Voice from the political wilderness
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein still holds a place of firm personal and moral authority in the religious-Zionist world, even though the co-head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva holds political views that are relatively left-wing.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein slowly walks along the corridor of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem. Students quickly pass by the yeshiva head, who is leaning on his cane. They converse with one another, gesturing energetically, and seem not to notice him. When he calls one of them over by name, however, the student stands at attention, then goes over and bows his head, listening closely to the yeshiva head's words and displaying obvious reverence.
Half a year ago, Rabbi Lichtenstein, now 74, fell on his way to the synagogue in Alon Shvut, where he lives, and he has not yet fully recovered. Nevertheless, he comes here daily to study for a few hours and teach a class at a yeshiva that promotes both devotion to the Torah and political moderation. In his office, whose walls are lined with books and whose large windows allow in a generous amount of sunshine, he apologizes for his cluttered desk. The casual visitor, though, gets the impression that the pile of books aptly suits the atmosphere of scholarship so evident in this room.
Until recently, Lichtenstein shared the title of yeshiva head with Rabbi Yehuda Amital, founder of the Meimad movement. When the latter retired at age 80, Rabbi Yaakov Medan and Rabbi Baruch Gigi were officially appointed to succeed the yeshiva's two founders. Nonetheless, Rabbi Lichtenstein is still considered the ultimate authority at the yeshiva and in the left-leaning religious Jewish community in general.
Following in the footsteps of his teacher (and father-in-law), Joseph Ber (Yosef Dov) Soloveitchik, leader of the modern Orthodox movement in the United States until his death in 1993, Lichtenstein is regarded as one of religious Zionism's most influential rabbis. No small matter, considering his image as a political dove, and that he has at times harshly criticized the leaders of Israel's religious-Zionist community, for example, in connection with their behavior during the disengagement from Gaza. Despite the current atmosphere of "settling accounts" in religious Zionism, no one has dared to come out against Lichtenstein, who has earned a reputation because of his ethical conduct, Torah scholarship and encyclopedic knowledge of halakha and Talmud.
Unlike other rabbinic figures in the national religious camp, not to mention Israel's ultra-Orthodox community, Lichtenstein also occupies a unique intellectual world, in which Torah study, humanism and worldly wisdom coexist harmoniously. He holds a doctorate in English literature from Harvard and frequently quotes secular thinkers and writers.
Lichtenstein was born in France in 1933, but when the Nazis occupied that country, his family fled to the U.S. His father, Yechiel Lichtenstein, taught at Yeshiva University High School, while his mother, Bluma, a native of Telz, Lithuania, who attended the Yavneh School there and received a Zionist upbringing, spoke Hebrew with her children at home. For six years during the 1960s, Lichtenstein taught English literature at a women's college, before deciding to devote his full time and energy to Torah studies. He moved to Israel in 1971, after Rabbi Amital invited him to join him as co-director of the yeshiva in Alon Shvut, in the West Bank.
Though Lichtenstein says he is still worried about religious Zionism's situation, he is far more optimistic today than he was before the disengagement. Then his fears focused on the possibility of soldiers refusing en masse to obey orders. When, on the eve of the disengagement, former chief rabbi Abraham Shapira, the rightists' spiritual authority, issued a religious ruling that instructed soldiers to disobey orders, Lichtenstein sent him a sharply critical letter.
Regarding the disengagement, Lichtenstein today expresses himself cautiously: "I can understand anyone who says it was a mistake and backs that assertion with a reasoned argument. On the one hand, we were promised heaven on earth and, on the other, we were promised hell on earth. Meanwhile, neither the optimists nor the pessimists have proven they were right."
He does not condemn the idea of disobeying orders per se. "I thought the context was wrong," he explains. "People close to Rabbi Shapira believed entire divisions would disobey orders, or that they would try evasive action and be sent to prison. Their hopes were not realized. By the same token, the fears people like me had were proven groundless. In an era when the percentage of religious Jews in the army is rising, there was the fear that, if they passionately adhered to such positions, which could lead them to disobey orders, that would create disunity and factions within the army."
What in fact did happen?
"As things turned out, despite their carefully constructed ideology, the leaders of the religious-Zionist community who led the opposition camp did not really understand the situation. They were surprised by the government's resoluteness and overestimated their camp's strength. They wrongly assessed what would happen at Kfar Maimon. In the final analysis, loyalty to the country and fear for its fate - whether for moral or personal reasons - outweighed ideology."
Concerning Yonatan Bassi, Lichtenstein argues that, as head of the Sela disengagement administration, he displayed conduct reflecting profound morality, as well as Zionism and a sense of mission. "His actions betrayed neither his nation nor the religious camp," he states categorically. "He wanted to serve Israel's best interests. He wanted to open the eyes of a public that was uninterested in understanding the situation. I think such conduct deserves respect. I am very angry that there are still people in my world who not only state that he failed but joyously celebrate that failure."
This does not mean that Lichtenstein completely condemns the criticism directed at Bassi. He believes that, when people say harsh things, they are showing they really care. "We live in an era when the future of the Jewish community here and Israel's future hang in the balance, and some people are more sensitive to this than others," he notes. "The British poet and writer T.E. Hulme related how, during a discussion in France of who was the better dramatist, Shakespeare or Racine, people threw chairs at one another. That shows they deeply cared about the issue."
Nonetheless, he observes: "When people become more religiously observant, they are convinced they have a monopoly on the truth. Although they might care more passionately about certain issues, they are not particularly imbued with a sense of humility or self-criticism that is rooted in a full-fledged spiritual world. They are unprepared to hear what others have to say because they believe it might weaken their religious faith."
It is easy to imagine that this criticism is leveled against the Hardali - the Hebrew acronym for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) nationalist - community. Although, in his view, the Hardali community displays some degree of intolerance, he sees a definite advantage in the strengthening of religious behavior it has fostered: "The Religious Kibbutz Movement is considered tolerant but is also perceived as prone to making compromises. Religiously speaking, it is less impassioned. The Hardali community is devoted to the Torah and strictly obeys the commandments."
Lichtenstein says that it's not his political positions that have changed; rather, the national-religious camp has moved further to the right. "Today," he admits, "I am in a political wilderness. I once belonged to the National Religious Party, but today the party is unprepared to hear my views."
Nevertheless, he emphasizes that he has never been a member of Meimad, although he supports it from behind the scenes: "I do not see myself going down that route. I advocate territorial compromise, but also hold the view that Jews must never be indifferent to the various parts of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel."
His support of territorial compromise is based on the religious principle of piku'ah nefesh, Judaism's paramount directive to save human life. Soloveitchik also spoke of the need for territorial concessions. "When we talk about territorial compromise, we are talking about a calculated risk," explains Lichtenstein. "And, as long as experts see such concessions as serving Israel's best interests, we must respond. If every lieutenant in the army chooses to ignore policies established by democratic forces, that is a problem."
There is also the moral aspect. "When a society becomes overly militaristic spiritually, a price is always paid," he explains. "One price is narrow-mindedness. Unfortunately, that statement holds true for a fairly large segment of the religious-Zionist community."
He recalls how in 1978, Shimon Peres visited the Har Etzion yeshiva and asked what its political agenda was: "I responded that we try to teach our students how to listen and how to choose their path in life in a profound, logical manner. I also told him that we teach them that there are different views and that they should not be mesmerized by empty slogans."
Then why is he in the minority? Why has modern Orthodox Judaism not caught on here in Israel?
"The very complexity of that outlook," he replies, "requires a certain level and ability to balance things and clarify issues. It is much simpler to follow a single flag."