On The Importance of Gedolim: R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Remembered.

I just want to write up my thoughts on the passing of R. Aharon Lichtenstein. Unlike many of those sharing their thoughts, I was not a student of R. Aharon in the classic sense, though his writings have certainly helped shape my worldview. I did not attend Yeshivat Har Etzion, and certainly had no personal relationship with him, besides for one question I asked in a Q&A session in 9th grade and the times I shook his hand and said Good Shabbos to him when I stayed in Gush for Shabbos.  He was not my Rebbe. But he was my, hell, our Gadol.

“Gadol?!” I hear you ask, “Gadol?! Does Modern Orthodoxy believe in Gedolim?! Is that not one of the main issues that sets us apart from the Haredi world?! Do we not reject the notion of all-powerful and unquestionable Gedolim in favor of personal autonomy and independent decision-making? By calling R. Aharon your ‘Gadol’, are you not subscribing to an ideology that R. Aharon himself would have condemned (okay, probably politely but firmly differed with)?”

The answer is, no, of course not. Because that’s not what a Gadol should be, and one of the worst outcomes of the debates and strife between the Modern Orthodox and Haredi worlds is the Modern Orthodox world letting the concept of “Gedolim” become a Haredi concept they don’t believe in, because there is truly something religiously valuable in there, once you dig deeper, past the unquestioning obedience and abdication of personal responsibility that’s been piled up on top of the concept over the years.

And that something is this: Every society, especially religious societies, need their role models. Every society needs people who represent the fullest expression of the values it holds dear, if only to show that living a life in tune with those values is a goal that can actually be accomplished, if one dedicates themselves to the task. Every society has to have people who it can point to and say, “this is the kind of person I want to be”, not to imitate, but to emulate. Every society has to have people it can point to and say, “this is the pinnacle of what a human being can accomplish”, in accordance with what kinds of things it believes important for a human being to accomplish. In short, every society has its Gedolim who reflect its own values and ideal self-image. For American society, that means “Gedolim” like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr, figures who fought for democracy, freedom, and equality. For the Haredi world, that means Gedolim known for their accomplishments in Torah scholarship and their personal piety.

And for us, the Modern Orthodox? Our Gadol was R. Aharon Lichtenstein, someone who was an outstanding Torah scholar and also an outstanding secular academic, who was uncompromising in both his Judaism and his Humanism, who was able to confidently and assuredly navigate the contradictions inherent in being both religious and modern, with honesty, level-headedness, and humility and an unwavering moral voice. He served as living proof that the Modern Orthodox life did not have to mean a compromise on either Torah or being part of the modern world, that one could be an outstanding Torah scholar with an outstanding secular education and be an outstanding human being. And in that, he was our gadol, he was that person who perfectly reflected our community’s ideals and aspirations. (Even some of the humorous stories told about R. Aharon being mistaken for a driver or janitor because of his clean-shavenness and unassuming demeanor seem to represent something about Modern Orthodoxy’s self-image, that Modern Orthodoxy believes itself to be just as religiously accomplished even if it doesn’t necessarily look the part)

This is not merely theoretical. I do not remember myself when it was I first heard that R. Aharon Lichtenstein, respected Rosh Yeshiva, also had a PhD in English Literature from Harvard. What I do know is that it was, at the very least, before I was 13, and that this piece of information was, without knowing anything else about R. Aharon, life changing. I was always someone who had loved reading and other activities of a secular nature and was (and still am) quite religiously inclined, and the “Little Medrash Says’s” of my youth presented those two goals as being in total opposition. Either you throw out everything besides Torah, or you embrace godless heathenism. All that changed when I merely heard of the existence of R. Aharon Lichtenstein. One could be religious and one could be worldly, and that need not represent a compromise.

And from that point on, R. Aharon became my role model, even if I didn’t quite understand who he was, or even the nuances of the position I found so inspiring. I remember, inspired by the little information, trying to read his collection of essays,  Leaves of Faith, which was in our shul’s library. Being as I was 12 or so, suffice to say it didn’t go quite as planned. When my mother decided that, for our Bar Mitzvah, my twin brother and I were going to write short biographies of Gedolim to be used as centerpieces for the party, there was only one rabbi I insisted be included, and that was R. Aharon Lichtenstein. My Bar Mitzvah speech (yes, I wrote my own), which used Sherlock Holmes as an example of literature that be valuable religiously, approvingly cited R. Aharon’s example.  And when R. Aharon came to my high school and had an open Q&A session with my grade, I sat all the way in the front row (a rarity for me) and asked him about how his English Literature PhD helped him in the service of Torah, he answered in his typical humble and understated manner, and I wish I remember what he said, because I was too busy internally freaking out to actually listen to what he was saying. (I vaguely recall him saying that it helped him understand Tanach much better).

As time went on, and I got to the point where I could understand his writings better, I began to appreciate him as not just “the rosh yeshiva with a PhD”, but as a brilliant thinker with complex and nuanced things to say about the relationship between Modernity and Orthodoxy, one who, let’s be realistic, would have been none too pleased with my using his example as blanket heter for secular pursuits (In one passage in Leaves of Faith, he decries how Gemara now has to compete for attention with the likes of Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, which hits pretty close to home for someone who, if we’re being really really optimistic, spends as much time playing fantasy baseball as I do involved in Torah, and that’s only if one counts Facebook discussions about Torah on my ledger, and even then its almost arrogantly optimistic).  But it is no exaggeration to say that R. Aharon Lichtenstein is one of the prime reasons I am Modern Orthodox, or, perhaps, Orthodox at all. And looking around the Modern Orthodox world, as it stands now, I see no one who can truly fill those shoes of Modern Orthodox Gadol, shoes with feet planted firmly in both the religious and secular worlds, someone who truly represents the idealized vision of what Modern Orthodoxy can accomplish. We lost more than just a brilliant man, we lost more than just a deeply moral man, we lost more than just our leader, our teacher, our voice of reason, our conscience, though he was definitely all those things. We lost our Gadol. And without him here, I truly feel lost.


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