The RA”L I Found

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ravlichtenstein
by R. Gidon Rothstein

[This entire series is available for download as an e-book: Blogging Rav Lichtenstein (PDF). R. Rothstein will be speaking at a Yom HaZikaron program in Riverdale this Wednesday on the topic: “Embracing Complexity: A Piece of the Thought of R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l.” 6pm at 4545 Independence Ave, sponsored by the Riversale Minyan, YIOZ and SAR -ed.]

Blogging R. Lichtenstein: The RA”L I Found

There is a well-known parable of blind men encountering different parts of an elephant. One was at the tail, one at the trunk, one underneath the belly, one at the wide, round foot, and so on. Each came up with a plausible theory based on what he touched, none glimpsing the whole. (In different versions, when they compare notes, they either reject the others’ views, or come to see a greater whole by putting all of those together).

To put the same idea in more Jewish terms, when R. Soloveitchik passed away, I remember students of his complaining that each eulogizer cherry-picked elements of the Rav’s life and thought that appealed to him, ignoring much else (in contrast, as it happens, to RA”L, where people specifically noted the coherence of the eulogies, how, for all that they differed in emphasis, they all also clearly described the same person).

If it’s easy to find the Rav you want to find, rather than the man as he lived, I have worried, here and elsewhere, that I will find the RA”L I want rather than the fullness of the giant he was. (This is a problem in many contexts, one to which I’ve been a bit hypersensitive since my PhD dissertation showed me respected traditional commentators whose rules for reading texts allowed them so much flexibility in deciding what the text meant, that their interpretations were as much or more about them than about the text itself. Aside from making me very nervous around loose readings of texts, since I’ve seen how they can be used and misused, it has made me question myself, check that I’m listening to sources, not telling them what I need or want them to say).

With RA”L, I tried to avoid that by taking on all his published volumes, not those I might have singled out as personally appealing. I have tried to take points from within those volumes that seemed to be usefully reflective of the volume as a whole, although I did occasionally take points that jumped out to me.I hope those efforts have been rewarded by offering some accurate account of his Torah, but it is, necessarily, the RA”L I found, likely with much missing that I was unable to capture.

Where Complexity Takes Us

One of the elements of RA”L’s intellectual life I believe I successfully caught also explains why I wasn’t going to fully portray the man even if I did manage to leave my own proclivities out of it. I mentioned it once in these essays, but he more than once commented that if he had to summarize what he learned in graduate school, he would say he had learned the complexity of the world. The number of times I saw it referenced suggest that it was an idea that mattered to him, that he saw this experience of complexity as formative of his thought.

It is an insight borne out in these volumes, was the most prominent element of my attempt to wrangle his rich ideas into a brief presentation. As I read and reread these essays, I was surprised by how often I had apologized for having to cut short a discussion, having to leave out examples RA”L had brought, for having run out of room before I could deal with more aspects of a book.

RA”L dealt with the complexity of life by embracing as much of it as he could, taking it on, understanding it, categorizing it, putting each piece of it in its proper place. In halachah and hashkafah, the way he found a meaningful answer was to take the question in all its possible elements, see where the major thinkers of tradition (and, in some contexts, the major thinkers of other traditions as well) took that question, what new aspects hey raised, and where that left us.

Treading Widely and Well

Part of what’s surprising in writing that sentence is that he didn’t even do it by amassing an overwhelming set of sources. While he was remarkably knowledgeable, his bekiut, the breadth of sources he had at his fingertips, impressive as it was to ordinary people (and recognized talmidei hachamim, Torah scholars), it wasn’t the kind where he cited source after source after source.

At least in these volumes, it was a demonstration that even working with a fairly delineated set of sources (in the shiurim other than Taharot, for example, he mostly cited rishonim, authorities who lived before publication of the Shulchan Aruch, and his predecessors in the Brisker tradition, R. Chaim, the Griz, and, often, the Rav).

Yet the world he found with those sources was rich, complex, full of possibilities for how to understand halachah and how to set up a proper Jewish life. Nor did he puff up his presentations with fluff or unnecessary sidebars. Part of what made it so difficult to summarize well was that for all its length, everything in it made valid and valuable points.

A Broad Life and Our Need for Advice

RA”L once quoted R. Hutner as rejecting the idea of a “double life,” insisting that his students strive for a “broad life.” My strongest impression of what we’ve found in these volumes is that RA”L spent his life doing that, taking on all of Torah, and all of life, to the prodigious extent he could, bringing his remarkable intellect, insight, and memory to bear on understanding the world—within the frame of halachic discourse and without– as it is, and to see what that teaches us about our lives, as students of Torah and servants of Hashem.

Before I let that aspect of it go, I want to append a lesson I think it bears for all of us. As we make decisions, as we pick our way through the challenges that come our way, RA”L’s example says to me—and, I think, says to all of us—that we must be suspect, even leery, of simple and simplistic answers. They may occasionally be correct, but we should not expect it to be the general case.

It means that we should step gingerly in life, unless we can be sure we have the breadth of vision necessary to make good decisions. If we don’t, we need to solicit as many views as we can. Because, for those of us who aren’t RA”L in breadth of knowledge and depth of thought, finding a decision that accounts for all the facets of an issue is highly unlikely, unless we work hard at it.

Holding On to Ideas, Because They’ll Eventually Come In Handy

It seems to me that his embrace of complexity underlay another feature of the shiurim, his holding on to theoretical possibilities. The first part of that is his interest in and insistence on laying out the ways one could understand a topic, so that when he saw the opinions espoused among the rishonim, it was sometimes like fitting them into the boxes he had previously laid out (or noting how they didn’t quite fit into one or other box).

It often put an otherwise unwieldy welter of opinions into a comprehensible framework, one likely reason RA”L did it. At the same time, when one of the possibilities wasn’t taken by anyone before him, RA”L was still interested in it, because it was a possible way to understand the topic. Nor did the fact that an idea was rejected in one place mean it might not yet shed light elsewhere, even if no one before RA”L had suggested that.

Yes, it shows his independence of thought even within deep traditionalism, but what makes it relevant here, I think, is that he seems to have felt that if an idea was logically possible, if it felt right, there should be a place for it, and keeping it in mind would be productive and rewarding.

[In a somewhat parallel way, pure mathematicians follow ideas that fit their axioms without regard to whether they can see a practical application. Some of them have the faith—and it is a bit religious—that any sufficiently beautiful idea must eventually find its expression. When that is later discovered, they’re happy and satisfied, but that’s not justifies their endeavor—they were following the ideas for their own sake.

That’s not quite parallel here, because RA”L started with Talmudic discussions focused on fleshing out halachah; as the Rav wrote in Halachic Man, halachah might proceed theoretically, but its goal is to apply it to life. RA”L was not engaging in random theorizing, he was taking halachic facts and seeking the range of ways to understand those, to be sure he and his students had the richest reading of halachah possible.]

Looking Over His Shoulder and Finding Satisfaction

Forced one last time to constrain the length of my writing, I note RA”L’s lifelong struggle to balance his respect for the past and applying that to the present. We saw RA”L’s acknowledged debt to the formative teachers in his life along with his willingness to walk his own path in understanding the Torah. We saw his concern with his choices to allow his shiurim to be presented in modern Hebrew, not the traditional lishna de-rabbanan, and that his starting from the middle of a tractate not be interpreted as a disregard for how Hazal structured the discussion.

Let me close with a story that moved me greatly, that brings this point to life, and that offers, I hope, a fitting conclusion to the time we have spent together reviewing some small piece of RA”L’s rich bequest of Torah. When I saw one of his close students soon after RA”L’s passing, this student (whom I do not quote since I’m not sure he meant these comments to be said in his name) noted his sense that the last years of RA”L’s life– when family, students, and the broader public, expressed their great appreciation; when a group of supporters presented him with a Sefer Torah written in his name, an act that inspired an emotional reaction from him that I remember surprised me when I saw it; when he was awarded the Israel Prize, and more—had given RA”L real nachat, satisfaction and some sense he had accomplished a reasonable amount in his life.

I was stunned. How could RA”L not have known, all throughout, how much he was doing for the Jewish people? In my mind, he and R. Amital, with the support of their wives yibd”l, had built a remarkable institution of Torah, from nothing. Thousands of students, those who passed through the yeshiva and those who admired him from afar, relied on his perspective of the world as justification for their own. How could he not know this?

The man who told me this story (a recognized Torah scholar in his own right) wouldn’t give details, but hinted that RA”L sometimes felt colleagues of his (I think from his days at Mesivta Yeshiva Chaim Berlin) accomplished more, had more students, built more prominent institutions of Torah. These last years allowed him to recognize he had done much as well.

I close with this because it suggests a challenge RA”L faced, coming from a particular world, seeing much of value in that world, yet also seeing a new way he had to go. Following that sense courageously throughout his life, even as he worried he had been too quick to relinquish this or that piece of that other world.

In living the broad life R. Hutner pushed, RA”L encountered many worlds, ideas, suggestions for how to serve Hashem best. As we’ve seen together, he spent his time fleshing out all those possibilities, conceptually and practically, to build a life and an example that has enriched us all.

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