Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Idiosyncratic Titan of Israeli Modern Orthodoxy

Even when religious Zionism was deservedly vulnerable, Rav Aharon offered no apologetics.

Archive: Limor Edrey

I am privileged to call myself a student, one of the many thousands, of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, of blessed memory; though – and this is no false humility – I am nowhere near the strongest. I see myself in the far back of the mythic Beit Midrash of all of his disciples (which probably looks a lot like the eagle on the hill in Alon Shvut), straining to understanding not only his shiur (lesson) but also to process and digest the totality of his Torah which had such profound impact on many people I respect, much more than on me.

I've often felt and rarely admitted that my biggest regret from my formative, invaluable two years at Yeshivat Har Etzion was squandering my time as a student in Rav Aharon's shiur. By that time, in the early spring of 1996, I was still reeling and deeply distracted by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and probably more ready to leave the yeshiva and get to college than I wanted to admit. Rav Aharon's Torah was so... heavy. This is not, heaven forbid, a criticism. But he was not there to entertain, and I regret that my inability in that time to have the necessary sitzfleisch cost me in my own understanding of the depth of a sugya and how to slowly, methodically unpack it and its implications.

But one memory in particular does stand out from those years of the great rosh yeshiva, and it was his extraordinary speech and then shiur klali (a seminar for all the students in the yeshiva) in the wake of Rabin's assassination. Religious Zionism was vulnerable for a brief moment, and deservedly so. Yet, Rav Aharon offered no apologetics, none of the self-serving rhetoric that many of his peers employed to dodge responsibility at that moment when introspection was needed. I remember him thundering from the lectern – a study in contrasts to the lamenting, poetic and equally memorable speech by his beloved partner Rav Amital z"tzl.

His speech danced between traditional texts and modern polemics, as Rav Aharon indicted his own community for translating their conviction in the value of their own ideas into a destructive self-righteousness that looked down at others, vilified difference, and valued shallowness over complexity. He claimed the assassin as a product of his own community in order to take responsibility for an educational system that could produce him, and that needed desperate remedy. I felt then and still feel now the echoes of what Torah can look like when it is deployed in the service of moral courage in a living society that needs it so much.

And I also feel that I am a beneficiary – even if only by osmosis – of a way of thinking that Rav Aharon brought to the yeshiva that became its great legacy of Talmudic methodology. The Brisker method, which breaks down Talmudic debates to their underlying conceptual concerns, is underappreciated as a vehicle for moral conditioning. Most of its proponents see the methodology as primarily a vehicle for Jewish law and an intellectual exercise in unpacking debates between rabbis that are written in an economical style such that they do not reveal the full  considerations that animate each position. But if we understand its full phenomenological implications, such an approach also facilitates the development of young minds at a critical stage of their intellectual and moral development. Being challenged to tease out the conceptual underpinnings of both sides of an issue is as good for the spirit as it is for the mind, and signals a respect not just for the triumphant outcome of an issue but for all its inherent considerations.

In the years to come, as often happens with great scholars and teachers, people will lament which paths forged by Rav Aharon and Rav Amital were not followed by the mainstream religious-Zionist world – be it their curious hybrid of pragmatic politics with deep fidelity to tradition, their unique intellectual openness and sophistication, or their merger in creating the yeshiva and what it meant for the marriage of Hasidic spirituality and Lithuanian rigor. And some will use their exceptionalism to call into question the meaning of their legacy.

Do not believe it, it is a trap. Moral and spiritual leadership cannot be measured alone by the creation of political consensus. Rav Aharon – beyond his renowned erudition and deep philosophical sophistication – stood for morally significant ideas at important moments in history, built an institution, and raised many students. He was a giant and be will be missed.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion from 1994 to 1996.