Rav Lichtenstein, a Jewish Leader of Rare Value

Rav Lichtenstein, a Jewish Leader of Rare Value

By Suzi Brozman / sbrozman@atljewishtimes.com

The following article was written the night of April 20.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein for Atlanta Jewish Times
Mourners crowd the funeral procession for Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. (photo by Gershon Elinson)

On Monday morning, April 20, the Jewish world was stunned and saddened to learn of the death of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein at age 81. Rav Lichtenstein came to Israel’s first hesder yeshiva (where students combine Torah study and military training), Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, where he shared rosh yeshiva duties with Rav Yehuda Amital and held the position from 1970 until he was forced by poor health to scale back some of his duties in recent years.

Rav Lichtenstein was born in Paris in 1933. In 1940 his family fled France and immigrated to the United States. Attending Yeshiva University in New York, he studied under Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who became his mentor and his father-in-law. He had the reputation as a pioneering and brilliant Talmudist and was awarded the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest honor.

This past week has seen an outpouring of memories and grief from those who knew him, knew of him, studied with or under him, or knew him by reputation. Atlanta is no exception. I spoke with many who wanted to express their sorrow and their admiration for this great man. Their thoughts will express his character and intellectual brilliance as nothing I could write would. Some were willing to be quoted by name, while some wanted to reminisce anonymously.

One rabbi, a former Atlanta resident, was a classmate of Rav Lichtenstein’s in their years at Yeshiva College, today Yeshiva University. “He was younger but smarter. He was the most organized person I knew. He didn’t waste time. He devoted all his time to his work. He was high-principled but not posturing. He meant it; it came from the purity and goodness of his heart. He was a tzadik in nature. I visited my grandson at Gush [the familiar name for Har Etzion], and he wouldn’t approach Rav Aharon. He was docile, in awe of him. The rav was an exceptionally good, intelligent man, always on the side of good. We won’t see his like again any time soon.”

This rabbi’s son lives here today in Toco Hills. He was a student at Gush some years ago and remembers Rav Lichtenstein as an intellectual leader of high religiosity and peace but also of extreme modesty. His politics were to the left of other Zionist religious leaders. “I was at Gush when the massacres at Sabra and Shatila occurred. He was extremely indignant about people taking a cavalier attitude. He would tell people, ‘I don’t know how others pray, but my prayers always begin “We have sinned before you.” ’ He adhered to what he felt was right, even if it was unpopular.”

Like many others, this man was most impressed with Rav Lichtenstein’s attitudes. “He was of high character. He had control of his emotions and was highly principled and highly nuanced. He was clearly brilliant of both holy and secular texts. He put a lot of time into doing things he felt needed to be done, even if it wasn’t comfortable. His knowledge and ability to organize and analyze were unparalleled, but at the same time he was extremely modest.”

Rabbi Michael Broyde also studied at Yeshiva University. He said: “Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was a model for us of a balanced perfection. He was an impeccable Torah scholar, an erudite thinker, a Harvard-educated literature scholar. On top of that, he was a nice person, a pleasant person, always willing to give advice and help when he could. He could prioritize values to reflect the nuanced and complex world we actually all live in. A few years ago, when the phrase WWJD [What would Jesus do?] became common in the evangelical world as a shorthand for doing the right thing, the social circle that I am part of took to asking WWRAD [What would Rav Aharon Do?] when hard questions arose. That was the tribute to the judgment of this great man. His life was an inspiration, and his memory should be a blessing.”

Josh Weissmann, an outstanding recent Yeshiva Atlanta graduate, is studying at Gush. I asked him if, in the sadness of the moment, he would share his thoughts with me.

“I used to watch him, day after day, race into the beit midrash on his walker, learning for hours at a time, even at age 81 — an inspiration from afar that stagnation should never lead to satisfaction,” Weissmann said. “And now in his passing I witness tens of thousands of talmidim and millions of tears from his closest students, who gather at once for his burial. They say his strongest trait, amongst a complex and quiet personality so staunchly devoted to G-d and Jewish tradition, was his humility. That even after reinventing the concept of religious Zionism in Israel by resurfacing an entire Hesder Yeshiva movement his name remains absent from the discussion is only testimony to his ability to silently shape today’s leadership seemingly across the board in the Modern Orthodoxy, Dati Le’umi and general Israeli culture.

“The word ‘responsibility’ floats prevalently among nearly all Gush circles, in that Rav Aharon’s outlook towards Talmud Torah was centered on, as the Gemara in Mesechet Shabbat in the Yerushalmi says, the concept that Talmud Torah is learnt in order to be practiced. Perhaps his greatest legacy will be the intense drive instilled in each of his talmidim to impact the next generation of Jews with strong moral character and powerful, Torah-based intellect.”

Professor Chaim Saiman, who now teaches law in a Catholic university, commented to his class, “Everything in his life emerged from his love of G-d, of the Torah and of the Talmud. But whether this is your tradition or not, it’s a valuable lesson to learn. May his memory serve as an inspiration to us all.”

On Monday night, April 20, Young Israel of Toco Hills synagogue hosted an azkarah, or memorial service, for Rav Lichtenstein at which several former students and one current teaching colleague spoke about their friend and mentor.

As host, Rabbi Adam Starr introduced the program. “This is a tremendous loss to the Jewish people of a man who embodied the highest ideals of Torah both in learning and in deed. Rav Lichtenstein was the pre-eminent leader of the religious Zionist, Modern Orthodox community who espoused the religious values of the state of Israel and of general culture. Rav Lichtenstein’s vision of a committed Orthodoxy profoundly engaged with the world is one that guides and inspires who we are and what we strive to be at Young Israel of Toco Hills.”

First to speak was Emory professor Rabbi Michael Berger. As a Gush student, he was a close student of Rav Lichtenstein’s. He told the audience that Rav Lichtenstein had a passionate pursuit of the world that was complex and that he had an incredibly analytic mind and was thus able to see many valid sides.

Rabbi Berger said Rav Lichtenstein’s approach to his students was that “he didn’t want to clone himself through the students. Rather, he wanted to launch his students.” And he did — by pushing them to go into the rabbinate, chaplaincy, chinuk.

Rabbi Berger related an anecdote from the day he had his admission interview at Gush. “I was waiting, and a tall man came out and asked, ‘Are you waiting for me?’ ‘I don’t know; who are you?’ The man said, ‘Aharon Lichtenstein.’ I thought my career was over. But it is a testament to the rav that he wasn’t looking for kavod (glory).”

But the rav was looking for something else. He demanded much from his students out of respect for them. He once told Seth Farber, then a student, “I disagree with many of the strategies you’ve chosen to take, but I am glad you are doing this work.”

In closing, Rabbi Berger summed up much of the rav’s philosophy: “If we are to live by his example, we must commit to living in the worlds he mastered, not to look for easy solutions, for convenience or simple, popular answers. He struggled, and in the struggle, he found the Kodesh Barechu (G-d).”

Rabbi Eric Levy, a Gush graduate who teaches at Atlanta Jewish Academy, said Rav Lichtenstein was “a towering figure of intellect. There was an awe factor. … He had incredibly high standards. He sat at the tables with us, but he wasn’t very outgoing. Most of us were not comfortable breaking that shell that we ourselves had constructed. Rav Lichtenstein was the intellectual, very Olympian, almost a god, while his counterpart, Rav Amital, was more approachable, like a Chasidic rebbe, very warm. The two were quite different, sometimes opposed, but worked together quite well.”

Rabbi Levy shared a story of Rav Lichtenstein’s respect for his father. “His father was very aged, blind and almost deaf. He used to come up to the yeshiva from time to time. Rav Aharon would run up to him, take him by the hand and walk him across the room, yelling very loud so his father could hear. He was very respectful of his father.”

Rav Lichtenstein supported a pro-land-for-peace religious movement. Rabbi Levy said he’d vote for a party because it was “the least worst party.” He believed that “it is a greater mitzvah to live in less populated areas — the Gush better than Tel Aviv, for example. Peace between humans was more important than a piece of land was his belief in the ’80s.” Eventually he was disappointed by the political parties.

The evening’s final guest speaker was Rabbi Daniel Wolf from Gush, who taught and worked with Rav Lichtenstein and just happened to be in Atlanta. He offered some insights into the rav’s life and character. “You could ask him anything, any time, and he’d answer. And it was true. He always said his family was his greatest accomplishment,” something Rabbi Wolf illustrated with an example. Rav Lichtenstein spent Shabbat afternoon studying with his children. “He played Chutes and Ladders with his toddler son; the game could go on for hours and hours. He could have manipulated the game to win, but he wouldn’t cheat, so they kept playing until his son won. He gave his kids wide berth to be themselves. One of his children refused to eat the food that Rav Aharon and the rest of the family found acceptable. So Rav Aharon made sure food with the proper heksher was always available for this son. He felt that it was important to invest all we can in our children … to make the most out of life.”

Another example: Rav Lichtenstein would always stop on the road to help people change their tires. He’d help carry his passengers’ luggage. He was extremely modest and totally honest. He made an effort to understand the strengths and weaknesses of others. He didn’t force his views on others; rather, he let them express themselves, knowing that would produce incredible results.

Rabbi Starr closed the program by listing some of the rav’s outstanding traits. He was a towering intellect. He was a moral compass for all around him. He was an exemplar of humility and modesty. He was the pre-eminent leader of Modern Orthodoxy within the Orthodox spectrum. And he had such love and caring for his students, just as they had such love for him.

As I write this, I’m also watching and listening to the live streaming of the levaya (funeral) at Gush. I don’t think there is a dry eye in the place. I really wish I understood Hebrew, though no language barrier can bar feeling the pain and sorrow in that room filled with students, teachers, men and women alike, some in military uniforms. The outpouring of love, respect and loss expressed in salty tears is palpable.

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