Two Books to Start Your Pile, or to Add to It

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Mori ve-rabi (my teacher and master) R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, might have opened a book review with an analysis of book reviews in general, their nature, goals, types, then placed the review he was presenting within the spectrum he had limned. I will skip to the chase, and tell you I write here more to convince you to read two very worthy recent books than to share my reactions to them. Both show us ways we can and should adopt aspects of R. Lichtenstein’s legacy, why I placed him at the forefront.

Prof. Chaim N. Saiman dedicates his Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law to three people, R. Lichtenstein the first of them. He writes, “To my Rosh ha-Yeshiva Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, who would have never written this book, but without whom this book would never have been written.” Well said, and very accurate; I agree R. Lichtenstein would not have adopted all of Prof. Saiman’s methods since, for example, R. Lichtenstein treated academic Jewish Studies skeptically (although Prof. Rami Reiner reported a mellowing later in life), where Prof. Saiman cites the insights of such academics regularly, and offers a “Further Readings” section studded with their writings.

Nor do I agree with all of Prof. Saiman’s claims has to say, but to delineate my quibbles would take away from my larger point, most if not all Orthodox Jews (and many non-Orthodox ones) would benefit greatly from reading the book. To understand why, let me turn to the other book I urge you to read, although it’s in Hebrew. Ashrei Adam ‘Oz Lo Bach (the phrase from Tehillim 84;6, means “fortunate is the person whose strength is in You,” and was part of a favorite song of R. Lichtenstein’s), edited by R. Chaim Navon, gathers eulogies and remembrances by his family and students.

Most of the pieces are touching and beautiful, an aesthetic experience as much as an educational one. I bring it your attention here because the book serves as a consistent object lesson, piece after piece, in how to fulfill Yeshayahu 30;20, ve-hayu ‘einecha ro’ot et morecha, seeing our teachers teaches us how to live, often as or more effectively than deliberate works of mussar, of ethical education. More, reading what R. Lichtenstein modeled reminds us of an aspect of his legacy which has not yet permeated the Orthodox Jewish world, but should.

R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, a son of R. Aharon zt”l’s and his successor as one of the Roshei Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion, tells of a visitor on the last day of shiva asking what the family had learned about their husband and father. R. Mosheh says his first response was they had learned little, because R. Aharon had been fully himself in all his interactions. They heard many examples they had not known, none of which changed their previous picture of him (itself a comfort, R. Mosheh writes, assuring his family he had indeed been the man they had known and loved, while offering welcome details; R. Mosheh did then say they had never realized how dedicated R. Aharon’s students were to him, unimportant to my point here).

In line with his consistency, the pieces circle around a small set of themes: R. Lichtenstein’s brilliance, his mastery of Torah, his supreme abilities at organizing knowledge, his concern with pedagogy as much as insight, and more. Many explicitly chose to focus away from the intellectual, to stress his extraordinary character (which outsiders might miss because of his brilliance and vast knowledge), his humility, compassion, patience, and more.

Reading about a giant of humanity reminds us of who we can be; clearly not him, because to be him takes a lifetime of diligent effort (another quality many of the authors stressed, his unflagging energy and effort), aside from innate talents few if any of us have. I do not recommend the book to try to be him, however, but because his example productively challenges us (as, again, many of the authors said) to be our best selves.

One of the areas of R. Lichtenstein’s excellence more than a few of the writers noted was the breadth of his interest in halachah, which is where we return to Prof. Saiman’s Halakhah. R. Lichtenstein did not restrict himself to the classically studied tractates, areas most relevant to Jewish life as currently lived. He surprised even other great Torah scholars with his interest, for example, in taharot, laws of ritual purity and impurity. Torah in all its fullness mattered to him and garnered his lifelong loving attention.

Prof. Saiman’s chief concern—and my saying it in no way exhausts the ways he does it—is to show us more than a bit of halachah’s breadth, to show how wrong we would be to treat it as a version of a legal system. He reminds us halachah concerns itself with issues which are not and sometimes never will be practical; halachah expresses itself in ways it then mitigates and changes when being applied in practice, yet continues to present the theoretical version, keeps it on the books, alongside the very different ways it will be applied; halachah includes theological elements, pedagogical ones, and so on.

I am not going to catalog all the ways Prof. Saiman expands our recognition of halachah’s horizons, because a thousand words or two thousand will not do him justice. Read the book, because you will be enlightened by more than a few sources, passages, and ideas. If you then want to know what parts I thought might have been expressed differently, email me, we can discuss it.

As Prof. Saiman correctly pointed out when we discussed my early thoughts on this review, many of his ideas have practical consequences for how we teach halachah and how we apply it. In schools, time pressures can mislead us into giving students the impression of halachahas focused on ritual issues (Shabbat, holidays, kashrut, berachot, and tefillah). Adults, too, often ask rabbis about these kinds of issues and not the panoply Prof. Saiman reminds us are also part of the system.

If we let Prof. Saiman show us how much more halachah contains, readably, accessibly, and enjoyably, we would want to rethink how we treat the system in all our educational contexts, child, adolescent, and adult.

Too, Prof. Saiman reminds us of the challenges for Israel, where the Jewish people are in the early stages of reifying halachah as a way to run a society (currently, mostly in the area of marriage and kashrut, revealing fault lines halachic leaders need to address to bringhalachah fully back to life). There, too, we need to be sure we have the fullest awareness of its range, that we not be more or less stringent (or lenient) than necessary and productive.

R. Lichtenstein’s life is now a memory and a legacy. His family and students have done us a favor by encapsulating the man, in ways which helped me and I think will help you. One of his students, Prof. Chaim N. Saiman, has given us an example of where his legacy should reverberate, showing how Jews differ from others, in our central and defining core ideas.

Read ‘em both, I bet you’ll be grateful. 

About Gidon Rothstein

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