The Jewish people lost one of its great lights this week. Yet I wonder to what extent the general public, even the general religious public, is aware of that. As son-in-law of the famous Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and as an outstanding Torah scholar in his own right, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who passed away on Monday, could not be ignored. Still, more often than not, the faint praise reputed to be the doom of writers and other artists was my own mentor’s lot.
Born in France to Polish and Lithuanian parents, he moved to the United States as a child. It was there that he would become a star yeshiva student under the tutelage of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner and Rabbi Soloveitchik, among others. Like his father-in-law, his positive early impressions of the haredi yeshivot would always stay with him, allowing him – among other things – to forge an important relationship with Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. (R. Lichtenstein once revealed some of his own role in that world, when telling us about his trying to see whether Rabbi Auerbach would take a more independent stand, when the latter was pressured to sign on to various documents opposing Rabbi Riskin and Nechama Leibowitz.)
But R. Lichtenstein’s yeshiva studies is only part of the story. R. Lichtenstein’s father earned his doctorate in France by writing on Racine as a Biblical poet. Clearly that love of Western literature and its relationship to Jewish texts was passed on from father to son. For after completing his undergraduate studies at Yeshiva University, R. Lichtenstein went on to earn a doctorate in literature at Harvard. Indeed, he became a recognized authority on Milton, before deciding to focus all of his professional energies on Torah. But even then, his Torah study would always be explicitly informed by a rare and profound understanding of Western culture.
R. Lichtenstein had all the makings of R. Soloveitchik’s heir apparent and would have succeeded him as Yeshiva University’s senior rosh yeshiva and as the undisputed leader of Modern Orthodoxy. However, that never materialized. It didn’t, because he believed too strongly in the Jewish future in Israel to pass up the opportunity to set up shop here. And in 1971, he accepted Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s invitation to join him as co-rosh yeshiva at the new center of learning that was being built in Gush Etzion.
Of course, he did not completely leave the world of American Modern Orthodoxy behind. Through his countless articles in English and his regular visits to the Diaspora, as well as his connection to overseas programs at his own yeshiva and at Yeshiva University’s Israel campus, he remained a major influence on that community as well.
Nonetheless, it was Yeshivat Har Etzion that became R. Lichtenstein’s intellectual home for the remainder of his life, and his accomplishments there are far from negligible. The yeshiva created a different voice within the religious Zionist world, a voice of moderation that did not come from lack of commitment or from ignorance, but rather from a different vision of what the Torah wanted from us. R. Lichtenstein spoke of the need to seek peace and the permissibility of territorial compromise that might have even included parts of Jerusalem. He spoke of the need to listen to other Jews with whom we did not agree. And he most recently decried the religious community’s lack of engagement with global poverty as “shamefully deplorable.” But none of these views took away from his obvious and inspiring passion for intense Torah study and rigorous observance of halacha.
The big question we are left with is whether the balance and nuance of his approach could not have made greater inroads, especially here in Israel. While his voice was heard, and is still heard, it was not heard loudly enough; and so his vision still remains marginal to most discussions, whether between the religious and secular or amongst the religious themselves.
Was it the fault of his well-known modesty? Was he viewed as being too Western, too American? Or was his message just too sophisticated for the masses? Whatever the reason, one cannot help but hope that as this country itself becomes more complex, R. Lichtenstein’s vision may yet see brighter days.