Rav Lichtenstein and Intensity by Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier, Post from Facebook


When I think of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ztz”l, the first thing that comes to mind is his intensity. This might seem unusual, given that one usually hears about Rav Lichtenstein’s Talmudic genius, his thoroughgoing modesty, his complex worldview, and his educational methodology. But I believe all of these can only be fully appreciated from the vantage point of his intensity. 

I cannot shake the image of Rav Lichtenstein in Tefillah, his booming voice echoing throughout the Beis Midrash, his eyes shut and his face knotted in deep Kavvanah in his encounter with God. We often hear about the intellectual, rationalist Rav Lichtenstein, but his religious persona, broader than any such characterization, encompassed an intensely spiritual dimension, as well. 

For someone renowned for his sharp conceptual analyses (Iyyun), Rav Lichtenstein possessed a remarkable erudition and knowledge base (Bekius) within the traditional Jewish canon. In his later years, when he would consult his Sefarim to cite a relevant source, his eyesight had failed to the point where he could not read the tiny print of his worn reference Shas, and his ability to summon these sources was a testament to both his Bekius and his Anavah. 

And that is not to say anything of his secular knowledge, which was impressively vast. One imagines what it might be like to have a snapshot of Rav Lichtenstein’s years in Boston, where he split his time between a PhD in literature at Harvard and advanced Talmudic studies with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, his primary Torah teacher and future father-in-law.

For someone widely perceived as the Gedol Hador of the Modern Orthodox community, Rav Lichtenstein managed to retain a clear (and understated) sense of Anavah. For him, there was no pretense and no grandstanding; while he understood the weight of leadership placed upon him by his community, he did not allow that position to negatively affect his refined Middos and humility. 

And what of his perspective on Halacha? Or, rather, perspectives on Halacha. Rav Lichtenstein was not a professional Posek, in the sense that he did not publish Teshuvos, but his Halachic decisions are known to his students and have affected generations of Posekim. He was able to incorporate a deep compassion and fundamental humanism in his Pesak, while simultaneously holding the law in the highest regard. This becomes clear when one considers Rav Lichtenstein’s personal stringencies (Chumras) in all realms of Halacha, ranging from Eruvin to Hashavas Aveidah. Both the Halachic system and its participants must be shown the utmost regard. 

For someone whose worldview integrated such complexity at every turn, Rav Lichtenstein somehow still managed to have the passion for Avodas Hashem burn within him more brightly than anyone else. The various obligations he took upon himself did not dilute but intensified one another. 

How did Rav Lichtenstein succeed in living both sides of these equations, of rejecting these dichotomies? I distinctly remember, towards the beginning of my time in Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rav Lichtenstein explaining that in order to both be a serious Oved Hashem and participate in the broader world, one must redouble one’s efforts in these pursuits, to put in more hours and expend maximal toil. 

In effect, then, it was Rav Lichtenstein’s intensity that allowed him to simultaneously be a rationalist and spiritual man; a Meayyen and a Baki; an expert in all Torah and the Western canon – while maintaining his humility; a Mekil and a Machmir; a complex thinker with the overarching intensity to not allow any of his multifarious commitments to waver one bit.

I was lucky enough to call Rav Lichtenstein my primary teacher (Rav Muvhak), and he has inspired me, and will continue to inspire me, to invest the greatest intensity of effort in my Avodas Hashem.

Baruch Dayyan Ha-Emes.