It is perhaps in the nature of a great human being that it is only from a perspective of both time and distance that one can really appreciate them.
I consider myself blessed to have spent three of my formative years in close proximity to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. On trying to put his virtues into words, one which stands out was his humility, which was both unique and exemplary. He possessed a genuine egolessness, in the healthiest possible sense. This was not false modesty, a labored and strained attempt to suppress one’s pride or hunger for recognition. No, this was simply a profound and genuine awareness of one’s smallness, humbled as he was by his place in the tradition.
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He was also justly famous for the rigor and complexity of his thought. We take thinking for granted, that we know how to do it, that we know what logic and clarity are. But it has to be learnt, it has to be cultivated, and the intricacies of the Talmudic world were a great training ground for it.
I recall listening to his Talmud lectures on tape after hearing them in person, rewinding sections over and over again in an attempt to understand a hairsplitting distinction. A two-hour lecture could take six hours to revisit, digest and properly note. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t recall all of the subject matter from those lectures, but the ability to think critically and systematically, to unravel and engage with difficult concepts, that has stayed with me for life.
One might say that his subtlety was wasted on the young Yeshiva students he was mostly surrounded by. Filled with passion and impatience, a thirst for metaphysical certainty, they would look to him for clear and definitive answers. But they would never come; his endless contextualizations and qualifications were perhaps designed to frustrate his students, to show them the meaning of complexity, of nuance, of rigor and systematic thinking. The students of course would continue to ask, and they would in turn keep drinking from the cooling waters of this deep and capacious mind, learning, unwittingly, the patience and discipline required to be a thinker.
His educational philosophy, like that of Rav Amital, was to give space, to lead by example, to teach of the Divine by embodying it rather than by philosophizing about it. Following the Kabbalistic doctrine of tzimtzum, of self-limitation, they both left a lot of autonomy in the hands of their students, giving them the space to wander and get lost in ways conducive to true and lasting growth.
He once spoke of the ideal personality as a large container, which could then be filled with Torah, with wisdom and character marked with the stamp of the Divine. It was easy enough to fill a small vessel, and also possible to create a large vessel but to fail to sanctify it. To allow oneself to expand and to still somehow infuse the fullness of one’s person with a sense of responsibility and higher purpose, that was a struggle. And it was not one without its risks.
Rav Lichtenstein was not always completely comfortable with directions his students took, wondering how positions that he had staked out on the left flank of Orthodoxy, which had seemed radical in their time, came to be viewed by some students as moderate or conservative.
In my own experience, however, at a time when I was really struggling with my Judaism, I found him to be above all compassionate and non-judgmental. As we spoke at length about the intellectual and existential difficulties I was having, he communicated tremendous sympathy with my plight, and, characteristically, did not pretend to have any easy answers to my problems.
But there was something more, something warm and encouraging, as if he could see in my troubled soul that something good was trying to work its way out, that this was not a meaningless and angry rebellion but a necessary stage in my development. It was almost as if his faith in me allowed me to have faith in myself, to feel that I was actually engaged in something meaningful, that my better self had not been entirely duped.
I’ll never know for sure what he was thinking, but our encounter that day kept me connected to Judaism and to the Yeshiva, and gave me a true glimpse of his greatness of soul. To outer appearances he might have looked just like another Rosh Yeshiva, blessed with an exceptional mind and extraordinary piety. And he was. But beneath the surface lived an integration of all the moral and spiritual wisdom he encountered throughout his quest, a glowing furnace of broad virtue, acting as a reminder that such things were possible.
He showed that there really is a need for deep commitment to the life of the spirit, that there are no technological or intellectual shortcuts to moral progress. Through his example we can see that a life lived in pursuit of these goals is not only possible within the apparent constrictions of traditional religion but might even be enhanced by them.
In my mind, this is what the Yeshiva stands for, a world of alternative values, a place where young souls are given the nutrition and love necessary for finding their roots and developing what he called "a kind of spiritual sensitivity to the world." Seeds are planted in these years which may take many years to come to fruition, whose impact might only become clear over the decades.
But this was Rav Aharon’s vision, the blood which ran through his veins, and in a world where he is no longer, where we are orphaned and bereft of his guiding presence, of the sense that someone had things in hand, it falls upon all of us to work that bit harder to realize it, to show that both Judaism and spirituality have much to teach our world, particularly when the best of them are married together.