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.

Partnership Minyanim – Challenging Authoritarian Religion

This article, dealing with some of the attacks made on a new development in Orthodox Judaism, originally appeared in Haaretz on 14/04/2015 - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.651557?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter .

For a fuller treatment of some of its themes, see my previous post ‘The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’ .

Recent opposition within British Orthodoxy to partnership minyanim – Orthodox services with greater female participation – poses a test case for a bigger question: are people in today’s world still prepared to submit to a group of rabbis whom they feel to be out of touch with their reality?

In his recent attack on partnership minyanim, Rabbi Harvey Belovski asserts that there is no justification for this form of egalitarian prayer in Jewish law. The criticism, officially sanctioned by the British United Synagogue Rabbinic Council, rests, for all of its scholarly and technical language, on one simple argument: We, the consensus Orthodox Rabbinate, have total authority and it is illegitimate to follow anyone who disagrees with us.

It is a straightforward and unashamed attempt to stake out authority, brought on by the fear that authority seems to be slipping away.

Belovski hints at this fear by suggesting that accepting partnership minyanim might push some worshippers into different denominations, beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. This is a cheap and disingenuous move, avoiding genuine engagement and playing to the presumption that everyone in Orthodoxy is convinced of the non-legitimacy of every other denomination of Judaism. This is also implied by his insistence that no other halakhic authorities back Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s position in support of partnership minyanim. He means Orthodox halakhic authorities – other denominations are simply not even worth mentioning.

Regime of fear

Trying to articulate a positive statement of values has always been problematic for Orthodoxy. It prefers to preserve authority through a more fear-based regime, wherein anyone who takes an ‘excessively’ progressive stance is suddenly branded an outcast, treif. Blacklisted projects include anything interdenominational such as Limmud and JcoSS (a pluralist school), with the list growing as the anxiety of the rabbinate increases. Partnership minyanim are just the latest example.

Those involved in partnership minyanim might well be feeling frustrated. They’ve tried so hard to respect Orthodox practice, to follow a reputable and learned rabbinic expert, to ground every decision in traditional halakhic process.

But it would never be enough; in a world where fundamentalism is on the rise, where the treatment of women in conservative religion is getting worse rather than better, any pathways to progress were always going to arouse fierce resistance.

Authority bellows loudly when it feels the ground is giving. The Frimer responsa against partnership minyanim, at 172 highly detailed pages, bears witness to this desperation.

The folly of such an encyclopedic response is clear. Halakha – literally, the way – is about balancing the values of tradition with the changing circumstances of human existence. The meaning of any practice, let alone text, changes over time. Insisting that women stay at home or have little role in public worship was not a particularly significant statement in a time when women generally stayed at home and had little role in public life. The rabbis of ancient tradition were not especially or uniquely misogynist; they were simply following the ways of their world, as they had been for thousands of years.

But in a world where women exist outside the home, and play a major role in every aspect of public life, the decision to insist that they be segregated behind a curtain and offered no role in public worship has a very different meaning. It is a singular statement of sexual discrimination and oppression. It perhaps expresses a longing for a simpler, less confusing time, when women knew “their place” and the men could dominate unchallenged.

An evolving tradition

It is worth clarifying that the Jewish tradition has often evolved in ways that disregarded previous textual sources, and which left legislators struggling to keep up. Significant sections of the Talmud are dedicated to squaring practice with text, and this continues even into the works of the medieval Tosafists. It is a very modern conception that we inhabit a chain of unbroken practice, that any question can be answered by reference to textual examination. It marks, as Dr. Haym Soloveitchik argues, an age of religious insecurity, wherein a disconnect from any sense of God’s presence is bolstered by deeper commitment to His Texts.

Reflecting again on the changing meanings of practice, Rabbi Belovski’s statements of sympathy towards women at the end of the article also ring hollow. Perhaps he feels frustrated by the structural matrix he inhabits, but his article shows little willingness to challenge it.

His citing of English property law as a model for halakha also hits a sour note, given the ways that Jewish law has historically related to women as property, as something to be acquired. We should surely want to distance ourselves from comparisons which trigger such uncomfortable associations.

The nature of halakha and its role in Jewish life is beyond the scope of this article (I have written about it at length it elsewhere). But two poles of thinking can be put as follows. In one it is a heavenly code of law, on the basis of which God – or man – might decide punishments and excommunication, or which might seal one’s fate in the afterlife.

At the other pole it is “not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12), but it is a pathway of life, whose ways are those of pleasantness, catalyzing the revelation of God’s image in human life.

In line with this second option, many today have renewed faith that religion can be a powerful resource in the search for vitality, meaning and integrity. If partnership minyanim are part of such a renaissance then I believe they should be encouraged and accommodated. Striking such a committed and enthusiastic group from one’s camp can only be a very negative foreboding of things to come.


The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski has written an article against Partnership Minyanim which I have responded to in Haaretz.  http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.651557?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

I’d like to add a few further reflections based on his citing ‘meta-halakhic’ considerations in favour of his argument.

I am bothered by this move for many reasons, not least becasue I do not believe he has done justice to the richness of this topic.   I am thus outlining here 13 principles of meta halakha which seem to be relevant to the discussion.  There are links to where I have already written on some of them at greater length.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it can begin to help people think about some of the issues involved.

  1. A founding principle of all meta-halakha must be the conviction that there is a spirit and a set of principles which inform halakha, that rigid interpretation will never be enough.  This is the essence of the ongoing debate between Hillel and Shammai as depicted in the Talmud.  Hillel is capable of a more poetic reading, Shammai’s approach is rooted in anxiety and anger.
  2. In a similar vein, that Mishna teaches that we must reflect seriously upon our connection to the Divine before we submit to the rule of the commandments, the mitzvot.  Unthinking rule following is not the aim of halakha.
  3. There is a danger in being  too strict in the way we apply the law, doing so upsets the balance it is supposed to bring too life.
  4. The law should be approached with love, and not only fear.  Excessive caution and the erection of too many boundaries can undermine the purpose and spirit of the law.
  5. There will always be a need for engaged interpretation of the law, the text alone cannot provide definitive answers:      “The relationship between Oral and Written Torah is complex, their side by side existence seems to bespeak the realisation that any written text will always need a living and engaged interpretation, that truth can never be expressed unequivocally once and for all time.The famous story of Moses visiting Rabbi Akiva’s lecture (Menachot 29b) embodies this spirit. Rabbi Akiva is innovatively expounding hundreds of new ideas from the written Biblical text and Moses doesn’t recognise any of them. He starts to weaken out of confusion and distress, before Rabbi Akiva explains to one of his inquisitive students that all of these ideas are ‘Halakha Le’Moses Mi’Sinai’ – ‘a tradition of Moses from Sinai’. Moses recovers his strength, and expresses newfound appreciation for the genius of Rabbi Akiva.          There is a paradox revealed here which lies at the core of Torah – there was a singular moment when God revealed something of his will and vision to Moses and the people at Sinai, but this truth could only ever be partial and would need, by design, to be constantly expounded and renewed by the intellect and creativity of human beings. There must always be variety, for the limits of language are such that no words can ever maintain consistent meaning and purpose across time, their usage and context are forever shifting.”  (from an article I wrote on Limmud, which has other things to say about the abuse of Rabbinic Authority.)
  6.  Compassion must play a major role in our approach to religious life and halakha.  Love and tolerance are vital for Rabbinic leadership, as shown by the failings of Rav Shimon bar Yochai.  (See the section on Shabbat 33.)
  7. Rabbinic authority must be handled with sensitivity and mindfulness.  Placing too many burdens upon the people misses the point and will result in a justified uprising.  This was the undoing of Rabban Gamliel.  His overthrow revealed how damaging his spirit of aristocratic disdain had been.
  8. In line with this, there is a democratic ethos at the core of halakha, it is not divorced from the ongoing and continuous unfolding of the human spirit.
  9. The principle of human dignity – kavod habriyot – is foundational .  It cannot straightforwardly be discarded or limited in scope as the Frimers have argued.
  10. The Halakha is not in heaven, but for human beings to interpret and live.  I have not written up my teachings on this topic, but will offer this quote from Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits.  I would only add that the famous narrative on Bava Metzia 59b is, for all its radicality, in some ways less shocking than the original formulation of the idea in Deuteronomy 30.  The suggestion there is that it is within reach of every human being, to be found in our hearts and in our mouths.  It is not necessarily subject to the filtering of any authority, Rabbinic or otherwise.

Not in Heaven – Eliezer Berkovits                The law has to formulate general principles; but life situations are always particulars, there is something unique about each of them.  In this sense, every law is to some extent “inhuman”.  The problem is much more serious when the basis of the law is the revealed Word of God, which by its very nature is timeless.  How can an eternal truth and command take notice of the forever-changing needs of the fleetingly uncertain human condition.  God’s revelation was not the absolute Word of God – which could not be received by any human being – but the Word of God addressed to man.   However, if that should have any sense, would it not mean the relativization of the Absolute?

The problem is further complicated by the fact that the process of the application of the Torah to life all through the history of the Jewish people had to be entrusted to man.  It had to be because “the Torah was not given to God’s ministering angels” but to mere man.  Once the Torah was revealed to the children of Israel, its realization on earth became their responsibility, to be shouldered by human ability and human insight.  That is, we suggest, the ultimate meaning of Rabbi Y’hoshua’s bold stand: “The Torah is no longer in Heaven!”  One pays no attention to the voice from heaven in matters of Torah realization on earth.  So it is intended and explicitly stated in the Torah itself.  It could not be otherwise.  The divine truth had to be poured into human vessels; it had to be “humanized”.  Having left its heavenly abode, it had to be accommodated in the modest cottages of human uncertainty and inadequacy.  This, in essence, is the task of the Halakha.  The “humanization” of the word of God requires that in applying Torah to the human condition, one takes into consideration human natures and its needs, human character and its problems, the human condition in its forever-fluctuating dimension, the Jew and the Jewish people in their unique historical reality.

11.  Midrash and Rabbinic interpretation does not always align straightforwardly with Biblical texts, but often radically undermines their meaning.  This should be kept in mind when we think about the ways we approach both Rabbinic and Biblical texts.

“Rabbinic Midrash initiates a subtle game that both pledges a certain allegiance to the biblical text and yet in places radically subverts its original meaning.  A good and pertinent example relates to the story of the revelation at Mount Sinai.  In Exodus 19 and 20 it is a thunderous, terrifying and life threatening encounter with God’s singular voice or presence appearing to annihilate the people.  In Shemot Rabba (5:9) and Shir HaShirim Rabba (5:16) the voice is no longer overpowering and singular, but it is heard differently by every individual, and God is suddenly very aware of the potentially destructive power of his communications.

Revelation is thus transformed from a fearsome encounter with an alien force into a more humane and measured encounter with a loving aspect of the Divine, one much more attuned to and aligned with our earthly experience and nature.  There is a deliberate attempt to render the text more human, to validate what every individual makes of his or her experience.  This should be read as a warning against singular and literal appropriations of the Bible:  if God Himself had to revise and recondition his presentation of the materials, surely it is incumbent upon us as readers and educators, and especially as leaders and politicians, to do the same.

The Rabbis are warning that the word of God can be deadly, that it must be handled with the utmost care and responsibility.  They did not appear to adopt the second option espoused in the Facebook conversation – ‘find another book’ – but in many ways that’s exactly what they did: they re-appropriated and re-constituted the Bible through their own readings in the Mishna, Talmud and midrashim, keeping the words of the text, but turning it into a different book.”  (from my essay on how to read the Bible)

12.   The rewards of adhering to halakha can be intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, something administered by a Grand Divine Adjudicator.

13.  The Rabbis of ancient times were not always able to fully transcend their environment – no one is – and think critically about the role of women in their world.  I have explored this in these four discussions:

(a)    Regarding time bound mitzvot

(b)   Regarding grace and inclusion

(c)    On the projection of all femininity into Torah, rather than actual women

(d)   On hysteria and the theft of female fertility