. The fact that he shrugs this off is a telling indication of his comfort level in playing the role of a traditional Talmudist. He is determined to keep “venturesome academicians” at arm’s length, stating bluntly, in an essay called “The Conceptual Approach to Torah Learning,” that “considerations of emunot ve-deot [proper belief] effectively bar the acceptance of certain modes of interpretation; specifically, those that denigrate Hazal [the talmudic rabbis] and challenge their preeminence.”
In “The Human and Social Factor in Halakhah,” Lichtenstein sharply criticizes Orthodox spokesmen who depict decision-making in Jewish law as a purely objective process. (Such spokesmen presume that objectivity makes halakhah more “scientific,” thus adding to its prestige.) In Lichtenstein’s view, the claim that the ideal decisor (posek) is a “faceless and heartless supercomputer,” who renders judgment with “stony objectivity,” is arrant nonsense. All leading decisors, he insists, acknowledge the “rightful place of sensitivity within the process of halakhic decision”; they “approach psak [legal discussions] doubly animated by responsibility to halakhah and sensitivity to human concerns.” Lichtenstein asks rhetorically: “And would we have it otherwise? Does anyone truly yearn for a dayyan [judge] who approaches an agunah [a woman unfree to remarry] and a blitztrop [blood spot on an egg] with the same degree of equanimity?”
Lichtenstein’s rejection of halakhic formalism is likewise at the center of “Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah?” Here he targets the view, again put forward by some Orthodox spokesmen, that “halakhah is self-sufficient” and “every moral dilemma” can be “resolved by reference to code or canon.” Lichtenstein dismisses this as “palpably naďve and patently false”—going on to ask: “Who has not found that the fulfillment of explicit halakhic duty could fall well short of exhausting clearly felt moral responsibility.” Marshaling a broad range of rabbinic sources, he has little difficulty in demonstrating that “halakhah itself mandates that we go beyond its legal corpus.”
Throughout his writings, Lichtenstein’s case for “Torah and culture” is powerfully argued, but it is not immune to criticism from those on the Orthodox left and the Orthodox right. The left is represented by such avant-gardists as Irving Greenberg and David Hartman, who consciously seek to expand the boundaries of Orthodoxy by reformulating basic theological positions. In their view, Lichtenstein’s pro-culture advocacy is welcome but insufficient: they consider it too cautious, too limiting, and too unwilling to face the challenges of the day. Greenberg and Hartman envision an open-ended dialogue with modern culture, in which Orthodox Judaism will take on a new look. Lichtenstein, for his part, wants nothing to do with their approach; he sees culture as reinforcing the traditional structures of Orthodoxy. Orthodox avant-gardism, he writes, “verges on the blasphemous.”
Lichtenstein’s use of “blasphemous” in this context brings into focus an important fact. When confronted with elements of the modern cultural system that directly challenge the foundations of Orthodox belief, Lichtenstein stands ready to set them aside in the name of faith. A case in point is biblical criticism, which, as Lichtenstein puts it, assails “the integrity of sacred texts.” He is measured but firm:
Once dogma is acknowledged, the prospect of a conflict between its content and the conclusions of personal inquiry naturally arises; and there is no question as to how, ultimately, a Torah-committed Jew ought resolve it. In the first instance, every effort will obviously be made to avert a collision. Within limits whose bounds may at times admittedly be open to debate, one will strive to explore various avenues: to reexamine data, reinterpret texts, or rethink propositions. But always out of a profound recognition that at the last frontier,...the supremacy of revealed truth is acknowledged.
Lichtenstein’s willingness to set limits to cultural openness does not impress traditionalists on the Orthodox right. As proponents of “Torah only,” they see exposure to general culture in any form as forbidden. Lichtenstein’s audacious claim that general culture makes available spiritual riches not found in the Jewish tradition will strike Orthodox traditionalists as nothing short of blasphemous. In the same vein, “Torah only” advocates will dismiss as wishful thinking Lichtenstein’s broader contention that cultural exposure can help nurture religious development.
Interestingly, elements of the right-wing critique of Lichtenstein’s pro-culture position have been taken up within the modern Orthodox camp itself. William Kolbrener’s recent essay “Torah Umadda: A Voice from the Academy” zeros in on the “disparity between the ideal of [Torah and culture] and its actual practice in the contemporary university.” Kolbrener is far from being an advocate of “Torah only”—he teaches English at Bar Ilan University—but he clearly sees Lichtenstein’s conception of culture as outmoded. At elite universities today, Kolbrener observes, “what were once considered the classics of Western literature and philosophy are now often viewed as mere markers of prejudice, power, and oppression.” Matthew Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” which Lichtenstein cites repeatedly as a cultural motto, has been replaced by postmodernism’s hermeneutics of suspicion. The result is an elite culture permanently at war with traditional values. Lichtenstein’s grasp of the “current zeitgeist,” Kolbrener is forced to conclude, is woefully inadequate.
As a confirmed centrist, Lichtenstein fully expects his views on “Torah and culture” to be challenged from both left and right. Kolbrener’s criticism, however, raises an issue that goes to the heart of Lichtenstein’s enterprise as a modern Orthodox Jew: Can Lichtenstein’s delicate balancing act really be sustained over time? Once it is acknowledged that Torah study is “primary and central, and all else ancillary,” can the siren call of “Torah only” be long resisted? Conversely, once cultural exposure is established as an urgent desideratum, can areas of inquiry like biblical criticism continue to be viewed as off limits? Buffeted by the opposed forces of traditionalism and avant-gardism, the centrist brand of “Torah and culture” is in permanent danger of dissolution.
Seen from this perspective, the consistency over the years of Lichtenstein’s “Torah and culture” stance is astonishing. From “A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View” in 1961 to “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict” in 1997, Lichtenstein has hewed to a middle course, championing a robust centrism in which Torah study is central, even as cultural involvement is proudly affirmed. When necessary, Lichtenstein has spoken out in opposition to avant-gardist tendencies, but he has been equally fearless in standing up to “Torah only” advocates, insisting that a robust Orthodoxy is consistent with a broad humanism. In spite of the temptations it presents, general culture remains for Lichtenstein a “civilizing and ennobling force.”
David Singer is the Director of Research at the American Jewish Committee in New York City.