My Thoughts on R. Aharon Lichtenstein

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein portrait

One has to wonder why I’m publicizing some thoughts on R. Aharon Lichtenstein. As a completely unremarkable student of his (and that’s being generous) I can’t write with any authority about his greatness in Torah or the nuances of his approach to its study. And as someone who – through his own lack of initiative – sadly missed many opportunities to become close to R. Aharon personally I have no great wealth of reminiscences or insights into his character.

And I don’t want to express grief, for fear of participating in some one-upmanship of emotion, especially given, as I mentioned, that we were not close.  I suspect that’s a sentiment that R. Aharon would appreciate (though more-than-likely he’d explain to me, as so often happened, that I was ultimately wrong).

No, what it boils down to, I think, is this: To paraphrase both the Rambam and, l’havdil, Gale Sayers, “I loved R. Aharon Lichtenstein, and I want you to love him too.”

And it’s striking, the prevalence of this sentiment among those who knew him. Today someone expressed surprise that the eulogies didn’t spend more time on his great erudition or his style of learning, but rather dealt almost exclusively with his personal qualities.  I thought for a moment and suggested that, as Oscar Wilde said of himself, R. Aharon had put only (only!) his talent into his work; his genius went into living his life.

Perhaps we were drawn to him as into the slipstream of a speeding train. More likely it was because he put the same energy and concentration into us, into people in general, that he brought to everything he did. Either way, it was breathtaking.

He would practically run (and sometimes actually run) from task to task.  Not like the White Rabbit, who always felt late, but like I imagine a race-car driver does:  Moving at breakneck speeds under purposeful and firm control. On arrival he’d immediately be settled and focused. I’ve never seen or heard of anyone doing this – certainly not without help, certainly not day-after-day for decades.

But for all of that, I never knew him to be impatient with or look down on the rest of us who couldn’t keep up (though he could be impatient with laziness). And while I was always worried about taking too much of his time when we spoke, he never made me feel that I was keeping him from something else (though of course I was).

He had amazing stamina (note that I use terms like amazing for their dictionary meanings, not simply for emphasis; you would have been amazed to see him, as if you had seen a magician’s trick; you would not be able to figure out how he did it), whether standing through Yom Kippur or speaking for hours, keeping up his exhausting schedule or doing without sleep or food whenever the need arose, with no hint of complaint.  I don’t know whether he was simply indifferent to rest, comfort and nourishment, whether he had a will of iron or whether his sense of mission simply drowned those things out.  I suspect that all three factors reinforced one-another, but I don’t think he was a purposeful ascetic.  He claimed to enjoy taking vacation (though the time I bumped into him at Kfar Blum he sat with a gemara while his family went kayaking), and I remember him taking a second brownie at a shalom zachar (though he looked sheepishly at the guys and told them he just wanted to make sure he had enough to warrant a bracha acharona; still, he did eat the first brownie, though that might have been out of politeness).

And here as well he was solicitous of everyone else’s needs, even as he ignored his own.  Nor was it only when those needs presented themselves; he would actively anticipate them.  In conversation he clearly tried to speak for his interlocutor’s maximum benefit.  Sometimes it was a pat on the back, sometimes a kick in the pants, but it was always about you.  And if he paid a compliment it wasn’t a stock phrase or a platitude; it conveyed a knowledge of the specifics.  His memory helped in this, enabling him to ask a student from a few years back “How are things in Baldwin, Long Island?”  But mostly it was his awareness of people as individuals and his understanding of human nature that allowed him to offer just the right condolence, or encouragement or chastisement.  In less immediate matters, he would speak out for helping the Vietnamese “Boat People” or instruct us in the fine points of offering a seat to a woman standing on a bus.  Grocery clerks, businessmen, laborers, students… we were all included in the ambit of his care.  (I purposely omit mention of his family.  I’m not in a position to describe his relationship with them and it would be truly presumptuous of me to try, but his filial piety, respect for his wife and investment in his children are bywords among his students.)

Beyond those whom he touched personally, though, “the whole House of Israel” has been affected by his character over-and-above any specific teaching.  And here one must include R. Amital, zt”l, whose many virtues overlapped with R. Aharon’s.   Yes, they told us what is right and how one should act, but more than that we learned from their actions what was important to them, and we understood from that what should be important to us.

The pursuit of Truth without pride or rancor was important to them, something that should be the hallmark of a scholar but so seldom is.  They approached it differently and would often give different answers to the same philosophical question (it always seemed to me that R. Amital would discern the popular misconception under which the questioner was operating and tailor his answer to counteract it, whereas R. Aharon was constitutionally incapable of presenting only one side of an issue), but they both wanted to move their opinions in the direction of truth, rather than the other way around.  (It was almost impossible to extract a bad word about anyone from R. Aharon, but he once described someone to me, in a context that was clearly pejorative, by saying “He’s never had a moment’s self-doubt.”)

Pursuing truth made them somewhat unpredictable, because they were willing to change their opinions and because they would apply themselves to real situations rather than mental constructs, and we always get an extra thrill from someone who can surprise us.

Still more important to them was good-heartedness, the urge to be kind and helpful.

Probity; civility; physical and social courage; modesty  These are all things that they taught by example and are reflected in the institutions that they built and in their students.  Not perfectly, to be sure, but enough to have added new voices to the chorus of our society.

It’s now on us to echo and amplify them.

About the Author
Michael and family moved from NYC to Alon Shvut in 1986. He works in Software; blogs sporadically on education, public policy and whatever else comes to mind; chairs the boards of two educational institutions and practices philosophy in the ancient tradition of corrupting the minds of youth.
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