Published as “Celebrating Complexity” in The Jerusalem Post , April 21, 2015
Accompanied by tens of thousands of his students, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein zecher tzaddik livracha (zt”l) will today be interned in the Jerusalem mountains. Here is my tribute to him, as published this morning in The Jerusalem Post.
The brilliant yet unassuming Rabbi Lichtenstein bravely modeled for us a rich life of religious purity, intellectual rigor, constant study, broad-mindedness, and societal commitment.
When practiced by the sophisticated modern man, Judaism is sourced in the most advanced and complicated thinking, not in amulets and kabbalistic incantations. Religion probes the most difficult quandaries of human existence, metaphysical presence and purpose, identity, and spiritual makeup. It seeks to bridge ancient devotions with contemporary sensibilities. It seeks to embrace both the particularistic and humanistic aspects of nationality.
It aims to authenticate and guide our creativity and drive for success in all fields of human endeavor.
It is more relevant and needed than ever in the modern age.
I learned much of this approach to Jewish religious life and thinking from Rabbi Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein (“Rav Aharon”), dean of the multi-faceted and magnificent Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion, and last year’s Israel Prize laureate in Torah literature, who passed away Monday (1 Iyyar 5775).
Since moving to Israel from America more than 40 years ago, Rabbi Lichtenstein has taught the highest-level Talmud, halacha and philosophy to his tens of thousands of students. He did so while simultaneously validating their service in the IDF as a religious obligation and their subsequent pursuits of university education as a natural outgrowth of their religious personalities.
Himself a professor of English literature, he taught that intellectual openness is a hallmark of true Orthodox Judaism, alongside single-minded devotion to Torah study and adherence to halachic boundaries and values.
Rabbi Lichtenstein taught that critical thinking and humanism characterize the Oved Hashem (the worshipper of G-d), not slavish and blind devotion to self-proclaimed prophets and closed-minded soothsayers. He taught that full involvement in Israeli society and a passion for social justice are key religious obligations, not the isolationism and jingoism that characterize too much of ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist communities today.
Rabbi Lichtenstein’s views were path-breaking on a range of critical issues, including the value of secular literature from a Jewish religious perspective, the nature of holiness, religious humanism, religious-secular relations, the role and status of women in studying Torah, attitudes to the non-Jew, the meaning of Zionism from a religious perspective, the methodology of the study of Bible and Talmud, Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria, and more.
It’s not surprising that some of the boldest leaders of today’s Religious Zionist community are students of his academy, Yeshivat Har Etzion. In a landmark address at his eightieth birthday gathering two year ago, Rabbi Lichtenstein pointedly devoted his remarks to exhorting his students to expend even greater effort on influencing the moral and religious character of Israeli society – through intellectual and social leadership, not coercion.
Rabbi Lichtenstein’s unique and meticulous approach to Talmudic analysis – recorded in many published volumes – will live on as testament to his brilliance. But so will his profound articulations of devout faith – both child-like and super-erudite – for modern man. At the core of oeuvre is deep love for G-d and his dedication to the learning of Torah as a supreme religious value, notwithstanding his appreciation of general culture, secular literature and scientific investigation.
What especially stands out for Rabbi Lichtenstein’s students, of which I was privileged to be one, is his humility and modesty. Everyone could only be impressed by his approachability and lack of airs. Everyone could only be amazed at the unpretentious way in which shared leadership of the yeshiva with its founder, the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital. No one could forget his devotion to his blind and mostly-deaf father, to whom he chanted the prayers out loud, and whom he led along the lanes of the yeshiva gardens with incredible patience. No one could fail to notice his sincere respect for his distinguished wife, Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, and his attentiveness to the education and pioneering careers of his children.
Everybody learned from Rabbi Lichtenstein’s unassuming nature and tolerance; qualities that make his insistence on high moral and intellectual standards and ritual exactness all that much more impressive.
Alongside Rabbi Amital, Rabbi Lichtenstein raised a generation of disciples who are both like him and unlike him: admiring of his great mind and religious integrity yet independent thinkers who often dissent from his political and public policy views; scholars who follow his approach in study yet seek to expand its horizons; community activists who embrace his inclusive approach yet find deeper stirrings in religious nationalist romanticism than he did.
I suspect that in his self-effacing way, Rabbi Lichtenstein was enormously proud of the alumni who have absorbed his nuanced teachings; who view him as a revered leader yet dare to pave their own ways within Orthodoxy; who seek both to emulate and go beyond him.
To my own sons and daughters (one of whom is currently studying in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s yeshiva), I say: Seek the rich life of religious rigor, constant study, broad-mindedness, and societal commitment that Rabbi Lichtenstein so bravely modeled for us.