Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein ob"m - Ish haEmet

Much has been said and written over the past week and a half concerning the legacy of my teacher and Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein.  His vast Torah knowledge, his familiarity with English literature and other academic pursuits, his sterling middot, and his ability to always be the adult in the room, to always be the individual who could weigh multiple sides of a complex issue and come out with a position that you may not have agreed with but that you had no choice but to respect.  These aspects and many others have already been covered by those who knew and understood Rav Lichtenstein far better than I ever will.

So what can I add?  Perhaps not much.  However, one aspect of Rav Lichtenstein seems to have been covered only en passant, and perhaps my two cents can be useful in the continuing efforts to fill out the portrait of this towering figure.

I do not recall the question that he was answering, but somewhere during a sicha to American students during my first year at Yeshivat Har Etzion, I distinctly recall Rav Lichtenstein beginning a response by saying, "The Stoics say - and it's also a Gemara in Bava Batra..."

My natural first reaction at the time was to wonder who the Stoics were, and to simultaneously be impressed that Rav Lichtenstein cited their thought (of course, this is something that all of Rav Lichtenstein's students soon got used to).  My second reaction was to marvel over the fact that this great Rosh Yeshiva was citing the Gemara, which made up the very air that we breathed in Yeshiva, as a secondary and ancillary source to a school of Greek philosophy.

Over time, I came to realize that Rav Lichtenstein was not showboating, he was not showing off his knowledge of Greek philosophy, and he was not attempting to prove his Modern Orthodox bona fides or flaunt his worldliness by highlighting the secular source before the Torah one.  Rather, this was just one of countless examples of Rav Lichtenstein's strict commitment to truth in everything that he did.  For Rav Lichtenstein, every field of knowledge that he knew, every one of the seven or so languages that he had at his disposal - every bit of it existed to further elucidate the world of Torah and Avodat Hashem, and he recognized that sometimes Greek philosophy or English literature or the French language contained a word or an idea that could be expressed better by those thinkers or writers than could by done by the Tanaim and Amoraim and Rishonim.  It took effort to be straining to understand a complex two-hour shiur in Hebrew and then to realize that a French phrase had been slipped in, but Rav Lichtenstein did so not to show off his French (he was born in France, after all), but because his pursuit of precision, of whole and unvarnished truth, virtually forced him to make use of whatever shred of knowledge he had in his vast mental storehouse in order to come as close as possible to that truth.

Many of us who teach or write or speak publicly are prone to name-dropping and the need to make cultural references.  Sometimes it is because we feel it will make us look more sophisticated and educated.  Sometimes it is because we are trying to connect to our audience, and we feel that a good quote from the Simpsons or Mad Men - not quite the height of culture - might possibly do the trick.  I believe that Rav Lichtenstein raised the bar for us in this regard.  He taught us that our involvement with worldly culture should ultimately be for the purpose of improving our commitment to Torah and Avodat Hashem.  Rather than indulge in lower culture with the excuse that it will help our teaching, that we have to bring ourselves down to our students so that we can then elevate them, Rav Lichtenstein's example was that we can immerse ourselves in the "best that has been thought and said" in an effort to challenge and inspire those who we teach to expand their horizons in the pursuit of  God's truth.  I suspect that many of Rav  Lichtenstein's students developed reading lists and chose college majors at least partially in order to understand his references, and hopefully we are able to remember that our goal is not to name drop, but to use those expanded horizons for the noblest purpose of all.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Despite what everyone says, Pesach really is wonderful

Starting a few days after Purim each year, my Facebook feed begins lighting up with tales of woe and prophecies of doom.  Pesach is on the way, and that means that everything that is bad and wrong about being an observant Jew is about to descend upon us - from the scourge of kitniyot, to overzealous shiurim of matza and maror, to the need to clean every bathroom tile, to the problem that after two generations of Yeshiva education we somehow have tables full of people who want to offer Divrei Torah, thus producing an all-too-long Maggid.  If Jewish social historians a thousand years from now were to uncover only blogposts as evidence of the way we lived, I shudder to think what they would make of us.

What's funny is that most people I know enjoy Pesach.  Few people complain about being underfed, most people realize that eating even the strictest shiurim is still not all that much (especially when you have not eaten for upwards of three hours), many people realize that they are using Pesach as an excuse for spring cleaning (and there are probably more men helping with the cleaning than were doing so fifty years ago), and most people I know have a Maggid that is appropriate for their seder, balancing the various needs of all of the people at the table.  Most people I know look forward to the chance to reconnect with family, to create some of the most important and lasting memories for themselves and their children, and to take a break from their busy lives to reconnect religiously (although my accountant friends tend to seem a bit stressed).

So what is all of the rage about?  Perhaps, playing to stereotype, we simply like to complain.  Perhaps some of the frustration is real, as food prices seem a bit too high and the rise in double income families means less time to get all of the cleaning and cooking done.  Or, perhaps, if I may engage in some armchair psychology, the complaints are really proxies for larger issues (e.g. dissatisfaction with Rabbinic Judaism, the "turn to the right", a breakdown in tradition, the "turn to the left", a blind adherence to tradition, a love of kidney beans, etc.).  Since Pesach is a time when everyone is paying attention, as everyone wants to make sure that they are doing everything right for the holiday, now is a wonderful time for everyone to flex his or her agenda and create a little buzz around the kiddush table.

Either way, it is important for us to ask ourselves what the cost of all of the protests are.  As I wrote four years ago, our children hear our complaints even if we do not intend for them to.  Impressionable teenagers can and do open up the Jewish Week or get forwarded blogs from the Times of Israel where we self-righteously publish one-sided columns deriding venerable practices as if our entire existence is threatened by having to eat a little extra matza or not eat green beans (I admit, I don't understand that one.  On the other hand, I don't really like green beans, so I break even.).  We have to remember that there are two opportunities here that we dare not miss.  First, we can teach our children and students to become educated consumers of halacha, knowing when to ask questions, how to ask those questions, and who to ask those questions to.  Second, we have to make sure that we are presenting Pesach, and mitzvot in general, as opportunities to improve ourselves and to strengthen our connection to God.  We might not always agree with every detail, but if we miss the forest for the a few of the trees we may put the future of that forest in jeopardy.

Wishing everyone a happy and meaningful Pesach.