Atlanta Mourns Modern Orthodox Giant

Atlanta Mourns Modern Orthodox Giant

By Suzi Brozman  |

Young Israel of Toco Hills hosted an azkarah (memorial service) Monday, April 20, for Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, 81, who died that morning in Israel after more than four decades of teaching and Atlanta Jewish Timesleadership at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut.

Har Etzion, known as Gush, is Israel’s first hesder yeshiva, where students combine Torah study and military training. Rav Lichtenstein shared rosh yeshiva duties with Rav Yehuda Amital from 1971 until he was forced by poor health to scale back his duties in recent years. From that post, he became a world leader in Modern Orthodoxy.

“This is a tremendous loss to the Jewish people of a man who embodied the highest ideals of Torah both in learning and in deed,” Rabbi Adam Starr said. “Rav Lichtenstein’s vision of a committed Orthodoxy profoundly engaged with the world is one that guides and inspires who we are and what we strive to be at Young Israel of Toco Hills.”

Rav Lichtenstein was born in Paris in 1933. In 1940 his family fled France and immigrated to the United States. At Yeshiva University, he studied under Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who became his mentor and eventually his father-in-law. Rav Lichtenstein was a pioneering and brilliant Talmudist and was awarded the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest honor.

Rabbi Michael Berger, now an Emory professor, was a close student of Rav Lichtenstein’s at Gush. He told the Young Israel audience that his teacher had an incredibly analytic mind that enabled him to see the validity of many sides in the complex world.

“He didn’t want to clone himself through his students,” Rabbi Berger said. “Rather, he wanted to launch his students.”

The day he had his admissions interview at Gush, “I was waiting, and a tall man came out and asked, ‘Are you waiting for me?’ ‘I don’t know, who are you?’ The man said, ‘Aharon Lichtenstein.’ I thought my career was over. But it is a testament to the rav that he wasn’t looking for kavod,” or glory.

He was looking for something else. He demanded much from his students, out of respect for them.

“If we are to live by his example, we must commit to living in the worlds he mastered, not to look for easy solutions, for convenience or simple, popular answers,” Rabbi Berger said. “He struggled, and in the struggle, he found the Kodesh Barechu,” or G-d.

Rabbi Eric Levy, a Gush graduate who teaches at Atlanta Jewish Academy, said the rav was “a towering figure of intellect. There was an awe factor. … Most of us were not comfortable breaking that shell that we ourselves had constructed. Rav Lichtenstein was the intellectual, very Olympian, almost a god, while his counterpart, Rav Amital, was more approachable, like a Hasidic rebbe, very warm.”

The rav supported a land-for-peace religious movement. Rabbi Levy said he would vote for “the least worst party” and thought it was a mitzvah to live in a less populated area, such as Gush instead of Tel Aviv. “ ‘Peace between humans was more important than a piece of land’ was his belief in the ’80s.”

Eventually he was disappointed by the political parties.

Rabbi Daniel Wolf from Gush happened to be in Atlanta this week. He offered insights into the rav’s life and character. “He always said his family was his greatest accomplishment.”

Rabbi Wolf said the rav always spent Shabbat afternoon studying with his children. He played Chutes and Ladders with his toddler son for hours until the boy won without any manipulation by the rav.

One son refused to eat the food that Rav Lichtenstein and the rest of the family found acceptable, so the rav made sure food with the proper heksher was always available, Rabbi Wolf said. “He felt that it was important to invest all we can in our children … to make the most out of life.”

Rav Lichtenstein always stopped on the road to help people change tires, Rabbi Wolf said. He’d help carry his passengers’ luggage.

He always made an effort to understand the strengths and weaknesses of others, Rabbi Wolf said. He didn’t force his views on others but let them express themselves to help them become their best.

Rabbi Starr said the rav was a towering intellect, a moral compass for all around him, an exemplar of humility and modesty, the pre-eminent leader of Modern Orthodoxy, and had the same love and caring for his students that they had for him.

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