Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (zt”l), A Risk Taker

Last week, of course, was the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem. It was a day of incredible fanfare and gratitude for the remarkable time we have merited to live in. That same day was also the birthday of my Rebbe and the Rabbi and leader to thousands of students, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who passed away a little over two years ago.

Picture of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Taken on Landing from Vilna With Sifrei Torah

Coincidentally, on Shabbat, I read two passages that talked about Rav Aharon and brought me to what I believe is an insight on his personality that I had hitherto not thought of. It was the combination of the passages and their context that provided this new insight that Rav Aharon was, in fact, a big risk taker. When he deeply believed in something or someone, he willingly took risks.

For those of us who spent years listening to his lectures and shiurim that were filled with complexity, nuance, logic and “on the one hand you can look at this way…and on the other hand you can look at it another way,” this may come as a surprise. However, I think it is an accurate and important description of Rav Aharon and it is a critical yet increasingly scarce trait for leaders.

I read the introduction to the Hebrew version of the recently released book of Rabbi Yosef Dov Solveitchik’s thoughts on our forefather Abraham. In the introduction, the authors thank Rav Lichtenstein who they describe as humble, honest, supportive, sensitive and deeply God-fearing. That is an accurate description of the Rav Aharon I knew. I then went on to read the texts about Abraham, many of which Rav Lichtenstein would quote in his lectures. In reading them, I realized that Avraham took a big risk in moving to the land of Israel. Additionally, Avraham took what at the time was an unpopular position against pagan idolatry, against the zeitgeist of his time. He stood up for what was right both against aggressive warrior kings who captured his nephew in battle and against God when He wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. These were risky positions that Abraham took and when I compared them to Rav Lichtenstein and the actions and positions he took, I saw a distinct similarity.

Rav Aharon was the heir-apparent to his father-in-law Rabbi Soloveitchik in American Orthodoxy. He was sure to assume the proverbial throne. Moving himself and his family to Israel was a grave risk to his career and standing. Rav Aharon took entrepreneurial risk to what in today’s parlance would be a start up. Yeshivat Har Etzion was a fledgling educational institution, in a new and risky territory, without meaningful financial backing and minimal number of students.

Now that it all worked out, it is difficult to look back and appreciate the risk Rav Aharon took for his beliefs, for his belief in Israel and Zionism. However, I am now certain that at the time, it was a massive risk. He took similar risks when he took moral outrage to what happened in Sabra and Shatilla and when he suggested after the Yom Kippur war that he would give back the Sinai and other parts of Israel for peace. These were risky, against the grain, positions that were, I am sure, undergirded, by his moral depth. Nonetheless, they were against the zeitgeist of his community and entailed significant risk to his standing.

Lastly, He went to a hilltop, which was at the time barren. In a famous talk, his co-head of the Yeshiva Rav Yehuda Amital once said “I am not sure what Rav Aharon saw that made him come here to this empty hilltop.” Rav Aharon, retorted “I know exactly what I saw: Rav Amital.”

That is the segue to the second element of risk taking I now identify in Rav Aharon that I had not thought of previously. When he saw people he believed in, he would bet on their potential and not their current or to-date achievements nor their family lineage. He saw the potential upside in many people. In a side note of an as-yet-unpublished manuscript someone sent me, the author described that when he applied to go to the Yeshiva, he was not sufficiently proficient in Torah learning nor had he prepared for the exam. In the middle of his test with Rav Aharon, he questioned some of Rav Aharon’s assumptions and broke into an argument about the piece of Torah with the boy sitting next to him. Subsequent to the exam, Rav Ahron merely checked his “Fear of Heaven” (Yirat Shamayim) in a personal interview and then accepted him to the Yeshiva.

This mirrors other stories I know and have seen with my own eyes where Rav Aharon bet the person and not the achievements to-date, provided that the person had the moral rectitude and belief in God, character traits that would support his potential.

I kept thinking about this last night in the context of current political and rabbinic leadership. How many have the strength in their beliefs to act and follow Avraham our forefather and Rav Aharon to the Promised Land? How many would put their belief in Israel ahead of their seemingly assured professional advancement? How many would stand up against their peers and government and call for moral clarity and how many would take a risk on unproven talent, from lineage that were not in the mainstream of the Yeshiva world? After all, lineage has become a core criteria for acceptance in much of the Orthodox and especially Haredi world. Compliance with and acceptance by peers is now the norm as well. Moral clarity has taken a back seat to not rocking the boat. These days, I would say we need to take risks, go against the grain, and redouble our efforts to become students of Aharon. הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.