In Hebrew we refer to a great spiritual giant as a gadol. Too often, especially in the modern era of hagiography, the word is too broadly applied and thereby diluted. However, to those who have encountered a gadol, the definition seems intuitive. Having been privileged with a relationship with a gadol, your life is forever personally inspired, morally challenged and religiously refined. I had the privilege of spending more than 30 years in the presence of a gadol of our generation, Harav Aharon Lichtenstein, who inalterably shaped my life and the lives of tens of thousands of his students across the globe.
Though it is impossible to encapsulate the breadth and depth of his character, to me the most outstanding aspect of this gadol was in his uncanny, understated ability to synthesize character traits that appear contradictory and irreconcilable. A gadol is a large enough persona– amplified by a surpassing religious experience– to seamlessly integrate otherwise conflicting qualities.
Harav Lichtenstein, of blessed memory, was best known for his unparalleled Torah erudition, his sweeping intellect and the uncommon breadth of his vast knowledge. Yet those who knew him were far more inspired by his impeccable gentleness, his exceptional humility and his absolute love for human beings. Perhaps his defining character trait was his humility. Despite his tremendous accomplishments, he viewed each person as his equal; his personality was absent of any trace of superiority or haughtiness. Often, intellectual prowess and personal character refinement and kindness do not cohere. A gadol of his stature fused the two effortlessly.
He demonstrated unqualified and unflinching commitment to strict halachic observance. He was not the rabbinic authority to approach if interested in soliciting a halachic leniency (kulah). Yet, surprisingly, he was generally regarded as very open-minded to the broader world and tolerant of a broad range of opinions. Only a gadol of his caliber could combine the peculiar mix of traditional conservatism and progressive liberalism. His secret lay in his steadfast commitment to ritual, Torah study and religious piety.
Harav Lichtenstein was a giant of passion and intensity. To hear his Torah lectures was to encounter roaring fervor and unmitigated religious energy. The pitched intensity of his presentations reflected how deeply engaged he was intellectually, and how fervently he viewed Torah study as the preserving agent of Jewish continuity. Yet the thunderous shiurim [lectures] were delivered by a person who was otherwise soft spoken, gentle and tender.
Harav Lichtenstein displayed a level of sophisticated thinking, giving his students an appreciation of textual nuance and logical subtlety. He could spend literally hours dissecting both Torah passages and religious experiences; this rigorous and layered analysis taught us to view life as complex and diverse rather than simplistic. He possessed a clear moral voice, often expressed outrage and indignation toward injustice, corruption or even character flaws that he thought should be easily repaired.
Harav Lichtenstein was stunningly brilliant, creative, wise and erudite. Standing in his presence you felt humbled by a someone who had fully exploited and maximized all-important human faculties and potential. Similarly, he possessed a belief in the power of humanity and faith in Man as a divinely created pinnacle of creation. Yet, he lived his life as a 'slave' in the literal sense. To him, the Hebrew phrase "eved Hashem" [servant of God] was taken literally. He submitted to Divine authority and religious mandate– not reluctantly but by recognizing submission as the core of religious identity. His hatmadah, or commitment, to seemingly endless hours of uninterrupted Torah study was legendary. Viewing him in his legendary seat in the Beit Midrash at Yeshivat Har Etzion etched upon our imaginations an indelible imprint of a human being working to serve and understand his Creator.
Creative and educated people oftentimes cringe at the prospect of submission. By contrast, obedient worshippers are generally unable to generate creative thought, which generally stems from belief in self and in self-expression. How can one person capture both extremes of human experience? A gadol of Harav Lichtenstein's caliber was able to encompass both 'poles' of human identity. Witnessing a person of such intellectual accomplishment so eagerly and intuitively submitting to religion compelled his students toward similar submission.
Time stood still when he was teaching Torah. The world outside dissipated and, listening to a lecture on the most narrow of topics, felt like a journey through the outer limits of our universe. Yet, despite his ability to fold the entire world into an isolated Torah text he was deeply engaged intellectually in almost every area of human experience from classic literary texts to pressing social issues facing the State of Israel. He could respond articulately and intelligently to any query about the modern reality, and actively sought to landscape the modern world with ancient Jewish morality and faith.
A gadol doesn’t merely deepen the experience of his students, he stretches their religious identity and thereby invigorates it. He teaches his students not to imprison themselves in narrow character traits and forfeit seemingly contradictory traits by branding themselves in particular character profiles or stigmas. He teaches them to be conservative in certain areas while being liberal in others. He teaches them passion and intensity coupled with tenderness and retiring humility. He inspires creativity and self-expression while subjugating those talents toward serving a Higher being. He models scholarship but typifies character and kindness. In short, he creates great people in his image.
In the passing of my Rebbe we have lost a true gadol. Let us hope his memory and lifestyle inspire us all toward the majesty of the religious experience that he so magnificently typified.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel.