An Interview with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein serves as the Rabbi Henoch and Sarah D. Berman Professor of Talmud of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and Rosh Kollel and director of the RIETS Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem. He graduated Yeshiva College and earned his semicha [rabbinic ordination] at RIETS, followed by a PhD in English literature from Harvard University. In l971, after serving as rosh yeshiva at RIETS for several years, he immigrated to Israel, answering a call by Rabbi Yehuda Amital to join him as joint Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut.
Rabbi Lichtenstein embodies a lifetime of commitment to intensive and original Torah study that articulates a bold Jewish worldview, embracing elements of modernity within the framework of a Torah life, reflecting the tradition of his teacher and father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav zt”l. Rabbi Lichtenstein will be honored at the RIETS Annual Dinner of Tribute on November 13, 2011 at The Grand Hyatt in New York City.
Interview by Yaffi Spodek. Rabbi Lichtenstein’s answers transcribed by Dov Karoll.
What were your early affiliations with Yeshiva University and how did you eventually become Rosh Yeshiva at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary? (RIETS)
Rabbi Lichtenstein: I attended YU from the age of 16. I was there for four years, and then I was at Harvard for four years, but under the aegis of YU. I went with the encouragement and enablement of the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik), personally, and of the institution generally. When I came back from Harvard in 1957 and wanted to get a position within the Yeshiva, I ended up having the desire only partially fulfilled. Though there was no full-time position as a maggid shiur available, they needed someone as an instructor of English at Stern College, and I was asked to consider that.
Secondly, I was appointed to what was to be a new part-time position as an assistant to the Rav, which meant reviewing the shiurim for bachurim, grading examinations, etc. Since the Rav was only in New York for about a day and a half or two days a week, I was also available for those who wanted to discuss an issue. This had not been my first choice but it did mean getting a foot in the door, and after consulting with the Rav and with Rav Ahron Soloveichik about taking this combination, both encouraged me to do it, which I did.
The value of having a foot in the door turned out to be manifest, when in 1961, YU decided to reopen the Kollel, which had been in existence for a couple of years, staffed and manned by older Kollelnikim who had come over from Europe after the war, but was then shut down after about two to three years and was not really revived. This time it was, with younger people, American talmidim, and I was put in charge of that. I continued at Stern, while running the Kollel and assistantship. In 1963, my desire to get a shiur within the beis medrash was realized. From then, until we came to Eretz Yisrael in 1971 (I left Stern, with the exception of an occasional course), I devoted myself to the shiur—a first year shiur in the beis medrash, and to running the Kollel, which also required about four hours a day in the beis medrash.
Why did you decide to move to Israel and join Yeshivat Har Etzion?
RL: The idea of moving to Eretz Yisrael and getting a position there percolated for a number of years and was put on ice when my mother-in-law, a”h, took ill with cancer in about 1963, and we did not consider making an immediate move. Some people in Eretz Yisrael thought that I would be a correct choice to assume a position as a Rosh Yeshiva—with that term, in Eretz Yisrael, referring to the director of the yeshiva, not simply as one of the maggidei shiur. The founders of the yeshiva in Gush Etzion contacted me and wanted me to be involved. I explained that it was not immediately feasible, but we would keep in touch.
The person who was put in charge of the yeshiva was Rav Yehuda Amital. At the same time, the initiative to have me on board remained active and my wife and I and our children came to Eretz Yisrael for pilot trips, including two full months in the summer of 1970, after which I weighed a number of different offers that had been received. We decided that we wanted to move to Eretz Yisrael and that of the offers made, Yeshivat Har Etzion would be most suitable. From a certain point of view, that decision was, to some people, surprising. It had recently been founded, it had no campus, it was “out in the sticks,” so to speak, and yet, I was very impressed, with the people who were involved in it, first and foremost Rav Amital, and second, the various balebatim, who were very anxious to develop the Yeshiva. Rav Amital, for his part, made, to me, the most incredible offer—to join him as a co-Rosh Yeshiva. It was my first position in Eretz Yisrael and it continued since that day.
How did you become involved with YU’s Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem?
RL: Initially, when I came to Eretz Yisrael, I was associated with Yeshivat Har Etzion, with the exception of some minor projects which I undertook. At the same time, however, at YU, since the mid-60s, the prospect of opening a facility in Eretz Yisrael, particularly in Yerushalayim, was made feasible by the munificence of Mr. Joseph Gruss. Rabbi Lamm offered me a position in terms of directing the institution and we worked out an arrangement whereby I would continue at Yeshivat Har Etzion as my primary commitment but have a part-time position at the soon-to-be opened Gruss Institute in Yerushalayim. On a daily basis, Rav Dovid Miller was in charge of the beis medrash, as a regular maggid shiur, and I would give shiur once a week and we worked in partnership, which I enjoyed.
What are your thoughts on being honored by Yeshiva University and RIETS?
RL: I have been honored on a different occasion by YU; I expressed at the time my feeling that there were other people more qualified than myself, first and foremost, mori ve-rabbi, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, z”l. I consider having a post in the world of chinuch a remarkable privilege, one which both satisfies a personal and, if you will, egocentric need, and yet, enables one to transcend the egocentricity, in all humility, and with genuine religious fervor to the Ribono shel Olam.
How has your leadership impacted the Jewish community?
RL: In a world in which there are many people whom I respect and are certainly greater than myself, I don’t want to speak of a central leadership role. I have impacted upon certain circles in the Jewish religious world and certain communities, which I felt I could particularly service, because of their lifestyle and their hashkafa. All this, I’ve tried to do with humility, with commitment, and with a sense of how fortunate I have been to attain that position and the ability to be marbitz Torah in different countries. Part of this I received from my parents, z”l, from whom my initial religious personality, my initial striving for knowledge, I received from an early age.
How do you think RIETS has evolved over the years?
RL: There is no question that any observer of the beis medrash at RIETS, any observer of the composition of the student body, quantitatively, qualitatively, would be very impressed with the very positive development of a more Torahdig climate, as regards both to the ability to learn, the desire to learn, and the readiness to assume the mantle of responsibility within the Jewish world. In many respects, the institution itself has invested heavily—I speak not only of money, but manpower—to extend and expand the scope of learning. One need only remember what the beis medrash looked like at night when I was here in the early 50s, and the pulsating vibrancy which the beis medrash exudes at the wee hours of the morning today, to see how remarkable the change has been…
Now, in certain respects, some things which I value have been lost in the process. Not totally lost, but reduced… I would hope that something of that spirit which animated some of us here, back in the 60s and 70s, would be reinvigorated, and that the Torah U’madda ideology and reality would be felt more powerfully than it is felt today. On the whole, the strengthening of Torah and talmud Torah, within so many kehillot, even as it has been accompanied by the decimation of other kehillot, has brought the total religious community in the States to an appreciably higher level.
Reflecting on your 50 years of service to the Jewish community, can you point to one or more significant turning points?
RL: Unquestionably there were two turning points. The first was in the completion of my general studies, getting a doctorate at Harvard and the move back from there to Yeshiva, to the beis medrash. In a sense, I ought not refer to that as a turning point; it was going back to what, all along, had been its direction and its motif.
The second major turning point, was, of course, coming to Eretz Yisrael. That was not just a change of venue, it was a change of climate, both in terms of what I personally, and my family, received from my new environment, as Jews, as bnei Torah, as participants in the world of Jewish past, of future destiny, and of being involved and engaged, at the contemporary level, where the heart of the present action lay.
What are you most proud of having accomplished during these years of service?
RL: Looking back over the past 50 years, what I am proudest of is what some would regard as being a non-professional task. I’m proudest of having built, together with my wife, the wonderful family that we have. It is a personal accomplishment, a social accomplishment, and a contribution—through what they are giving and will give, each in his or her own way—in service of the Ribbono shel Olam in the future.