We are mourning Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who died this week at 81. Rabbi Lichtenstein was a leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism. A top student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, he even married Rabbi Soloveitchik’s daughter.
Rabbi Lichtenstein never made any list of top American rabbis, however, because in 1971 he left his post at YU to move to Israel, where he became co-head of Yeshivat Har Etzion. There he guided generations of Israeli students who combined their army service with yeshiva study, and inspired a not insignificant number of Americans who spent their year or two after high school studying in the yeshiva.
I never studied in the Gush, as the yeshiva is known, but about three decades ago I covered a talk he gave at a New York synagogue. The topic was political – he was arguing in favor of compromise on the West Bank, where his yeshiva is located – but he proved a frustrating figure to report on, because he did not speak in sound bites. He spoke in paragraphs, not simple sentences. He saw many sides of every issue – the complex arguments and counter arguments. His Talmud students praised his brilliance, and his subtlety, and the ethical lesson he taught them by insisting on puzzling out the truth from conflicting ideas.
Seeing complexity did not stop Rabbi Lichtenstein from staking out positions or engaging in controversies. But at a time when much Jewish argument seems to consist of epithets and simplified half truths, part of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s legacy is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way, that in fact the Jewish tradition places higher demands on disputants.
May his memory be for a blessing.