(Melancholic Thoughts) Aharon Lichtenstein (z”l)


I hesitate to post this because it’s going to sound mean spirited. This week has seen the passing of Aaron Lichtenstein –an American educated student of Joseph Soloveitchik and  co-founder of Yeshivat Gush Etzion in the West Bank, and a major figure in liberal-dovish religious Zionism. Devoted to the whole Land of Israel, he also promoted peace and genuine compromise with the Palestinian people. My friend Shaul wanted me to post something about Lichtenstein’s impact on progressive Jews, but my own thoughts are lachrymose. Here was a great and towering figure of modern Judaism, whose passing means actually next to if not absolutely nothing outside the modern orthodox circuit. Unlike Leibowitz or Steinsaltz or Soloveithchik, he left almost no mark on the larger Jewish community, including progressive Jews, secular Jews, Reform Jews, and Conservative Jews. While I cannot speak for Israelis or for women, I suspect that this represents a failure of modern orthodoxy to make a real difference vis-a-vis the larger Jewish body politic. My own sense was that he never spoke to us, and not certainly for us. Perhaps because Lichtenstein disappeared into Gush Etzion. For those who went to study with him, the force of his impact was enormous; but only for them.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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13 Responses to (Melancholic Thoughts) Aharon Lichtenstein (z”l)

  1. Saul Lieberman (no relation) says:

    You’ve just written out Rav Lichtenstein’s influence on his students and their students and their families and their impact on Israel – which extends beyond religious the religious sphere: army, education, press, government, business – and the modern orthodox community in the US. Indeed, what have the Romans ever done for us?

    • zjb says:

      Yes, I see your point, Saul. But on the other hand, I wanted to mark how little impact he made outside that modern orthodox circle. I’d like to think that his passing will represent a challenge for people like myself to pay some (more) attention to his thought.

  2. Aryeh Bernstein says:

    Yeah, there are significant ways in which this seems right to me and that’s an important story to tell: his work for klal Yisrael was about building a formidable base. How do we assess deep impact just on a base as compared to diffuse impact on a wider range (let’s say, with regard to his contemporaries a young, rising stars at YU, Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and David Hartman). However, there’s another way in which I think your analysis is off the mark, Zack, though I’m not sure how much. Rabbi David Silber has had an effect on broader swaths of klal Yisrael, and Rabbi Benny Lau, and Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, and many of the Hartmanites, and Rabbi Dov Linzer, and Rabbi Charles Sheer, and Rabbi Steve Greenberg, and I assume Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, and probably others who understand Rav Lichtenstein to have been a or the most significant teacher voice in their Torah development. That has to be probed and understood before making such a sweeping and dismissive statement. I’m thinking of this personally in the past couple of days: I heard Rav Lichtenstein teach only three or four times, and I wasn’t so into his derekh halimmud, and didn’t find his intellectual commitments, interests, or sources of inspiration that interesting myself. However, I can’t say so easily that he didn’t have a serious impact on me, because I recognize that almost every teacher to whom I feel deeply indebted in supporting me in my Torah development in my early-mid adult stages, counted Rav Aharon as his (yes, always his) most influential teacher, even as they all went in their own directions and understood that I was going in mine. That has to be part of the assessment.

  3. I’m skeptical. I think of the mediated influence of his students, people like R. David Silber, R. Dov Linzer, and R. Steven Greenberg (I think Yehudah Mirsky talks more about R. Amital, but regardless, he’s also certainly a “Gushnik” in some sense). Also, my sense in college was that a lot of the undergrads taking advanced Jewish studies courses had a gap year education, of which the Gush was the gold standard. I think you could find other parallel circumstances—expanded markets for high-quality, sophisticated torah, from which even non-Orthodox Jews benefit. And to many people like me, experiencing the sociology of people who studied liberal arts in college and really know how to learn has been a challenge to my presuppositions about the possibilities for balancing and combining Jewish tradition. I didn’t come out of that challenge a Modern Orthodox Jew, but I did come out with radically elevated standards for Jewish literacy and learning. Frankly, my experience is that Modern Orthodox remains the challenge in my life: the more I’m alienated from its bourgeois values and intellectual, political, and moral shortcomings, the more I’m challenged to imagine Jewish communities that preserve its intensive relation to Jewish tradition without its sacrifices.

  4. Eli D. Clark says:

    As a devoted student of Rav Lichtenstein o.b.m., i would like to agree in part and disagree in part with your post. Three factors explain his limited impact on the non-Orthodox world in the US: (1) Rav Lichtenstein focused almost all of his energies on his students and the community of which he was a part. (2) Rav Lichtenstein was not a theologian, so his religious writings have less to say to the non-Orthodox. (3) As Saul indicated, his impact in Israel (where he lived since 1971) was substantial. He testified before the Knesset on myriad issues, he called for a public inquiry after Sabra and Shatila, and generally played the role of public intellectual. However, in the latter role, he was always viewed with a somewhat jaundiced eye, as an American who was never accepted by Israelis as “one of us”. (David Hartman o.b.m. received the same treatment.)
    What Rav Lichtenstein has to offer is a model of religious humanism that is, given his Orthodox commitments, both rare and inspiring. In the communal context, he was an energetic advocate for advanced Torah study for women and set an example of openness to progressive Jews, gays and religious seekers of all faiths. But he was not a revolutionary.
    What this has to do with Modern Orthodoxy is not clear. If the American Modern Orthodox have turned inward, that no doubt has identifiable sociological and economic causes. But Rav Lichtenstein is neither a cause nor a symptom of that insularity..

  5. I have a lot to say about Rav Aharon, especially on the issue that interests me most, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian, but I prefer not to sound overly critical at this time.I have been following him on this issue since his op-ed in Haaretz, “Heikhan Shaginu” (Where did we go wrong?) in the early 80’s after the exposure of the Jewish underground. On the one hand, he offered criticism (always circumspect) when something outrageous happened (like the murder of a prime minister by a religious Zionist law student.) On the other hand, he was silent about the occupation, always supported Mafdal and its heirs, and never strayed from the consensus.
    But that’s not what I want to write about.
    Unlike Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Aharon did not study philosophy or theology but rather literature, albeit he did write his doctoral thesis on the Cambridge Platonists. From what I have seen of his works, his essays grew almost entirely out of traditional sources, or sources he had read before he made aliyah. There may be material of which I am unaware, and I haven’t seriously looked at his shiurim, edited by his student, Rabbi Daniel Wolf (whom I remember from Rav Aharon’s shiur in 1976-7). But the later essays never impressed me as much as the earlier ones.
    What can be said is that he always represented the more moderate pole of centrist orthodoxy, in stark contrast to Rav Herschel Schachter (and, politically, Rav Nahum Rabinowitz) He never demonized Reform Judaism, and once he wrote, “Can anybody deny that reform Judaism has made many positive contributions” or something of that sort. He also expressed discomfort over the notorious footnote in Kol Dodi Dofek, where Rav Soloveitchik suggests that “the hordes of Nassar and the Mufti” might have the din of Amalek, in which case it is a mitzvah to wipe them out. He was asked about this footnote by Menachem Butler, and in his response he said that he liked to believe that this was not really a halakhic statement by the Rav, and that it was a rhetorical, if “problematic” point. His discomfort was encouraging.
    In a world of orthodox rabbis who provide us with outrageous sound bites, Rav Aharon’s devotion to precision and nuance rendered him incapable of having a broad impact.. But as others have pointed out, he did raise interesting talmidim.

  6. Faye Landes says:

    It is almost Shabbes – but a few disjointed thoughts -RAL most definitely did not disappear into Gush Etzion. He was a public figure in Israel and in the MO world in America, where he spoke v often, Mevakshei Panecha, the book her did in dialogue with R’ Sabato, sold very widely in Israel, perhaps to a broader audience than the MO world.
    A key additional instances of his moral leadership that were not mentioned here or in the comments on FB include his involved in the Takana forum, which garnered enormous attention throughout Israel.
    Re Aryeh’s point -his base of talmidim (and talmidot) was enormous – thousands have gone thru the Gush and other Yeshivot headed by his students – Otniel, Petach Tikva, Yerucham, Maale Gilboa and others. As
    As a – I admit it – MO Jew – I can’t help but ask whose fault it is that he had, in your opinion, no impact outside the MO world? I don’t think Modern Orthodoxy has turned any more inward than it was 20-30-50 years ago, and in fact can make the counter-argument. Which MO leader in America or Israel has had the kind of influence on other segments of American Jewish that you are talking about? Who in those segments cares to read/listen?

    • zjb says:

      Dear Faye: Thanks for the very helpful pushback. Speaking personally as a liberal Jew and a liberal-left Zionist of a certain age, I think the orthodox thinkers who have made the strongest impression on me after Soloveitchik and Kook have been Eliezer Berkovits, Michael Wyschogrod, David Hartman, Yitz Greenberg, Blu Greenberg, Haym Soloveitchik, Tamar Ross, Leibovitz. I continue to teach on a regular basis S.R. Hirsch. I’d also add university Jewish Studies faculty colleagues, both senior and junior.

      • Faye Landes says:

        Hi – my husband (David Landes, who had a close relationship with R’ Lichtenstein – we are Yitz’s parents) have been discussing your very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I am not surprised that other luminaries had a greater influence that RAL on your thinking. Doesn’t some of this reflects personal preference and interests? I thought your post was asked about RAL’s influence on laypeople, not just academics. While I live in the MO world, I don’t live in a bubble, and have many close friends and relatives who identify with other denominations. Many of them are very committed, yet very few have the Jewish literacy to understand RAL’s work or the desire or impetus to do so. I think this is related to the general, striking, declining of engagement by non-Orthodox Jews in America in religious life. Not only do I observe this in my own circles (in Manhattan), it is evident in the Pew survey (for all its flaws), non-Orthodox day school enrollment, and numerous anecdotes. For instance, when the Forward recently named my husband’s childhood friend as one of America’s best rabbis (or whatever they called it), they noted that he had built his congregation to 400 families, and there were 250 people in shule every Shabbes morning, The 250 number is quite anemic by any standard – barely half the adult members. Many factors are at play – boring rabbis, kids being engaged in more extracurricular activities than in the past, high cost of everything – but the net effect is, I think, very discouraging. I’d be curious if you think otherwise. Best, Faye P.S. Leibovitz was certainly right/prophetic, unfortunately

      • zjb says:

        Oh my gosh, I should have recognized your last name. And now I’m feeling a little sheepish, what with David and Yitz now over my shoulder. Everything that you say about the sorry state of liberal Judaism is incontrovertible. I think though that I can say that the state of liberal Judaism is actually less sorry today than when I was young. But that’s really just a personal impression. About my colleagues in Jewish Studies and modern Jewish thought and culture, all I can say is that AL never made it onto our radar in the same way as did everyone else mentioned on my list. There’s something about AL that did not latch out past the modern orthodox circle he so lovingly cultivated. I’m really thinking it has something to do with his having moved to the West Bank, which for most Jewish Studies people remains terra incognita.

      • Faye Landes says:

        I think it is worse, it was bad before but now most laypeople people spend even less time engaging with any sort Jewish study than they did in the past. 5k total attendance at limmud is great, but there used to be hundreds of thousands of non Orthodox americans who went to shule every week and heard their rabbi say something. The collapse of attendance at Conservative congregations has been dramatic. I am, as you might imagine, left-wing re Israel by any standard – I think I cld easily pass your litmus test. Still, I don’t think RAL’s geographic location was the issue – I agree with yitz’s comment on your fb page on this. I try to muster any argument I can against the Occupation, but I don’t think I can do so in this instance. Part of our what’s going on in our convo is that you are toggling between talking about Jewish studies professionals and laypeople. I grew up in Brookline and jm and have been surrounded by Jewish studies professionals my entire life (and even managed to breed one). I wld certainly defer to you knowledge of them in America. It’s a longer conversation – the leftism of many, the superficiality of some, the coopting of some by Tikva (for whom RAL was not a key figure, for the obvious reason that the was too liberal), the aggressiveness of the Hartman institute…

        Sent from my iPhone


      • zjb says:

        Interesting. I’m wondering if the heyday of Conservative Judaism and its synagogue attendance during the 1950s was pretty much over by the 1970s. I’m saying this only on the basis of personal experience, as well as my own immersion into liberal Jewish learning and observance in my mid 20s. It could simply be that AL was not aggressive enough. But that then says something about him and the kind of modern orthodoxy he represented. Re: the West Bank, I’m not setting up a litmus test per se. It has nothing to do with whether or not you “support” or “oppose” the occupation. it’s about geography. I know from my own experience that my secular Israelis friends and relatives never go there for reasons that include but go well beyond ideology (and most of these people are middle of the roaders, not hard core leftists). It is simply outside their orbit. “Nobody” goes there.

      • Faye Landes says:

        I think you are prob right about conservative Jewry. RAL spent almost all his time learning, till the wee hours. Many of the eulogies describe his intensity and hasmoda. Re the kind of modern orthodoxy he represented, many have written much better than I can about this, but I think it’s fair to say that he cared about all Jews (one of his sisters, who he was v close with, is v active in her conservative congregation in jm), and was focused on educating Orthodox Jews. He took stands when he thought it was something really impt, and many Israelis heard about him. I too have friends and relatives who never go to the west bank, even not to gush etzion. They still may have bought the book mevakahei panecha, which was published by yediot press and had numerous printings.

        Sent from my iPhone


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