In Search of the Moderate Voice
Rabbi Haim Sabato is a unique figure on the Israeli scene, both head of a yeshiva and a prominent Hebrew writer. His best known work, the novel titled Adjusting Sights, won Israel's most prestigious literary award and was made into a movie. Sabato's most recent project is Mevakshei Phanekha (In Search of Your Presence). He describes it as an attempt to counter the mystical and anti-rational tendencies that he believes are taking over Orthodox Judaism in Israel. The book is a series of edited transcripts of conversations between Sabato and Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, the 79-year-old semi-retired co-head of Yeshivat Har Etzion, who is an intellectual of extraordinary scope and depth and may be the greatest talmudic authority in religious Zionism today. In a sign of the widespread Israeli interest in this subject, the book was put out not by a religious publishing house but by the mainstream publisher Yedioth Ahronot Books. The entire first edition was sold out before it hit the bookstores.
Sabato, as the book's interlocutor, shines the spotlight on Lichtenstein, whose clean-shaven face—virtually unheard of in elite yeshiva circles—and openness to ceding West Bank territory are only the most obviously unusual things about him. Lichtenstein was born in France and educated in the United States at Yeshiva University, where he was a student and major disciple (and, subsequently, a son-in-law) of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Lichtenstein also earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard with a dissertation titled Henry More: The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist. In 1971, after several years of teaching Talmud and English at Yeshiva University, he emigrated to Israel and, with the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital, founded Har Etzion.
Sabato's conversations with Lichtenstein are organized by topic. The subjects include the religious experience of Torah study, developing an ethical personality, the validity of adopting values that stem from non-Jewish cultures, modernity's challenge to our consciousness of God, how to understand the concept of holiness, Orthodox relations with non-Orthodox Jews, feminism, Zionism, the possibilities for a renewal of halakhic creativity, trends in Orthodox approaches to Bible study, and the question of whether changes are needed in the traditional method of teaching Talmud.
With the broader yeshiva world, Lichtenstein believes that deep study of the Talmud not only fulfills a central Torah commandment but also expresses an essential element of religious devotion by bringing the student into contact with God's will. He specifically champions the Brisker analytical method, pioneered and developed by the Soloveitchik scholarly dynasty, which carefully dissects every point of view raised in the talmudic debate and later codes and commentaries, and labors to articulate all possible logical bases for the numerous disagreements found in these texts. This is a school that shows minimal interest in the practical implications of these arguments.
Lichtenstein stands apart from his rabbinic colleagues, however, in his use of the same cool, rational method to analyze controversial political, social, and educational issues that many of his peers address simplistically, if at all. Lichtenstein argues, in fact, that his graduate study of English literature reinforced his Brisker proclivity by demonstrating the complexity of the human condition. In this book there is never a rush to judgment, rarely a blanket affirmation or condemnation, and often an acceptance of more than one possible solution to a problem.
Lichtenstein expresses certain opinions that vary from currently accepted Orthodox wisdom. For instance, he feels a deep kinship with non-Orthodox Zionists, and, unlike those Orthodox Jews who exult in the weakening of secular Zionism, he considers it a tragedy. A strong proponent of Talmud study by women, he teaches the subject at the women's school affiliated with his yeshiva and does not rule out an eventual evolution toward new roles for women in Judaism. And, while insisting on the primacy of Talmud study, Lichtenstein acknowledges that he also derives religious inspiration from a long list of great writers and thinkers outside the Jewish world, including Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Matthew Arnold, Samuel Johnson, William James, Dostoevsky, Robert Frost, Dante, Shakespeare, and Lichtenstein's favorite, John Milton—some of whose work, Lichtenstein suggests, possesses a degree of holiness.
For those unable to read Hebrew, there is a new collection of eleven of Lichtenstein's essays, written in English over the years for American audiences and titled, echoing William James, Varieties of Jewish Experience. Alas, Varieties will be a more frustrating read for Anglophones than the Sabato-Lichtenstein volume is for Hebrew readers. For one thing, Lichtenstein is better in a conversational format than he is in formal essays, where a heavily allusive style interferes with the flow of his argument. Also, more substantively, Sabato's probing questions often force Lichtenstein to clarify positions that remain somewhat vague in his own writing.
Nevertheless, the English volume displays Lichtenstein's characteristically careful winnowing of disparate viewpoints and his patient unraveling of their implicit logic. The essays deal with issues including sexuality and marriage, the appropriate balance between Jewish study and practice and between law and spirituality, the boundaries of rabbinic and lay authority, and the proper apportionment of philanthropic dollars between Jewish and universal causes. In the English essays as in the Hebrew conversations, Lichtenstein's judgments are sophisticated and nuanced; his truth comes not in black or white but in shades of gray.
Lichtenstein's oeuvre itself merits a similarly complex assessment. On the one hand, his frequent tentativeness and open-mindedness, so rare in today's Orthodox world, are bracing and refreshing. Yet his Brisker discomfort with taking unequivocal stands may render his religious moderation less effective in resisting pressures from both the secular left and the Haredi right. Yeats put it that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Lichtenstein most assuredly does not lack convictions; one can only hope that their complexity and balance will not be overwhelmed by the passions of today's discourse.
Lawrence Grossman is the director of publications at the American Jewish Committee.
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