A Clarification by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

by | in Jewish Thought

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we published “Seeking Answers with Humility,” an article exploring the Jewish response to pain and suffering. The article, which was adapted from an address by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein but was not reviewed by him, included a reference to Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner’s approach to suffering. Below, Rabbi Lichtenstein offers a clarification.

As I sit down to give vent to my thoughts and feelings, prepared to oscillate during the next several hours between preparing shiurim and contemplating how best to cope with rectifying an unfortunate recent lapse, it occurs to me that the calendar may interpose a cognitive dissonance between Jewish Action readers and myself. I write just after Shavuot, the holiday of revelation, in its multi-faceted power and glory, the reverberation of the shofar and the blend of fiery blaze and impending darkness of Ma’amad Har Sinai shaping my mindset and experience. Specifically, the spiritual tension that is central to the process of teshuvah may seem to stand in marked contrast to the aura of Shavuot, and, presumably, better befitting the character of another central date, that of Yom Kippur. For others, however, the impact of Shavuot, and its reenactment, may have begun to erode into the recesses of memory.

In a sense, the contrast between the two polestars of mo’adim u’zemanim cannot be denied. Mori VeRabi, the Rav, has dwelt upon the differences in his remarkable introductory passage to Mah Dodekh miDod. Yet, the differences are, in part, illusory. There is much which they share in common regarding both their respective historical origins and their normative status at the level of commandment. The similarities are significant.

Each constituted a critical occasion on its own, and yet is also defined, lesha’ah and ledorot, as the conclusion of a process. Each, originally, was marked by epiphanous revelation, and yet, at the same time, the conclusion of each chag is associated with a similar result—namely, the transmission of the Divine Torah to the realm of human experience: Shavuot, familiar as zeman matan Torateinu, the giving of the Torah Shebichtav, and Yom Kippur, although not designated in tefillah as zeman matan Torateinu, is the occasion of the transmission of Torah Shebe’al Peh as a corpus to Moshe Rabbeinu. Each required a measure of abstinence, which is reflected in both the physical and spiritual realms, and each is dominated by fire, which protects Torah from impurity. Both yamim tovim confer upon the individual Jew, and Knesset Yisrael, an element of majesty and a sense of frailty. It is this last factor which includes contrite submission and the quest for molding our spiritual destiny within the context of repentant teshuvah. Hence, we regard each of these days, despite their differences, in a context not of dissonance, but of complementarity.

These ruminations, while focused upon general and permanent aspects of our religious experience as shomrei and zochrei moadim, were greatly sharpened and accentuated by the felt need to cope with a situation which had arisen. It was recently brought to my attention that some of the readers of an exposition of a talk that I gave to students at our yeshivah a few months ago, published in the spring issue of Jewish Action, were critical of the tone of the article in general, and particularly of the passage that mentioned Mori VeRabi Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l. My feelings of awe, respect and gratitude toward him are well-known by all who know me and have appeared in the pages of Jewish Action as well (“The Source of Faith is Faith Itself,” [fall 1992]). Therefore, an apology and a clarification are called for to dispel any misunderstandings and to set the record straight regarding both the tone and substance of an article that appeared in my name. Aside from the basic obligation to take the utmost care not to offend any person, whatsoever, there is an additional need to be doubly scrupulous when relating to one’s rebbi.

Therefore, I would like to apologize for any unintended misrepresentation of the Rosh Yeshivah’s, zt”l, position. Moreover, if the impression was created that there were any disrespectful comments, I sincerely and wholeheartedly apologize for the misunderstanding.

The article in question was never written by me, nor was it shown to me prior to publication. It is a summary of an oral talk that was given at our yeshivah and transferred into writing by a loyal and devoted talmid. Although I do not recall the exact phrases that I used, it would seem that some of the material cited was a well-intentioned paraphrase rather than a direct citation.

The talk was a general discussion of the Jewish response to tragedy and was not intended to be an in depth analysis of the Rosh Yeshivah’s position on this topic. For a full exposition of Rav Hutner’s, zt”l, position, there is no need to rely on this talk. The interested reader is referred to the Jewish Observer (vol. XII, no. 8 [Oct. 1977]), where an authorized and lengthy version of his views was published.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein is rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut, Israel.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2013.

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