The Secrets to Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein's Greatness

The yeshiva head integrated the moral wisdom of the Western world into understanding Torah, and drew a rare connection between Talmud and true human concerns.

Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, head of the hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion who was buried Tuesday surrounded by thousands of grieving students, had a powerful, yet unique, hold on his pupils. Unlike other rashei yeshiva, his grasp did not derive from a mythic cultivation of personality, participation (interference) in the personal lives of his students, promises of patronage, inner secrets, or the World to Come. If anything, he gave them This World with all of its conflicts – and perhaps even more, when viewed with his moral and intellectual insight.

The “secrets” came with the hard thinking needed to crack a Talmud page and its parallel Maimonidean legal corpus, often yielding an actually “simple” set of understandings that, on second thought, was always there. He did not tell his students how to lead their lives, but his clear thinking offered many a key to the door of understanding choices and their consequences. His “hold” on his students was his complete integrity, and his insistence on his pupils' integrity permeated his teaching and intellectual work.

Lichtenstein’s two exceptional talents – beyond the “usual” laser-focus on the issue at hand – were, first of all, the capacity to see issues from the widest possible vantage point, and to lay it out, textually and conceptually, for the participants in his explanation. Secondly, as a master of the “Brisk” analytical system – which he learned from his father-in-law, the famed Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Boston – the Rav possessed the ability to examine the dialectical possibilities of issues to their ends in proscribed law or thought. But he also, at least implicitly, uncovered the “excluded middle”: a third way, even if, ostensibly, Aristotle's principle of non-contradiction means tertium non datur – “no third possibility has been offered.” Lichtenstein nevertheless found it in Talmudic logic.

This third way allowed not only for exciting “learning,” but also for an extremely rigorous study of Jewish practice, free of overt extremism or dogmatism. He argued conflicting principles with lightning flashes of understanding to accommodate a subtle teasing-out of nuances of judicial and theological counter and alternative schemes.

This also explains, paradoxically, his impatience with religious positions that he did not consider within the realm of serious morality. He wasn’t a classic liberal – his positions on abortion were conservative and he was hesitant about conversion. At the same time, he vigorously rebuked his fellow national-religious colleagues who eulogized Baruch Goldstein as evoking “disgust and shame.” In a public and published discussion in 5743 (1983) he reminded such rabbis that not every war fulfils Maimonides’ demand that it “aids Israel,” and that in committing to war, one must take into account not only the possible Israeli causalities, but also that of our enemies who are also created b’tselem Elohim – in the Divine Image. These positions cost him and his yeshiva support within his community.

This integrity was part and parcel of his worldview which was highly sophisticated Torah with the best of Western philosophy, literature, and theology. Unlike some of Soloveitchik’s other disciples, he didn’t employ Western thought as a punching bag, a showy prop, nor as a template to which Torah tidbits would be made to fit. Nor was it a “synthesis” of both, which usually leads to, well, something synthetic. Integration might be the word. He was defined by the Jewish classics, but he took moral wisdom from where he found it, in an unlabored but careful manner.

Thus, in a random yeshiva talk, which became a halakhic article, he compares the Jewish notion of kevod habriyot – concern for human dignity – to a secular formulation. He wrote: “from a secular perspective, the concept of human dignity empowers man to a point far beyond that which we find in the religious worldview On the other hand, the religious perspective somewhat diminishes man and his world," and he considers that "we do not fully actualize the concept of 'kevod habriyot' in our application of Halakha.” The rest is a profound articulation of the “need for a spiritual, intellectual and ethical effort to bring this 'great' principle to actualization.”

This kevod habriyot was a typical concern for Lichtenstein and remains so for his students. The fact that it is not standard fare for at other hesder yeshivot to rigorously draw the connection between Talmud and true human concerns – indeed most would consider it strange to do so – is all the more reason to lament Lichtenstein's death. And it – along with his personal, humble but intense morality infused by thinkers such as the Chazon Ish and the Cambridge Platonists, the latter on whom he wrote his Harvard dissertation – explains his hold on his students, and that which he should have on the rest of us.

Rabbi Daniel Landes is Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches the Senior Kollel Talmud class and Theology. His views are his own.