Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein: A Champion of Spiritual Sensitivity

On Monday 20th April, the 1st of Iyyar, my teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein left this world.   I wrote some personal reflections on this huge loss, which originally appeared in Haaretz on thursday - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.653242.   May his memory be a source of inspiration, blessing and strength for all of us.   

It is perhaps in the nature of a great human being that it is only from a perspective of both time and distance that one can really appreciate them.
I consider myself blessed to have spent three of my formative years in close proximity to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. On trying to put his virtues into words, one which stands out was his humility, which was both unique and exemplary. He possessed a genuine egolessness, in the healthiest possible sense. This was not false modesty, a labored and strained attempt to suppress one’s pride or hunger for recognition. No, this was simply a profound and genuine awareness of one’s smallness, humbled as he was by his place in the tradition.

He was also justly famous for the rigor and complexity of his thought. We take thinking for granted, that we know how to do it, that we know what logic and clarity are. But it has to be learnt, it has to be cultivated, and the intricacies of the Talmudic world were a great training ground for it.

I recall listening to his Talmud lectures on tape after hearing them in person, rewinding sections over and over again in an attempt to understand a hairsplitting distinction. A two-hour lecture could take six hours to revisit, digest and properly note. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t recall all of the subject matter from those lectures, but the ability to think critically and systematically, to unravel and engage with difficult concepts, that has stayed with me for life.

One might say that his subtlety was wasted on the young Yeshiva students he was mostly surrounded by. Filled with passion and impatience, a thirst for metaphysical certainty, they would look to him for clear and definitive answers. But they would never come; his endless contextualizations and qualifications were perhaps designed to frustrate his students, to show them the meaning of complexity, of nuance, of rigor and systematic thinking. The students of course would continue to ask, and they would in turn keep drinking from the cooling waters of this deep and capacious mind, learning, unwittingly, the patience and discipline required to be a thinker.

His educational philosophy, like that of Rav Amital, was to give space, to lead by example, to teach of the Divine by embodying it rather than by philosophizing about it. Following the Kabbalistic doctrine of tzimtzum, of self-limitation, they both left a lot of autonomy in the hands of their students, giving them the space to wander and get lost in ways conducive to true and lasting growth.

He once spoke of the ideal personality as a large container, which could then be filled with Torah, with wisdom and character marked with the stamp of the Divine. It was easy enough to fill a small vessel, and also possible to create a large vessel but to fail to sanctify it. To allow oneself to expand and to still somehow infuse the fullness of one’s person with a sense of responsibility and higher purpose, that was a struggle. And it was not one without its risks.

Rav Lichtenstein was not always completely comfortable with directions his students took, wondering how positions that he had staked out on the left flank of Orthodoxy, which had seemed radical in their time, came to be viewed by some students as moderate or conservative.

In my own experience, however, at a time when I was really struggling with my Judaism, I found him to be above all compassionate and non-judgmental. As we spoke at length about the intellectual and existential difficulties I was having, he communicated tremendous sympathy with my plight, and, characteristically, did not pretend to have any easy answers to my problems.

But there was something more, something warm and encouraging, as if he could see in my troubled soul that something good was trying to work its way out, that this was not a meaningless and angry rebellion but a necessary stage in my development. It was almost as if his faith in me allowed me to have faith in myself, to feel that I was actually engaged in something meaningful, that my better self had not been entirely duped.

I’ll never know for sure what he was thinking, but our encounter that day kept me connected to Judaism and to the Yeshiva, and gave me a true glimpse of his greatness of soul. To outer appearances he might have looked just like another Rosh Yeshiva, blessed with an exceptional mind and extraordinary piety. And he was. But beneath the surface lived an integration of all the moral and spiritual wisdom he encountered throughout his quest, a glowing furnace of broad virtue, acting as a reminder that such things were possible.

He showed that there really is a need for deep commitment to the life of the spirit, that there are no technological or intellectual shortcuts to moral progress. Through his example we can see that a life lived in pursuit of these goals is not only possible within the apparent constrictions of traditional religion but might even be enhanced by them.

In my mind, this is what the Yeshiva stands for, a world of alternative values, a place where young souls are given the nutrition and love necessary for finding their roots and developing what he called “a kind of spiritual sensitivity to the world.” Seeds are planted in these years which may take many years to come to fruition, whose impact might only become clear over the decades.

But this was Rav Aharon’s vision, the blood which ran through his veins, and in a world where he is no longer, where we are orphaned and bereft of his guiding presence, of the sense that someone had things in hand, it falls upon all of us to work that bit harder to realize it, to show that both Judaism and spirituality have much to teach our world, particularly when the best of them are married together.

Patience, Compassion and Love Shabbat 28 – 33

The pages are so rich at the moment, and I just don’t have the time to do them all justice.  Quite frankly, it’s frustrating as hell.  I’m going to try to talk briefly about each daf, with just a gesture towards of some of what’s going on there.

Shabbat 28

The Mishna (end of 27b) teaches that:

You may not light the Shabbat lamp with anything that comes  from a tree,  except for flax; and whatever comes forth from a tree cannot be defiled with the uncleanness of tents,  except flax.

I think the thematic linkage here between Shabbat and Death – as embodied by the ‘uncleanness of tents’ – is significant and profound.  Shabbat is connected to mortality, it is rooted in our limits.

It commemorates the completion of creation, and the end of the God’s intimate involvement in that.  From then on, he plays a smaller role, a less obvious role.

I wrote a little something on this a few years ago:

Let it remind you of the tragedy inherent in creation, that there is no longer a Godly hand guiding it but that we alone are responsible for its development and wellbeing.  Do not be overwhelmed by this, but do not shirk from the magnitude of the task.  The world will change and unfold, we can try to influence this or we can hide from it and prepare ourselves for the worst.  To reject this pessimism is the core of all faith.

To rest is to accept that we have limits.  This is not always an easy thing to admit, perhaps because it reminds us that we must die, that we are mortal.

And yet our mortality, the transient uniqueness of it all, is what allows for meaning in life, for precious and delectable moments.  We must try to make peace with our mortality, to see it as framing our life, as a reminder that life is a precious and fragile gift.

Shabbat 29

Davar she’aino mitkaven – If an action performed on Shabbat results in a unintended prohibited action, it is permitted.  The only limiting factor is that the prohibited action must not be guaranteed to come about as a result of the action.

The example given is of dragging a small bench along a muddy surface – any ‘digging’ or ‘ploughing’ that might come about is neither desired nor guaranteed.

Indeed, doing ‘work’ on Shabbat, creating a proper violation, requires each of the following conditions to be fulfilled:

(1) You are aware that you are doing the action

(2) You intend for the action to take place

(3) You are doing the action because you want the logical result to follow

(4) The action is constructive, not destructive

(5) The action has a permanent, rather than a temporary, effect

(6) You do the action in the normal way it is done

(7) Your efforts directly cause the action to take place

(8) You do the action using only those people necessary

(For more detail and further examples, have a look at the overview by Alan Goldman, from whom I’ve borrowed this listing.)

This is all important to know for its own sake, but it’s also important for an appreciation of how difficult it is to actually break Shabbat.

This is nice philosophically, Shabbat is a strong container, a rigid structure, we don’t need to be too fragile with her, she can hold us.

The practical ramifications are significant too – people seem to sometimes dream up ways in which a given action might be breaking Shabbat, and can thus generate a significant amount of anxiety.  The list seems to be telling us that it’s not that easy, that you needn’t worry about unintended actions, that keeping Shabbat should not become a new form of hysteria.

Shabbat is about peace, its observance should not makes us paranoid and fearful.

Shabbat 30

There is a crazy but beautiful piece of Aggadic Midrash here, which simply must be read, ideally with the Hebrew, to be appreciated.  The upshot, which has much more impact if you’ve read the whole thing (it utterly defies summarizing), is the following:

A lamp is called ‘ner’ and a person’s soul is also called ‘ner’; it is preferable to extinguish the ‘ner’ of flesh and blood [i.e. a candle] to the ‘ner’ of the Holy One Blessed be He [the life of a human being].

We learn from here that you may extinguish a light or carry out other prohibited actions to save a life on Shabbat.

In Yoma 85b we have the more literal reasoning of ‘va’chay bahem’ – ‘you should live by them’ – but believe me, it’s not a patch on this piece of Aggada, and I’m much the happier to have encountered this poetic piece of reasoning.

We also have the attempts to supress Mishlei (Proverbs) and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and some fascinating expositions to prevent that.

Shabbat 31

Hillel and Shammai.  I’m glad we already discussed this a little, it would be too upsetting to not discuss the significance of their differences at length.

And, having established Hillel as deeply humanitarian, as an embodiment of a Torah of Love, we can here spend a moment on his proto-Wittgensteinian insights into the limits of textual authority.

He was confronted with potential convert who only wished to learn the written Torah, not the oral Torah.  His response was as follows:

On the first day he taught him the alef bet [Hebrew alphabet].  On the second day he changed the letters and taught him the alef bet differently.

‘But yesterday you didn’t teach me this way!’ protested the convert.

‘And weren’t you then completely reliant on me, as you are now?  Rely on me regarding the Oral Law too, without it you are nowhere’.

A text has no meaning without a tradition of interpretation, without a responsible reader, without a subject sufficiently attuned to its spirit.

Hillel is showing, with a very 20th century proof, that every text requires a teacher, that every tradition requires mediation.

It seems to be utterly apt that we move straight from here to:

That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, the rest is interpretation.

There is text, there is tradition, and there is the guiding spirit.  We need all three of these, without any one of them we are lost, we are betraying what is Divine in the Torah.

Hillel embodied this, he was a man of patience, of peace.  The stories suggest he was virtually implacable.

Shammai by contrast was hot tempered, ill at ease in the world, never far from anger.

We learn from Hillel, we learn how to be, how to live.  We simply cannot learn these things from Shammai, such a character has not yet found its own way in the world, has not yet found a restful dwelling.

Shabbat 32

We have here the appalling and horrendous Mishna suggesting that women die in childbirth due to lapses in various observances.

One must ruefully note that in the continuation of the text men and children also have their moments of reckoning, that it is not just women who are the recipients of Divine Retribution.

I can only suggest that these explanations are offered in a spirit of love and compassion, in an attempt to bring meaning to forms of death that were much more common at that point in time than we could nowadays bear to imagine.

We’ve touched on this in the past, how some form of explanation, however gruesome, might be better than the abject nihilism which might be the alternative.

And ‘better’ does not mean ‘more true’, ‘more honest’, and certainly not ‘more beautiful’.  But the mind is a funny thing, and the idea that there might be some grain of meaning, hope or love behind things may hold, for some people, more appeal than the alternative.

Let us not presume to know until we have been in that place.

Let us put to rest our philosophical pretensions and righteousness and proceed with cautious humility before the horrors with which real people live.

We are warned here that one who speaks with vulgarity, without consideration, with flippancy has hell deepened for them, for:

The mouth that speaks perversity is a deep pit.

Thoughtlessness comes from emptiness, from a person living with a deep inner void, lacking a genuine connection to life.

It may take some faith, but it feels better to believe that these pages are not coming from such a place.

Shabbat 33

And so to Rav Shimon bar Yochai, a tale of zeal and fury.

(Again, read it; I can’t possibly do it justice here.)

On hearing the Romans being praised for building markets, he responds:

‘They only established marketplaces so that they could put prostitutes in them’.

Thinking psychoanalytically, this is a powerful statement.  Prostitutes are clearly quite close to the surface of his mind, he perhaps finds them to be an agonising and tormenting source of temptation.  He may not even be conscious of this, and it would be much easier to allay this threat to the personality by projecting it onto the Romans.  His susceptibility is vanquished, all perversion lies with the Romans, they are the source of corruption.

Unsurprisingly, the Romans didn’t take kindly to this remark, and were after him.

He fled, famously, to the cave with a carob plant outside where he hid for twelve years, learning Torah with his son.

When they came out, believing the threat to have abated, their furious zeal threatened to destroy the world – everything they looked at was consumed by the fire of their anger.

Rebuked by a heavenly voice, they returned to their cave, where they studied for another twelve months.

On leaving this time, his son still has a destructive streak, but Rav Shimon has mellowed somewhat, and is able to heal what the son damages.

We don’t know what changed them, but we are given a symbol of what helped cement the transformation.

Watching an old man gathering myrtle branches in honour of Shabbat, they asked him why he needed two bundles, why one would not suffice.  On hearing his explanation – one for Zachor (rememberance), one for Shamor (honouring) – Rav Shimon said the following:

‘You see, my son, how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel.’

With this their minds found peace.

After years and years of rage, of an anger he was perhaps not even aware of, of a righteousness driven by fury, by discomfort, by a fear of his own demons, he finally learnt to love.

He saw that the Torah is founded upon love, that there is something miraculous and Divine in the way it is observed with love.

Love was what he had struggled to see, and once his eyes beheld it, their capacity for destruction diminished.

It’s easy to talk tritely about these subjects, and yet, I do believe, with what can only be called faith, that we are only ever able to grasp a small fraction of the power of love, of the difference it makes in the heart of man.

We think we know ourselves, yet it is sometimes only after years of living with the darkness of anger and hatred that we realise how little love was in our heart; love for the world, love for the other, love for our self.

May the Divine wisdom and light help pierce the darkness, may the Divine Love enlighten our eyes and enable us to ‘live by them’.

Let us be like Hillel, implacably patient and boundlessly compassionate, and in that way let us live up to our calling as the lamp of the Divine, as something worthy of protection and grace.

For He Is Merciful, no matter what they say… Berakhot 33

We have been getting quite deeply involved in the emotions and the psyche of late, perhaps it’s been a bit too much for some people, perhaps people feel that prayer needn’t be quite such a voyage of the spirit.  Even in the Talmud we hear voices who think that all this talk of meditation and reflection might be a little too ethereal:

If he did not focus his attention initially, we beat him with a blacksmith’s hammer until he focuses his attention.

As Spud says in Trainspotting, extolling Begbie’s powers of communication, sometimes you’ve just got to get the message across.

We encounter today one of the more troublesome texts in the Talmud, one of those nuggets that is often seized upon for all the wrong reasons.  The Mishna says:

One who says [in his prayers] “You extended your mercy to a bird’s nest”, “May your name be remembered for the good” or “We give thanks, we give thanks”, we silence him.

The reference to the bird’s nest is referring to the law wherein we are commanded to send away the mother bird before taking eggs from her nest, something that looks to be emblematically merciful.

Why should this declaration of praise be problematic?

The Talmud ponders this, and declares that there were two Amoraim arguing about this, Rabbi Yosei bar Avin and Rabbi Yosei bar Zevida.

One said, because he might make the rest of creation jealous, [i.e. that God only showed mercy to the birds]. 

This is a harmless enough opinion, nothing offensive about it.

The other said: Because he makes the attributes of the Holy One into manifestations of mercy, whereas they are nothing but decrees.

Ouch, God is not merciful, all He does is issue arbitrary decrees.

This is the plain meaning of this opinion, and people fall over themselves to bring it up in debate, in an attempt to prove all sorts of things.

Some people learn from it that we are forbidden to enquire into the reasons for the Miztvot, that any such enquiry is both dangerous and doomed.

Others learn from it the more noxious idea that we cannot presume there to be a predominantly compassionate and merciful theme running through the Jewish religion.  We must treat the entire culture as made up of arbitrary decrees, our sympathetic and moral understandings are of no value whatsoever.

We have discussed this point of view in our very first post, and at various points since then we have seen quite how important the spirit of the law is, how powerfully the prophetic underpinnings of the law continue to resonate throughout its discussion and application.

I might even go so far as to say that I have been pleasantly surprised at how little there has been to suggest otherwise, how little of this ‘arbitrary religion’ has actually been depicted in the Talmud.

And now, as this problematic little opinion rears its head, I am inclined to say that it is something of an anti-climax.

The Talmud just mentions it and leaves it, it doesn’t treat it as a big deal, it doesn’t declare that we have just been told of a revolutionary and counterintuitive principle.  Even semi-controversial points are often tested and refined by bringing an array of counter-indicative scriptural verses and rabbinic sources.  There is none of that here, we just see it, we’re not even sure which of the Amoraim actually said it, and then we leave it.

Even the story afterwards doesn’t support this principle, all we know is that Abaye was suspicious of someone who mentioned mercy and the nest.  On a simple level, it sounds like his uncle Rabah might actually have thought it was permitted; only a later Talmudic rendition suggests that he agreed with Abaye and was testing him.

We make no effort to square this principle with those of Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, with the endless verses in the Bible which talk about God’s mercy and love.

I’m not saying we have to remove it from the text, but I will say that if someone wishes to build a philosophy of Judaism out of this one lone opinion then they really have their work cut out.  The burden of evidence is firmly in their court, they must marshal many more sources and principles if they wish to justify a hyper-nomian vision of the Jewish religion.

Clearly I’m very worked up about this, why does it bother me so much?

It bothers me on many levels.

For a start, it makes the whole project of the study of Torah devoid of meaning.  If Torah has no moral core, no genuinely Divine ethos, then it is much harder to understand the purpose and value of immersing ourselves in it.

It becomes a purely argumentative and aggressive discipline, a form of jousting, and as we saw in the deposing of Gamilel the other day, that model is simply not acceptable.

To study Torah is both to shed light on it and to be enlightened by it.  It would be a sorry state of affairs if we felt that we were constantly having to justify and apologise on its behalf, that it was offering us nothing in return, that we were not inspired by it.

There is a terrible weakness of faith expressed by those who state that we must not look for the light inside the commandments, out of fear that when we occasionally fail to see it our whole commitment structure will shatter.

And this brings us to the next point – what happens when laws and rules do strike us as offensive, when they do sound morally problematic to us?

The vast majority of what we’ve seen so far in the Talmud suggests that people speak up for what they believe in, that their personal understanding of the religion guides and shapes how they recommend its practice.  Rarely – if ever – have we heard someone say “It strikes me that the essence and spirit of the Law dictate one practice, but I have a tradition of following an opposing one.”  It just doesn’t work that way, they didn’t have the gap between sentiment and obedience that seems to have crept into observant life nowadays.

They had no truck with the idea that understanding was a dangerous game, that probing the moral fabric of a practice would lead to anarchy.

The entrenched resistance we encounter nowadays to genuine and necessary halakhic change, in areas such as agunot, woman’s rights and acceptance of homosexuality, has its roots in the orientation which gives primacy to this one opinion in the text.  The less faith one has in one’s moral compass, the less confident and bold one will be in one’s halakhic innovation.

(I’ve just spotted another level of irony, that the opinion itself is trying to explain a law, that of silencing the utterer.  Perhaps they should have just left that law alone, not presumed to explain it?)

Perhaps I am crying out in vain, perhaps those who wish to cling to that way of thinking will always find justification for doing so.  But for those of us who have greater faith, who believe that faith is something which lives alongside our ethical and intellectual refinement, that it grows as they do, it is important to engage with this text and defuse its potential import.

Coming at it differently, I read recently that Ramban interprets this problematic idea as follows:  God didn’t give us the commandment because of His mercy towards the bird, but because He wishes humans to develop sensitivity and compassion towards the bird.

This is a beautiful way of dealing with this puzzling dictum, Ramban turns the surface reading of God not being concerned with mercy on its head: God is so concerned with mercy that he does not just act to bring it about, or command us to effect it.  Rather, he carefully sculpts his commandments such that they will deeply and genuinely instil this value in us.

May we take the Ramban’s words to heart, may we always experience and emulate the Mercy which is such an important Divine attribute.

And more than this, may we share the Ramban’s faith that Torah is neither offensive nor repugnant, that it is always possible to apprehend the Truth and Beauty at Its core.