Many think of Modern Orthodoxy as a tepid compromise—Orthodoxy Lite, an accommodation with the values of bourgeois culture, satisfied with mediocrity in the study of Torah, and half-hearted about the demand for a single-minded commitment to God and His commandments. From the 1930s through the 1980s Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik represented the alternative: an Orthodoxy centered on the service of God even while engaged with and concerned for the rest of humanity, deeply devoted to the traditional study of Torah even while confronting and learning from the liberal arts. Until this week his son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, was the most prominent exponent of that ideology in Israel, where he was Dean of Har-Etzion Yeshiva, and in the United States, where he frequently lectured and exercised influence via his many disciples. For all his admiration and faithfulness to his masters, R. Aharon fashioned his own distinctive intellectual agenda, while conducting his life with rigorous piety and an ethical sensitivity that had to be seen to be believed. I was a student of both, and now they are both gone.
Rabbi Soloveitchik had studied philosophy at the University of Berlin. R. Lichtenstein chose to pursue a PhD in English at Harvard, with the Christian humanist Douglas Bush. The result of his research was Henry More: The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist. The thesis of this book is that the Cambridge Platonists, among others, minimized dogma, ritual, and intellection in the hope of constructing a democratic, least common denominator religion, consequently contributing to the Augustan culture in which religion becomes the handmaiden of social conduct, “morality with frosting.” “The quest for virtue,” R. Aharon asserts, “must involve the whole man, the intellect included. Disregard this, and the result is disproportion; and disproportion, as the Greeks knew, brings first chaos and then desiccation.” Judaism, by contrast, with its uncompromising insistence on ritual and its requirement that all Jews engage in Torah study at whatever level they are capable of, involves the human being in all his complexity.
The greatest lesson of his Harvard years, in R. Lichtenstein’s opinion, was the extraordinary complexity of the human condition. Yet English literature was a side pursuit. His passion and his life was Talmud. During the 1960s the young Lichtenstein taught Talmud and the occasional liberal arts seminar at Yeshiva University. In 1971 he accepted the invitation of R. Yehuda Amital, who had recently founded Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush Etzion region, to join him as a co-Rosh Yeshiva. This was a Hesder yeshiva, in which students combined Talmudic study with army service. Over the next four decades, the two jointly built and sustained the most influential Hesder yeshiva. Yeshivat Har Etzion founded an affiliated teacher’s college and women’s program, each of which served as a model for similar initiatives in other Hesder yeshivot.
In Talmud, R. Lichtenstein was a staunch advocate of the Brisker (Brest-Litovsk) method developed through several generations of the Soloveitchik dynasty. This is not the place to review his contribution and his success in propagating the analytic rigor and intensity he had learned from his father-in-law and that had previously been associated with schools that eschewed any involvement in the world outside the hall of Talmudic study. In his scrupulous hands, the disputing voices of the Talmudic house of study, however cacophonous to the untrained ear, revealed their multiple strands of meaning and invited his students to become participants in this dialogue of the generations.
In addition to his Talmudic studies and his eight volumes of lectures, all in Hebrew, R. Lichtenstein’s thinking is represented in the two volumes called Leaves of Faith and Varieties of Jewish Experience.
Rabbi Lichtenstein’s advocacy of liberal arts study as an ancilla to religious study and devotion should speak to traditional believers whether Jewish or Christian. Though revelation stands at the center and the proper study for the Jew is not simply man, but man confronted by God, we encounter the image of God when we encounter the Arnoldian best that has been thought and said, and we understand ourselves and others better when we confront the voice of the other. To think otherwise is “mere chauvinism.”
He was a Zionist who treated Jewish sovereignty in Israel as a means rather than an end. He adopted Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view that territorial compromise, however painful—he compared it to amputating a limb to save a life—is permissible in the land of Israel for the sake of peace. It mattered little to him that this position was anathema to the religious maximalists who often dominated discourse.
Despite an aversion to publicity, R. Lichtenstein spoke up, when necessary, on urgent public issues. His sense of complexity did not stifle moral clarity. On the contrary, he was impelled to witness to that complexity in the face of one-sided, simplistic positions. Invariably he engaged his adversaries, with enormous respect for their presumed sincerity, on their own turf. During the first Lebanon war of 1982, for example, Christian militiamen who enjoyed Israeli support massacred Palestinian refugees. R. Lichtenstein penned an open letter to Prime Minister Begin, calling upon the government to investigate whether Israeli officials had failed to exercise restraint over the marauders. He published it in the religious nationalist newspaper HaTzofe. To hardline Orthodox coteries dismissive of secular Zionists, he insisted on the gratitude owed to the Zionist enterprise. To those contemptuous of cloistered Orthodoxy, he patiently explained its authenticity and value. To the militant Zionists who come close to worshipping the state when it facilitates their goals, but abhor it when it compromises, R. Lichtenstein preached a theocentric ideal that recognizes the state as a means rather than an end. Thus, when militant rabbis called upon soldiers to disobey orders to withdraw from Gaza, he reminded the public that undermining legitimate authority caused greater harm than the worst possible consequences of evacuation. As he remarked to me afterwards: “In the pinch, whatever their ideology, the soldiers were willing to rely on us [himself and R. Amital].”
Beyond his intellectual prowess and dedication, R. Lichtenstein’s attractiveness as a religious and ethical role model is very much connected to his remarkable personal qualities. His personal integrity, depth of character, humility, indomitable enthusiasm, attentiveness to the dignity and needs of other human beings, and unfailingly humane comportment are an abiding inspiration and ideal for many whom he has taught and influenced. It has been lamented that the intellectual brilliance of R. Lichtenstein may, at times, obscure his moral and human greatness.
It is indeed difficult to expatiate on the character of one’s mentor, especially when so much of what we would speak about pertains to private exchanges and painstaking individual guidance. For the insider elaboration is inadequate and superfluous; for outsiders, it smacks of hagiography and bragging that does not fit the humble, down to earth qualities of the individual being praised. Nevertheless, in our grief, it is the man himself, the quiet man who did everything with gusto and zest, who understood that life is difficult and radiated indomitable joy, this portable scroll of the Law, who stands out. I am loath to let go. So allow me to end with these vignettes.
In the late 1960s I sat next to R. Lichtenstein as the guests filed in for a wedding. One of them, sitting in front of us, asked the other: “Who is officiating?” “Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.” To which I heard the first respond: “They say he knows the Talmud by heart.” One thing I am sure of. R. Lichtenstein did not hear the end of that sentence. By some feat of agility that I have yet to figure out, he had vanished from earshot the moment his name was mentioned.
Last October, when I saw him last, he was no longer the athlete who played basketball furiously with his students and was dismayed to see anyone slacking off. It was a good day, I was told: He discussed Talmud for an hour, and then we went to pray. Behind the walker he still propelled himself with vigor and purpose, “with deliberate steps and slow.” I thought: He is “not now that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth,” when, for several years, he accompanied his old blind father to the synagogue and, for an hour, whispered in his ear every word of the prayers the old man did not know by heart, then going off to another service to fulfill his own duty to pray. As we prepared for the afternoon prayer, I saw his face, and it was not the face of an eighty-year-old man in discomfort discharging a routine religious obligation. It was bright and full of freshness and expectation. It was the face of a serene child, the world before him, looking forward eagerly to the service of his Creator. If this is what a life dedicated to God comes to, it is hard not to want to share in that quest.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Yeshiva University and is Editor of Tradition, the theological journal sponsored by Rabbinical Council of America.