By: Yigal Gross | Features  | 

From the Commie Archives: Religion and the Jewish State: An Interview with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

Editor’s Note: On the occasion of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s fourth yahrzeit (1 Iyar, 5779), The Commentator is reprinting an interview that he conducted with The Commentator thirteen years ago. The interview covered a wide range of topics including Aliyah, Yom Ha’atzmaut, the Israeli disengagement from Gush Katif, the legacy of Rav Soloveitchik and the parameters of synthesizing Torah and secular studies.


Title: From the Archives (April 3, 2006; Volume 71 Issue 8) — Religion and the Jewish State: An Interview with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

Author: Yigal Gross

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein is a graduate of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in New York, where he went on to become a Rosh Yeshiva and Rosh Kollel. He also studied at Harvard University, where he earned a doctorate in English literature. In 1971, he immigrated to Israel, answering a call by Rabbi Yehuda Amital to join him as joint Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut.

Rabbi Lichtenstein, a disciple of the Rav zt”l (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik), perpetuates the tradition of his mentor in his commitment to intensive and original Torah study, as well as his articulation of a bold Jewish worldview which is unafraid of modernity. He is a paragon and a source of inspiration for a wide circle of Diaspora Jewry, both because of his intellectual leadership and his educational attainments.

Rabbi Lichtenstein has published widely in the areas of Talmudic scholarship, Jewish Philosophy, and contemporary Jewish society. He is the author of Leaves of Faith, Volume I - The World of Jewish Learning (Ktav Publishing 2003), Leaves of Faith, Volume II - The World of Jewish Living (Ktav Publishing 2004), and By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God (Ktav Publishing 2003).

In recognition of his significant contribution to Jewish religious education in Israel and the Diaspora, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem named Rav Lichtenstein its Samuel Rothberg Prize Laureate for 1994.

He is married to Dr. Tovah nee Soloveitchik and they have six children who are all involved in Jewish Education.

Rabbi Lichtenstein recently sat down with The Commentator to discuss issues of Dat u-Mdinah - religion and the Jewish state - and other contemporary issues.

Commentator: Throughout Jewish history, there have been large Jewish communities within the Diaspora as well as in Israel, and some of these Diaspora communities have made major contributions to the development of Torah thought. In that context, how should a Torah-true American student view the Aliya option? Is it fair to say that he must live in Israel? Or is it appropriate for him to plan on living in the United States?

RAl: I don’t want to speak of ‘must’ in the normative sense. There were people who lived here, worked here, labored here. A number of Gedolei Yisrael were here. I won’t pontificate and say that people must live in Eretz Yisrael. At the same time, I very much would encourage people, other things being equal, to be in Eretz Yisrael, both for themselves and for the strengthening and deepening of the Jewish presence and character of the state in Eretz Yisrael.

There are variables and I’m attuned to them. Some have to do with the needs, interests, and priorities of a particular Bachur and some with the needs of the community. I remember that there was someone who worked as a Mechanekh in France and came to Eretz Yisrael on a pilot trip to look for a job, a Sfardi. Rav Ovadia Yosef sent him a message that wherever he would apply for a position, Rav Ovadia would see to it personally that his application would be torpedoed, as he was needed by his community in France. I don’t have broad shoulders, but the recognition that if many Jews choose to remain in the Diaspora and that many of them are committed to Torah u-Mitzvot and require some guidance and leadership, and that Bnei Torah can supply that, that certainly should be taken into consideration.

I would encourage people to do it, first of all, because presence in Eretz Yisrael itself is a Mitzvah and secondly, quite independent of that Mitzvah, there are many Mitzvot that one can fulfill in Eretz Yisrael that can’t be fulfilled in Chutz La-Aretz. Thirdly, to experience in historical and almost meta-historical terms, the presence of Shekhinah in Eretz Yisrael, which is more uniquely related to it: “Eretz Asher Hashem Elokekha Doresh Otah Tamid Einei Elokekha Bah MeReishit HaShanah Vi’Ad Acharit Shanah.”

I have a real problem with the Ramban, who regards the whole regimen of Torah u-Mitzvot in Chutz La’Aretz as merely a preparation for the return to Eretz Yisrael. I have enormous reverence for the Ramban, but with this I find great difficulty. However, in a milder form, I fully subscribe to the idea that, qualitatively speaking, Kiyum Mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael has a dimension which it doesn’t have in Chutz La’Aretz. Mori VeRabbi Rav Hutner Zt”l, when he arrived in Eretz Yisrael, even though he had already put on Tefillin on the plane when the time came to Daven, he would say that now he was going to put on Eretz-Yisrael-dic Tefillin; before he had put on Chutz-LaAretz-dic Tefillin. To that I subscribe.

“ Many of the people who were involved in these protests were wonderful people with excellent motives, but distancing themselves from the rest of the country I think is wrong.”

But I say again that there are all kinds of variables - what a person can contribute, where he can contribute most, what kind of education is available for the children. Therefore, I would not speak in terms of the imperative ‘must,’ because there are variables that I think fully justify a person remaining here. But, other things being equal, certainly who is a Ben Torah should want to live in Eretz Yisrael.

Commentator: How is Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrated at your Yeshiva? After all, it is both a religious and political/historical event. How should it be celebrated, to your mind, in the Diaspora, where people have chosen not to live in Israel?

RAL: At Yeshiva, we’ve gone through a number of phases that I’ll describe to you.

At night, we have Tefillah with certain components, Prakim of Tehillim - not Hallel - we don’t say Hallel at night, that’s only on Pesach. We have a semi-Chagigi Davening with the Nigunim of the Regalim. In years prior, when we had only two Roshei Yeshiva - Rav Amital and myself - one of us would speak in the Beit Midrash prior to Davening, the other at a festive Seudah Chagigit, and have singing and dancing subsequently.

By day, we have again a Tfillah Chagigit, but we don’t have the Kri’at HaTorah that some people have, as that presumably requires a Takanat Chachamim. I always say Shiur in the morning, related generally to some aspect of life in Eretz Yisrael, whether Mitsvot HaTeluyot Ba’Aretz, Dina DeMalkhuta Dinah, Melekh, social issues, etc.

For many years, people would disperse after that: those that wanted to sit and learn did so, but most regarded it as a sort of vacation day. For the last couple of years what we’ve done is everything that I’ve mentioned until now and after the Shiur a sort of communal Tiyul, in which a very sizeable proportion of the Yeshiva participates.

Tiyulim in Eretz Yisrael are regarded in a way that they are not regarded in the Diaspora. A sense of bonding with the land, with the country - the physical land and the land in a social sense - is something of great importance in the educational scene in Eretz Yisrael and is regarded within our Yeshiva as an infective means and proper milieu for developing and enhancing that sense.

In the Diaspora, the kind of bonding that I’ve spoken about is not quite possible, but I think that it’s a day which, regardless of where one lives, should, first, be taken note of. Second, I think that part of the taking note has to do with Tefillah. We say Hallel at the Yeshiva; I think that Hallel should be said here too. With a berakha or without a berakha - I say without a berakha, some people at the Yeshiva say with a berakha - that’s a Halakhic issue. Further, I think there should be some Torah expression - a Shiur in Halakha or a Sicha - which relates to the day in spiritual terms.

The fact that a person lives here and not in Eretz Yisrael doesn’t mean that he isn’t Mechuyav in Shevach VeHoda’ah for that which happened in Eretz Yisrael. We give Shevach VeHoda’ah for events which were part of our distant past, and so we should certainly do so for those which are part of our contemporaneous present, and with import for the future. Even more so, what transpires in Eretz Yisrael is of benefit not only to people there, but to Klal Yisrael conceived as an organic entity, to many individuals who live here and nevertheless learn in Eretz Yisrael, whose children learn there, for the sense of pride and viability in national terms that the rise of the Medinah gave us.

We pray in Birkat Kri’at Shema: “VeTolikhenu Kommemiyut LeArtzenu,” based on the Passuk in Vayikra: “VaOlech Etkhem Komemiyut.” Komemiyut is a value, not of arrogance or chauvinism, but a sense of pride in its best spiritual sense. There is no question that a Jew could better reach that height in the Diaspora because Medinat Yisrael exists and therefore it impacts not only Knesset Yisrael conceived in metaphysical terms, but certainly impacts upon the personal, individual, familial life of Jewish living in the Diaspora. And therefore they have every reason in the world to be thankful for the blessings that we received in Eretz Yisrael, their blessings nonetheless, and to give Shevach VeHoda’ah for them.

Commentator: What are your thoughts on the disengagement that took place over the summer? What mistakes, if any, do you believe that the Religious Zionist Community in Israel made in its response to the withdrawal from Gaza, and what lessons do you hope that it has learned from the experience?

RAL: There are two separate issues here. One has to do with the withdrawal, the way it was handled, etc., the fundamental advisability of having it; and, to some extent, it has to do - when you ask about the response of the religious community - how it viewed the withdrawal, its advisability and its priorities.

No doubt about it, the disengagement is a sad chapter, and it’s sad in three respects. Number one, you’re talking about the severing of a limb from the corporate body, so to speak, of Eretz Yisrael, and regardless of whether it needed to be done or not - it’s said. People who have a medical problem - a gangrened leg - have to undergo an amputation, and do it under medical advice; yet, though they understand that it needs to be done, they’re certainly sad that that’s the case. Secondly, there were many individual lives that were adversely affected - the lives of wonderful people. What you had in Gush Katif - this was not a parasitic community - these were people with values, people who worked hard to build communities, out of spirit and a desire to contribute to the Medina as a whole. Thirdly, the terrible tension that arose as a result of course is very sad.

Having said that - and this is something that is to be acknowledged as hard fact in all three respects - whether or not it ought to have been done or should have been done - we don’t know. We’ll know eventually, but even eventually is a subject of debate - not in a month or a year. In several years, it’ll become clear whether this was a daring gamble which failed or a brave initiative that succeeded.

“Bottom line: do I, or do I not counsel reading Milton? On that score, the kind of synthesis which I have in mind, maybe it’s good in terms of what it can contribute. Whether it’s good for someone who doesn’t have the tools to integrate it properly within a Torah Hashkafah, maybe it’s not good.”

In terms of the response of the religious community, there are two factors to be considered. One is the attitude taken to the initiative as such. People were unwilling to give the government the benefit of the doubt in terms of motivation, wisdom, and in terms of the possibilities. Ariel Sharon was not exactly known as being a patsy and if he was in favor of such an initiative. At least he should be given the benefit of the doubt in terms of motivation, perhaps he knew something that we didn’t know. But that wasn’t done.

The Religious Zionist community was very often vehement, strident, shrill. It mobilized itself in a way that in certain respects was impressive, but at the same time, it divested itself to some extent from its relation and bond to the rest of the country and to the state as a state. In certain circles within the National Religious community today, there is a growing sense of isolationism fueled by, to some extent, disappointment, and at the same time by unrealistic expectations and hopes.

I’ve said that in some respects you have, among certain people, the odd combination of megalomania with paranoia. Many of the people who were involved in these protests were wonderful people with excellent motives, but distancing themselves from the rest of the country I think is wrong. They were also misguided in the sense that they didn’t read the map correctly. They totally underestimated the determination of the government to go through with it, and totally overestimated the resources, the human resources, at their disposal for blocking it.

Additionally, the effort itself didn’t take into account certain values which have great significance. They didn’t take into account the fact that, when all is said and done, while it’s very impressive to pull together one or two hundred thousand people to a major demonstration, but that’s only what - one or two percent of the Israeli population. Is it reasonable or fair for such a small percentage of the population to impose its will upon the government and the country? This has hurt our standing with respect to the general community and has also hurt us internally, because to be severed from the state is just a tragedy.

The government, for its part, made certain mistakes, not the least of which was the failure to prepare properly to cope with the needs of the people who were being uprooted. They set up some kind of mechanism which didn’t work properly and there are people who are still suffering. Ha’aretz, which is not suspect on being attuned to the needs of the National Religious community or the people in Gush Katif, is still running a series on families in Gush Katif and how they were affected. It’s all terribly sad.

Having said that this is a sad chapter, I do say Nafal HaPur, and now we have to hope that it will turn out for the best. Sadly, some of our people hope that it will turn out for the worst just to prove they were right. That I consider unconscionable.

Commentator: What can be done to heal the apparent rift that has developed between the religious Zionist community and the state?

RAL: It is first and foremost an educational and spiritual task to try as best we can. And there are limits to how much we can, because the prevalent voices in the national religious community today are voices which are doomed to incur some measure of isolationism.

We have to try to educate people and to emphasize that they shouldn’t lose hope, that they shouldn’t lose touch. To the extent that we can build bridges between the religious community and the general community, it needs to be done, but not as some people have imagined, to conquer the general community. Besides that conquering them is a bit of a pipe dream, the terminology is wrong - you conquer your enemies, not your kin.

“Halakha is to us a polestar in all areas of life. It is not confined to the realm of Bein Adam LaMakom in the narrow sense of the term. It is not confined to the Beis Midrash, the Mikveh and the kitchen. It guides us both in terms of values and in terms of specific normative positions.”

The need to maintain contact, to feel both what the Rav used to call Brit Goral, the covenant of fate, and the Brit Ye’ud, the covenant of destiny, to the extent that we share a common destiny and common vision of the future, that we should try to accentuate, rather than focusing on how terrible things are over there and how wonderful things are over here.

But, as I’ve said, the prevalent winds are, from my point of view, not favorable and it’ll take some time before things will hopefully turn around.

Commentator: There is talk now of further withdrawals - from Judea and Samaria - in the not too distant future. How should the religious Zionist community deal with such withdrawals, should they occur? As religious Jews, can we allow ourselves to relinquish biblical homeland?

RAL: I don’t think that this is an issue which can be posed and dealt with in the abstract.

In the abstract, there is a debate amongst Gedolei Yisrael as to the balance of priority between saving lives, if indeed such a withdrawal would save lives, and holding onto the land at human cost, including the loss of life. As a matter of record, this is not something recent, but goes back a generation or two.

If one assumes that no matter how much blood is spilled, you have to hold onto every square meter that you can, it’s clear which way you have to go. If you assume that you have to prioritize human and social needs - which include a spiritual component - over territorial integrity, to the extent that these two are incompatible, then you have to make a choice, and the choice will therefore be to come to terms, sad as it may be, with further withdrawals.

As I’ve said, I don’t think that we should just approach this abstractly and say well, if you prioritize the human element then you give away wholesale, while if you prioritize the territorial element you give away nothing. While in theory the polar options make more sense and seem more consistent, LeMa’aseh, every government in the world operates under the assumption that you are willing to pay a certain price for a certain gain, in terms of risk-benefit ratio, cruel as it may sound, to quantify to some extent human life.

So I would not make any sweeping generalizations with regard to this. In principle, I come from a tradition, by and large, which is ready to pay a price, a territorial price, for other gains. But the judgment as to what will or what won’t, and how great the cost, and in which direction, the benefits, these need to be made more on a specific basis and requires both a spiritual vision on the one hand, and a measure of expertise on the other.

Commentator: If a Torah-true Israeli soldier has a conflict between what his government tells him and what his Rav tells him, such as an order to participate in the removal of Jews from an area of Judea and Samaria - what should he do?

RAL: I think it depends on what kinds of issues come up. If the issue is one of Halakhic principle, where Morei Halakha consensually assume that a certain course of action is in clear violation of clear Halakhic norms, then we known. We don’t need a Melekh or Malkhut which issues decrees against Halakha.

If however, we aren’t dealing with Halakhic principles, but with particular judgments as to the extent to which a particular initiative will or will not have some Halakhic implications, that’s another ballgame.

I was involved over the summer in a sort of running discussion and discourse at one level with Rav Avraham Shapira, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz HaRav, and at another level with his grandson-in-law, who took over for him at some point. Part of the issue was precisely this. The point I made was that if the government were to come and say we’re going to take this initiative and give away part of Eretz Yisrael so that people should be able to enjoy life - so that each home will have two cars and three DVD’s - of course you would tell people not to do it, we have Jewish priorities. But that’s not what the government was saying. The government was saying that we are going to cede part of Eretz Yisrael in order to attain a goal which has Halakhic value and significance, except that some Halakhic authorities didn’t think it would attain it. The judgment as to what will be the result of a certain foreign policy initiative is a judgment that the government needs to make. That’s not a question of principle, it’s a question of applying principles and the business of government is to govern.

Commentator: What do you see as the role of Halakha and Rabbinic Psak within politics? In the realm of the Jewish state, where should religious beliefs guide political actions and aspirations and where should they not?

RAL: Halakha is to us a polestar in all areas of life. It is not confined to the realm of Bein Adam LaMakom in the narrow sense of the term. It is not confined to the Beis Midrash, the Mikveh and the kitchen. It guides us both in terms of values and in terms of specific normative positions. And indeed, a person who is a Ba’al Halakha has a spiritual vision and a spiritual responsibility to try to see to it that political decisions and direction are geared towards the inculcation and enhancement of Torah and spiritual values.

“What characterized the Rav and, to some extent characterized his greatness, was not only his greatness in a particular area, but the complex, the totality of his personality.”

How that plays out in terms of the political arena - should you have religious political parties or not, etc., with regard to that I think that it is legitimate to have different views. Some people think that having political parties undermines religious spirituality. Other people think that without political parties, religious interests and needs will be totally ignored. There is something to be said for both positions - I don’t think we should be dogmatic about it. I myself think that it is important to have religious parties, but don’t think that someone who disagrees is presenting a fundamentally secular argument. He can speak in the name of Torah and its interests as he understands them and arrive at conclusions that are different from my own.

But as far as what should be animating us, what should be directing us, prioritization - certainly the world of Torah, the world of Halakha, is the source to which we look for that type of guidance and hope to find it.

Commentator: Today, there are many different groups with widely different Hashkafot Olam claiming to be the bearers of Rav Soloveitchik’s torch. You had a close personal relationship with Rav Soloveitchik, both as his Talmid and son-in-law. How would you hope to see his legacy perpetuated within Yeshiva University as well as within the Jewish community at large?

RAL: What characterized the Rav and, to some extent characterized his greatness, was not only his greatness in a particular area, but the complex, the totality of his personality. He had great sweep, great depth - he was the archetype of the fusion of the integration, at times to a degree of internal conflict, tension if you will - which he was aware of and preached - but a conflict which he felt was also very productive and fruitful in terms of trying to build a more total spiritual personality.

He sought a certain harmony - not the total harmony of which Rav Kook referred. And, in addition to his outlook, looked with some measure of favor upon some internal ‘Ratzo VaShov,’ within the context of dialectical movement, as it were.

He was indeed multifaceted, and at Yeshiva, his accomplishments and exposure unique. No one that I know comes close to carrying his mantle - the range, the depth, the level of greatness which he had.

What’s happened is that, given his status as a Gadol BaTorah and Gadol BiChochma, people naturally like to grab his coattails and go for a ride. By and large, what has happened is that many people have perceived and experienced one facet of the Rav and remained oblivious to other facets - either out of shortsightedness or because they didn’t want to be aware of them. Some people would prefer to know only the Rav of the Beit Medrash, only the Rav who was saying a Shiur - which was unquestionably his central priority, in terms of activity and values - while totally ignoring and sometimes even denying the existence of other aspects of his interests. There are others who do the reverse.

I think that it does harm to the proper appreciation of who the Rav was, and perhaps even worse, I think that it does harm to the Jewish community which could have benefited from a more integrated and organic view of the Rav, rather than the bifurcation and dissension which has been created in certain circles today.

There are people who have agendas and try to enlist the Rav in whatever crusades they want to run - whether in this or that direction. I try to shy away from it, but there may be somebody who sees how I understand the Rav and think that I’m doing the same thing - I think not, I hope not, and I try not.

Commentator: A short while ago, an article by Sarah Ridner, a senior at the Stern College for Women, titled “A consideration of Synthesis from a Student Point of View,” discussing and critiquing an article that you published, appear in the Commentator. What were your thoughts on her piece?

RAL: I’ll be honest, I don’t know here. Someone sent me the critique - I think it was a well written piece. I thought it was sensitive, I thought it was spiritual.

In terms of direction, I appreciate the fact that she wanted to write it, while at the same time I think that she related to some of her own issues which I presume are real and valid, but tried to generalize from that in a sincere, meaningful way, but in a way which I think one should avoid.

I fully agree with her position that the kind of integration that I was talking about is a difficult undertaking, and when she says that maybe the problem is that people who are exposed to the things that I am in favor of are not sufficiently rooted in the world of the Beit Medrash, that is indeed a problem.

But, I think that she does not sufficiently distinguish between two aspects. In the piece which I wrote in general about culture and Judaism, etc. in the volume which Rabbi J.J. Schacter published, I started by saying that there is an ideological issue and an educational issue. One can be in favor of Torah u-Madda ideologically and think that it is a bad idea educationally, because people can’t handle it. One might think it’s a terrible idea ideologically, and yet maybe it’s necessary for a certain segment of the population which needs it in order to stand firm religiously. I’ve written on this issue primarily with an eye to the ideological element. Educationally, I obviously can’t ignore the problem completely, but, on the educational side, I’ve related to it and always tried to emphasize the priority and primacy of Talmud Torah as opposed to other areas.

I think that, in a sense, she was challenging my ideological position on educational grounds. Now, maybe what she was saying was that I had no right to differentiate. Bottom line: do I, or do I not counsel reading Milton? On that score, the kind of synthesis which I have in mind, maybe it’s good in terms of what it can contribute. Whether it’s good for someone who doesn’t have the tools to integrate it properly within a Torah Hashkafah, maybe it’s not good. But those two issues need to be distinguished.

But I want to say again, if I knew her, I would compliment her on the piece - it was well-written, sensitive, and - Chas VeShalom - I have no complaint whatsoever. If I knew her and had a way of getting in touch with her, I would tell that to her.

Commentator: You see generations of American youth entering your yeshiva. Do you see trends among them? For example, do you see areas where today’s youth is perhaps stronger than in the past? Are there also areas of weakness?

RAL: In general, the Torah scene in America has certainly improved since I was a Talmid and a Rosh Yeshiva here. The range of high schools which are encouraging people to go to Eretz Yisrael to learn has widely increased and, in that respect, I think it has been a more positive development. How that breaks down, who goes to which Yeshiva, is a matter which fluctuates. Obviously, every Yeshiva is interested in getting a certain type of Bachur in terms of personality, Hashkafah, commitment, Yir’at Shamayim, etc., there are variations. As to the overall level, taking the range of sources of which Bachurim come, I think it is more positive than it had been.

At the same time, the Orthodox Jewish community has become polarized a bit - maybe more than a bit, here. In certain quarters we hear challenges to the world of Halakha as traditionally perceived, understood and experienced, which thirty years ago were not so prominent. But then that’s more an issue with regard to the American Jewish scene. Generally, I don’t think I would say that it is a main characteristic of the Bachurim who come to our Yeshiva.

Yigal Gross is the Opinions Editor of the Commentator.