Religious Zionists in Israel and the Modern Orthodox community in America this week are mourning a unique and inspiring figure, mentor to literally thousands and model to many more. The influence of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who died Monday at 81, goes far beyond his formal title as Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel.
Aharon Lichtenstein’s family, originally from Eastern Europe, fled, first to France, where he was born in 1933, and then to the U.S. in 1940. Ultimately he emerged as the outstanding student of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University, the towering Modern Orthodox Talmudist and philosopher, who later became his father-in-law. Rabbi Lichtenstein indeed saw himself as continuing the traditions of the Torah world of pre-Holocaust Europe, and felt great affinity to the charedi Torah world. However, his interests also led him to Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., in English literature. As he wrote numerous times, humanistic culture can be of value in molding spiritual personality and moral identity, and therefore the study of great literature, which grapples with the universal and eternal questions of human existence, is a worthy spiritual complement to Torah.
After Harvard, Rabbi Lichtenstein returned to Yeshiva University as Rosh Yeshiva. He taught both Talmud and English, but in 1971 he accepted an invitation by Rabbi Yehuda Amital to join him in leading a recently founded hesder yeshiva (which combines Torah study and military service) in the Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem. His aliyah reflected a deep commitment to Zionism — not the messianic utopianism then ascendant in Israeli Religious Zionism, but one based on a deep appreciation of the importance and potential of the State of Israel and of its establishment as an act of God. His support of the army-yeshiva program as a way of combining different Jewish commitments was later formulated in a programmatic essay, “The Ideology Of Hesder.” The joint leadership of the yeshiva (itself an unusual arrangement) and the synergy between the analytic, restrained (and clean-shaven) Lichtenstein and the mercurial and intuitive Amital (who had a somewhat more traditional appearance) created an electrified atmosphere and constituted an institution the likes of which, combining advanced Talmudics and traditional religious commitment with intellectual openness, had not been previously seen in Israel.
In his decades at Har Etzion, Rav Aharon (as his students referred to him) devoted himself totally to a demanding schedule of teaching Talmud at the highest level. His lectures combined his mastery of the totality of rabbinic literature, his systematic powers of organization and the analytical approach of the “Brisker school” he had learned from his mentor and father-in-law. The eight volumes of lecture notes, edited by his students, were part of the writings for which the rabbi received the Israel Prize for rabbinic literature last year. For him study of the entire span of the Talmud, including the laws of sacrifices and purity often absent from the yeshiva curriculum, was not only an intellectual challenge but also a rapturous confrontation with the divine, which transcended pragmatic questions of relevance; study was for him the quintessential service of God.
Together with his commitment to all-inclusive Torah study, he concerned himself with topics such as the interface of Torah and morality. In his personal life, he held himself to a strict level of observance in areas of ritual law as well as in moral obligations. His students — both Israelis and the many Americans who came to study under his guidance — were exposed in the intimacy of the yeshiva setting to a teacher with absolute integrity and profound humility, whose absolute devotion to study, his loving care of his father — for years blind as well as hard of hearing — and his function as a parent, provide a model for them to this day.
Some, especially outside of the yeshiva, were disappointed when they found that they could not compress his positions into sound bites and claim him for their camp. He had no respect for those who ignored the complexity of human reality, awareness of which was for him a necessary component of halachic thinking and of religious life. He refused to be inducted into “liberal Orthodoxy” and was wary of what he saw as deviant tendencies, from a famous exchange in the 1960s with his colleague at Yeshiva, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, to criticism in recent years of what he saw as anarchistic trends in neo-chasidic Israeli youth.
This principled but careful approach exemplified Rav Lichtenstein’s activities as a public intellectual in Israel. Following the ruling of his father-in-law, he was steadfast in his principled support for territorial compromise, unpopular as the position is in the Religious Zionist sector, but wary of publicly espousing specific dovish policies regarding the peace process. He claimed no special expertise in security matters.
The exception to this restraint was when public issues had a moral dimension. Two in particular elicited from him vehement response: His and Rav Amital’s demand for a commission of inquiry after the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla, during the 1982 war in Lebanon, comparing the sins of omission that may have been committed to the biblical law of the forsaken dead (Deut. 21:1-9), and his condemnation of a eulogy of Baruch Goldstein, delivered in the hesder yeshiva in Kiryat Arba by its rosh yeshiva, after Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994.
Although he often found himself in the minority within Religious Zionism, Rav Lichtenstein’s stature in erudition and integrity accorded him a unique status as moral compass and a voice combining staunch traditionalism with religious humanism. Sadly, that unique voice has been silenced.
Kalman Neuman, a rabbi, is a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute’s Religion and State Project, and a lecturer at Herzog College in Gush Etzion.