I read Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s writings for the first time as a student, working as a camp counselor in HASC. Rav Aharon’s writings had been put together by someone more “in the know” than I–somebody who had printed out his essays (with a terrible printer) and put them into a fat white binder that sat on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in the Beit Midrash of the camp.
I don’t remember how it was that I came across that binder one night after my campers had gone to bed, and why I started reading. But it changed my Jewish sense of identity. The article I picked up was about why it was not merely “halakhically permitted” (what I was very used to hearing) but actually crucial (what I was absolutely not used to hearing) for a woman to become learned in all aspects of Torah–and it was the first essay by a Rav that I’d read that I felt was actually speaking directly to me.
With his expertise in English literature and clean-shaven appearance, Rav Lichtenstein bridged my worlds. I joke that I was traumatized by my Bais Yaakov education; my husband says it’s no joke. Just as an aside: We learned the halakhot of kashering meat from the Kitsur Shulhan Arukh, I believe in tenth grade; I may possibly be rewriting history here, but I cannot remember learning any other halakhic source texts throughout four years of high school.
Having grown up in a relatively intolerant religious community where both women’s Torah studies and secular subjects were looked down upon, Rav Aharon’s compelling atittudes toward integrating Torah observance with an incredibly sophisticated, highly educated and very relevant philosophical outlook “fixed” some of my bad feelings about the negative attitudes in Judaism that I’d struggled with as a teenager. Here was a Rav whose ideology I could whole-heartedly embrace.
It’s twenty-five years later and, as a neighbor of Rav Aharon and his family in Alon Shvut, I’ve had the privilege of exposure not just to the Torah of Rav Aharon–but also to the role models for both Torah and Derekh Eretz presented to us in the forms of the Rav Aharon’s ever-inspirational wife, Dr. Tova, and their incredible children. The personality, contributions and Torah of Rav Aharon have loomed large ever since I moved here–one of the most significant forces permeating the commitment and ideology of this entire community as well as of my own religious growth.
“What does Rav Aharon say?” This has been an ongoing expression of how to approach, in particular, the trickier aspects of Jewish observance–the ones you know you can’t look up in the Shulkhan Arukh. Issues like: How ought we to interpret and understand the concept of prayer, especially in times of Intifada or war, or when things are bad for other reasons? How do halakhically-observant women navigate a path to full religious commitment and experience? When is it appropriate for families to use birth control? How should the Torah-observant community in Israel respond to Jewish actions of hatred and destruction toward Palestinians? Should we endorse a political settlement that involves giving up sovereignty over parts of Israel?
There has been an address. For these types of fundamental, soul-searching questions, there has been the grounding knowledge and essential awareness that we have the voice of a Gadol Hador, someone with true breadth of Torah knowledge, understanding and deep wisdom. There has been an anchor.
Yehi Zikhro Barukh.