Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt’l
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt’l
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt’l

By Rabbi David Brofsky

Those who learned in Yeshivat Har Etzion remember R’ Lichtenstein as a type of “superman.” I recall how after hours of hakafot on Simchat Torah, we would sit down to rest, and R’ Aharon would pull us back into the circle, sending us the message that if he wasn’t tired, then we certainly shouldn’t be. In learning, in religious devotion, in morality, and in ethics, R’ Lichtenstein was a giant. Over the past few years, however, we watched as his health slowly declined. During the past year, a small group of us, who live in Alon Shevut, would gather around his desk on Shabbat afternoons as he taught us about parashah and halachah. Even in his poor health, R’ Aharon needed to share, to teach. The news of his passing came as a shock. How could R’ Aharon, a symbol of strength, commitment, and dedication, be taken from us?

Since R’ Aharon’s passing, not a day, an hour, barely a moment passes in which I do not feel a sense of loss. Thousands of students around the world share this feeling. We congregate in the back of shuls, in the supermarket, or online, telling stories, and comforting each other. For those of us who knew R’ Aharon, who learned from him, his writings, his behavior, and his leadership, R’ Aharon was in our blood. He was part of us. He penetrated to the deepest layers of our beings. R’ Aharon became our religious, spiritual, and moral compass; he was the “demut d’yukno”–in the deepest sense.

What was it about R’ Lichtenstein that was so unique? Why, in the late 1960s, was this young scholar the great hope of the American Torah world? Why did R’ Yehuda Amital, z’l, invite him to be the roshyeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion? Why do thousands of his students, their spouses, and their families, and countless others, feel so attached and indebted to him? I would like to point to a few of his characteristics–those which made him unique, those which made him our teacher and our rebbe, and then offer initial thoughts on the impact of his passing on the Torah world.

– – –

When I think of R’ Aharon, the person, our rebbe, the following characteristics come to mind.

  1. R’ Lichtenstein’s scope and depth of Torah knowledge was awe-inspiring and unparalleled, He had a complete command over the entire rabbinic corpus, and most specifically, over the Talmud: every daf, every sugya, the Rishonim, the sevarot, and the relationship between one sugya to another. His mastery, his presentation, not to mention his hatmada, took our breath away. I remember once when he met with a group of older talmidim who attended the “chaburot” (a shiur for older talmidim who often learned different topics than the rest of the yeshiva), R’ Lichtenstein turned to us, and said, with honesty and not a bit of arrogance: “Mibechinati ha’kol patuach. What would you like to learn?” Zera’im, Mo’ed, Nashim, Nezikim, Kodashim, Taharot–all options were on the table. How many scholars of that magnitude do we ever meet? He also had full mastery of Tanach and Jewish philosophy, and his command of secular knowledge, of literature, philosophy, history, and other areas related to the human experience, and its full and natural integration into his spiritual and general weltanschauung, was rare, if not unheard of, as well.

Wisdom and depth. R’ Lichtenstein displayed wisdom, sensitivity, understanding, and depth. He was consulted by students, rabbis, educators, and leaders, from around the world. Despite leaving America in 1971, he was still viewed as the spiritual and moral authority of many American rabbis, especially as R’ Soloveitchik’s health declined. After the Rav’s passing in 1993, I recall an American rabbi telling me of an initiative to ask R’ Lichtenstein to return to America! In Israel, his council was sought by many, and his honesty and integrity was accepted by all. His participation in the “Forum Takkana” (a group consisting of public figures and religious leaders dedicated to sexual abuse in the religious community), for example, lent credibility to the difficult decisions which the group faced in confronting abuse within the Orthodox community.

Humanity: Moral and ethical behavior. R’ Lichtenstein was our moral and ethical anchor. “V’asita ha’yashar veha’tov”–to act in an upright and proper manner–is a foundation of our faith and a behavioral imperative. Many have related to his moral and ethical sensitivity, some focusing on his personal behavior, some upon treatment of others, and some even display his sensitivity towards all of G‑d’s creations, including the people of Biafra, the Vietnamese boat refugees, victims of natural disasters, and even the residents of Beirut, and other war-torn areas. We live in an era when we are surprised to hear stories in which rabbis exhibit basic human behavior. We are amazed when we hear that a rabbi insists on waiting in line for food or on putting his own plate in the sink; when a rabbi calls a students at 11:00 at night to apologize, lest he embarrassed him that day; when a rabbi insists that he sit in the backseat of a car so that the husband and wife can sit together in the front seat; when a rabbi washes the dishes and does the laundry, or gets down on his hands and knees to help someone search for his eyeglasses, or assists in cleaning a bus after returning from a rally in Washington DC in 1967, etc. This is sad and unfortunate. But for those who watched R’ Lichtenstein, his simple and humble behavior was inspiring.

Dedication and focus. R’ Aharon ran. He was not only completely and entirely dedicated and devoted to Torah study in particular, and to avodatHashem in general, he threw his entire body and soul into fulfilling these tasks. He believed that one should strive and work towards excellence. This applied not only to religious observance, but to honoring one’s parents, raising one’s children, investing in one’s family, and to tikkunha’olam as well. One must strive for, and work towards, excellence. That is the behavior of a servant of G‑d.

  1. I generally do not believe in using the abbreviation “zt’l.” There are many great Torah scholars, but very few tzaddikim, and very few chassidim. But I feel compelled to relate to his tzidkut and to his chassidut.

To watch R’ Aharon daven was itself a religious experience! People flew from around the world to spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Yeshiva. Aside from the singing and intensity of the beitmidrash, we wanted R’ Amital to pray for us, and to watch R’ Lichtenstein daven. We would look up from our prayers as he would spend hours reciting the vidui of Yom Kippur, wondering, what could he possibly be confessing? We would watch as his body stood straight as a pencil, and then swayed with power and might, in pure devotion and concentration, during the Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah. He was talking to and he was pleading with G‑d. His religious life was, as he described it, “kodesh kodashim”–but we got a glimpse, a small glimpse.

R’ Ezra Bick, in his moving hesped delivered at R’ Lichtenstein’s funeral, captured perfectly the essence of R’ Aharon–avodatHashem. Everything he did and all of his endeavors were part of his avodatHashem. R’ Bick suggested that we carry on that legacy: once we commit ourselves to a life of avodatHashem, then our choices, our commitments, and our priorities will fall into place.

As for R’ Aharon’s legacy, I will mention a few central and tangible contributions to the Jewish world.

First, R’ Aharon was a teacher. He taught thousands of students, first in Yeshiva University, in the Gruss Kollel, and primarily in Yeshivat Har Etzion. His reach and influence extended beyond those who sat in his Gemara shiurim–many consider themselves students through contact with him outside of the classroom, through his writings, and by learning with his students. His talmidim, both those who studied with him and those who identify with and were influenced by his teachings, can be found in yeshivot and midrashot in Israel and abroad. They can also be found in universities, in labs, in the business world, and in all walks of life–they spread his Torah to their families and their communities.

Second, R’ Lichtenstein elevated and deepened learning throughout the Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist world. He showed us how one can be thoughtful and analytical, and that Torah can be deep and sophisticated. No one ever felt that they had learned enough; the longer one learned with R’ Aharon, the more we realized that we know less than we thought. Torah is a deep and endless sea, and it relates to all aspects of our lives, and to all components of the human condition. And then some. R’ Lichtenstein’s model of limudTorah, combining breadth and depth, and his analytical methodology, penetrated his students, and they adapted his style of learning and teaching, each in his own way, in centers of Torah learning throughout the world.

Third, unlike his teacher and father-in-law, R’ Soloveitchik, R’ Aharon articulated and explained his beliefs and ideals in his thousands of sichot and tens if not hundreds of articles. R’ Lichtenstein explained, clearly and convincingly, why he supported the idea of Hesder, why he embraced the study of secular studies, why he encouraged more and deeper learning opportunities for women. He formulated his approach to the State of Israel, a non-messianic approach, and how he envisioned the interaction between religion and State. While R’ Lichtenstein’s biographers may focus on different aspects of his legacy, the broad lines, his commitment and dedication to certain ideas and principles, have been clearly articulated and documented and there will be little disagreement as to his approach to these topics. His teachings and writings are a tremendous resource and a gift to students of Torah and to those who seek a full, rigorous, and meaningful spiritual life. His ideas strengthen, encourage, inspire, and provide guidance for an entire generation.

Fourth, but not last, R’ Aharon modeled a behavior and embraced values which desperately needed the support of a Torah giant. R’ Aharon wholeheartedly embraced the philosophy of Torah and Mada, and students of literature, philosophy, and other areas of general wisdom, who enrich their religious personality and search for insights, truths, and even inspiration in general studies, feel a great sense of security knowing R’ Aharon chose a similar path. Torah students who balance their studies with army service can be confident that they are doing not only the proper thing, but fulfilling a religious and moral imperative. And those who offer women a serious, deep, and rigorous Torah education, those who relate to women as spiritual beings created equally in the image of G‑d, and those who hold women to the highest religious standards and expectations, can declare proudly that they are following in the path of a Torah giant, a gadol ha’dor, R’ Aharon Lichtenstein, zt’l.

– – –

Am Yisrael has lost a great tzaddik, a tremendous lamdan, and an enormous servant of G‑d. But in what way will we, and the broader Orthodox community, feel his loss?

R’ Aharon’s halachic and religious prowess inspired a generation of religious and lay leadership. His towering spiritual and moral stature gave legitimacy to many of the values so basic and so central to Modern Orthodox Jews. His ability to engage and embrace the outside world, his unswerving support for providing Torah education for women, his human sensitivity towards men and women, and Jews and non-Jews alike, and his full belief and commitment to the State of Israel and the need to participate in all aspects of its existence are the bread and butter of the Modern Orthodox-Religious Zionist philosophy. On the other hand, his spiritual, halachic, and moral integrity, and his commitment to all aspects of the halachic tradition (mesorah) set a high bar for our community, and provided a formidable hurdle for those who advocated spiritual mediocrity and halachic shortcuts.

I fear that in his absence, support within our communities for these basic values will be weakened, insecurity will spread, and these ideas will no longer be viewed as rooted in the deep and powerful spiritual world and tradition which R’ Aharon framed.

I also fear that with the disappearance of the last tower of religious leadership and integrity, voices of religious shallowness, and spiritual and academic mediocrity, on the right and the left, will be given free rein in our communities.

It behooves us to study and teach his Torah, and to pass on his values, for our sake, and for the honor of the Torah.

I recall the many hespedim given after R’ Soloveitchik passed away in 1993. I remember the sense of being orphaned. I can still hear R’ Hershel Schachter, in tears, asking, “Who can replace him?” Incidentally, R’ Lichtenstein felt the same sense of loss, and after R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, passed away, he related that he felt that there were truly no sages of that caliber and human sensitivity left. At the time, as I had not learned by R’ Soloveitchik, I understood and related to their sentiment, but I felt differently: we still had R’ Lichtenstein. The world was not bereft of scholarship and piety, because R’ Aharon was there.

But now that R’ Aharon has passed, what are we to do? Where are we to search for such Torah scholarship and depth, for ethics and morality, for integrity, for wisdom, for passion, and for true piety, ahavat and yiratHashem? Where are we to look? To whom will we bring our halachic and moral dilemmas? Who will provide us guidance? We are orphaned. We are bereft of a Torah giant, of our teacher, and our master.

I am certain that R’ Lichtenstein, zt’l, would want us to deepen and intensify our avodatHashem, to learn more Torah, with depth and passion, to be kinder and more sensitive, to engage the world around us, both intellectually and through our actions, and to dedicate ourselves to the fulfillment of the Torah ideals which he so strongly and fervently articulated and lived.

Yehi zichro baruch.v

Rabbi David Brofsky studied and taught at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is the author of Hilchot Tefillah and Hilchot Moadim, and writes a weekly halachah shiur for Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash.


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