Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ZTL – a Torah U’Mada Giant

I never met him. But for me he was a giant. As he was for myriad other Jews in Orthodoxy and beyond. He had no peers. I Am saddened to report that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein passed away today at age 81.

He was a Torah giant unlike any other. He was unique in the sense that he exemplified the Hashkafa of Torah U’Mada (TuM). While there are many religious leaders that oppose this Hashkafa, some of it based on the belief that study of Mada should never be studied in place of Torah – I believe some of it is largely based on error. That’s because in truth Torah U’Mada is a very broad category that encompasses many approaches. No one made that case better than Dr. Norman Lamm in his book of the same title.

Torah U’Mada is simply the idea that Mada – or worldly knowledge although secondary to Torah knowledge is a worthy study that ought not be ignored for a variety of reasons. This is why I include R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) as a subcategory of TuM. Even though adherents of TIDE are quick to deny any connection to TuM they too are mistaken. They associate it with Dr. Lamm’s personal approach which they reject. Other definitions of TuM can be found in R’ Ahron Soloveichik’s book, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind.

R’Lichtensetin’ Petirah (passing) is being reported by many news websites such as VIN and even the secular Ha’aretz. And he is being hailed as a Torah giant even by Charedi websites like Matzav and YWN. where some of his many achievements are mentioned. But Charedi praise was not always the case when he was alive. Quite the contrary. It was in fact his very embrace of secular studies that brought scorn upon him for some right wing circles.

Rav Lichtenstein had once said that his study of English Literature at Harvard University (where he received his PhD) helped him to better understand certain sections of Tanach. He did not claim that such study was necessary for others. Surely many Torah giants that never studied English literature did not necessarily lose out. But for himself he said it was a necessary component that aided him. This belief on the part of Rav Lichtenstein is an actual demonstration of one of the primary reasons to study Mada –as an aid to Torah study. A reason stated by no less a Torah giant than the Vilna Gaon!

When an Israeli Rosh HaYeshiva (of American background) had heard that he had said this, he called together his entire yeshiva and lectured his students about it. He was angered that a Rosh Yeshiva in any way said that Mada had positive value with respect to Torah study… and virtually condemned him. Without naming him he said  that this Rosh Yeshiva does not only not know Torah he doesn’t even know Shakespeare! (…having misheard what R’ Lichtenstein actually had said. He never mentioned Shakespeare.)

That Rosh Yeshiva could not countenance placing value on anything other than Torah study itself. This is the Charedi Hashkafa of Torah Only. One may only study Torah until he studies it all (…all of the Talmud and all the Halacha Seforim with all the commentaries ever written on them) and masters it. Only then is one – permitted – to study Mada. Which is of course a virtual impossibility.

And thus was R’ Lichtenstein denigrated. But he never flinched… never retracted his views and stood by them until his dying day.

He and I had one thing in common besides our Hashkafos. We saw Rav Ahron Soloveichik as our primary mentor. I had other influences as well And of course so did Rav Lichtenstein. He considered Rav Hutner, his Rosh HaYeshiva when he studied at Yeshivas Chaim Berlin to be among the more important influences in his life. And of course his father in law, Rav Joseph Dov (Yoshe Ber) Soloveitchik when he studied at Yeshiva University (YU).

It makes sense that these three figures influenced his Hashkafos. All 3 of them advocated the study of Mada. Both Rav Ahron and R’ Yoshe Ber had advanced degrees in Mada. And R’ Hutner (along with Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz) famously tried to create a college level secular studies program at Yeshivas Chaim Berlin. They actually got to a point where the New York Board of Regents had accredited it. The only reason it never happened is because Lakewood founder and Rosh Hayeshiva, Rav Aharon Kotler said no. He was considered the Gadol HaDor in the Yeshiva world at the time and when he made a public policy decision that was the end of it.

Woe is to us. Who will replace this great man? Is there another Rav Lichtenstein whose genius in both Torah and Mada was so great? Is there another Torah giant that is also renowned for his expertise in any subject of Mada? If there is, I haven’t heard about him yet. There are some names… but I don’t think they quite measure up to him. At least not yet. There are Torah greats whose Mada is lacking. And there are Mada greats whose Torah is lacking.

I believe that the reason for this is that the move to the right has become so strong that Mada has been at best marginalized if not outright abandoned as a discipline for a Torah student to study. Gone are the days when a Rosh HaYeshiva at Chaim Berlin advises his students which subject to take in college – as did Rav Hutner.

Yeshiva University has not produced anyone of that caliber yet. A lot of students have attended YU over the years and decades since Rav Lichtenstein was there. But I don’t know of anyone they have produced like him. I suppose that’s because of the nature of a YU that steers most of its students into career paths other that Torah study. Those in YU that do tend to achieve great heights in Torah study have generally bought into the arguments of the right and do not seek great achievements in Mada as a goal – seeing it more as distraction rather than an important area of study.

I realize there are exceptions. More than a few students at YU do seek excellence in both. But I don’t think there is a critical mass that will produce another Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.

Today we lost more than a Gadol. We lost a man that was the role model for Torah U’Mada in our time… with no apparent heir to follow. Baruch Dayan Emes.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.
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