Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein is the rare exception in Israeli life: a Talmudic and halachic authority and yeshiva teacher with a doctorate from Harvard who is fond of quoting Shakespeare and Milton, and a leader of religious Zionism who has been identified with the “peace camp.”
He is being honored on March 10 in New York by the American representative of Yeshivat Har Etzion, the Etzion Foundation, on the occasion of his 80th birthday and in appreciation of his more than 40 years of teaching at Har Etzion.
A student (and son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Lichtenstein made aliyah in 1971. With the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital, he founded Yeshivat Har Etzion and pioneered the hesder yeshiva movement, which insists yeshiva students serve in the Israel Defense Forces during their advanced Talmud study. As an intellectual leader of Modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism, Rabbi Lichtenstein has inspired thousands of students to be rabbis, educators and communal leaders.
He has consistently taught that the Torah obligates religious Jews to cooperate and interact with general society and to identify with the entire human family.
Q: What were the major challenges you faced when you came to Israel as a Torah educator from America with a doctorate?
A: My major challenge as an educator was working with diverse students of different backgrounds and different attitudes to Torah life. I have always tried to develop a common base that does not undercut the specific characters of each group and person.
You recently decried the trend of contemporary rabbinic authorities to isolate themselves from worldly affairs and general human wisdom. How much of a problem is this for religious life and for the Jewish people? How can the trend be reversed?
There is a lack of breadth and depth on the part of some in positions of leadership. Despite these limitations, some in the religious community turn to them for guidance in areas in which they lack the capacity to give wise advice. We probably cannot reverse this trend in the short term, but in the long term we should see to it that people receive a rich Torah education that is blended with an understanding of human nature and society. People with this broad education should be given a more prominent role as advisers and in making policy. Conversely, people who lack this educational and cultural breadth should recognize these limitations, as should those who turn to these leaders for guidance.
What do you see as the future of religious Zionism and its greatest challenges in the next 10 years?
I don’t know what future religious Zionism will look like, but I would like to see deeper levels of Torah knowledge and commitment, interacting with the needs and potential of the society in Eretz Yisrael and of Jewish communities in the Diaspora as well.
What should the role of religious leaders be in relating to Clal Yisrael, particularly to heterodox and secular Jews?
The role of religious leaders may differ in detail from other leaders, but at bottom, it is similar across the board. First and foremost, in political terms it is, in a paraphrase of Matthew Arnold’s description of Edmund Burke, to saturate politics with Torah thought, orientation and commitment. Religious leaders should also recognize and appreciate the contributions of heterodox Jews, which can enrich the total Jewish community spiritually and materially. At the same time, religious leaders should not cede ground excessively in religious issues that heterodox groups do not have the requisite capacity to appreciate.
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is American director of Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel and former editor of Meorot—A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse.