More than a signature: The legacy of HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein

Torah scholar, role model and the rav behind the ideology of Shalhevet Judaics has died


Mourners at the funeral of HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein April 21 in Gush Etzion

By Mati Hurwitz, Sports Editor

In the middle of a bedroom wall covered with posters of John Wooden, Peyton Manning, and Andrew Luck hangs a small printed-out letter from Yeshivat Har Etizon, “The Gush.” Scripted at the bottom left corner of the page is the signature of the true Gadol Hador, HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l.

While I always planned on decorating my room according to my favorite sports teams and figures, it was a no-brainer decision to give my admission letter from one of the most prestigious Torah centers in the world a central place, simply because of who wrote it.

HaRav Aharon, who died April 20, has long been known as one of the most important Jewish figures in the past century. His legacy is founded on his extensive knowledge for Torah, his PhD in English Literature from Harvard, his hesder ideology, and his charming personality and humility.

However, I want to zone in on what he himself may have prized most over his three generations of education: teaching, and spreading Torah, to his thousands of talmidim.

From what I’ve heard from Rabbi Stein, who attended the yeshiva for two years, along with a few other friends who went there, I know that HaRav Aharon was so real in connecting to the students. Aside from his obvious passion for teaching and his innovative philosophy – which Shalhevet’s hashkafa stems heavily from – he was genuinely friendly and caring towards all his talmidim.

One of my friends told me HaRav Aharon walked up to him every day before davening and said, “Hi Jonah.” At first, my friend’s body was stiff, his spirit in awe when the greatest sage of our generation approached him. As the year went on, my buddy’s nerves calmed as he recognized HaRav Aharon’s approachability. Stories like these contributed to my passion for attending Gush.

In addition, I truly identify with his ideology and Talmudic approach. While reading By His Light and Leaves of Faith – his two most famous books — for a Jewish Philosophy class project, I felt like HaRav Aharon was speaking to my soul. I passionately believe in the Shalhevet curriculum and pushing back against conventional beliefs and viewing a halakhic issue from all lenses. The literature scholar spoke to me as he discussed “an ethic independent of halakha,” which brilliantly proved how Judaism embodies natural laws of morality that at time may supersede halakhic dilemmas. If my yeshiva decision hadn’t been made already, this powerful writing did.

Then there is his open-mindedness and tolerance. HaRav Aharon likely wouldn’t tell you that it’s okay to not follow Jewish Law, but he would never judge you. I have friends that are from all sorts of religious backgrounds, but I look at them as friends before halakha breakers. HaRav Aharon’s mind was so pure that he would never even in his mind label you as a non-religious Jew.

This tolerance for all sects of Jews was evident in his passion for Medinat Yisrael. HaRav Aharon thought the best way for a Jewish boy of my age to fulfill God’s mission is to enroll in a hesder program, which involves learning in yeshiva for a sum of time as well as training and possibly fighting in the IDF. Many “frum” authorities discourage young religious men from fighting in a secular army, but Rav Lichtenstein taught that it was ideal to balance your religiosity with nationality. His main proof for this was the Jewish obligation to protect one another and to defend God’s gift of Israel with glory.

For the record, I received two admission letters from Gush. One was the standard note from the Admissions office. But the second was a personalized pdf from the Gadol Hador, himself. Rav Moshe Taragin, who will likely be my teacher next fall, emailed the incoming Gush students on the day of HaRav Aharon’s passing. Rav Taragin told us that Rav Lichtenstein made a point to individualize those letters and send them out when given the option to do so.

I really hope that I will be able to embody his legacy at Gush and throughout my whole life, and that even though he’s gone, I can truly learn to love him like a Manning or a Wooden.