An Approachable Giant

20 Apr 2015

“Approachable” may not be an adjective many associate with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”tl. He was, indeed, a towering giant of Torah knowledge, a deeply thoughtful exponent of hashkafa, a powerful institution builder, the embodiment of Torah U’Madda, and so much more. But in my experiences with him over the past three decades his being approachable came to my mind when I learned of Rav Aharon’s passing.

I first met Rav Aharon when I was a post-high school student at BMT, which shared premises with YU’s Gruss Kollel. When I mentioned him to my mother, she informed me he had been her English literature professor at Stern College years before, and I should convey her regards. I had friends who were in the post-high school year program at Gush, and they conveyed to me how in awe they were of Rav Aharon. Nonetheless, I used this as an excuse to, with some trepidation, intercept Rav Aharon in the hallway one evening and introduce myself. He put me at ease with a humorous comment about his years teaching English and was warm in his conversation with me, which lasted longer than I anticipated, as he asked me about how my learning was proceeding. I came away with the impression of him as, indeed, an approachable person.

In my subsequent three years at Yeshiva College, I took every opportunity to hear Rav Aharon speak when he came to New York to give lectures. His presentations on hashakifc topics associated with Torah U’Madda were not only complex and powerful, they were essential for that time in Orthodoxy. I arrived at Yeshiva in 1985 — the final year Rav Soloveitchik z”tl was on campus— before he ceased any public speaking. Rav Aharon became the active standard bearer and explicator of the hashkafa to which YU was devoted during my time there.

It was during these years Rav Aharon presented seminal lectures addressing, to borrow from one title, the “congruence, confluence and conflict” between Torah and western thought. In his lectures, we heard a clarion call for immersing ourselves in Torah while also being introduced to Matthew Arnold and his charge to take in “the best that has been thought and said” in the world at large. My impression of Rav Aharon’s approachability remained in these contexts, as he remained behind after the lectures to further answer questions and engage in conversations with those who’d attended.

I was privileged to have my deepest learning experience with Rav Aharon for a year after graduating from Yeshiva College at YU’s Gruss Kollel in Israel. Rav Aharon was still at the height of his abilities and the weekly Gemara shiur was intense and challenging — indeed, it took a whole week to prepare for. But at least as instructive as the chiddushim on masechect Kiddushin we learned from him that year, were two things. One was that prior to delving into the sugya on tap for the week, Rav Aharon spent the first half hour of our time with him teaching a Ramban on the Parshat HaShavua. This was an opportunity for him to convey his renaissance approach to Torah learning (as not always afforded by the Gemara) and hashakifc insights as well. Second, while the shiur was for, and focused on, us Kollel students, it was open to attendance from the community at large – and many people, men and women, came to Gruss on a weekly basis to hear Rav Aharon’s shiur. And it was clear that Rav Aharon welcomed them — the men and the women — to do so; and here too, he would be available for questions and conversations with anyone after the shiur.

This was all the more on display when, every month or so, he would hold a session referred to as a “press conference” during which Rav Aharon would take any and all questions from the attendees. His mastery of Torah, secular wisdom, contemporary politics and more would be on full display as his off the cuff response to a “random” question turned into a comprehensive and impeccably structured shiur.

In the decades since, I’ve been privileged to continue to interact with and learn from Rav Aharon. There have been many occasions when I, like others in American Orthodoxy, consulted with him on challenging issues facing our community. On these matters too, Rav Aharon was approachable and his insights and wisdom were always valuable and, importantly, framed as offering counsel but not in any way dictating to a community outside of Israel what ought to be done. It was through these encounters that I realized that Rav Aharon’s approachability was derivative of his genuine humility.

I was last privileged to see Rav Aharon this past January in his beit midrash in Gush Etzion. I was visiting the yeshiva with my son, an 11th grader and prospective student at the yeshiva. Rav Aharon came in to the beit midrash and, with assistance, made his way to his makom and set to his learning. Rav Aharon looked frail and I was told some days were better for him and others less so. I wanted to introduce my son to him and we approached him hesitantly. Rav Aharon’s head turned and his eyes lit up – they were alive and as penetrating as ever. I said hello and introduced my son. Rav Aharon asked how we were, where my son was in school and what he was learning; as approachable as ever and interested in engaging a young man in talk of Torah.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein lived a life suffused with Torah and studying the best that has been thought and said in the world…..synthesizing these wellsprings of knowledge and teaching his insights to countless numbers of students…..all while remaining humble and approachable. Indeed, we “shall not look upon his like again.”

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Nathan Diament is executive director of the OU Advocacy Center.