The Loss of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l
In 1971, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein made aliyah with his family, leaving his position as a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. He was giving a popular and major shiur, had founded the RIETS kollel, and was teaching English literature at Yeshiva College and Stern. His departure to become co-Rosh Yeshiva of a small yeshiva in an isolated settlement startled many. It seemed clear that if he had stayed at Yeshiva University, Rav Aharon was destined to become the primary Rosh Yeshiva and leading spokesman for centrist Orthodoxy in America. But speculation about “what if” Rav Aharon had stayed is of little value. On the other hand, reflecting on those aspects of his thought and personality which resonate on the American scene can be enlightening.
One aspect that made Rav Aharon so unusual was the integration of his knowledge of English literature (he had a doctorate from Harvard) into his extremely erudite and superbly organized shiurim and talks. He was the exemplar of Torah U’Madda, but in a specific way. Only knowledge that deepened our appreciation of the human condition was worth pursuing. At the same time, he was fully Torah and an incredible masmid; he never relied on his brilliance or prodigious memory, but instead always looked at sources inside.
Rav Aharon was a religious humanist. His concern for others was limitless. He demanded high standards from his students and higher ones from himself. His humility and his devotion to his parents as they aged were legendary. Both his personal behavior and his public statements reflected his care for the suffering of all humankind created in the Divine image. Although usually apolitical, Rav Aharon was outspoken on moral concerns while sensitive to those whose actions he criticized.
Rav Aharon’s combination of humanism and of placing Torah study at the pinnacle of serving Hashem led him to become the leading spokesman for high-level talmud Torah for women. Rav Aharon knew all of Torah without any notion of superficial learning to gain breadth of knowledge. To him, learning meant serious analysis, and he maintained that whatever one attempted should be performed to the best of one’s ability. He gave women the opportunity to deepen their religious lives through this high-level analysis in which he so thoroughly believed.
Rav Aharon respected those who disagreed with him. He was able to reach out to the non-observant, though pointing out that in the final analysis he had more in common with the Haredim, with whom he shared a common commitment to Torah and mitzvot, even if there was a wide cultural gap. His disciples knew his views but understood that he wanted them to make their own decisions and take responsibility for them.
Rav Aharon remained loyal to all his mentors, absorbing what he learned from Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, and the Rav into a coherent world view. He introduced the Torah and methodology of Brisk into the religious Zionist community in Israel, while presenting its concepts in a systematic, organized, and comprehensive way. While many of Yeshiva’s Roshei Yeshiva are pupils of the Rav, there was something unique in the way Rav Aharon incorporated the fullness of the creativity of the Rav.
In the last few years the Orthodox Forum, the primary think tank in the Modern Orthodox community, has suffered from losing Rav Aharon’s insight and penetrating analysis. Much of Rav Aharon’s thought is available in English, put out by loyal American students who joined him in the Gush. Clearly, studying volumes of shiurim written down by students and reading articles can not give the full flavor, but it affords us the opportunity to learn Rav Aharon’s Torah.
Similarly, his character can be described and there are many anecdotes appearing in hespedim on YU Torah and the Gush site. But none of these can fully replace actually being in Rav Aharon’s presence and witnessing the kindness and the humility.