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.

Democracy and Halakha: Uneasy bedfellows?? Berakhot 37 and 38

In another example of the fractious relations amongst the early Tannaim, we find Rabbi Akiva getting himself into trouble today, over the correct bracha to say after eating dates:

Once R. Gamaliel and the elders were reclining in an upper chamber in Jericho, and dates  were brought in and they ate, and R. Gamaliel gave permission to R. Akiva to say grace. R. Akiva said quickly the one blessing which includes three [as opposed to the full Grace after Meals, which would have been Rabban Gamliel’s prescription].

Said R. Gamaliel to him: Akiva, how long will you poke your head into quarrels?

He replied: Master, although you say this way and your colleagues say the other way, you have taught us, master, that where an individual joins issue with the majority, the halakha is determined by the majority.

The halakha is determined by the majority.  This is an important principle, not least because it seems to suggest that there is a democratic core in the foundations of halakhic development.

This sounds very promising, we cherish democracy as one of our highest values.  It very much accords with our sensibility to imagine that the halakha shares these values.

But is it really that straightforward?  The halakha is supposed to represent some sort of higher, Divine authority; how can that be squared with a democratic mindset wherein the will of the people, of the sometimes deeply uneducated masses, is the ultimate voice?

It’s a tricky one.

There are problems with democracy, and we would do well not to fall into what Raymond Geuss in History and Illusion in Politics calls the ‘narcissistically adulatory self-description’ (p123) that democracies are vulnerable to.  The mere utterance of the word ‘democratic’ is sometimes thought to sway an argument, and we should not be susceptible to such superficial thinking.  If democracy is great, we need to know why: what is it about the system that makes it so desirable?

The oft cited problem with democracy is that it appears to place all opinions on an equal footing.  Experts are given the same vote as the simple minded, the virtuous are given the same vote as the rogue.  It seems to lack any moral or pragmatic guiding principle; it seems to grant self-determination and self expression domineering priority over what might be right and just.

But no sooner do we state the problem in these terms than we quickly realise that this objection itself raises some thorny problems.  On occasion it might be easy to say who is the expert and who the fool, who the saint and who the sinner.  But can we really be sure to always detect these things, and to be right about them?  And who are the ‘we’ that is doing this detecting?  Haven’t we slipped in, via the backdoor,  some kind of ‘reliable ruling body’ who will take it upon themselves to ensure that the good is always fairly and justly selected?

There is no way around this, we might like to think that some of the time we can easily call upon the experts, but there is no surefire way to ensure that their expertise, their knowledge, does not become a form of oppressive tyranny.

No, we soon arrive at the ultimate defence of democracy, at the sense in which, for all its flaws, it is better than the alternatives.  In a democracy, the will of the people emerges, the truth of their desire becomes manifest.

To watch a democracy unfold is to watch a society organically grow, to see a culture find its roots, to see a people find themselves through the values and aspirations they endorse.

Democracy, as John Dewey point out, embodies the spirit of experimentation, it allows a community to work things out for itself, even if that means sometimes getting things wrong.

We may still find ourselves bothered by the idea that the masses sometimes get whipped up into hysteria, that they may succumb to the temptations of evil, that they may elect a Hitler.  Why are these risks worth taking?  Why should we have so much faith in humanity?

Why indeed.

It is never easy to say why having faith in humanity is a good idea, but we should be clear that when we endorse democracy, especially its liberal varieties, that we are doing precisely that.  We are expressing faith in the ultimate goodness and wisdom of the people, we are saying that no one is better equipped to establish a just and good society than they are.

To value democracy is to make a huge leap of faith.

And, talking slightly differently, it is not just the people that we are expressing faith in, it is goodness itself.  We are saying that the good can only remain hidden and oppressed for so long, that the reign of darkness and indifference must ultimately exhaust itself and burn out.

Getting slightly Hegelian, we are saying that history is a grand narrative from which truth and beauty gradually emerge, that the world of brute actuality actually, over time,  discloses the ideals which were ultimately always driving it.

Democracy should never bore us, it should always be fascinating.  Human nature and human needs are always being re-imagined and reconsidered, and the democratic polity is the stage upon which this drama is played out.

Returning to our Tannaim, Rabban Gamliel, as we know, is the aristocratic who dares to think he knows better than the people.  He thinks they should spend more time praying in the evening and he believes they should more regularly enact the longer form of grace after meals.  There may be some truth to his opinions: in an ideal world, if we were men and women of leisure, these would doubtless be excellent recommendations.

But we do not yet inhabit that Messianic ideal, we are not as free from the worries of the world as we might like to be, and we must with difficulty and regret tailor a more limited framework for our spiritual sustenance.

As a visionary, Rabban Gamliel may have a lot to teach us.  As a legislator, however,  his noble intentions threaten to become tyrannical.  Removed from the soil of the people, from the hierarchy of priorities which they actually can and do endorse, his prescriptions lose sight of that balanced golden mean, they become a source of unnecessary guilt and oppression.

This is all very well, but are we really saying that the Divine will, the Halakha, is expressed and articulated through the will of the people, that God is somehow bound by democracy?

In a word, yes.

As the heavenly voice famously says in closing the story of the Oven of Akhnai, (Bava Metzia 59b), ‘Nitzchuni Banai’, ‘My sons have defeated Me’.  God himself does not have the final word in halakha, the people do.

Everything we said above about democracy should help us to better understand this, we essentially portrayed democracy as a form of ongoing revelation, an everyday continuation of the events that transpired in the Exodus from Egypt and which culminated at Sinai.  In Avot 6:2 we have the idea that a heavenly voice continues to speak forth every day from Sinai; perhaps it is in democracy that it is nowadays making itself heard.

Again, it will stumble and fall, there will be mistakes.  But, importantly, we have faith that it will get there, that something Divine and Beautiful will ultimately be revealed.

Rabbi Akiva was right to ‘stick his head into quarrels’, the humble shepherd was right to challenge the Prince.  In doing so he was reminding us that there is something delicate and alive in the unfolding of halakha, that for the Divine to be truly realised in this world, the voice of the majority must be given its due heed.

This is not to say that we must take the results of democracy uncritically: we must be constantly weighing them up against what we already know of the good and the true, we must be trying to educate and influence from that which moves and inspires us.  But the book of knowledge can never be closed, the written Torah can never prosper without its living, unfolding, oral counterpart.  We may be required to teach, but we must also retain the humility to learn.  As Ben Zoma points out, to be wise is to learn from every man, not just from the experts (Avot 4:1).

May the democratic impulse in halakha act to strengthen our faith in humanity, and may it also help us retain humility in our quest for knowledge, to remind us that truth is always emerging, that it is never just there for the taking.