Rav Lichtenstein’s Rav

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ravlichtensteinby R. Gidon Rothstein

Blogging R. Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, Volume One, Week 2: RA”L’s Rav

The last chapter of Leaves of Faith is RA”L’s hesped, eulogy, for R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, to which I hope to return when we get to the second volume (after spending two weeks each on the volumes of shiurim on Baba Batra and Baba Metzia). The two previous chapters record a talk about R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) z”l that RA”L z”l gave at the OU Convention on Thanksgiving, 1992, and then the words of hesped he gave after the Rav’s passing.

It is well known that RA”L was both a talmid muvhak, a dedicated student, and a son-in-law of the Rav, and yet I’m not sure that that fully captures the Rav’s impact on RA”L, intellectually and personally. I know that when I had conversations with RA”L in the early 1990s, about a purely personal issue, he recalled the Rav’s perspective on a related issue, as an important piece of information on how to think about the question.

In the volumes of shiurim—these are shiurim RA”L was giving in his mid to late sixties, a mature and accomplished Torah scholar in his own right—he quotes the Rav more, I’m pretty sure, than anyone else. So that his perspective on his father in law is not just that of a son in law, or even of a student; it’s the perspective of someone who spent years imbibing the Rav’s Torah, worldview, the Rav’s way of approaching life. And then did us the favor of sharing it with us.

Let’s start with the “The Rav at Jubilee: An Appreciation,” the word used to describe the talk while the Rav was still alive (although by that time, illness had kept him from being publicly active for about a decade), and then see what RA”L added after the Rav passed away, less than six months later.

Chiddushei Torah—Original and Creative But Not Revolutionary

RA”L opens by noting a tension within the Rav’s presentation in Ish HaHalachah (the famous essay depicting Halachic Man, the title of the English translation). The Rav seems to celebrate both studying halachah as an intellectual ad theoretical activity, an endeavor in which to revel even if those ideas will never be put into practice and then to also insist that halachic man has a deep interest and abiding passion for actualizing halachah, for improving the universe by bringing the theoretical into the real.

Both elements, in some tension with each other, were true of the Rav’s life as well—who could have imagined, RA”L says, when the young Rav spent days and long winter nights in the Khaslavitch beit midrash with his father, that he would one day fight to unionize shochetim in Boston, scrape to meet payroll for teachers at Maimonides, address RCA conventions?

Taking each in turn, in the pure Torah realm, there was the Rav’s halachah and his machshavah, his thought. In the former, RA”L is clear about the Rav’s creativity and contributions—he mentions one idea I had not seen before, that a safek because of a tartei de-satri wasn’t a doubt in which we don’t know enough to rule, it’s a doubt that stems from conflicting elements within a question, and then one that I had seen, the Rav’s often noting that the action of a mitzvah isn’t always the same as the kiyyum, the true fulfillment of that mitzvah.

Nevertheless, those contributions built within an existing framework, advanced the project of Brisker Torah started by his grandfather R. Hayyim, doing for Orach Chayyim that which he said his grandfather had done for Yoreh De’ah—taking it out of being relegated to the practical and giving it a conceptual framework that laid bare its fuller role within halachic observance. Still and all, it was an addition to what already existed; a well-done addition, but not a new departure.

The Poet Inspires Us

That could not be said of the Rav’s machshavah, as RA”L has it. Aside from the homiletics (at which the Rav excelled, but so had others before him), the Rav’s thought took RA”L and the rest of us in directions we never thought of, expanding our spiritual range and experience.

RA”L writes, “It’s not that we had engaged in the quest of U-Vikashtem mi-Sham [now available in English as “And From There Shall You Seek”] and had faltered. We simply had never thought in those categories.” In the hesped, he adds rhetorical questions about who would have dreamed of attempting a work like The Halachic Mind, which deals with the interaction of halachah and philosophy of science, who would have been capable of analyzing the experiences of the lonely man of faith, or the typology of Halachic Man.

In both essays, by the way, RA”L quotes the Irish poet W. B. Yeats’ remark that one writes rhetoric about his struggles with others, poetry about his struggles with himself. For RA”L, the Rav was a poet, “in the depth, power and precision of his feeling… and not just in talent for expression.” That element of the Rav fueled all of his intellectual work, in the more well-trodden path of halachic analysis, and in the machshavah that set him apart from others. (RA”L notes that R. Kook is the lone figure whose work is similar to the Rav’s, adding that the Rav agreed with much of what R. Kook wrote, but also disagreed with much of it).

The Practical Leader Guides Us

When RA”L turns to the Rav’s practical leadership, he stresses that the Rav had been a vigorous leader in opposition to Conservative and Reform, especially his daring ruling that one should forego hearing shofar on Rosh HaShanah rather than hear it in a synagogue of one of those movements. That was true even as RA”L notes that right wing Conservative rabbis knew they could turn to the Rav for guidance in how to stem the tide of tinkering with halachah, and that the Rav was clear that many in those movements were genuine mevakshei Hashem, seekers of Hashem.

The second realm is interfaith relations, “the Rav’s adamant stand against Jewish-Christian theological dialogue” (an issue that has recently reappeared, in remarkably similar terms to the ones that RA”L used to describe it in 1992, reflecting back on the Rav’s activity in the 50s and 60s). Concerned that a thaw in anti-Semitism mandated by the Second Vatican Council would lead to ecumenicism, the idea that there’s nothing special or unique about the Jewish people, the Rav fought against it.

But beyond all that, RA”L sees the Rav as having been a rebbe, a teacher and mentor, both to classroom talmidim and as a Rav HaIr, the rabbi of a city. That, also, both in specific texts and in a concern for the overall religious growth of his students—RA”L notes how the Rav shaped the curriculum, in particular of his public lectures, to topics and issues that would resonate with his audience, and how he also strove to foster a greater overall religiosity (such as one summer teaching Tanya, to try to alleviate the spiritual desiccation he saw in his assembled students).

And, finally, the Rav taught in his sense of failure, his sense that, for all his accomplishments, he had not done what he should have, what he needed to.

Leading Light of Modern Orthodoxy

As befits a hesped, RA”L went on at greater length once his father-in-law had passed away.

[If I might be allowed a personal note: I remember, at the time, being struck by the deep emotion I saw in both RA”L and R. Twersky, z”l at the Rav’s passing, despite the Rav’s having been ill, and reportedly unable to have meaningful interactions, for many years before he passed away. The shock of the loss reflects itself in the way RA”L spoke, just a few months later, when the only change had been that the man he’d spoken about the previous Thanksgiving had gone to the next world. I would also note that at a shloshim event at The Jewish Center, RA”L’s son, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, noted that his father tended to speak for ninety minutes for hespedim.]

In the hesped, RA”L took the time to note more aspects of the Rav’s life, a prime one his having been the premier support for those who attempted to bridge the gap between the world of Torah and that of secular or general culture. That wasn’t the same as embracing Modern Orthodoxy, a culture the Rav saw as often characterized by “shallow thinking, deficient halachic obligation, or compromising, lukewarm experience.” But on the core issues, links to the secular world, Zionism, the Rav zt”l was “a pillar of cloud and fire for this camp… for those who clung to it and him, the Rav was a mighty oak, a shelter and a fortress…”

The image of shelter, RA”L says, is intended not only as protective, but also as simply enjoyable (as the verse in Shir haShirim says about the delight of the beloved’s sitting in the shade of her beloved); the Rav had a charismatic personality, “an uncommon magnetism…a sense of humor, sharp but also vivacious.” He was also, until later years, completely self-sufficient, uninterested in attendants to serve him, make his bed, answer his phone, or take care of his correspondence.

Blogging RA”L or the Rav?

I could probably have shortened my review of RA”L’s comments on his father in law, but it seemed to me worth it because of what it says about RA”L. While he recognized more than a few mentors, the Rav clearly was the most significant, in terms of straightforward Torah, in Jewish thought, in practical activity, in communal leadership, in personal character and more.

As we journey through RA”L’s writings together, it seemed to me that knowing his experience of his father in law, his understanding, from the vantage point of years later, of his spiritual and intellectual father, lets us know him himself one more step as well.


About Gidon Rothstein

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