I have a very poignant memory of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, a great rabbinic leader of modern Orthodoxy, who passed away today in Israel. I had the privilege of studying with Rav Lichtenstein for a brief period in Jerusalem as part of my rabbinical school studies, but my favorite memory of him came from an occurrence a few years earlier.
I was an undergraduate at Yeshiva University in Manhattan. Late one night, there was a bomb threat and our dorm was evacuated. Scores of young men poured out onto the cold street of Washington Heights in their pajamas. We were told it would be several hours until we could return to our rooms while the police investigated the threat.
We decided to go across the street to the beit midrash, the study hall, which was open all night as a place to study religious texts. There, seated at a table, was Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in a suit and tie, engrossed in learning a Talmudic text. He was in New York to interview prospective students for his yeshiva in Israel and to visit with his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
The room filled up with the dorm evacuees, and, despite our sleeping attire, we began to study in pairs and small groups. Noticing Rav Lichtenstein, one of my classmates suggested that someone ask Rav Aharon if he would give a lecture to those of us assembled in the beit midrash.
The opportunity in those wee hours of the morning to hear from one of our most respected sages was too compelling to forgo. As a leader of student government, I decided I would approach Rav Aharon with the request. Nervously, I asked him if he would share some Torah with us, and he humbly agreed. He proceeded to give a comprehensive lecture on “pikuach nefesh,” the halachik principle that the obligation to save a life pushes aside most other commandments, such as those that govern Shabbat rest.
We sat in awe of his erudition, articulateness and ability to connect religious ideas to our particular situation. Looking around the room, it was a most peculiar, but memorable, scene. The large hall filled with men in pajamas listening to a serious explication of subtle legal concepts from a master of the Talmudic dialectic. The image is seared in my memory, and it symbolized for me the powerful pilot light of Torah learning, that at any moment can burst into flame capable of producing penetrating warmth and light.
Rav Aharon was himself a symbol of our desire to integrate Torah learning with the study of the humanities, especially literature and philosophy. We pored over his essay “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halacha?” in which he quotes, among many others, Saul Lieberman, Benjamin Whichcote, Alfred North Whitehead and the Hazon Ish.
A footnote in that essay represents for me Rav Aharon’s unique synthesis of Torah and western culture. In quoting the Maggid Mishneh, a 14th-century commentary on Maimonides legal code, the Mishneh Torah, Rav Aharon wrote a footnote to the word “hasidut.” “I know no satisfactory English equivalent for the term. It suggests a blend of spiritual elevation and refinement with scrupulousness and pietism. Perhaps ‘saintliness’ comes closest, though more in the Jamesian than in the popular sense, of total selflessness or other-worldliness, but that too, has too ethereal a ring.”
May the memory of his profound intellectual creativity and self-effacing hasidut be a source of blessing for his family, students, colleagues and the entire Jewish people.