Scholarship

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Academic Talmud Study

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Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein
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Avraham (Rami) Reiner

Translation: Elli Fischer

In the spring of 2013, the organizers of the sixteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem decided to hold a special session called: “Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein: Thought, Talmudic Methodology, and Cultural Influence,” in honor of the Yeshivat Har Etzion Rosh Yeshiva turning eighty. This was fairly significant. The Congress, which takes place every four years, is the largest and most important platform for the various branches of academic Jewish studies. In the history of the Congress, the number of sessions devoted to the discussion of a living human being can be counted on one hand.

I was privileged to chair that session and would like to share my remarks on that occasion about Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, which were also directed to him, as he was in attendance:

I came to Yeshivat Har Etzion to study with Rabbi Lichtenstein, having sensed that he possesses the Torah of truth and no falsehood could be found on his lips, which is exactly what I was looking for. I can speak only for myself, but it seems to me that I was far from alone in this respect.

The more I studied, the more profound, multifaceted, and broad was his influence on me. I was exposed to Talmudic erudition that captivates the heart and mind, unparalleled devotion, boundless integrity, and a breadth of knowledge and horizons that, until then, I never knew existed, and whose significance I certainly did not appreciate.

After completing my years in yeshiva, I turned to academic studies. It was clear, almost expected, that I would study literature, under Rabbi Lichtenstein’s influence. Talmud was my second course of study. This led inevitably to a rift. The philological and historical study of Talmud, halakhah, and related fields was persuasive, attractive, even compelling, but it was very different from the conceptual, ahistorical mode of learning that I had studied in yeshiva with Rabbi Lichtenstein. The love of Torah and the quest for truth that my peers and I had acquired in yeshiva compelled us to seek out a new and different path for approaching and understanding the Torah, the Talmud, and the works of halakhists of every generation. Some of us experienced this rift as a form of bereavement, of becoming orphaned from a father even as he still lived. We knew that in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s eyes, the humanities were acceptable, even encouraged, but not so for academic Jewish studies, and especially the fields of Talmud and Jewish law, which were so close and so relevant to what we had studied in yeshiva.

The scholarship in which we engaged, based on historical and philological methods, felt like a science, almost an exact science, of the sort that often penetrates the truth fully and succeeds in arriving at the basic foundations of the questions it addresses. We academic scholars, who engage in critical scholarship, often sense that the true Torah is in our mouths, that no falsehood can be found on our lips, and that the implements for arriving at the truth of Torah are in our toolbox.

Alongside these feelings were the sensibilities, beliefs, and voices that we brought with us from yeshiva. Sometimes it seemed as though these two parallel sets of feelings never intersected, do not intersect, and, according to the Euclidean axiom, will never intersect.

From the opening remarks of the session in 2013, we now turn to the present. It has been more than two years since Rabbi Lichtenstein’s passing. The above remarks represent a view from the academy, but what was Rabbi Lichtenstein’s view? Is there a full articulation of his attitudes to academic Jewish studies, their contents, their contributions, their advantages and disadvantages, and even the risks they may entail?

I wish to emphasize that my concern here is specifically the academic study of the Talmud (in its broadest sense, including the study of its interpretation and codification)—the very works to which Rabbi Lichtenstein devoted his life and energies. I am not concerned with Rabbi Lichtenstein’s attitudes toward the humanities and to the great works of the human spirit; in this respect, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s actions and writings amply convey his attitudes.

It is well-known that he studied English literature at Harvard, and he never concealed the fruits of those studies; to the contrary, he incorporated them into his spiritual and educational doctrine, both written and oral. The first four chapters of By His Light are based on lectures he delivered to English-speaking students during their first year at Yeshivat Har Etzion, and the book attests reliably to the yeshiva’s general intellectual and educational atmosphere. I will cite a few short examples from these chapters, allowing readers to absorb some of the music that students at Yeshivat Har Etzion absorbed from Rabbi Lichtenstein’s classes and discourses.

In a discussion of the redemptive quality of personal effort, he cites Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus as representative of one viewpoint: “”For Carlyle, the great prophet of work is the late eighteenth-century, early nineteenth-century German writer Goethe” (13).

Later, discussing the same issue:

In terms of two poems by Tennyson, if our choice is whether to join the indolent Lotos Eaters or “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” with Ulysses, there is no question as to where we would stand (25).

Elsewhere in the book, he writes:

This activist approach … parallels the activist Jewish approach with respect to spiritual endeavors. In Christian theology there is a time-honored tradition—rooted in the words of Paul and transmitted by Augustine, Luther and others—that sees human redemption as being dictated solely from Above. In Luther’s formulation, any human attempt to achieve spiritual or ethical perfection is a grave error, for it bespeaks arrogance (121).

Later in the same essay, Rabbi Lichtenstein writes:

In his essay, “Beyond Tragedy,” Reinhold Niebuhr writes, “Christianity is a religion above and beyond tragedy. Tears as well as death are swallowed up in triumph.” This is because, for Christianity, suffering is transformed by becoming the foundation for personal redemption. Let it be stated explicitly that Judaism is not “beyond tragedy,” nor does it “swallow up” suffering. Jewish tradition educates the person to accept suffering, but also to bemoan it (134).

Rabbi Lichtenstein goes on to discuss the differences as well as points of similarity between Judaism and Christian traditions, taking both seriously.

The importance of these quotes lies not in their content but in what they communicate incidentally: that the image of a student of Torah, of one who desires closeness to the Almighty, is not determined solely by the presence of Nahmanides and Rashba, Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk and Ketzot ha-Hoshen on his or her bookshelf. It can also be shaped by deep familiarity with names like Carlyle and Sartor Resartus that are largely inaccessible to the common Talmudic acolyte, and names like Paul, Augustine, and Luther, which are hard to digest for those who have filled their bellies with the Talmud and its commentaries.

The list of works cited by Rabbi Lichtenstein is impressive, but it is far from arbitrary.[1] It is worth noting that Hebrew and Yiddish writers and poets like Agnon, Amihai, Zelda, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and Sholem Aleichem are all but absent from his writings. Bialik is cited once, which may be the exception that proves the rule.

 

For Rabbi Lichtenstein, the turn to literature, especially English poetry, even if it is overtly Christian, emerges from a worldview in which this material can foster universal values that are indeed religious values of the first rank. As he writes in the same series of essays:

Thus, our specific Jewish commitment rests on our universal commitment, and one cannot address oneself only to the specific elements while totally ignoring the general and the universal ones. Therefore, in delineating what a ben-Torah should be striving for, the initial level of aspiration is a general one: to be a mensch, to hold basic universal values, to meet normative universal demands (22).

Rabbi Lichtenstein’s systematic thinking and its implications precede their practical implementation. What he thought must be done—namely, exposing his students to a rich cultural world with substantial religious meaning, even if that world is not Jewish—he did, without hesitation or compunction, even in the context of his discourses as a Rosh Yeshiva.

Over the years, Rabbi Lichtenstein articulated his view on the relationship between Torah and general knowledge on several occasions.[2] One who studies these essays will quickly recognize that the “general knowledge,” “culture,” and “science” to which Rabbi Lichtenstein relates in them never refers to the academic study of Judaism (or, “scientific” study of Judaism, as expressed in the German term “Wissenschaft des Judentums”).

If, in his philosophical and didactic essays, he occasionally relates to academic Jewish studies with a passing reference, when it comes to his Talmudic writings such references simply do not exist. Rabbi Lichtenstein delivered thousands of lectures and wrote thousands of pages of novellae on Tanakh and Talmud, and yet he does not relate at all to the academic study of Talmud; he seems to have avoided it entirely.

The accomplishments of academic Talmud study, built atop the legacy of philological-historical study, which is in turn influenced by fields both proximate and distant, such as history, literature, and comparative religion in addition to geography, philosophy, hermeneutics, legal history, psychology, and other disciplines, has made very significant strides in recent generations.

Our ability to properly understand our sacred sources—Mishnah, Bavli, Yerushalmi, Geonic Literature, Rishonim, and Aharonim—hinges on their textual, linguistic, and contextual examination in addition to their comparative study alongside proximal counterparts from cultures that neighbor them temporally and geographically and in their social and religious contexts. So that this discussion does not remain too abstract, I will illustrate with a brief example that Rabbi Lichtenstein was familiar with, as is evident from one of his articles.

The series of benedictions recited each morning according to the Jewish prayer rite (“Birkhot ha-Shahar”) includes a subset of three berakhot praising God “Who has not made me a gentile,” “a slave,” and “a woman,” respectively. Traditionally, Jewish women replace the latter benediction with a formulation that, while beautiful and meaningful in content, is troublesome within its gendered context: “Who has made me according to His will.”

The three berakhot that praise God for what He has not made us, and only they, have their source in Tosefta Berakhot (6:23). However, it was noted already by the first generation of Wissenschaft scholars that “it is reported variously of Socrates or of Plato that each morning he thanked heaven for having been born male and not female, free and not a slave, Greek and not barbarian.”[3] A bit more scrutiny reveals that the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians: “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ; there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (Galatians 3:27-8).

There is no doubt that a comparison of these sources can explain the original—and current—meaning of these three berakhot. However, there is no room for such a question in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s Talmudic methodology, just as there is no room for virtually any higher critical question addressed within academic disciplines related to the Talmud, its interpretation, and its practical application.

As a result, it was quite possible for Rabbi Lichtenstein’s students to become familiar with an impressive list of personalities, of which I have mentioned but a few, but to never encounter names like Zunz, Jost, Weiss, Fraenkel, or J.N. Epstein, the founding fathers of modern academic Talmud study whose work forms the basis of the entire field. To my mind, the central question remains: How could Rabbi Lichtenstein, with his great mind and greatness of spirit, who possessed so much Torah and wisdom, simply not pay attention to them?

Moreover, underlying Rabbi Lichtenstein’s Torah and wisdom were his integrity and truthfulness. But how could they endure without any attempt to understand that which as most precious to him—the Talmud and its world, the halakhah and its concepts, the medieval commentators and their formulations—without the academic tools that were developed using the same methods, and in almost the same settings, as the humanities that are so important in other facets of his religious and intellectual life?

The solution to this puzzle can perhaps be found in another element of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s disposition: his phenomenal powers of concentration, which students saw with their own eyes and many have described, and his focus of those powers on serving the Almighty. Once he arrived at the conclusion that something is spiritually correct and important, it became a priority for him, and he worked to advance it, at the expense of other matters.

Rabbi Lichtenstein viewed abstract, conceptual, “Brisker” Talmud study, which he had learned from his mentors, as the predominant mode of Talmud study. His belief in the power of this interpretive methodology, its substantive and aesthetic advantages, and its religious meaning led him, we can suggest, not to engage in anything that required the investment of time or other resources in this field. As mentioned, he likewise barely mentioned modern Hebrew thought and literature.

He also completely ignored the world of Kabbalah. Rabbi Lichtenstein spoke in extraordinarily glowing terms about Ramban as a Biblical exegete, an interpreter of the Talmud, and as a halakhist,[4] and he often prefaced his name with the descriptor “light of our eyes.” However, as my friend Dr. Kalman Neuman has pointed out, Rabbi Lichtenstein never addressed the kabbalistic portions of Ramban’s teachings,[5] the portions that Ramban himself calls “the way of truth” (“derekh ha-emet”).

In other words, it was not only scientific Talmud study that remained outside of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s interest. There were other fields of knowledge in which he chose not to engage, based on his view that they could not advance his major life-goal: serving God by studying and teaching Talmud according to the traditional Brisker method.

Nevertheless, this explanation does not seem exhaustive. It was not only that Rabbi Lichtenstein did not engage in this form of study; he fundamentally opposed it. To bolster this claim, let us return to Yeshivat Har Etzion in the early 1980s.

In 1978, Prof. Shamma Yehuda Friedman’s article, “Perek Ha-ishah Rabbah ba-Bavli,” appeared. Its title indicates its contents, and I deem it to be the best and most comprehensive article on the proper method for academic study of a Talmudic sugya. In the winter of 1979-80, several yeshiva students formed a group to study “Ha-ishah Rabbah,” the tenth chapter of Yevamot in the Bavli, while hewing closely to Friedman’s article. It was a revelation; the experience was one of discovering a primal truth for the first time.

The next summer, in issue 88 of Alon Shevut, the student journal of Yeshivat Har Etzion, an article by Aharon Mishnayot, a member of this study group, appeared. It was titled, “Li-fshuto shel Talmud” (“Toward the Plain Meaning of the Talmud”). One who attempts to locate this issue will not be successful; at the instruction of the heads of the yeshiva, copies of the issue were recalled and hidden away because of the aforementioned article. Aharon Mishnayot wrote to me about this episode:

Rabbi Lichtenstein spoke with me in his inimitable style—without anger, and even with a bit of bashfulness. I was surprised that his main criticism was against my claim that the Yerushalmi tends toward straightforward explanations more than the Bavli does. Rabbi Lichtenstein explained that the halakhic tradition accords with the Bavli, whereas the implication of my words is that the Yerushalmi is to be preferred, in opposition to the said tradition. I was doubly astonished: by the severity that Rabbi Lichtenstein attributed to it and primarily by the fact that Rabbi Lichtenstein never addressed the content of the claim. His disregard for the truth-claims in my article did not comport, to my mind, with his uncompromising intellectual integrity. I was simply amazed.

Six months later, in the winter of 1981-2, a group of students from the Netiv Meir yeshiva high school came to spend a trial week at Yeshivat Har Etzion. As usual, yeshiva students were asked to give classes to their younger guests. One such student, Moshe Meir, gave a class based on an understanding of the Mishnah as it is, not on the basis of how the two Talmuds interpreted it.

Word of this class and its contents reached the heads of the yeshiva. At the annual Hanukkah party that took place shortly thereafter, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the co-head of the yeshiva along with Rabbi Lichtenstein, delivered a discourse that is remembered by students of that generation as “The Hilltop Speech.”[6] In it, Rabbi Amital suggested to Moshe that he go and establish another yeshiva on the next hilltop over, where he would be able to teach whatever he wanted. Moshe later recollected:

At the time, I was occupied with the study of logic. The idea occurred to me to try to analyze Mishnayot in accordance with the principles of formal logic. I don’t know if there was anything of substance there, but the conclusions certainly did not dovetail with the Gemara’s analysis of the Mishnah.

When the students came, I was asked to teach them a class. With youthful joy, I covered the blackboard with Mishnayot that had been formalized into logical formulas, and the students were very excited. The head of Netiv Meir in those days, Rabbi Kopelevitch, intercepted the students on their return and heard about their experiences at Yeshivat Har Etzion. In his agitation, he called Rabbi Amital and said to him [according to Rabbi Amital]: “I send you boys to strengthen their reverence for God, and you.”

A few days later, I went to discuss the issue with Rabbi Lichtenstein, and I tried to speak about freedom of thought in context of the love of Torah. I don’t remember what he said to me, but I recall that I palpably felt an iron curtain descending and ending the conversation.

Later, when I studied Wittgenstein’s teaching that all thought and discourse rest on inescapable dogmatic presumptions, I remembered my conversation with Rabbi Lichtenstein.

In retrospect, his view was a manifestation of authentic fideistic thought—to which many scholars aspire but never achieve. They are often unable to free their thinking from the limitations of dogma—an ability that our mentors, Rabbi Amital and Rabbi Lichtenstein, maintained until their last breath.

The complete neglect of academic Talmud was therefore not simply a neglect rooted in the desire to uphold, develop, and refine a Talmudic methodology, as I suggested earlier. This neglect was in fact opposition, which alerted some students to the tension between the quest for the truth that we absorbed in spades from the yeshiva heads and the attempt to understand the “true,” “correct” Talmud, which we thought we could accomplish using modern scientific tools. And it was from Rabbi Lichtenstein himself that we learned to appreciate such tools.

Moreover, it was from Rabbi Lichtenstein that we learned of the attempt—his attempt—to integrate the culture of the American humanities, as taught in America’s elite universities in the 1950s, with the scholarly tradition of Brisk. We, as young Israelis, were trying to integrate the discourse that was relevant to us in those days—the critical academic discourse—with the tradition of the study hall. In Israel at that time, and especially within the segment of society under discussion, men who combined Torah knowledge with academic learning were culture heroes of a sort.

Figures like E.E. Urbach, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Jacob Katz, H.H. Ben-Sasson, and others who were even younger, had an influence beyond their academic institutions, and their discourse seemed relevant and meaningful specifically to Yeshivat Har Etzion students who had a role model, albeit one with a different set of associations and contexts, in Rabbi Lichtenstein. The broad, rich, unique world that Rabbi Lichtenstein brought to Yeshivat Har Etzion coexisted, in those days, with his strong opposition to any whiff of academic Talmud study. Thus, some of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s students ultimately continued their search for the truth, but they found it elsewhere, and in different kinds of truth. The driving force was Rabbi Lichtenstein’s strength and spirit, but the end result was something far from his spirit, and far from the destinations toward which he strove.

The early 1980s were thus a time of ferment with respect to Rabbi Lichtenstein’s attitudes toward academic Talmud study. What happened subsequently? It seems that the history of Herzog College, which is adjacent to, affiliated with, and influenced by Yeshivat Har Etzion, and for which Rabbi Lichtenstein served as rector, shows that sometimes lines that may never intersect can nevertheless grow closer. Thus, in 1980, a year that has already been mentioned in this article, the lecturer for a required course called “An Introduction to Oral Law” was none other than Rabbi Lichtenstein.

This was no coincidence. His desire to prevent the teaching of a historicist course led him to teach the course himself. In the early 1990s, as the college steadily grew and developed, prospective teachers of Talmud and halakhah were disqualified one after another as it became clear to Rabbi Lichtenstein, in his capacity as rector, that these teachers had been trained in academic Talmud departments.

From that point forward, however, and in contrast to everything we have thus far described, the Faculty of Oral Law at Herzog College developed in a different direction, to the point that eventually, every one of its members was the product of research institutions where they had studied Talmud and related disciplines. These facts speak for themselves, but they require us to consider what happened in the interim to enable Rabbi Lichtenstein’s backtracking from his staunch prior opposition.

In 1999, Rabbi Lichtenstein delivered a paper at the Orthodox Forum, hosted annually by Yeshiva University in New York, titled, “The Conceptual Approach to Torah Learning: The Method and its Prospects.”[7] In hindsight, this programmatic article can be viewed as Rabbi Lichtenstein’s attempt to take stock of his life’s religious and intellectual project: his conceptual method of studying Talmud.

A close study of this wonderful article, which addresses various Talmudic methodologies, reveals that it presents academic Talmud study as a somewhat reasonable option among the disparate options. We will present several selections from the article; the details are not important, but the music that emerges from them is.

Addressing the question of textual variants and ascertaining correct texts, Rabbi Lichtenstein wrote:

Indeed, the Torah world should pay more attention to this component…. [A]ccess to its findings can and should be more widespread than it is today. We need not exaggerate … Many of the points that have been raised with respect to textual accuracy apply equally to knowledge of realia. This, too, is the province of experts but accessible to a wider audience. This, too, can obviously be of critical halakhic import in some cases … This is not to denigrate the importance of factual information or of those who labor to provide it. Anyone who engages in serious learning is indebted to them at some point, and the debt should be acknowledged.[8]

There can be no doubting that the tone and content of this article differ significantly from the rejectionist atmosphere that prevailed in the early 1980s; it reflects a certain softening, an understanding, and perhaps even a limited acceptance of the accomplishments of academic Talmud studies. This sort of framework is what allowed the Oral Law faculty at Herzog College to mature and to develop methods for the study and teaching of Talmud within a world that stands alongside the world of the yeshiva, of Yeshivat Har Etzion.

There would be no more fitting conclusion to this description of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s gradual softening than a quotation of Rabbi Lichtenstein himself. In his response to the aforementioned panel at the World Congress of Jewish Studies, he said:

When my wife and I planned to make aliyah to Israel, I explained to the yeshiva leadership that we want to live in Jerusalem. I was asked about this choice, and I answered that my sense was that I would be able to grow, to profit, and to become more productive, whether through my influence or through others’ influence on me, from Jerusalem’s academic community. I had hoped for cooperation between these worlds, that such a link would be strengthened. In retrospect, this goal was not achieved.

I knew that there was a long history of lack of cooperation between the beit midrash and the academy. This is linked, in part, to the approach of Reb Hayyim [Soloveitchik of Brisk], and in part to the influence of Rabbi [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik himself on me. Thus, when my father-in-law [Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik] went to study in Berlin, his mother half-ran to his train just as it was departing and said: “Just don’t study Wissenschaft des Judentums.” These harsh words were uttered then, attesting to the rift that had already opened between the world of the academy and the world of the yeshiva….

My hope at the time was that the encounter between academy and yeshiva would realize the potential of both, by broadening and deepening the subjects of study. I do not live, God forbid, in a state of constant struggle against the academic Torah world. There are things I oppose, but I do not feel that there is a state of discord or hostility between this world and me, and I have no interest in ever having such feelings. Personally, I felt that there was a need to strengthen this aspect of my world, and to a certain extent, it did not work out.

I understand why the rift emerged. The panel discussion we just heard represents the mending of certain rifts in this area. I would hope to see that even when we disagree, we cooperate and share a common purpose. I sincerely hope that, to the extent that the Almighty grants me the strength, I will be able to continue engaging these topics.[9]

***

Now that Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein is no longer among us, we have no choice but to continue engaging these topics without him.

Our work remains far from complete.


 

[1][1] There is much work still to be done on Rabbi Lichtenstein’s selective use of Jewish and non-Jewish sources. For preliminary treatments, see Alan Brill, “An Ideal Rosh Yeshiva: By His Light: Character and Faith in the Service of God and Leaves of Faith by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein,” The Edah Journal 5:1 (2005), 1-18; William Kolbrener, “Religion and Culture: An Ambivalent Life,” in Y. Sarna (ed.), Developing a Jewish Perspective on Culture (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 2013), 169-183; idem, “Torah Umadda: A Voice from the Academy,” Jewish Action 64 (2004), 25-33; Jeffrey Saks, “The Best that has been Thought and Said by Rabbi Lichtenstein about the Role of Literature in Religious Life”, Tradition 47:4 (2015), 240-9.

 

[2] His most exemplary articulation can be found in Aharon Lichtenstein, “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict,” in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? ed. Jacob J. Schacter (Northvale: Aronson, 1997), 217-92.

[3] Moses Hadas, The Living Tradition (New York: New American Library, 1967), 31 [cited in “Confluence and Conflict,” 278].

[4] See: Isaac Hershkowitz, “Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Nahmanides: Between Personal Admiration and Intellectual Influence,” Daat 76 (2014): 69-82 [Hebrew].

[5] My friend, Elli Fischer, points out that Rabbi Lichtenstein likewise makes very short shrift of the kabbalistic (and cabbalistic) pursuits of the subject of his doctoral dissertation. See Aharon Lichtenstein, Henry More: The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 13-14, 90-91.

[6] See Elyashiv Reichner, By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2011), 39.

[7] Published in Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, Vol. I, 19-60; Lomdus: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning, 1-44. It has since been published in Hebrew as: Aharon Lichtenstein, “Ha-gisha Ha-musagit-Briska’it Be-limud Ha-Torah: Ha-shitah Ve-atidah.”

[8] Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, 48-49.

[9] This is a translation and reworking of the notes taken by Noam Shalit at the event. I am grateful to him for making them available to me.