HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l

When someone passes away, I try to find a life-lesson from their lives that I can incorporate into my own. This is rather easy with regard to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, as the rosh yeshiva left the Centrist / Modern Orthodox / Religious Zionist community with a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our communal soul. Things that he saw we as a community need to look at and improve.

See “By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God” by R’ Reuvein Zeigler, notes of shiurim by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, pp 220-252, which is available on-line at Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, as the email shiur from the series “Developing a Torah Personality” Lecture 12: Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting. Listing the rashei peraqim (subtitles):

  • The Shift To the Right
  • The Need for Soul-Searching
  • Commonalities and Differences With the Right
  • Shaking Our Confidence In General Culture
  • The Complexity of Experience
  • Literary, Psychological and Historical Sensitivity
  • Attitudes Toward Zionism
  • “Torah Only” or “Torah And”
  • The Possibility of Integration
  • Theory and Practice
  • Dialectical Tension or Tepid Indifference?
  • Instilling Passion
  • The Need for Spirituality
  • Diffusion and Dilution
  • The Ascendancy of the Moral Over the Intellectual
  • “Do Not Fear Any Man”

Here’s one piece near the end, that stays with me each time I read the article:

… Perhaps much of what I have said in relation to culture, quoting Arnold and Yeats and others, seems very rarefied. People may be asking themselves, “What does this have to do with us? We have to deal with children in elementary school or high school; this is not our concern.” Nevertheless, I have related to culture at its apex, because the kind of vision which is maintained at the pinnacle has an impact, and should have an impact, upon what is done at lower levels. In this respect, the awareness of the evaluation of culture does have practical consequences for whatever level of education we are dealing with.

Granted that, our challenge is to see to it that indeed we maintain our position with depth and gusto. Given our constituency, of course, we cannot instill many of our students with the optimal level of love of Torah; we know from where they come. But, within our overall community, and surely within its leadership, such a level should exist. Woe unto us, if the only choice lies between tepid compromise and arrogant kana’ut.

A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalayim, I was once walking with my family in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging by their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul, based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, “If he walks around bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asrot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce…”

I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, “Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.” My feeling then was: Why, Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.

If I can refer again to my experience over the last several decades, I think that one of the central points which has reinforced itself is the sense, in terms of values, of the ascendancy of the moral over the intellectual — with all my love for and commitment to pure learning. But, when all is said and done, you have to be guided not by what you love; you have to be guided by Torah. And the Torah tells us what is good:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה֞ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹקֶֽיךָ׃

He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. (Mikha 6:8)

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