Rav Aharon Lichtenstein: The Impassioned Moderate


Since the passing at the age of 81 of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, or Rav Aharon, as he was known, on April 20, there has been a steady stream of tributes and obituaries. The facts of his life are readily available with a few keystrokes, and his Talmudic prowess is both well-known and nearly impossible to describe to the uninitiated.  Therefore, someone who neither lives in Israel, nor studies Talmud, or who is not Jewish may legitimately ask: Why should I care? What does this Talmudic genius have to do with me?

Rav Aharon, the longtime Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel,  matters because he represents something rare and desperately missing in contemporary discourse: In his religion, in his politics, and in his disposition, he was a true moderate.

The term “moderate” requires some explanation. The designation is often applied to a person of few convictions. In this sense, moderation is the opposite of passion. If one does not have core values, it is easy to compromise. Moderation can be a symptom of flexible values.

Not so Rav Aharon. For him, moderation is borne of a burning and lifelong desire to reconcile conflicting truths. He was renowned for speaking passionately and at length of his ideals and convictions. His belief and faith in God was like few others I have witnessed. And compromise, in the sense of a concession where one’s values are concerned, was simply not in his otherwise prodigious vocabulary. In many ways he was extreme: in his love of the Torah, the Talmud, and their study. His religious zeal was awesome— in the original sense of the term.  Further, there simply was no gap between the high ideals he taught and how he lived them out. His faith in and observance of Judaism, his work ethic, the passion and intensity he brought to every field of endeavor—these are hard to describe in terms that do not sound extreme.

Yet he was a moderate in this sense: He taught us that whether in Talmud study or life, we are often confronted with opposing goals, values, and ideals. But rather than assume that one is correct, and the other is false, we should hold them both in what he called a “dialectical tension,” that is, to see each value as positive in its own right and then explore how competing values may work together.

Of course, values inevitably clash, and in conflict we must choose. However, we pick Value A over Value B not because Value B has been proven false or unimportant, but because life requires a decision to be made. Foundationally, however, both values remain intact, and we should do the utmost to uphold the rejected value, even as the counter-value wins out in practice. In fact, Rav Aharon would argue that precisely because we have given up on a value in one context, we must redouble our efforts to reinforce it elsewhere.

If this sounds trite, consider how countercultural this educational approach is in light of current norms. Those who are passionate about ideas quickly divide into camps. At each pole, actors do everything to promote their side at the expense of the other, never conceding to the fundamental truth reflected in the opposing viewpoint. In law and politics, effective advocacy is taken to mean picking a position and never letting go, lest we show weakness. Every data point is spun to reinforce one’s argument, and eventually one becomes so habituated to the chosen side that counter-theories do not even register. New events unfold, but rather than asking: “Is this the best balance of X and Y” we ask: “How can we use this to discredit the other side?”

Rav Aharon’s view of moderation calls on us to optimize both values rather than cheerlead for one of them.  This thinking stemmed from his Talmudic studies, but also animates several of his well-known public positions.  Though Rav Aharon staunchly supported Israel’s military, he consistently resisted militarism. In his view, because we send our boys to war, we must work twice as hard to ensure their spiritual and moral comportment. In his own words, since wartime demands that we adopt the tactics or “hands of Esau,” we must be doubly certain that we continue to act and speak in the “voice of Jacob.” In many ways, this was the raison d’etre of the yeshiva he led.

The same approach is found in his reaction to the Oslo accords, where he saw competing values at work: On the one hand, there is deep love and connection to the Biblical homeland. On the other, he recognized the desire for peace and the right of the duly elected government to reach decisions that bind the nation. Thus when it came time to withdraw from Hebron, Rav Aharon offered a striking metaphor: the nation was undergoing an amputation. The experts decided the operation was necessary, and he followed their counsel. Nevertheless, there is no joy in severing a limb to save the body. Though he supported withdrawal, his pain was both visible and visceral, a position as profound as it is uncommon.

The significance of these teachings extend beyond their native context, as Rav Aharon held that you cannot honestly decide against a position until you have emotionally and spiritually internalized its values. In this vein, I will ask my students to imagine a world where an oil and gas lobbyist is knowledgeable and deeply sensitive to questions of environmental degradation—for how else can she know that a given policy choice is honest rather than expedient? Likewise a consumer advocate must be particularly attuned to the struggles of small business and the costs of regulation—how else can he properly balance the needs of the consumer and producer?  In the world of lawyers and politicians, this sounds like sheer fantasy, but this is exactly the impassioned moderation Rav Aharon modeled for over five decades.

Like everything else in Rav Aharon’s life, these lessons were anchored in his love of God and a ceaseless devotion to the Talmud and its study. Yet the themes are universal. May his memory inspire us to absorb the ideals he embodied.

Chaim Saiman is a professor of Jewish law and insurance law at Villanova Law School.  He is an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion.