What if Rav Aharon had Stayed? A Counter-History of Postwar Orthodox Judaism in the United States

What if Rav Aharon had Stayed? A Counter-History of Postwar Orthodox Judaism in the United States

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Zev Eleff

In June 2015, Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein eulogized her husband, the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. In her remarks delivered at The Jewish Center in Manhattan, Dr. Lichtenstein explained that her young family’s decision to go on aliyah to Israel was deemed “foolhardy and irresponsible.” After all, her husband, the thirty-eight-year-old leading Talmudist and Harvard PhD, was one of American Orthodoxy’s leading lights. A son-in-law of the illustrious Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Lichtenstein had earned a station of reverence in his own right. In August 1971, the Lichtensteins left Yeshiva University and the legacy they had forged at the Modern Orthodox flagship. While he remained loyal to Yeshiva University, Rabbi Lichtenstein chose Religious Zionism and the nascent Yeshivat Har Etzion over the fast-paced Orthodox revival in the United States. It came at a price. Others reacted to the departure with “surprise and shock,” and informed the young scholar that “once he left there was no return.”[1]

 

In subsequent years, feelings of betrayal turned into speculation. “What if Rav Aharon had stayed?” was an intriguing and oft-asked theoretical question.[2] If he had, how might Rabbi Lichtenstein’s enduring efforts have changed the course of Modern Orthodox Judaism? Would his presence, as towering a figure as he unquestionably was, have altered much of anything? Invariably, this line of questioning presumes that as a “centrist” force, Rabbi Lichtenstein could have helped avoid schism and religious posturing to both the right and left, particularly in the 1980s and beyond.[3] Of course, answers reach far into the misty areas of guesswork and imagination. The many footnotes in this essay represent real quotes and historical happenings—but the sum total of the historical arithmetic still does not compute. It’s the stuff of Orthodox parlor games and entertaining Shabbat table conversation. Yet, counterfactual history is not without merit. Still somewhat rooted in historical conditions, alternate histories impose a fiction on to real-life events that teach something important about contingencies and the contours of historical change.[4] Long ago, my teacher, David Hackett Fischer, put it this way:

 

There is nothing necessarily fallacious in fictional constructs, as long as they are properly recognized for what they are and are clearly distinguished from empirical problems. All novels are organized around an idea of what might have happened—some very great truths have been taught to the world in this disguise. Fictional questions can also be heuristically useful to historians, somewhat in the manner of metaphors and analogies, for the ideas and inferences which they help to suggest. But they prove nothing and can never be proved by an empirical method.[5]

 

In that very vein, the fiction registered below does not prove beyond doubt what might or should have been. Yet, I believe, some “very great truths have been taught to the world in this disguise.” I’m not alone. In 2016, a number of stellar and serious scholars contributed to a volume of “What Ifs of Jewish History.”[6] With grand creative powers, they wondered in writing, for example, “what if King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had not expelled the Jews of Spain in 1492?” and “what if Spinoza had repented?”

In some small way, this essay aims to continue that conversation. Rabbi Lichtenstein’s departure was a pivotal moment in the history of Orthodox Judaism’s sojourns in the United States, for what was lost and the possibilities that were upended. The following counter-historical scenario is intended to explore—with considerable creative license—just how crucial that decision turned out to be.

 

*****

 

In April 1970, scores of Yeshiva University students marched outside of Furst Hall on the school’s Washington Heights campus. Inside, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik delivered an impassioned speech at the quadrennial ordination festivities, a final plea to keep the rabbinical school a part of the university. Changes to New York State legislation and renewed mindfulness of Church-State separations rendered it rather difficult for YU to maintain its all-or-nothing incorporated structure. Nonetheless, Rabbi Soloveitchik believed it a very poor decision to siphon off the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary from the colleges and graduate programs. In usual theatrical form, the Rav told his listeners that he “saw ghosts.” Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, “all began as divinity schools and Yeshiva,” he warned, “Heaven forbid, could also go the way of all these great and early citadels of American higher education.”[7]

The Rav’s attack was not personal. Still, President Samuel Belkin was not at all put at ease by the fact that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s crusade was motivated by a fear that the YU presidency “will inevitably be filled by another, whose competence will not be as great as Dr. Belkin’s.” The student newspaper reported that Dr. Belkin had “interjected denials to accusations made against the YU administration, but the Rav insisted that he be allowed to speak freely.”[8] The Rav was joined by his loyal son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who had encouraged his students to picket and was terribly troubled that “recent decisions have been made by the wrong people.”[9] Despite the pressure, Belkin did not relent, confident that the importance of financial vitality compelled the restructure, no matter how philosophically damning.

 

Students feared that Rabbi Soloveitchik might resign.[10] Dr. Belkin knew better. For Rabbi Lichtenstein, on the other hand, the tumult amounted to one more reason to consider aliyah to Israel. Truth to tell, it was not at all clear that the Lichtensteins required any more reason to immigrate to the Holy Land. A month after the commotion at the ordination ceremonies, Rabbi Lichtenstein delivered an Israeli Independence Day lecture on the “importance of moving to Israel in order to form a viable spiritual community.”[11] He planned to follow his own sound guidance on this score.

 

In fact, the Rav’s prominent voice in the whole affair served as confirmation that YU no longer so desperately required Rabbi Lichtenstein’s services. Sure, the latter delivered an important daily Talmud lecture and led the advanced kollel—but others could handle that repertoire, as well. In the mid-1960s, Yeshiva students relied on Rabbi Lichtenstein and his uncle-in-law, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, to provide rabbinic guidance on current events and pressing matters.[12] Together, they accounted for the elements of erudition and dramatic flair that was truly the mark of the Rav. Lately, however, Rabbi Soloveitchik had assumed a more active presence on campus. In 1968, students observed that he had “broken with precedent” in issuing criticism of recent campus activities.[13] Students described these as “welcome words,” observing that “it seems obvious from student reaction to the Rav’s topical address that it is just this sort of communication that Yeshiva students crave.”[14] Months later, the same young men called on their master teacher to address students amid fears and antisemitic rioting.[15] The Rav obliged. Might Rabbi Lichtenstein’s talents be more useful elsewhere? True, the younger Soloveichik brother had departed for Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, but Rabbi Lichtenstein probably figured that his father-in-law was sufficiently formidable and expertly capable of directing student concerns without either relative’s support. The 1970 protest of Dr. Belkin’s policies offered plenty of proof of this.

 

In the summer of 1970, the Lichtensteins traveled to Israel to explore possibilities. His family spent its time at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem. Rabbi Lichtenstein was floored by the chance to walk the streets of the recently liberated Old City. Moreover, he was honored by the offer the join the Yeshivat HaKotel faculty.[16] Still, Rabbi Lichtenstein was invested at YU. Apart from his PhD studies at Harvard, he had spent his entire adult life at the school. Just the prior year, he had developed a new halakhah curriculum for rabbinical students.[17] Habit was also an important consideration. He and his wife had grown quite accustomed to their cozy quarters at 17 Fort George Hill.[18] No doubt, he would miss the chocolate donuts that he had regularly purchased at nearby Zunder’s grocery store.[19] There was a familiarity about Yeshiva that competed against his sense of calling that emanated from Israel.

 

Then Rabbi Soloveitchik issued his pithy request. It was more like an order, particularly for someone like Rabbi Lichtenstein who had never defied his mentor. He was an independent thinker but he had not yet chanced upon that occasion in which his views parted from his beloved teacher. The Rav asked his daughter and son-in-law to stay. Frankly, despite all of the warnings, Rabbi Soloveitchik could not believe they were actually considering aliyah. Ten years earlier, he had told a newspaper interviewer that aliyah, for Orthodox Jews in the United States, was “merely a nice dream.”[20] Some claimed that the Rav’s appeal to his children had all to do with loneliness (the real kind, not the existential variety). Rabbi Soloveitchik was a widower. Dr. Tonya Soloveitchik had passed away in 1967, just before the Rav became more politically active on campus. In his native Boston, the Rav retained the comfort of his daughter, Atarah, his other brilliant son-in-law, and his grandchildren. In New York, where he worked three-days-a-week, Rabbi Soloveitchik had come to rely upon the generosity and care of his daughter, Tovah, and the doting Lichtenstein children (and later, his son, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik).

 

Others contended that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s candid and private conversation with his son-in-law was motivated by a political intuition, a sense that Rabbi Lichtenstein’s departure would leave the aging scholar without an intellectual heir and YU institutionally vulnerable, without a long-term Modern Orthodox (though he loathed the term) mantle-wearer.[21] Later in the 1970s, the Rav once remarked that his “more recent students were not similar to those who preceded them by thirty years.” They were more rigid, “not prepared for any compromise.”[22] So the Lichtensteins stayed in the United States. They chose to believe that the Rav’s order to remain in New York was somehow serendipitous, and that their Zionist dream was not intended to materialize.

 

Throughout the 1970s, Rabbi Lichtenstein did much to fortify his and his father-in-law’s middle-of-the-road Orthodox position, while also maintaining the very high intellectual caliber of the yeshiva and rabbinical program. Others had anticipated that Rabbi Lichtenstein’s worldliness might have recalibrated him to join the so-called New Orthodox Left, but he had time and again rejected membership to that group.[23] These men included Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Dr. Charles Liebman, and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman. All three were associated with YU, and at one point or another expected that the well-educated and likewise-erudite Rabbi Lichtenstein would crossover to their ideological side of Yeshiva. After all, he did associate with them, as did Rabbi Norman Lamm of Manhattan’s Jewish Center, at the intercollegiate Yavneh organization.[24]

 

Perhaps in disbelief, the Orthodox Left and their younger followers could not internalize the instances when Rabbi Lichtenstein spoke out vociferously against coed mixers on the Washington Heights campus and other “progressive” YU-sponsored activities. On this particular issue, Rabbi Lichtenstein was animated to express himself in a vibrant hue. “There are certain directions in which we want the spiritual development of an individual or a society to move,” he had once explained to students. “To the best of my knowledge,” Rabbi Lichtenstein said by way of comparison, “it does not say anywhere in Shulhan Arukh that someone should not take LSD.”[25]

 

The left wing Orthodox finally noticed the philosophical wedge between their standpoint and Rabbi Lichtenstein’s on the occasion of President Belkin’s retirement in 1975.[26] Recall that the Rav had anticipated this moment, not at all looking forward to the selection process of Dr. Belkin’s successor. Both Rabbis Soloveitchik and Lichtenstein feared that the YU board would appoint Rabbi Rackman, and for good reason. The latter had served diligently under Dr. Belkin and proved himself a very loyal administrator and able fundraiser. Yet, he had also suggested himself to be, his opponents reckoned, a reckless—if not dangerous—halakhist. He constantly decried the “deep freeze” of the halakhic process that centrists fondly described as “masorah.”[27]

 

The Rav’s close circle had its own candidate in mind: Rabbi Norman Lamm.[28] By this time, Rabbi Lichtenstein was sated with his lot, and his father-in-law had warned him about the time some three decades earlier when he had gotten himself into trouble in an attempt to secure both the top rabbinic and executive positions at the school.[29] Of course, Rabbi Lamm was very suitable. He was the spiritual leader of an affluent Upper West Side congregation and a darling of the Orthodox Union. Several years earlier, an astute commentator had juxtaposed Lamm as the right wing flank of the Modern Orthodox Movement to Rackman on the “left.”[30] More importantly, he had earned a PhD from Yeshiva University, the only one supervised by Rabbi Soloveitchik.

 

Students feared that another failed political campaign might spell the end of the Rav’s tenure at Yeshiva. Months earlier, he had challenged Rabbi Rackman’s Orthodox bona fides in front of hundreds at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Council of America.[31] The YU board of trustees called the bluff, however. They reasoned that while Rabbi Lamm was hardly superfluous, his presence alongside the Rav and Rabbi Lichtenstein on campus was somewhat ideologically redundant. Rabbi Rackman—who had at one point eschewed the “Modern Orthodox” moniker, believing it too narrowing—was elected YU's president.[32] Moving forward, he championed a “Modern Orthodox Life.”

 

The Rav did not resign. Despite the consternation, he understood that Rabbi Rackman was an administrative wizard and would steer YU forward, despite his theological tantrums. Rabbi Soloveitchik also appreciated “freedom of opinion.” Back in 1966, he wrote to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg on a matter upon which the two had disagreed, that “there is absolutely no need of apologies or explanations. You are certainly entitled to your opinion as much as I am to mine.”[33] Likewise, Rabbi Rackman’s strengthened station at YU ensured that the school would still cast a wide Orthodox net and include a panoply of viewpoints and a healthy dose of religious debate.

 

Rabbi Rackman recognized the need for a diversity of perspectives. Moreover, the sixty-five year old legal theorist knew well that he required a younger crop of intellectuals to attract the young day school educated women and men who had sparked the recent “religious revival” among the Orthodox.[34] The new president respected Rabbi Lichtenstein, an individual he would later describe as “one of the greatest talmudists and Jewish thinkers of our day.”[35] However, Rabbi Rackman also had in mind reinforcements who more closely articulated his more “open” brand of Modern Orthodox Judaism. The return of ideologues like Rabbis Greenberg and Steven Riskin to key faculty and administrative positions at YU signaled this sort of posturing. Besides, the Rav understood that while Rabbi Riskin had ventured further from the center than his teacher would have preferred, he, too, was a loyal student and part of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s multivalent and utterly complex legacy.

 

There were casualties incurred by the Rackman presidential appointment. Most notably, Rabbi Lamm crossed the ocean to accept his consolation prize as the head of Bar Ilan University. As it turned out, Rabbi Lamm’s aliyah was fortuitous. The Israeli Orthodox and the wave of immigrants who had left the United States after the miraculous Six Day War welcomed the new Bar Ilan chancellor as a refreshing alternative to the Orthodox Right and the polarizing followers of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook.[36] Rabbi Lamm also recruited a number of talented religious thinkers to Ramat Gan. One good example was Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who had once tried his hand at establishing his own school. Brilliant but credentialed with no more than an elementary school degree, Rabbi Amital served as Rabbi Lamm’s assistant, and then later parlayed his position at Bar Ilan into Israeli politics.

 

Yeshiva University also suffered a different kind of attrition. A number of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s prominent students interpreted their teacher’s decision to stay as a calculation of age. Simply put, the Rav was too old—seventy-two—to leave Yeshiva and start out on his own. This was not the case for some rabbinical scholars who followed the lead of Dr. Bernard Lander. The latter was a longtime Orthodox institution man with a penchant for industriousness. In 1971, Dr. Lander opened Touro College as a right-of-center alternative to YU.[37] At first, Touro’s leader took a cautious approach to growth, despite his considerable ambition. He had forecasted the need for several decades of preparation before launching a robust “yeshiva college” program. Years later, Dr. Lander recalled the many conversations he had with the Rav in which they “frequently shared our many views on the direction of Yeshiva College.”[38] Touro’s first steps were therefore judicious and calculated.

 

However, Dr. Lander’s alliance with a handful of YU faculty members convinced him to accelerate his program. The school and its leaders still shared much in common with YU. For example, Dr. Lander participated in interdenominational dialogue, per the recommendations of Rabbi Soloveitchik.[39] Yet, the school also boasted a degree of intellectual prudishness that outpaced the less insular Yeshiva University. In addition, the Touro leaders seized upon an opportunity in the Midwest. In the 1960s, Dr. Lander had been part of a group at Yeshiva University that had engaged in “secret talks” to discuss a merger plan with Hebrew Theological College in Chicago.[40] A man of succinct vision, Dr. Lander revived the basics of this plan more than a decade later, but now with his Touro team at the negotiation table. “Why not,” asked Rabbi Lander, “establish Yeshiva branches in major Jewish communities such as Chicago, Baltimore, Miami, and St. Louis?”[41] The Windy City was first on the list. Floored by the chance to smooth over some bitter politics, the Chicago circle agreed to a partnership and installed the right-of-center Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik as the rabbinic head of the New York-Chicago enterprise.

 

These developments troubled the Rav. He had longed for the stable course for one of two visions at YU. The first was a focused ideological school that reflected his precise conception of Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Rackman’s rise rendered this impossible. The other was emblematic of that “wide net” image, but this, too, proved overly elusive. Rabbi Rackman’s administration seemed to welcome the Orthodox Left but simultaneously repelled those to his immediate religious right. The latter group found a new institutional home, and it hurt Rabbi Soloveitchik that Yeshiva could no longer stretch wide enough to fit all of his students.

 

These developments also worried Rabbi Rackman, but for another reason. Dr. Lander’s multisite school grew, and to the detriment of YU’s recruitment. Neither school paved too many inroads into Rabbi Shneur Kotler’s Lakewood stronghold. However, Touro managed to pique the interest of many emerging pockets of right wing Orthodox Jews in the American frontier. Young women and men in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles took a fancy to Dr. Lander’s schools, appreciating its more “controlled” environment. Many of these collegians were so-called Ba’alei Teshuvah, young, religiously-uninitiated people who had been provoked to take their Judaism far more seriously. The Touro model appeared less “institutional” and more “nurturing.” The “Lander lure,” as Rabbi Rackman called it, also impacted some right wing yeshivot in Brooklyn, Queens, and several out-of-town communities in Baltimore and Philadelphia. A number of these non-baccalaureate-degree-granting schools chose to join Dr. Lander’s empire, and those that demurred started to fade away.

As well, this situation troubled Rabbi Lichtenstein. He “very much disliked the stereotyping terminology.” Further, Like his father-in-law, Rabbi Lichtenstein on “emotional” and “ideological” levels, “identified with this camp.” But he also believed strongly in his views, and the “bastion of Modern Orthodoxy [that] is unquestionably Yeshiva University.”[42]

Still very strong in the Tri-State area, Rabbi Rackman chose to compete in the Orthodox hinterland. In the late 1970s, the YU president summoned the young Rabbi Marvin Hier of Los Angeles to Washington Heights. “I asked you to come here today, Rabbi Hier, because I share your view that the West Coast is underdeveloped. Yeshiva University would like to participate in your project in a meaningful way.”[43] Just thirty-eight years old, Rabbi Hier was already a talented fundraiser. Owing to Yeshiva University’s financial situation—Dr. Belkin had neglected to teach his successor the ways of the purse strings—this was a most important point as YU ventured westward. The Orthodox flocked to Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. With the moral support of the New York headquarters, Rabbi Hier opened a college and a high school.

 

In time, Rabbi Steven Riskin joined YULA. Los Angeles suited Rabbi Riskin (although his presence forced the early departure of one prominent YULA administrator) and the powerful match developed a west coast Modern Orthodox center. Over the years, both YU and Touro established other, more modest sized satellite campuses. Interestingly, the presence of these sites ensured that smaller Orthodox communities in Charleston, Peoria, and Savannah maintained themselves. In the 1970s, the alumni of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth had started to depart from these areas to resettle in metropolitan strongholds like New York. The fierce—sometimes downright cantankerous—competition between the two major Orthodox schools compelled the next wave of NCSYers to stay local.

 

It was not usually so tense, particularly among the rank-and-file. In fact, the fierce battles between Rabbis Lander and Rackman belied this relatively tranquil time in Orthodox Jewish life. The religious tenor was theologically settling. Rabbi Rackman put it best: “It must be said that modern Orthodoxy is not committed to any one approach. As a matter of fact, it tries to preserve the greatest latitude possible in matters of belief and doctrine.”[44] From the extreme “left” of YU to the very “right” of Touro, nearly all Modern Orthodox Jews could find themselves somewhere within the spectrum of Modern Orthodox thought.

To be sure, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s viewpoint mattered more than most, but he preferred a wider swath of opinion than just his own for adherents to consider. The Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union, and regional day school fraternities plotted themselves along the Orthodox axis as a celebration of a sort of salience about their religious operations and diversity. Further, the clear and well-defined organizational structures of both schools ensured that the occasional debates were handled in a politically-apt and respectable manner. Of course, the presence of men like Rabbi Lichtenstein did a lot to ensure that the conversations remained tempered. On more than one occasion, behind closed doors, several key Orthodox leaders wondered what sort of unspoken covenants might have been broken without Rabbi Lichtenstein’s strong influence over the Modern Orthodox elite.

 

This was crucial, particularly in 1985 when Rabbi Soloveitchik finally retired. The Rav was the mentor of the leadership at both Modern Orthodox universities. Occasionally, he was still called on to address communal issues but soon enough retired altogether from public life to spend his final years in Boston. In addition, one of his most brilliant students, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, moved to Israel around this time, following his own advice: “My impression of the halachic sources regarding the issue of rabbinic leaders going on aliyah today, in 5744, is that, not only are they included in the obligation, but they ought to be taking the lead.”[45] 

All told, there was no contest for the mantle of leadership in the Rav’s stead. Sure, there were differences between the Rav and Rabbi Lichtenstein. For instance, the former was fond of contextualizing Torah and Judaism in the fields of epistemology and the philosophy of science.[46] The latter was trained in literature, and was wont to draw from the realms of humanities and the Talmud to formulate a modern sort of morality for his students and followers.[47] But their intellectual courage, breadth of interest, and dynamic scholarship was unmistakably similar.

As it so happened, Rabbi Rackman arranged a ceremony to formally transfer the Merkin Chair once held by Rabbi Soloveitchik to Rabbi Lichtenstein. The formal anointment was, however, an unessential gesture. YU’s president also bestowed the title of Rosh Ha-Yeshiva upon Rabbi Lichtenstein, for the very first time separating the roles of chief executive and top rabbi into two distinct roles.

 

Withal, the transition to Rabbi Lichtenstein was not all-too-smooth. Just before the Rav departed from the public scene, the “Touro Five” issued a responsum that effectively banned women’s prayer groups. A non-egalitarian enterprise, these “davening spaces” did not breach any specific Jewish law but certainly looked very different than the male-dominated Orthodox ritual. The group of rabbis hardly agreed with the defenders of women’s prayer groups, that they were essentially the same as those “conducted at Bais Yaakov schools.”[48] Accordingly, the leading rabbinical scholars beseeched their students to “stand up with all their might in opposition to this breach, and to urge all of our students and all of our likeminded colleagues not to succumb to the trends of the time.”[49] Rabbi Lichtenstein was also quite chary about changes in the synagogue, but he believed that the responsum’s authors went a bit too far with their tone and the categorical pronouncement. He was willing to countenance women’s prayer groups, albeit in a limited and supervised capacity.[50]

 

Actually, the responsum and the politic that surrounded it were part of a not-so-easily detectable sea change in Modern Orthodox life. Since the late 1970s, Modern Orthodox schools and adult education centers like Drisha on Manhattan’s Upper West Side advanced women’s Torah education, and with the Rav’s early approval in mind.[51] In the second-half of the 1980s, a few Orthodox leaders tried to downplay that part of the movement. In 1984, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld told hundreds assembled at an RCA convention that there were just a few differences between the Modern Orthodox and the Orthodox Right. “We are just as right wing as they are,” he announced. “There are two major differences: one is our total commitment to the State of Israel and the other is the area of the pursuit of secular knowledge which they at best tolerate as a last resort.”[52] A number of listeners understood well that Rabbi Schonfeld’s omission of women’s issues was deliberate.

On this occasion, Rabbi Lichtenstein was quick to put an end to it. Before the RCA and in his typical dialectical fashion, he rehearsed the various views on women’s leadership, and most prominently on intensive Talmud education for women. Then, in a subtle but important maneuver, Rabbi Lichtenstein made the matter personal. “But when one speaks about the ability to study a page of Talmud, to understand it and enjoy it, I see no reason to deny these teachings to women,” he declared. “And it is even necessary to establish this as an integral part of the school curriculum, an actual shiur. This is the way I teach my daughter and so was my wife educated. This seems to me to be the recommended approach regarding the women of our generation.”[53]

 

Overall, though, the 1980s was a peaceable period for Modern Orthodox Jews. This community was therefore an aberration in the so-called “Age of Fracture.”[54] In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had widened the gulf between the major political parties. Large corporations tended to separate the wealthy from the poor, leaving the middle-class a fading economic concept. In the sphere of religion, popular leaders like Jerry Falwell polarized Protestants to choose between the Christian Right and liberal protestant groups. In the realm of American Judaism, Reform (patrilineal descent) and Conservative (ordination of women) issued important policy changes that split their constituencies.

 

From time to time, the fringe Orthodox Right still caused a ruckus. In 1984, for instance, the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim wrote a private letter to “urge” Reform rabbis to “publicly repudiate” the newly instituted Patrilineal Descent policy that offered Jewish status to women and men born of a Jewish father and a gentile mother. The Orthodox group charged that if Reform Jews did not rescind the decision, “we will be forced to promulgate a Halachic Prohibition for Jews to marry members of your communities and congregations.” The right wing Orthodox rabbis warned that the “burden of guilt for this harsh but unavoidable step will be upon you forever, while the people of Israel and the Beth-Din will be innocent before G-d.”[55] Most believed that the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim’s saber-rattling revealed more about its own loosening grip in Jewish life. By this time, leaders like Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Yaakov Kamenetsky and Yaakov Ruderman were quite aged and most of their students had joined Rabbi Lander’s company. The Reform Movement paid no attention.

 

In contrast, the Modern Orthodox in the United States maintained a social equilibrium. They still carried on a reserved form of discourse in the well-heeled Synagogue Council of America, but were also undaunted and unafraid to share what they truly observed about their “drowning brothers” in the non-Orthodox movements.[56] “I don’t really feel about you. I don’t even think about you,” admitted one triumphalist Orthodox Jewess in Boston. “I hate to be mean, but when I stop and think about it, I say you must have a hell of a problem. I’ve got it made.”[57]

 

Rabbi Lichtenstein abhorred such arrogance. He yearned to help his fellow Jews and particularly in his mature age detested all kinds of cynicism.[58] Ironically, though, his highbrow demeanor and high station among America’s Orthodox Jews encouraged this elitism. What is more, this attitude did not escape Rabbi Lichtenstein’s notice. In 1987, one of the YU student newspapers lampooned a recent phenomenon among the Orthodox Right in its Purim edition. Earlier that year, the New York Times had published an amusing article on “rabbi cards.” In Israel (it could never secure a foothold in the United States), so-called “Ultra-Orthodox” boys traded and collected cards of prominent rabbis.[59] The Yeshiva College students therefore imagined a series of “Modern Orthodox Gedolim” cards.[60] The punchline: it was a set of two; presumably the Rav and Rabbi Lichtenstein.

 

The revered Modern Orthodox champion found this far from humorous. The reduction of “Gedolim” to just one or two struck him as far too parochial. Temporarily transported back to his 1960s self, Rabbi Lichtenstein excoriated the students for their hubris. It did not redound well, he explained, to Modern Orthodox young men to behave in this manner.

Then, Rabbi Lichtenstein paused to consider his next point. He was just about to quote Matthew Arnold, as he had done on so many occasions. But, inspired by something deep inside of him, he just sighed with a touch of despair. Once more, Rabbi Lichtenstein performed the mental calculations about sharing a personal moment, when he, too, thought very narrowly about “Gedolim,” influenced by someone who “overawed,” and made a decision contrary to his own volition. He had spent a lifetime in America trying to model someone who was an “inspiring vision” but “somehow seemed within reach.”[61] Instead, he offered a word of caution about decision making, something about how minute and isolated choices tend to lead toward curious and haphazard consequences.

 

*****

 

What really happened: In 1971, and probably against the wishes of his father-in-law, Rabbi Lichtenstein migrated to Israel. He did not accept Yeshivat HaKotel’s offer. Instead, he joined Rabbi Yehuda Amital to develop Yeshivat Har Etzion. This is how Yeshiva College students offered their farewell:

 

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who is also going on aliyah, leaves behind him multitudes of talmidim. Whether in the kollel which he headed, the shiur which he taught, or the university generally, students were stimulated by his sharp, analytic mind and were inspired by his rare integrity. He was one of the few rebbeim who took an active interest in student affairs and frequently spoke to the student body on topics of halacha and hashkafa. Come Ellul [sic], we will lose him to Har Etzion. We will be consoled by the knowledge that he will continue to be a source of inspiration wherever he goes.[62]

 

He certainly was. In Israel, Rabbi Lichtenstein held an important role as a moderate voice in the vibrant realm of Religious Zionism. Without a true heir at Yeshiva University and deeply troubled by the prospect of a Rackman-led institution, Rabbi Soloveitchik helped convince the YU board to appoint his student, Rabbi Lamm, as president. Rabbi Rackman left for Bar Ilan (Rabbi Riskin went on aliyah later, and started to go by his Hebrew name, Shlomo). YU’s new president was a part of the moderate Orthodox breed. While there was at times some serious friction between him and other rabbinic leaders within the university, Rabbi Lamm’s “centrist” position was sufficient enough to maintain the ranks. No one abandoned YU and Dr. Lander, who had earlier departed the school to start Touro College, patiently waited until 2000 before he established his own version of a yeshiva college. In addition, this tension remained bound up in New York. In the 1960s, Rabbi Oscar Fasman and others at Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL, petitioned Belkin and Yeshiva University to merge and build a Los Angeles campus to form a wider American presence. Despite several rounds of negotiation, the plan was abandoned.[63]

 

Then there was the question of “life” after the Rav. In 1965, the sociologist Charles Liebman anticipated that the “future leader of the modern Orthodox world is likely to be Rabbi Soloveitchik’s successor to the chairmanship of [the] RCA’s halakhah commission.”[64] That didn’t happen. The lack of breadth and depth of the Modern Orthodox Movement came to bear in the 1980s. In 1985, the Rav retired, leaving a considerable void and many questions left unanswered. Several years later at an RCA convention, Rabbi Louis Bernstein declared that their rabbinical group was “moving into a dangerous area of history. The question will be,” he predicted, “‘what did the Rav say and when did he say it?[65] 

Examples of the lack of consensus abounded. In response to charges that Rabbi Soloveitchik had sanctioned women’s prayer groups, five prominent RIETS faculty members issued a short responsum that condemned the new practice, and in the name of their mentor. A similar battle broke out over the Rav’s position on a “pre-nuptial” agreement to preempt the problem of agunah.[66] As well, Orthodox organizations abandoned support of the interdenominational Synagogue Council of America despite the Rav’s earlier approval of it. In the 1990s, the umbrella organization finally folded due to financial limitations, but was probably fated to fade away during the turbulent 1980s.

 

Fissures within the Modern Orthodox arena helped propel the so-called Ultra-Orthodox leadership to the forefront. Hardly a fringe community, the Orthodox Right seized control of Orthodox Jewish culture, in New York as well as in “out-of-town” enclaves. In the meantime, the Modern Orthodox struggled to maintain its shape and identity in the American Jewish marketplace. Interestingly and owing to all this, Modern Orthodox Jews with increasingly regularity adopted an Ultra-Orthodox form of clericalism. “Rabbi Lichtenstein,” wrote a pair of his students shortly before he passed away in 2015, “is considered by many American Modern Orthodox Jews to be their gadol hador.”[67] What might this suggest for the future? History, of course, offers some insight to how we might forecast the next stages of Orthodox life in the United States. Oftentimes, though, historians make for the poorest of prophets. No one can anticipate the precariousness of change, and the contingencies that lie in the stories yet untold.


[1] Tovah Lichtenstein lecture delivered at The Jewish Center on June 1, 2015, New York, NY.

[2] On these questions, see Yosef Blau, “The Loss of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l,” The Commentator (May 12, 2015).

[3] On Rabbi Lichtenstein’s views on Centrist Orthodoxy, see Aharon Lichtenstein, By His Light: Character & Values in the Service of God, ed. Reuven Ziegler (Jersey City: Ktav, 2002), 220-52.

[4] See Jeffrey S. Gurock, The Holocaust Averted: An Alternate History of American Jewry, 1938-1967 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 5-6. One early Orthodox experiment in this was Gary Epstein, “Could Judaism Survive Israel?” Tradition 16 (Summer 1976): 41-55. See the vociferous and negative reactions to Epstein’s article in the letters to the editor in the spring 1977 edition of that journal.

[5] David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 16.

[6] See What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism, ed. Gavriel D. Rosenfeld (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). I express my utmost thanks to Menachem Butler for introducing me to this volume.

[7] Zevulun Charlop, “The Rav and Dr. Belkin,” in Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Zev Eleff (Jersey City: Ktav, 2008), 85.

[8] Andrew Geller, “Rav Responds to Secularization; Sympathizes with Student Rally,” The Commentator (April 15, 1970): 1.

[9] Aaron Lewin, “Hartstein Minimizes PR’s Role in Making Yeshiva’s Policy,” The Commentator (April 15, 1970): 4.

[10] “The Rav’s Speech,” The Commentator (April 15, 1970): 2.

[11] Joseph Stechler, “Yeshiva Observes Israeli Independence Day; Holiday Atmosphere Pervades Campus,” The Commentator (May 27, 1970): 10.

[12] See, for example, Yeled Sha’ashu’im (2016), 130.

[13] Eugene Rostker, “Rav Soloveitchik Defines Jewish Commitment to Multiple Values,” The Commentator (May 23, 1968): 1.

[14] “Welcome Words,” The Commentator (May 23, 1968): 2.

[15] “An Open Letter,” The Commentator (November 27, 1968): 2.

[16] David Morrison, The Gush: Center of Modern Religious Zionism (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2004), 44-45.

[17] “Semicha Program Modified,” The Commentator (November 18, 1970): 5.

[18] For this address, see Irving Greenberg, “Yeshiva in the 60s,” in My Yeshiva College: 75 Years of Memories, eds. Menachem Butler and Zev Nagel (New York: Yashar Books, 2006), 180.

[19] Samuel Wilchfort, “Zunder’s Grocery Store is Closed Permanently after Thirty Years,” The Commentator (November 24, 1971): 3.

[20] See Jeffrey Saks, “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate: Biographical Notes (1959-60),” BDD 17 (2006): 61.

[21] On Rabbi Soloveitchik’s lukewarm embrace of “Modern Orthodox” nomenclature, see Zev Eleff, Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2016), 171.

[22] Levi Yitzhak Ha-Yerushalmi, “Sihah me-Yuhedet im ha-Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik,” Ma’ariv (October 28, 1977): 25.

[23] See Jacob Neusner, “The New Orthodox Left,” Conservative Judaism 20 (Fall 1965): 10-18.

[24] See Benny Kraut, The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the Nineteen Sixties (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2011), 49-50.

[25] This quotation is derived from an audio recording of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s lecture, in the possession of the author. See also “YC Holds Dialogue; Problems Explored,” The Commentator (May 12, 1966): 10.

[26] Gary Miller, “Belkin Resigns, Ending Thirty-Two Years as President,” The Commentator (October 16, 1975): 1.

[27] “Presentation by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman.” in Halakha in Modern Jewish Life, ed. Nahum Goldmann (New York: Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, 1973), 16.

[28] See Norman Lamm, “Rabbi Emanuel Rackman z”l: A Critical Appreciation,” Tradition 42 (Spring 2009): 10.

[29] See Zev Eleff, “Freedom and Responsibility: The First Orthodox College Journalists and Early Yeshiva College Politics, 1935–1941,” American Jewish Archives Journal 62 (December 2010): 72-81.

[30] See Chaim Dov Keller, “Modern Orthodoxy: An Analysis and a Response,” Jewish Observer 6 (June 1970): 3-14.

[31] See David Singer, “Emanuel Rackman: Gadfly of Modern Orthodoxy,” Modern Judaism 28 (May 2008): 134-48.

[32] Emanuel Rackman, “A Challenge to Orthodoxy,” Judaism 18 (Spring 1969): 46.

[33] Joseph B. Soloveitchik to Irving Greenberg, October 9, 1965, Box 56, Folder 20, Papers of Rabbi Irving Greenberg, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[34] Speeches and Addresses Given by Rabbis and Religious Lay Leaders at First World Conference of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Synagogues (Jerusalem: World Conference of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Synagogues, 1972), 94.

[35] Emanuel Rackman, “Unity vs. Disunity,” Jewish Week (December 8, 1989): 30.

[36] See Elli Fischer, “Anglos who have had an Impact,” Jewish Action 74 (Spring 2014): 45-46.

[37] Peter Weisz, The Lander Legacy: The Life Story of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander (Jersey City: Ktav, 2013), 101.

[38] Bernard Lander, “A Lifelong Personal Encounter with the Rav,” in Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Zev Eleff (Jersey City: Ktav, 2008), 8.

[39] See Claire Cox, The New-Time Religion (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1961), 174.

[40] “Yeshiva U. Holds Secret Talks with HTC,” The Sentinel (April 12, 1962): 3.

[41] Weisz, The Lander Legacy, 102.

[42] Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Relationship to Israel of Jewish Religious Groups: Orthodoxy,” Morasha 1 (Fall 1984): 21-23.

[43] Marvin Hier, Meant to Be: A Memoir (New Milford: Toby Press, 2015), 55-56. Rabbi Hier recalled this quote, but uttered by YU President Norman Lamm. I am grateful to my friend, Menachem Butler, for alerting me to this interesting memoir.

[44] Emanuel Rackman, “Religious Revolution,” Jewish Week (November 3, 1989): 36.

[45] Hershel Schachter, “The Obligation of Aliyah for Rabbinic Leaders in Chutz La-Aretz,” Morasha 1 (Fall 1984): 14.

[46] On this, see Jonathan Sacks, Tradition in an Untraditional Age: Essays on Modern Jewish Thought (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1990), 287-301.

[47] See Aharon Lichtenstein, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha?” in Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice, ed. Marvin Fox (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), 62-88; and Aharon Lichtenstein, “‘Mah Enosh’: Reflections on the Relation between Judaism and Humanism,” Torah u-Madda Journal 14 (2006-7): 1-61. I thank Dr. Michael Shmidman for offering this insight on the Rav’s and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s intellectual differences.

[48] Irwin H. Haut, “The Halacha On Women Minyon,” Jewish Press (September 21, 1984): 42.

[49] “Teshuvah bi-Inyan Nashim bi-Hakafot,” Ha-Darom 54 (Sivan 1985): 49-50.

[50] See “Teshuvat ha-Rav Aharon Lichtenstein,” Bat Mitzvah: Kovetz Ma’amarim, ed. Sara Friedland Ben Arza (Jerusalem: Matan, 2002), 514-15. Many thanks to Rabbi Dov Karoll for pointing out this source to me.

[51] See “Ha-Rav Soloveitchik Zog Ersten Gamara Shiur for Meidlach in Stern College,” Algemeiner Zhurnal (December 30, 1977): 1; and Soshea Leibler, “Teaching Talmud to Women: Blasphemous or Blessed?” Baltimore Jewish Times (May 30, 1980): 10-14.

[52] “Polarization within Orthodoxy Must be solved by Dialogue Not Battle,” Jewish Press (June 15, 1984): 24.

[53] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Torah Study for Women,” Ten Da’at 3 (Spring 1989): 8.

[54] See Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[55] Beth-Din of Union of Orthodox Rabbis of [the] United States and Canada to Central Conference of American Rabbis, January 16, 1984, SC-1697, American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, OH.

[56] See Adam S. Ferziger, “From Demonic Deviant to Drowning Brother: Reform Judaism in the Eyes of American Orthodoxy,” Jewish Social Studies 15 (Spring/Summer 2009): 56-88.

[57] “Doing and Believing: A Roundtable Discussion,” Moment 3 (September 1978): 43.

[58] David Landau, “Orthodox Rabbi Hints at Concession on Conversion,” Jewish Press (January 30, 1987): 3. On the controversy this caused and the misrepresentation of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s views, see Yehuda Schwartz, “What did Rabbi Lichtenstein Really Say?” Jewish Press (May 15, 1987): 4.

[59] See Francis X. Clines, “Yeshiva Trading Cards: Rabbis but No Red Sox,” New York Times (February 28, 1987): 4.

[60] “Centrist Orthodox Gedolim Cards,” Hamevaser (Purim 1987): 2.

[61] Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself,” Tradition 47 (Winter 2014): 189.

[62] “VaYeitzei Yaakov,” Hamevaser 10 (May 1971): 2.

[63] See Oscar Z. Fasman, “After Fifty Years, an Optimist,” American Jewish History 69 (December 1979): 166.

[64] Charles S. Liebman, “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life,” American Jewish Year Book 66 (1965): 88.

[65] Larry Yudelson, “After the Rav: RCA Rabbis Listening for Master’s Voice,” Jewish World (May 29, 1987): 20.

[66] See Larry Cohler, “RCA Suspends Orthodox Pre-Nuptial Agreement,” Jewish World (November 23, 1984): 12.

[67] Shalom Carmy and Shlomo Zuckier, “Music of the Left Hand: Personal Notes on the Place of Liberal Arts Education in the Teachings of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein,” in Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, eds. Meir Y. Soloveichik, Stuart W. Halpern, and Shlomo Zuckier (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2015), 285. See also Eleff, Modern Orthodox Judaism, 398-401.

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