This was my letter which I sent to the members of my shul, Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills.
Last night, I received the heartbreaking news that my rebbe and mentor, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein passed away in Israel at the age of 81. Rav Aharon, as his thousands of students reverentially and endearingly called him, was Rosh Hayeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion-"Gush" (in Alon Shvut, Israel) for over 40 years and a courageous visionary leader of the dati leumi, religious Zionist community.
Rav Lichtenstein was born in Paris in 1933, the year the Nazi party rose to power in neighboring Germany, but fled Vichy France with his family in 1941 for the United States. He married Tovah Soloveitchik, daughter of Rav Soloveitchik zt"l. He earned his PhD in English Literature from Harvard University, was a Rebbe and Professor at Yeshiva University until he made Aliyah in 1971.
Rav Lichtenstein, zt"l, was a true giant in Torah and character. He not only taught but embodied the notion that the Torah we live is a Torat Emet and Torat Chesed- a Torah of truth and kindness. With his towering intellect and unparalleled knowledge of Torah, his Gemara shiurim- which I was privileged to enjoy on a daily basis for a year- were a tour de force in content and Brisker style analysis. He was a great teacher who gave us the methodological tools to study on our own. I will never forget his awe inspiring presence which filled the beit midrash.
With sensitivity and humanity, Rav Lichtenstein believed in, and exemplified, the integration of Torah and the modern world. He also felt strongly that Torah study should be combined with dedication to the nation, particularly through service in Tzahal and that the latter doesn't take away from Torah but actualizes it. While expressing his convictions quite clearly, he also was keenly aware of life's complexities and nuances. He often told his students, when addressing the difference between his religious Zionist approach and the more right-wing Charedi one, that they can learn from us (e.g. from our dedication to the State of Israel) and that we can learn much from them (e.g. from their scrupulous commitment to halacha). This type of perspective-of being willing to learn from and value the other- reflected his great humility, intellectual honesty and overarching desire for peace and unity. With these qualities, he led Yeshivat Har Etzion, together with Rav Amital zt"l, to become one of the premier yeshivot in the world, known for its rigorous and broad-minded Torah study, as well as its commitment to the State of Israel, the Nation of Israel and love of Israel.
Rav Lichtenstein, through his teachings and thousands of talmidim, has profoundly shaped not only Gush and Israeli society, but also our modern Orthodox, religious Zionist community here in America. For this, we should all have deep appreciation.
Last year, Rav Lichtenstein's contributions to Torah scholarship and Israeli society were recognized when he received the prestigious Israel Prize. Prime Minister Netanyahu sent his condolences today saying "When I gave him the Israel Prize a year ago, I saw before my eyes a great rabbi, teacher and educator, a Zionist man, sharp witted and a keen thinker. Rabbi Lichtenstein will be remembered as a Zionist-Torah leader of the highest order."
I have a deep sense of personal loss today but feel blessed that I had the opportunity to study with Rav Aharon and to consult with him regularly over the years, often regarding important life decisions and community issues. He would listen closely, help articulate the factors and questions and while sharing his wisdom, would give space to his students to decide. In this way, he empowered us. His impact upon me personally is immeasurable as I'm sure is the feeling of so many others.
I have been in touch with other rabbis in our community to discuss the possibility of an evening in LA in honor of Rav Lichtenstein's Torah and legacy. I would also like to find a way for our Beth Jacob community, over the coming months and years, to engage in the study of Rav Lichtenstein's Torah and philosophy. The Jewish People and the world have lost a great man. We can hopefully find comfort in the knowledge that we will study and continue to be inspired by his incredible legacy.
We extend our sincere condolences to his wife, Dr. Tovah, his children and grandchildren, to all his students, Yeshivat Har Etzion and the Jewish People.
Rabbi Kalman Topp
Beth Jacob Congregation
Beverly Hills, California
The funeral will take place on Tuesday, April 21, 2 Iyar at Yeshivat Har Etzion at 10:00 a.m. Israel time; 12 midnight, tonight Pacific time. The eulogies may be viewed live at www.yutorah.org/live. In addition, the hespedim delivered by RIETS Roshei Yeshiva tomorrow morning at Yeshiva University, and those delivered at Stern College in the evening will be available at www.yutorah.org/search, which will be updated throughout the day.