Last Monday morning at the close of davening, I received a call from my son, in tears, who told me that Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein had passed away. I told my son about his teacher what his teacher had told me about my father 43 years ago: “Blessed is the Judge of Truth, Baruch Dayan Emet.”
It is one thing to utter that phrase to someone who has lost a loved one. It is something else entirely for someone to utter that phrase to you as you are steeped in grief and shock about the loss of your own father.
And a close rebbe, or Torah teacher, is, says the Torah, like a father. So the circle closes: I had to tell my son about his teacher, who was also his father, what my teacher, who was also my father, told me on that terrible day in 1972 when I learned about the death of my father.
This phrase, “Blessed is the Judge of Truth,” will have been uttered, by the time this appears, thousands and probably tens of thousands of times, for that was the reach of Rav Lichtenstein. He had thousands of disciples/sons, gathered unself-consciously over more than 50 years of teaching Torah.
Often it is said of a great and influential master of the tradition that began with Moses at Sinai: He made me feel like I was the most special of his students. It was I, no one else, who had that really special relationship with him.
Of Rav Lichtenstein, something more subtle and even greater may be said, something I have observed in no other master of Torah. Yes, he made a student feel special; yes, he gave a student that special focus, attention, and understanding. What was different about Rav Lichtenstein was that, even as he established a relationship with an individual disciple, that very disciple knew that Rav Lichtenstein had established the same level of relationship with countless others – and it didn’t make a difference. It didn’t detract in slightest from the relationship he had with you. You knew you were part of a larger circle, just one among many disciples, without, however, feeling any the less for that knowledge, without feeling any urge to claim that it was your relationship that was truly special; without any need to measure who was closest, and who not.
This unique way of relating to disciples stems, I surmise, from Rav Lichtenstein’s humility. It is often said that it is hard to be humble if one does not have something to be humble about. Rav Lichtenstein had it in spades: a master of the entire Talmud (when he administered entrance tests for his yeshiva, he would ask the student to pick the text; without any prior knowledge or preparation, Rav Lichtenstein proceeded to administer the test, totally familiar with all the issues and commentaries on the page, stunning the student with his instant recall); the youngest person in the history of Harvard University to receive a Ph.D. in English; author of learned studies in Talmud and decisive essays in Jewish thought; fluent in languages (the ones I know of: French, English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Latin, German, and Greek); co-leader for decades of perhaps the leading hesder yeshiva in Israel; loyal son-in-law and disciple of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik; beloved son, father, husband, and grandfather. With all this, I am hardly the first to observe that Rav Lichteinstein was genuinely humble, a person who visibly recoiled at any honor or extraordinary compliment that came his way. Last year, when he received the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest, I thought that it was he who honored the prize rather than the prize that honored him.
What made Rav Lichtenstein such a towering intellect was that, no matter how thoroughly you had thought something through, he inevitably had other considerations, nuances, layers, perspectives. No matter how expert you might have become in a given field or on a given topic, you always knew that Rav Lichtenstein could expand your knowledge and sensitivity.
He was astonishingly honest. Most people are – up to the point of the people or issues closest to them. Then, at best, they fall silent; at worst, their biases come through. Not with Rav Lichtenstein. His honesty was complete. When I spoke to him about his father-in-law before writing Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transition Figures from Eastern Europe, his capacity for analysis of and his openness about Rav Soloveitchik were the same as if he were talking about a figure in history or some living figure with whom he had no relationship. More than anyone I have known, Rav Lichtenstein embodied the ideal of Rabbi Israel Salanter: an unbiased talmid chacham, i.e., a human receptacle of and transmitter of the Torah as close as possible to what it really is.
Great and awesome scholars and saints are, supposedly, above all manner of human traits: humor, regret, inner struggle, awareness of limitations, awareness of strengths, the political ins and outs of the vicissitudes of life. Rav Lichtenstein was above none of these. His discourse with you came straight and even: meaning, on your level, not because he made an effort to speak to you on your level but because attributing to himself no special level, he could see things through your eyes.
They say of the Vilna Gaon that he kept a log of time wasted and repented for the wasted time each Yom Kippur. One year, the log, or so the story goes, added up to seven minutes. That might sound apocryphal, but if you saw Rav Lichtenstein, you learned what it was to value every moment of life, to waste virtually none – to be so in love with service of the Creator, via the study of His word, prayer or good deeds, that each moment was embraced with gusto. One former student of his, now an Aish HaTorah rabbi, told me that Rav Lichtenstein reminded him of a fullback – rushing into the study hall laden with books, weighed down, yet using his energy to the maximum to proceed to the lectern or the study table, simply unable to wait an extra second to delve into those sacred writings.
On Shavuos night, one traditionally studies through the night until prayers at daybreak. Just as traditionally, most people cannot sustain either their strength or their attention, uninterrupted, all night long. Among even the most serious students, there is a tendency to nod off or take a brief walk or eat some cheesecake or indulge in a shmooz in between long periods of study. Not so with Rav Lichtenstein. He sat down in the evening and plowed straight through to the morning – likewise when he was on an air flight, likewise on the night of Yom Kippur. A framework for uninterrupted Torah study was, for him, a golden opportunity.
A few years ago, he found it necessary to speak out against a beloved teacher who, alas, had engaged in extremely inappropriate behavior, in order to ensure that this teacher not continue to teach. It was sticky. It was close to home. Rav Lichtenstein received many commendations for doing what he did. His wife later said that he didn’t understand why people would make a big deal out of someone “simply doing the right thing.”
The deeds, the discoveries, the traits, the impact, the idealism of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein will be revealed, told and retold, treasured and collected, for generations to come. Happy is he who saw this, even if only a portion thereof. Baruch Dayan Emet.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the editor of The Intermountain Jewish News in Denver, Colorado.