Commentary

The Rational Theology of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

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David Landes z”l

Our father, Dr. David J. Landes z”l, attended Yeshivat Har Etzion for several years in the 1970s and remained an active alumnus of the Yeshiva until his untimely death in 2019. Over the course of four decades, he developed a close relationship with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. The following is an annotated transcript of a talk that he delivered at Congregation Rinat Yisrael on the first day of Shavuot, May 24, 2015. It will appear in a volume of our father’s talks and writings on Har Etzion and its founding Rashei Yeshiva.

– Yitz Landes and Matt Landes

During his lifetime, Rav Lichtenstein delivered thousands of shiurim, and wrote hundreds of essays that have been published in various forums. Collections of his shiurim on masekhtos have been written up by talmidim and published in a series of eight volumes, with more to come. A large volume collecting the hiddushei torah he has published on various topics over the years has recently been published, that was preceded by three volumes of his collected English essays. And there are many hundreds of summaries of his shiurim and sihot that have been published in various periodicals of Yeshivat Har Etzion or on its Virtual Beit Midrash website. Despite this prodigious output—there are over a thousand items in his official bibliography—Rav Lichtenstein wrote and published only one book-length work in his lifetime. That book is Henry More: The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist. The book was published by Harvard University Press in 1962 and is based on the doctoral dissertation he wrote as a student in the Harvard English Department.[1] 

Rav Lichtenstein arrived at Harvard in 1953, after completing his BA at Yeshiva College. He was 20 years old, and he completed his PhD in four years, in 1957. His advisor at Harvard was Professor Douglas Bush. Bush was a great scholar, who published many significant works on 16th, 17th, and 19th century English literature; he was known for his expertise in Shakespeare and Milton, but also published books on Keats, Arnold, and Jane Austen (his last), among others. During the forties and fifties, the world of the academic study of English literature in the United States was going through one of its periodic clashes over method.[2] Bush was an important figure in the defense of traditional literary scholarship, which focused on history and philology, against the new approach called the New Criticism.[3] In very broad strokes, the New Criticism was relatively unconcerned with historical context, and focused on the formal and aesthetic aspects of the literary work. Bush attacked the New Criticism in a famous lecture in 1948, not long before Rav Lichtenstein appeared on the scene in Harvard.[4] An important element of his critique was that the New Criticism was arid and aloof, focusing on technical issues and ignoring that “poetry deals with life,” and “that for the serious poet life embraces morality and religion.”[5] In a piece he published a few years later, Bush wrote that the purpose of the study of literature is founded on the premise that “literature is ethical… it makes us better.”[6] “Unless literature is in effect didactic… I do not know any sufficient reason for its existence.”[7] To say that literature is didactic at that time was highly controversial and considered retrograde.

Given Bush’s deep scholarship, and his interest in ethics and religion, it is understandable that Rav Lichtenstein would have been drawn to Bush on a purely intellectual level. But Rav Lichtenstein also had great admiration for Bush’s integrity and character. I once heard Rav Lichtenstein refer to him as “mori ve-rabbi.” I happened to have come across a particular biographical detail that may have contributed to Rav Lichtenstein’s attachment to Bush. In the 1980s, Bush published an essay of reminiscences about his time at Harvard and his colorful colleagues in the English Department.[8] In that essay he mentions, as an aside, that during the war years he and his wife had taken in two English boys to live with them in Cambridge.[9] It is very likely this meant a great deal to Rav Lichtenstein, as Rav Lichtenstein himself, when he was eight years old, during those same war years, was sent by his parents to live for six months with a non-Jewish French farming family.

Although Henry More is his only full-length book, it has not received much attention by Rav Lichtenstein’s talmidim or by others who have been interested in his teachings, although there have been a few exceptions, including a couple of very recent essays.[10] This lack of attention is understandable given the forbidding title and the scholarly and apparently narrow focus of the book. Henry More and the Cambridge Platonists are fairly obscure; there are not all that many people out there who have heard of them. I also don’t believe Rav Lichtenstein himself referred to the book very often, even where relevant in the context of certain of his subsequent essays. I only read it recently, digging into it only a few weeks ago, after Rav Lichtenstein’s death. I read the book and was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed for two reasons. First of all, it is hard to imagine how he was able to produce a work of such depth and broad erudition with four years of graduate education. I think we can assume that it is unlikely he arrived at Harvard with the strongest undergraduate preparation. Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Spinoza, Arnold, Newman, Whitehead, as well as many other thinkers are all learnedly quoted from, in addition, of course, to those from the 17th century and 18th century thinkers with whom the book is principally occupied. And when did he pick up Latin and German? One reviewer indeed wrote: “Throughout his study the writer shows scholarly awareness of the first order; even the footnotes are little treasures of information.”[11] (I should point out that other reviewers were not so generous.) The second reason I was overwhelmed was that although the book is indeed about the thought of Henry More, it is fair to say that it is even more about the thought of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. The study of More provided a platform for the very young Rav Lichtenstein to present a fairly complete statement of his own religious philosophy. 

Why was Rav Lichtenstein drawn to More and the Cambridge Platonists? The Cambridge Platonists were a group of thinkers based at Cambridge University in the 17th century who were occupied primarily with theological questions. They were transitional figures, bridging a prior period noted for the depth of its religious thought, its fervent piety and emotional power, and a long period that followed them, the period of the Enlightenment, in which religious thought was notably lacking in intellectual depth and in feeling. Henry More was one of the central figures among the Cambridge Platonists. He lived from 1614 until 1687. Rav Lichtenstein points out that More cannot be considered one of the great thinkers in history, and that his writing was often quite dull. He writes: “much that More wrote is dead—stillborn from its inception or subsequently fossilized” (x). Nevertheless, Rav Lichtenstein identified with much of what More stood for:

More’s writings stand forth as an affirmation of spiritual reality and spiritual ideals. Against contemporaries—his or ours—who would reduce existence to material phenomena and all human motives to materialistic desires, he asserts the claims of the eternal verities—of a higher presence and nobler principles… More insists… upon maintaining a timeless vision of spiritual idealism, of striving for what has never been and will always be. More’s vision is of course seen in religious terms; its essence is not merely devotion to an ideal but surrender to God. Above all, More insists upon the depth and sincerity of religious worship, upon the harmonious integration of all human faculties in the dedicated service of God. No doubt, most of More’s message has been better delivered elsewhere—more succinctly, more eloquently, and more convincingly. But it is a message that must be repeated in every age, always the same and always different. And if we wish to understand it in its 17th century context—not unrelated to our own—we must take account of Henry More. (xi)

Rav Lichtenstein here empathizes with More’s affirmation of spiritual reality and spiritual ideals, his rejection of materialist approaches to life, his belief in the importance of surrender to God, of sincerity in worship, and, importantly, with his belief in “the harmonious integration of all human faculties in the dedicated service of God.” Rav Lichtenstein identified with More’s worldview and with the worldview of other religious thinkers and authors of that period.

Most importantly for Rav Lichtenstein, More and the Cambridge Platonists emphasized the importance of reason in religious life—“intellection” is the term often used here by Rav Lichtenstein—and the role of the intellect in religious life is a central focus of Rav Lichtenstein’s book. One can understand how a young talmid hakham, in the very Christian environment of Harvard in the fifties, studying a literature that is saturated with Christianity, would be attuned to a principal distinctive difference between Orthodox Judaism and Christianity: the emphasis on talmud Torah, on the use the mind as the primary means of serving God. We often speak of the importance of talmud Torah, and we devote regular time to it and enjoy it, but I think it is often unclear to us how talmud Torah functions as a religious experience. This is not the case with respect to tefillah, for example, and even other mitzvot seem to be more easily understood as part of the ritual commanded by God and are thought to have intrinsic meaning. But talmud Torah is harder to understand as divine service, avodat Hashem. In this book, Rav Lichtenstein makes the argument that intellection, study, the quest for knowledge, comprise an essential element of religious life. And he is making this claim for religion in general, not just for Judaism—Judaism comes up only once in the book and is only briefly discussed. The book speaks in universal terms, setting out what Rav Lichtenstein maintains is the nature and character of religion in general, not just for Judaism. But I think it is quite clear that his model is  a Judaism in which talmud Torah occupies the center of religious experience.           

Rav Lichtenstein analyzes the role of intellection in More’s religious philosophy and finds much to his liking. More uses one concept in particular to define the core of his religious outlook. That concept is what he refers to as “Deiformity.” “Deiformity” means to be like God. It is similar to the Latin phrase, imitatio dei, which I think is better known, but there is an important difference, which will be made clear in a moment. More and the Cambridge Platonists got the concept of deiformity from Plato.           

Plato was an important figure for these thinkers, which is why they were called the Cambridge Platonists. It is worth mentioning, I think, that when I was a talmid at Gush Etzion in 1973, some of the American students requested from Rav Lichtenstein that he give a class in general philosophy. He refused, they kept asking, and he ended up arranging for a young philosophy professor from Hebrew University to give a weekly class on every other Friday afternoon. I don’t think it was an accident that Rav Lichtenstein asked the professor to teach Plato. The class quickly became known as “the Plato shiur.” It didn’t last very long, as it is nearly impossible to draw a crowd at the yeshiva on Friday afternoons, which was probably what Rav Lichtenstein planned all along.           

In order for the concept of deiformity to have meaning, one has to have some conception of God’s nature. If one wants to be like God, one needs to know what God is like. For More, the essence of divine nature is goodness guided by reason. God is the archetype, the highest form, of the Good and of Wisdom. In trying to be like God, one must develop both his reason and his will, his wisdom and his goodness. This is Rav Lichtenstein’s description of the process:

The quest for deiformity must move along the two lines—parallel and yet convergent—of wisdom and goodness. In man’s spiritual odyssey, both his rational and his volitional nature must participate. In seeking to approach God by attaining deiformity, man finds the perfection of both his intellect and his will, fused into one harmonious nature in the exercise of the religious life (55).

In other words, one must use both reason and volition—will and action—in seeking to approach God. And beyond merely using both reason and volition, one actually needs to fuse them together, so that they inform one another.           

Deiformity is not only a religious ideal, something that one aspires to in their religious life, but it is also a metaphysical fact, and this is where deiformity differs, I think, from the concept of imitatio dei. Deiformity as a metaphysical fact means that the human soul, in its very nature and origin is divine. It comes from God and is, in a sense, a piece of divinity. The Cambridge Platonists therefore believed in what they called “right reason”: since the soul is of God, and God is reason, man is capable of knowing, through his purified reason and volition, a set of fundamental absolute truths. In deiformity, reason and faith interpenetrate (God is of reason and therefore there can be no conflict between faith and reason) and through their interpenetration, reason acquires a religious quality. This concept of the interpenetration of faith and reason, with reason obtaining a religious character, is of crucial importance to Rav Lichtenstein, and is the idea in More’s thought that he finds the most valuable.

At the end of the day, however, Rav Lichtenstein is disappointed with More. What I have described so far is one dimension of More’s thought, of which Rav Lichtenstein approves and praises. But there is a second aspect or side to More’s thought, which Rav Lichtenstein rejects.

Here he emphasizes rather the opposition—actual or potential—between man’s intellectual and moral natures. Knowledge—and, above all, the search for it—is considered a snare and delusion, diverting man from his true course. Religion is treated as being a relatively simple matter. Whatever knowledge men really need, they either already possess or can easily acquire. Their efforts should be better devoted to the cultivation of their moral and religious will, and More intimates that this can be accomplished with little ratiocinative effort and without strenuous intellectual discipline. Instead of emphasizing the exercise of reason, More urges the overriding importance of practical ethical conduct, with particular regard for social virtues… In a word, we shall find More displaying, on this side of him, a distinctly anti-intellectual bias (97).

As opposed to the first aspect of More, this second aspect downgrades reason and the exercise of the intellect in religious experience, claims that religion is a simple matter not requiring much knowledge or thought, and places overriding emphasis on practical ethical conduct (Rav Lichtenstein contends that the two aspects of More’s thought are ultimately irreconcilable). Rav Lichtenstein devotes a good deal of the book critiquing this second aspect of More, and in his critique  he sets out his own views regarding basic issues of religion.

More’s emphasis on the simplicity of religion is an idea shared by other Cambridge Platonists and became a dominant idea in 18th century English religious thought. What explains this trend to simplify religion? The motivation, according to Rav Lichtenstein, is democratic in nature, the desire that religion be accessible to everyone. The great majority of people are not going to reason in a deeply profound way about religious questions, either from lack of intellectual capability or from lack of interest. This is a general problem for religion, as all religion has some intellectual content. Rav Lichtenstein provides a mini-survey of the various approaches that have been taken to resolve this problem, at least among the Western religions. One approach is fideism, which is the blind acceptance of religious truths which are not subject to rational understanding. This view holds that no matter how smart you are or how hard you think, you are not going to reach an understanding of religious truths, so you need to just accept them. Another approach he mentions is that of Roman Catholicism, which charges a scholarly elite with the job of engaging intellectually with religious questions, while the rest of the community of believers do not engage intellectually.           

The final approach he mentions is that of Judaism. This is the only place in the book where he explicitly addresses Judaism. As described by Rav Lichtenstein, in Judaism God must be served with the head as with the hands and heart. Intellection is an integral aspect of the religious experience of every individual. He points out that Hazal speak of talmud Torah, not yediat ha-Torah, it is the effort and process of study that is stressed. Study is a universal daily duty, and it need not be pragmatic, as the intellectual quest for God is its own justification. I felt I needed to include the following quote because it is a formulation that only Rav Lichtenstein could have composed:

Decision, Jewish tradition has of course reserved for competent authority; if there is no royal road to knowledge, neither is there a demotic. But the peregrinatio is the duty and destiny of all (109).

I think what he means that there is no high road for sophisticated thinkers nor is there a simpler road for the masses, there is just one road toward knowledge and everyone has the duty to travel along it.           

Although Rav Lichtenstein strenuously disagreed with the idea that democracy requires that religion be dumbed down or made simple, I think it is clear he did take to heart the notion that efforts should be made to make the intellectual content of religion as accessible as possible. Although his shiurim were abstract, complex, and demanding, they were models of clarity. He always gave complete mekorot for every shiur, the shiur always began at the beginning with first principles, every step in the analysis followed in logical sequence, and he would summarize the shiur at its end. He was unusually focused on teaching methodology; teaching his students how to read and analyze so that they could acquire the necessary skills to do it on their own.           

Along with the embrace of simplicity in religion over sophisticated thought and intellection, More placed an overriding emphasis on practical ethical conduct. Rav Lichtenstein contends that this shift of emphasis led to the substitution of religion by morality in the 18th century, which he refers to as a turn from religion to “moralism.” Rav Lichtenstein has many fascinating things to say about the relationship between morality and religion, and he approaches the issue from several vantage points. In the course of his discussion he makes several revealing, and to my mind, somewhat surprising, statements concerning the essence and nature of religion. His discussion of morality and conduct in the context of religion is extensive and subtle, and I will do my best to explain and summarize the important points.           

Rav Lichtenstein begins his discussion of religion and morality in an interesting way. He begins by asking whether one’s relation to God should be understood in basically human terms. Are the acts and obligations we owe to God fundamentally the same in nature as our duties to our fellow humans, but just raised to a higher degree? His point is that in assessing the relationship between morality and religion one must begin with the essential qualitative difference between our relationship to fellow humans and our relationship to God. Once we have a better understanding of this qualitative difference, we will be able to approach morality with the proper perspective.           

Rav Lichtenstein maintains that More had an inadequate grasp of the absolute chasm between the character of God and people. From Rav Lichtenstein’s point of view, More’s God is too accessible, understandable, and friendly. More is missing a sense of the awesome and awful God whose wrath is inexplicable, and the hidden and distant God who is seemingly unconcerned with his human creation. Rav Lichtenstein suggests that More’s conception of God may be the result of his taking the concept of deiformity too far. He points out that deiformity, trying to be like God, can all too easily slide into deification, thinking of oneself as God or on a par with God. It would seem that a similar pitfall besets certain forms of Hasidut, especially in some of its contemporary manifestations, where great emphasis is placed on the Godly essence of the human soul, and God is spoken of in very familiar human terms.           

Rav Lichtenstein told me that he once attended a wedding in Tekoa, which is known as one of the centers of Hasidut within the dati leumi community in Israel. He described how distressed he was to hear one speaker after the next speak of ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu in a very intimate and presumptuously human fashion. He joked that he almost expected to find a place card for ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu on the table outside the dining room. He declined an invitation by the ba’alei simha to speak but was repeatedly asked and finally accepted. In his talk he very frankly expressed his feelings about how God was being spoken of at the wedding and how he thought it was entirely inappropriate. I found out later that, needless to say, people who were at the wedding were talking about his speech for a long time afterward. Rav Lichtenstein discusses this phenomenon at some length in his essay on spirituality in Varieties of Jewish Experience,[12] especially in his comments on Rav Shagar.[13]           

Despite the danger of going overboard with deiformity, Rav Lichtenstein does not think that it should be abandoned, but that it must be grasped simultaneously with an awareness of the gulf between man and God:

The profoundest religious consciousness is aware of both its deiformity and of the abyss between itself and its Creator—and what is more, it is aware of them simultaneously. Religious experience revolves around the polarity of a dual sense of love and fear—of the caressing warmth pervading the soul in the embrace of its Maker, and the penetrating shudder piercing its inner sanctum as it surveys the impassable and unfathomable gulf between man and God. The two poles are experienced simultaneously—“and rejoice with trembling” (182-183).

Once it is fully recognized that there is a great qualitative difference between man’s relationship to God, and man’s relationship to his fellow man, morality and religion can be put in the proper perspective:

Where religion is fully developed, the religious motive becomes all-embracing, and it refers all human actions to God, each being performed for His sake and for His sake alone (184).

Rav Lichtenstein is arguing here that morality is subsumed by religion. All human actions, and moral action is no different, must be performed for the sake of God alone. For Rav Lichtenstein, everything is for God, including morality. This of course does not downplay the importance of morality in any way, but claims it as an aspect of religion. Rav Lichtenstein goes on to say that once the point of reference has been shifted away from God to man, with a surrender to humanity and the moral law taking the place of a surrender to God, we no longer have religion but have, what he calls, “moralism.”           

Rav Lichtenstein’s exposition here of the relationship between religion and morality sheds important light on a well-known early essay of his, “Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah?”[14] In that essay Rav Lichtenstein discusses the issue that is clearly identified in the title of the essay, whether Halakhah is a type of closed total system, which does not look outside itself for norms or prescriptions on how to act. Rav Lichtenstein’s conclusion is that Halakhah does indeed recognize an ethic independent of itself but that recognition is part of Halakhah itself. He finds that recognition in the principle of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din. Lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, according to Rav Lichtenstein is a halakhic principle that recognizes that sometimes it is necessary, for moral or ethical reasons, to go beyond what the black-letter law otherwise requires. Recently there has been some questioning of Rav Lichtenstein’s argument, with one critic insisting that while Halakhah does indeed recognize an ethic independent of itself, lifnim mi-shurat ha-din has nothing to do with it.[15] But the real question I think is why is it so important to Rav Lichtenstein that there be a halakhic principle or rule that grants legitimacy to an independent ethic? I think the answer can be found here, in his argument that where religion is fully developed, all human actions are referred to God, performed for His sake alone. It would not do for Rav Lichtenstein for there just to be an ethic independent of Halakhah, as that would reflect a defective religious consciousness; it is necessary that the ethic be referred to God, that it be in answer to God’s commandment and performed for His sake alone. Ethics needs to be “transmuted,” a favorite word of Rav Lichtenstein’s in this book, becoming thoroughly religious in nature.           

Many of the hespedim for Rav Lichtenstein mentioned his exceptional graciousness to all aniyim who came to his door to ask for money. Rav Lichtenstein did not have a shamash or gatekeeper and he would answer the door himself and deal personally with the many who came requesting help. And because of his graciousness and generosity to all who came, more and more came on a regular basis. I know that I am often annoyed by people who come to my door and I do not always act so graciously, being bothered by suspicions I have as to whether the people are truly needy or really cannot help themselves, and like others, I wonder how Rav Lichtenstein was able to do it. Perhaps it comes down to what he says needs to be the reference point of our actions. If we were able to adopt his direction that our reference point be God and not the person in front of us asking for money, that we give tzedakah for God’s sake and for God’s sake alone, perhaps our attitude and practice would change.           

Rav Lichtenstein then proceeds to take up the issue of the morality and religion from a different vantage point, raising the fundamental question of the role of conduct or practice in religion. He frames the question in the following terms: is the essence of religion theoretical or practical? When he says “theoretical” he doesn’t have in mind theoretical in the sense of hypothetical, as not given to actual implementation. What he is asking is whether religion is in essence a matter of the heart and mind, or is the essence of religion action and conduct. His answer is emphatic—religion is in essence theoretical:

[T]he essential character of religion is theoretical rather than practical. The characteristic activities of love, contemplation, vision—all that is readily perceived and most vital to the religious life—are basically forms of inner worship. However we define it and wherever we place our emphasis, it should be clear that religion involves, in essence, an apprehension of God, and a desire to assimilate to Him and be assimilated unto Him (193-194).

The essence of religion for Rav Lichtenstein is what he calls “inner worship,” and he specifies the activities of love, contemplation, and vision as characteristic of this worship. He also says that religion is the apprehension of God and the desire to be assimilated unto Him, which is the concept of deiformity that we spoke of earlier. It is clearly an experience that is not easily defined, but the overall point is that in essence, religion is an attitude or focus, an intellectual and emotional response to the apprehension of God, rather than a practice. This does not mean that religion does not involve certain practices, and that these practices are not of critical importance:

The process of assimilation may—nay, must—no doubt impose certain practical demands; for surely religion has its pragmatic side as well as its theoretical. This includes, first, ethical conduct in its transmuted religious character, and secondly, the specific praxis which religion enjoins as peculiar to itself, in the form of discipline or worship. But whatever practical demands are thus enjoined can only be religious, not religion. If we ask in what activity does religion consist, we should hardly reply that it consists of comforting the poor and healing the sick or genuflection and libation. We should rather say that its activity is fundamentally one of contemplative vision… For it is from the abstract apprehension of God that religion begins, and, with a growth in grace and growth in knowledge—through a process which must, admittedly, partake of various practical forms—it is with an ever profounder apprehension that it must continue. And its character remains theoretic rather than practical (194-95).

Rav Lichtenstein is saying here that there is a practical side to religion, such as ethical conduct in its transmuted religious character that he described earlier, and the specific rituals and forms of worship that a religion prescribes. But these practices are forms that religion takes—they are religious in nature but not religion itself. Religion consists in the abstract apprehension of God, a contemplative vision, and its practical forms derive from this experience of God. But religion remains theoretic in essence.

Rav Lichtenstein criticizes More and the theologians of the 18th century who followed in his wake for considering conduct, specifically moral conduct, as not only a form of religion but its very content. They ignored the inner worship, the intellectual and emotional response to the experience of God, out of which action must derive. The “inner religious core” was forgotten and “with its dehydration, the vitality of English religious life was seriously sapped” (200).         

Thus far Rav Lichtenstein has made two arguments against More’s overriding emphasis on practical ethical conduct. The first was that morality is subsumed by religion. All human actions must be performed for the sake of God and for the sake of God alone. Establishing morality as a value independent of religion is therefore mistaken. The second argument was that by focusing exclusively on ethical conduct, the theoretical essence of religion is ignored, and the inner emotional and intellectual experience of God that motivates and energizes all ethical conduct is severely weakened.           

Rav Lichtenstein then proceeds to make a third argument, one that is again illuminating and somewhat surprising. He argues that an exclusive and excessive focus on social virtues, working to better the lot of one’s fellow human beings, distorts the purpose of religious life:

[S]urely no one can quarrel with his [Whitehead’s—DJL] statement that “if you are never solitary, you are never religious.” Augustine in the garden, Plotinus’ “flight of the alone to the Alone,” Juan de la Cruz’s waiting “en parte donde nadie parecía” [in a place where no one was—DJL][16] – here, one feels, lies the core of the religious experience, solus cum solo [alone with the Alone (Newman)—DJL]. The inordinate stress upon social, communal, and political relations not only weakens religion, but diverts and distorts it. For such an emphasis affects both the means and the ends of the religious life. It not only renders the exercise of religion difficult, but also suggests false motives for its pursuit and false goals as its terminus. It posits human comfort and convenience as significant aims; it gives temporal benefits an ultimate importance; the worship of God, it replaces with the service of society (201).

According to Rav Lichtenstein, an excessive focus on social concerns and issues distorts the purpose of religion, which is the individual’s worship of God, not the service of society. This would seem to be a bold, even extreme statement, and I think many would find it a shockingly narrow understanding of the purpose of religion. But Rav Lichtenstein is being consistent here with his prior arguments. In his view religion is all encompassing. There cannot be an independent source of authority, such as morality. The internal worship and private apprehension of God, which is the essence of the religious experience, animates and energizes all of one’s actions and conduct. And the sole purpose of religion is the worship of God, and not the service of man, no matter how noble an activity that may be. What we have here is a demand that the religious person live continuously before God.           

In the conclusion of the book, Rav Lichtenstein returns to the declared subject of his book, “rational theology,” and he sets out his own view of what the term means, bringing together several of the points he had made earlier. I think most people confronting the term “rational theology” for the first time would assume it means that religious belief must conform to reason, that it must be rational and make good sense. This was indeed the approach taken by many Enlightenment thinkers, such as Kant. Kant’s treatise on religion is entitled “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.” In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” Kant challenges people to decide religious issues for themselves on the basis of their own reason.           

This is not the kind of rational theology that Rav Lichtenstein has in mind. He cites John Tulloch, a 19th century Scottish theologian who wrote a major work on the Cambridge Platonists,[17] and credits him with the formulation of the term “rational theology” with reference to the Cambridge Platonists. But Rav Lichtenstein contends that Tulloch’s understanding of what rational theology means is fundamentally wrong, for Tulloch adopts the Enlightenment view that religion must conform with man’s rational faculties and that the individual has the power to judge such issues for himself. Rav Lichtenstein writes that in the rational theology of Tulloch “reason is not so much a participant as an umpire; it does not play the game, but rather sets up the rules and referees” (209). Tulloch is also guilty of adopting those elements of More’s second aspect that Rav Lichtenstein so strenuously rejected, namely the belief in the simplicity of religion and an overemphasis on conduct and social morality.           

Rav Lichtenstein sets out his own very different view of what “rational theology” means. Although he speaks in universal terms to a general audience, I think it is fair to say that he is actually describing the role played by talmud Torah in Judaism:

On my own view, the term “rational theology” ought to mean something else entirely. It should apply to a theology which recognizes the exercise of man’s intellectual faculties as an integral and indispensable aspect of his religious life; which sees the attempt to understand God and His will as an essential phase of human activity; which looks upon study and intellectual endeavor as fundamental virtues; which, finally, incorporates the search for knowledge—whether as an end or as a means—as a facet of the religious realm proper. Such a theology would insist, above all, that neither emotion nor morality is enough, but that thought must enter into man’s spiritual existence, and thinking constitutes a genuine religious experience. In this sense, a theology is most thoroughly rational if it conceives man’s ultimate goal in intellectual terms and sees beatification as containing an element of understanding… the acid test is the role of human reason in the processes of the religious life proper, rather than its function in formulating the premises of religion or defining its limits. A truly rational theology must be one which emphasizes the obligations of reason as well as its rights (209-210).

As opposed to the Enlightenment view which views reason as a type of referee, deciding whether religion meets its criteria of validity, Rav Lichtenstein offers a rational theology in which the exercise of man’s intellectual faculties is itself an integral and indispensable aspect of religious experience. Thought is a necessary element of religious existence; emotion and morality are not enough. In the next paragraph, Rav Lichtenstein expands on this notion, adding that the activity of the intellect is necessary to maintain ritual, emotion, and faith itself:

[W]e must recognize with Whitehead that “mere ritual and emotion cannot maintain themselves untouched by intellectuality.”[18] As Coleridge with his extraordinary psychological insight, so keenly perceived, true faith can be neither profound nor enduring where the intellect—be it great or small—is not fully and actively engaged in the quest for God: “…The energies of the intellect, increase of insight, and enlarging views, are necessary to keep alive the substantial faith in the heart. They are the appointed fuel to the sacred fire”[19] (212).

Rav Lichtenstein goes on to sound a cautionary note. In order to be effective, the intellectual faculties must be actively employed to their maximum capacity—an idea that is familiar to anyone who studied at Har Etzion and had the privilege of hearing Rav Lichtenstein’s sihot:

[T]his intellectual element must be vigorously active. If it is to revitalize the whole spiritual personality, then it cannot itself remain quiescent. If the intellect is, indeed, to supply “the appointed fuel to the sacred fire”[20] of faith, then its own hearth must be kept burning. The intellectual phase of religion… must rather actively and constantly engage the individual’s rational faculties. It must demand, from each and every believer, the exertion of a maximum of intellectual effort (213).

In Rav Lichtenstein’s rational theology, intellection is at the center of religious existence, being itself a religious experience—“thinking constitutes a genuine religious experience” (210)—sustaining ritual, emotion, and faith itself, and revitalizing the entire spiritual personality. Provided, however, that the intellect is always vigorously active, exerting a maximum of effort.       

Almost at the very end of the book, Rav Lichtenstein reminds the reader of a point that he made earlier, one that he obviously feels is of great importance:

Above all, we should neither assume nor advocate an imagined simplicity in religion… Whether dealing with 17th century or contemporary religious problems, let us recognize with Whitehead that “so far as concerns religious problems, simple solutions are bogus solutions”[21] (213-214).

* * *

When people speak of influences on Rav Lichtenstein’s religious personality they always mention Rav Hutner, Rav Aaron Soloveichik, and the Rav. I think there is another influence that should be considered, especially in light of Rav Lichtenstein’s “rational theology,” and that is his mother. Rav Lichtenstein often mentioned his mother’s determination, uncompromising standards, and her devotion to intellectual advancement and talmud Torah. When he spoke of his mother he always mentioned that she was a “Telzer.” In his hesped for his mother, Rav Lichtenstein mentions that his mother participated in one of the youth groups founded by Rabbi Elya Kaplan.[22] On more than one occasion Rav Lichtenstein spoke of Rabbi Elya Kaplan with great admiration. Rabbi Elya Kaplan was a brilliant talmid hakham who founded a network of schools and a youth group. He was a Zionist and a musarnik—he learned in Kelm, and with the Alter of Slobodka, and with Rabi Elya Bloch in Telz. Kaplan succeeded Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman as the head of the Hildesheimer’s academy, and died tragically at a very young age, in his thirties. The musar of Telz, developed by Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch, was known as an “intellectual” musar. Unlike other musar approaches which employed behavioral methods to change one’s attitudes or values, Rabbi Bloch maintained that if one undertook the effort to understand the truth about God and man and the world, and really internalized that knowledge, then one would naturally behave and act properly (an idea that actually originates with Plato). Rabbi Bloch called his musar schmoozesshiurei da’at”—shiurim of thought or intellection, a term that brings to mind “rational theology.”  It may very well be that Rav Lichtenstein absorbed some of his ideas about rational theology, or at least developed a receptivity toward them, from his mother.

* * *

I said earlier that I was overwhelmed when I read Rav Lichtenstein’s book, and provided two reasons: the incredible scholarship and knowledge it displays, especially in light of the short period of time in which it was produced, and that it sets out his own fully formed religious philosophy. I was also overwhelmed for a third reason. I was overwhelmed by the realization that Rav Lichtenstein took this religious philosophy that he developed when he was 24 years old and proceeded to live his entire life by it. A life without simple solutions, a life with constant maximum effort, and a life lived continuously and consciously in the presence of God.


* In what follows, references to Aharon Lichtenstein, Henry More: The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962) will be made in the body if the text. In preparing this talk for publication, I corrected the text for grammatical reasons and in order to clarify a few passages and added footnotes. The references in the notes are to works that Rav Lichtenstein himself quoted in Henry More and to other texts that our father z”l had collected in preparing this talk. I would like to thank Prof. Aviad haCohen, Prof. Arnold Davidson, and my brother, Matt Landes, for their help in editing this talk and for pushing me to ensure its publication. My mother, Faye Landes, helped our father z”l in initially drafting this talk.—Yitz Landes, New York, April 2021.

[1] See Aharon Lichtenstein, “Henry More and Rational Theology: Two Aspects” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1957).

[2] See Robert B. Heilman, “Three Generations of English Studies: Impressions,” The Sewanee Review 97, no. 4 (1989): 597–611.

[3] See Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 185-87.

[4] Douglas Bush, “The New Criticism: Some Old-Fashioned Queries,” Publications of the Modern Language Association 64, no. 1 (1949): 13–21.

[5] Ibid., 20.

[6] Douglas Bush, “The Humanist Critic,” The Kenyon Review 13, no. 1 (1951): 81–92 (86).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Idem, “Memories of Harvard’s English Department 1920—1960,” The Sewanee Review 89, no. 4 (1981): 595–603.

[9] Ibid., 602.

[10] See the essays collected in Yitzchak Blau, Alan Jotkowitz, and Reuven Ziegler, eds., Tradition 47, no. 4, Special Issue: Essays on the Thought and Scholarship of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (2014): 47; in particular Shalom Carmy, “Music of the Left Hand: Personal Notes on the Place of Liberal Arts Education in the Teachings of R. Aharon Lichtenstein,” 223–39.

[11] George A. Panichas, review of Henry More: The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist, by Aharon Lichtenstein, The Journal of Religion 43, no. 3 (1963): 251–53 (251).

[12] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Law and Spirituality: Defining the Terms,” in Varieties of Jewish Experience (Jersey City: Ktav, 2011), 167–94; first printed in Adam Mintz and Lawrence H. Schiffman, eds., Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law, The Orthodox Forum (Jersey City: Ktav, 2005), 3-33.

[13] Varieties of Jewish Experience, 190-91.

[14] Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith: Volume II – The World of Jewish Living (Jersey City: Ktav, 2004), 33-56; first published as “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halacha?” in Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice, ed. Marvin Fox (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), 62-88.

 [15] See J. David Bleich, “Is There an Ethic beyond Halakhah?,” Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies 9 (1985): 55–62 (I thank Sarah Zager for this reference—YL).

[16] From “Dark Night of the Soul,” by Saint John of the Cross (Spanish mystic and saint, 16th century).

[17] John Tulloch, Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the Seventeenth Century, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1872).

[18] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making – Lowell Lectures, 1926 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1926), 23.

[19] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. W. G. T. Shedd, vol. 6, 7 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1884), 189.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Alfred North Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1933), 161.

[22] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Ima,” Alon Shvut 116 (1987): 7–22.