My Education and Aspirations: Autobiographical Reflections of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l
Based on a sicha of Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l
I was born in 1933 in Paris. Paris was not exactly Jerusalem or Bnei Brak; Torah-oriented homes, personalities and institutions were islands within a surrounding sea. Yet although the Torah atmosphere in Paris at that time was lacking, and the context in which I grew up was very far from what many of us are accustomed to now, ours was a very intensively Jewish home.
My father, a”h, was very devoted to Jewish education. He was raised in Germany and went into Jewish education at the age of twenty, teaching until the age of seventy-two. He started his career at a teachers’ seminary in Würzburg, Germany, and en route he taught in many places. In 1935, he helped found the Ecole Maimonide and was a Jewish studies teacher there; it was the one of the first, somewhat rough, equivalents of a Jewish day school in Paris. He received a doctorate in French literature, but his heart was very much in the world of Torah and chinukh. He saw in that his life’s mission, a mission that he was very much occupied with; he was not quite a “workaholic,” in modern terms, but he was a man with a strong work ethic.
My mother, a”h, was born in Telz, Lithuania; her father was one of the administrators of the Telzer Yeshiva. Our home was an interesting blend of East and West, and it was Jewishly interesting in many other respects, though I do not think there was anything very abnormal about our home. My mother was a staunch Lithuanian woman. After she passed away, Rav Yisrael Zev Gustman, z”l, came to console us with a shiva visit, and he spoke about Lithuanian women and their very aristocratic, intellectual pride. She carried that tradition with enormous pride. She was eighty-four years old when she passed away, but even in her eighties she used to tell everybody how things were to be done.
My father came from relatively simpler stock, so to speak, but my grandfather, a”h, was a learned person, a shochet, very attached to the Hebrew language. Ours was a home in which discourse about basic texts and basic values was common. My father’s sense of values, and of life as living those values, was very, very central. I mentioned my father’s work ethic; to some extent, this is something he got from his father – his sense of duty, of living a life of duty. My grandfather had an ascetic quality. I grew up in a home wherein chocolate was very, very much a treat. For my father (not so much for my mother) this was a moral issue: we should have necessities, but we should not have so many luxuries. This sense of duty I absorbed at a very young age, and it had a very central influence upon me.
My mother tongue, literally, was Hebrew. In spite of the fact that my parents were not born in the land of Israel and didn’t set foot here until 1962 (by that time, my father was sixty-four and my mother was sixty), Hebrew was the spoken language in our home when we lived in Paris, as well as when we lived in America; there was no other language beyond that.
To the extent possible in that kind of environment, everything revolved around Torah living, in one sense or another. We had a sense of the centrality of Torah and Jewish life at the earliest stage; indeed, one of my earliest memories is going with my father, once a year, to get matzot. We didn’t have a car, even in America, but once a year we went in a cab to get matzot. Traveling in a car was a great treat for me!
I am fortunate to have two sisters; I am the middle child. Our lives, of course, were disrupted in 1939 by the war. At that time, I lost almost a whole school year because I was ill, and I was left in the hospital in Paris for six months, during which time my parents were elsewhere; that in itself was not an easy experience. At the end of that hospitalization, I was just turning seven, and I was reunited with my parents after almost eight months of separation. We went to a refugee camp. Now, the food there was abominable, for reasons which are understandable, and nobody there got a piece of candy; but I had just turned seven and I had learned Shemoneh Esrei by heart, so I got a piece of chocolate! That was a thrill in its own right.
As for my education, the learning opportunities in the refugee camp were, of course, limited. We were there about half a year, until we arrived in America in January 1941. During all this time, both of my parents learned with me. One of my earliest memories in the States is that I needed to have my tonsils removed. En route to the hospital for the tonsillectomy, on the streetcar, my mother brought a Chumash and learned with me about “Pharaoh going out to the water” (Shemot 7:15). My parents communicated the sense not only of the duty to teach one’s children, but the sense of joy. I remember that when I was eight years old, my father sat with me and we learned Parashat Teruma. When we finished, he said that now he knew what the World-to-Come is like.
When we came to America, we first lived in Baltimore, and I went to the Etz Chayyim Parochial School. Since I didn’t know any English, they put me in a class where the teacher knew Hebrew. They put me in first grade, and I was there for about two-and-a-half months, but then, for reasons relating to the immigration authorities, we went to Mississippi for seven weeks. I was there for second grade, came back to Baltimore in June, and by that time I was moving up from third grade and entering fourth.
In fourth grade, I was in public school. My parents thought it was important that I acclimate to the new culture. I skipped fifth grade, and in sixth grade I began to learn seriously, attending Chofetz Chayyim in Baltimore, and there I was in two shiurim simultaneously: one with Rav Zevi Tabory, z”l, the father of Rav Binyamim Tabory, yibbadel le-chayyim, learning Perek Ha-mafkid in Bava Metzia; the other with Rav Ya’akov Bobrovsky, z”l, where we learnt Bava Kamma. The pace there was different than what it is today. I was in sixth grade and the other fellows were in eighth grade, and we learned the first four chapters, up to daf 46, in the space of one year!
My early recollections have to do with some other learning as well. My parents were in very dire straits financially; there wasn’t even money for milk. Nevertheless, they encouraged me to learn, and they rewarded me for my learning. I went through Tanakh on my own, and got twenty-five cents for each of the three parts. We had a fourteen-volume History of the Jews in the house, which I studied at a dime a volume. I went through the six sedarim of Mishna as well, but not for money. It came from a combination of my own interest, my own involvement and engagement, on the one hand, and my parents’ encouragement, direction and instruction, on the other.
Once I started to learn Gemara in a serious way, I had other sources of instruction: rebbe’im. That year I learned with Rabbi Bobrovsky was a wonderful, wonderful year. After that, we moved to Chicago, and for two years I was at Beit Midrash Le-Torah. Then my parents saw that Chicago didn’t have the kind of Jewish education that I needed. Despite the fact that their livelihood was better in Chicago than it had been in Baltimore – in Baltimore, it was almost non-existent, and they knew moving to New York would be difficult – they felt that for their children’s education, they needed to do it. So we moved to New York when I was twelve. I was in Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin for four years, until I went to Yeshiva University.
IN YESHIVA AND COLLEGE
By and large, I have not lived a life of struggles. It was a life of a lot of hard work, and I enjoyed the work. Ours was a modest home, and we went through periods of genuine economic hardship. Of course, my parents needed to adjust as immigrants, which was a difficulty in its own right, but not so much for me. When I was seven years old, I came to the States, and I grew up in the culture there. Some people have memories of great difficulty, but I cannot say that I do; I did well in what was expected of me. I was, as a child, reasonably precocious; I advanced pretty quickly; I was able to enjoy certain benefits which other people didn’t have. I was able, between high school and college, to take a year-and-a-half off to learn full-time. At that time, it was unusual, but I was young when I graduated high school.
At Chaim Berlin, there were two people who impacted upon my life in a very material way. One was the rosh yeshiva, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, z”l; he was such a dominant force that he overshadowed everything else and everyone else there. I entered the shiur of Rav Ahron Soloveichik, z”l, at the relatively young age of fifteen. It was not a shiur in which there was much interaction between the rebbe and the students; we were convinced he didn’t know anybody’s name. Nevertheless, the man was such a polestar of integrity, such a person you could idolize, that, indirectly, he influenced me far beyond, I think, what he knew.
Several years ago, Yeshiva University wanted to honor me with an honorary doctorate. I said, “That’s not what I want.” Then they said that they wanted to honor me at the Chag Ha-semikha [in 1998]. I opened my remarks by asking, “Why am I being honored? By any objective test, the person who should be honored for yirat shamayim, for lomdus, is my rebbe and teacher, Rav Ahron Soloveichik. If you are honoring me, it can only be for one reason: because I am spreading Torah in the land of Israel and he is in the Diaspora.” To this day, I look upon Rav Ahron as someone who had a profound impact on my life.
Chaim Berlin was, of course, a Charedi yeshiva. R. Ahron, however, would not have described himself as part of the Charedi world. He had a sense, as did the Rav, z”l, that he transcended those categories, and I wish I could transcend them, too; but it’s become more and more difficult to transcend categories. When I was your age, contact between the yeshivot on both sides of the fence was much more common than it is today. So, I look back with joy and gratification, a sense of indebtedness and gratitude, to the years I spent at Chaim Berlin. But I would not categorize its contribution to my development in terms of “getting to know the Charedi world.” Through my mother, particularly, I had the good fortune to be able to know some of its best exemplars, such as Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky – who, to me, was an ideal. I knew the Charedi world anyway; what I gained in my years at Chaim Berlin was my exposure to the two rebbeim whom I mentioned, and some friends who remain close to me to this day.
It was clear to my parents that they wanted me to go to college, and, at that time, that was not unusual in the yeshiva world. Both my parents and I were at peace with the decision to attend Yeshiva University after four years at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin (the first few years in the high school, the last year-and-a-half just learning Torah), although we knew that it involved some sort of a rift with the rosh yeshiva – which, fortunately, was only temporary.
Although that decision was not a very difficult one, I faced more of a problem while at Yeshiva College. I enjoyed my classes and I was able to get a lot of learning done despite the college studies, but I was not sure what lay beyond college. If you had come to speak to me when I was early in my junior year at YU, I probably was oscillating between going to Lakewood and staying at YU. Those were the choices that I was considering, not going to graduate school at Harvard. The thought of going to graduate school was in my mind as an option among other options; but going to Boston was not in my mind at all. That came out of the blue! The Rav was the one who suggested it, and, initially, it threw me for a loop; I had never even thought of such a thing. It meant leaving a yeshiva environment, leaving one’s home, and I wrestled with that for a while. It was not as if I was negotiating, but the Rav was anxious that I should do this, so I said, “If I go, would I be able to continue learning with the Rav, and join the Rav’s family study?” He used to learn with his family, and I do not want to say that I exacted a price, but to me that was a condition. When that was thrown in, I decided to go.
As it turned out, I managed to learn a great deal of Torah in Boston. I covered a lot of ground. Partly, it was the learning itself, since I was learning Torah about six hours a day when I was in graduate school; but the ability to be exposed through the learning to the Rav, in his home environment, was priceless. He would learn with his three children, his son-in-law, Professor Yitzchak Twersky, z”l, and myself. In addition to that, he learned with his son, Rav Haym, and to some extent with Professor Twersky as well, and I was admitted to join that group as well. In the first year that I was in Boston, early in the year we learned matters related to the yamim nora’im and Sukkot; then we learned the entire masekhet Beitza; then we finished all of Berakhot; in addition to which, Rav Haym, Rav Yitzchak and I learned Bava Kamma, up to daf 13 and Zevachim, up to daf 9. That is probably more than I could have accomplished staying at YU!
There were times at which the balance between talmud Torah and other areas of life needed to be worked out. I remember on one occasion in graduate school I felt that my Torah learning was flagging a bit, and, among all people, I discussed it with my thesis advisor, a non-Jew, Prof. Douglas Bush. He was a wonderful person and a great scholar – probably the top person in English literature when I was at Harvard. I felt a little in distress, perhaps my emphases were being somewhat skewed, and I went to talk to him. I told him, “I think that I know what I am doing and why I am doing it, but I would like to hear it from the master.” I was at Harvard for four years: the first two years, courses; then generals; then dissertation. This was the first semester of my second year, my third semester at Harvard. I said to him, “I think I understand the value of English literature, but I would like to hear it formulated more fully.” I was taking a course in sonnets, and he said, “You know, I ask myself about the legitimacy of investing so much time and effort in literature; I must know some of Dryden’s sonnets better than some of the psalms!” He was a religious person, and he could understand my tension very deeply; that is where we connected. We went on to discuss the need to understand the human spirit, to realize human potential, through the study of the humanities in particular.
I thought that experience was extremely valuable, and it helped me overcome my brief crisis. Nevertheless, the issue was not resolved entirely; I continued to rethink and rearticulate the pull of a life dedicated totally and purely to Torah, in the narrow sense, while recognizing the alternatives to it.
Nevertheless, as I said, on the whole, I cannot speak of a life which was pervaded by struggle. Of course, any person with spiritual sensitivity has to deal with certain issues, such as confronting one’s own mortality and the limits of human attainment and ability. Those have come up in my life, but on the whole, I think that I have a sense that I am living a rich and meaningful life, with certain frustrations and limitations, but I would not focus on the struggles.
RETURNING TO YESHIVA UNIVERSITY
When I finished my doctorate at Harvard, for all that I gained from my studies there, I knew very well that I was not going to go to teach English literature as a career. During my final year there, Professor Bush had come to me and said, “Listen, there is a wonderful opportunity. A professor at Connecticut College – one of the leading people in the field of Medieval and Renaissance Studies – is going on a sabbatical. They need someone to replace her, and I’m suggesting you.” It was flattering, as I was only twenty-three at the time, but I just couldn’t see it. It was not what I wanted to do. The professor knew that I was a little bit of an odd fish: I was devoting serious time to graduate study, but it was only going to be a tool to something else.
At that point, my plan was to go back to YU, to sit and learn, and to apply for some part-time position on the side. The Rav went to ask the president of YU, Dr. Belkin, z”l, about some kind of position, in any limited way, and he said, “Look, in the yeshiva there is nothing available, but we need someone to teach English at Stern College.” That also was not what I had planned. I was ambivalent about this for various reasons: part of it was that I wanted to sit and learn full-time, and I was also hesitant about teaching at Stern. I went to speak about it with my mori ve-rabbi, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, z”l. He advised that I take the job. I loved the man, as Ben Jonson said about Shakespeare, almost to the point of idolatry. He was a truly remarkable person. So I took the job, but every year I kept knocking on the door at YU: is there a shiur opening up?
I got part of what I wanted, and when I came back in 1957, I was made the Rav’s assistant, delivering review lectures and grading examinations. In 1961, they opened up the Kollel; it was a small group then, and I was put in charge. From 1961 to 1963, I was head of the Kollel, the Rav’s assistant, and a teacher at Stern. [In 1963, Rav Lichtenstein began to give a college-level shiur in addition to his shiurim in the Kollel.] What I always had in mind, as far as what I wanted to do on a long-term basis, even when I was at Stern, was that I would be a teacher of Torah. I meet women today who tell me that I was a very powerful influence on them, Jewishly speaking, in the courses they took with me at Stern. But influencing people Jewishly while teaching them English literature is not the same as being in a beit midrash, in a yeshiva, which is where my heart lies.
EMIGRATING TO ISRAEL
Another major decision was our aliya in 1971. I had absorbed from my parents the desire to live in the land of Israel. There were also other influences. We lived in Chicago for two years, from when I was ten to when I was twelve. In the summer between those two years  – I had just turned eleven – I joined the Shomer Ha-dati youth movement in Chicago, and the counselor was Gershon Schwimmer. He was one of the older students at the yeshiva; I think he was seventeen. (Later on, he received a doctorate in education at Northwestern; he then made aliya and taught at Kefar Ha-Ro’eh and at Mikhlelet Yerushalayim.) His influence upon me, in terms of the ultimate desire to live in the land of Israel, was extremely powerful. He was a very charismatic person, and we had a wonderful group of only eight people; almost all of those eight went on to make their mark on Jewish-American life. That feeling, that I wanted to live in the land of Israel, to raise children in the land of Israel, to be a teacher in the land of Israel, was very clear.
There were difficulties in making the decision; some of them had to do with transplanting oneself, and in a way, I took a risk. My wife and I both took a risk. I was situated at YU; I had a regular shiur by then. In fact, I had gradually moved up from freshman, to sophomore, to a senior shiur; I was in charge of the Kollel; my wife had a good position; and here we were coming to the land of Israel! Some people thought that we were being very reckless. We were not just coming to the land of Israel, we were coming to a hole in the ground: Yeshivat Har Etzion was not much more than that at that point. Nevertheless, we were determined.
The greatest difficulty was not so much the risks involved – I thought I could make it; rather, it was leaving the Rav. My mother-in-law passed away in 1967, and the offer to become head of Yeshivat Har Etzion came in 1968. I said, “I cannot begin to consider it at this point; I cannot leave the Rav alone.” He didn’t live in New York – he lived in Boston with my sister-in-law – but he came to New York every week, and ours was the home to which he came. However, as time wore on, my wife and I made the decision. It took another three years, and we moved in 1971. That was a very difficult decision; that was very rough. In due time, the Rav himself, who had reservations about our moving to begin with, saw the way our children were being raised. We sent our older children to him to learn, each for a year; one went and stayed there for three or four years. The Rav saw then what we had been able to raise in the land of Israel, and he came to appreciate that, but it took a while.
Nevertheless, we did not look back, not even for a day! Even though my wife and I had reservations, we knew why we were coming, we knew what we were getting into, and we were emotionally and psychologically ready for that. We knew it couldn’t wait much longer. Our oldest child was ten years old when we moved. The ones after that were eight, seven, and six years old. It is very difficult to come with children over fifteen years old. So we moved; we took the risks involved, and we enjoyed the challenge. We were not coming to a ready-made, established institution; instead, we were involved in molding it, shaping it, building it, developing it. Despite the fact that there have obviously been disappointments along the way, it was a good decision at the time, and, I think, it certainly has justified itself.
I would find it difficult to put my finger on a life-changing moment in my formative years. There are people who have that; Wordsworth has written extensively about his own experience in that respect, and I could appreciate and understand the significance of that in a person’s life. I have had moments which were, spiritually speaking, revelatory of the outer world, of God, and of my inner world; but I cannot say that there were moments in which the course of my life was redirected and re-charted.
It was clear to me, from a very early age, that I wanted to be able to make some difference, to leave the world a little bit better than I found it. It was clear to me that for me as a Jew, as a ben Torah, this meant trying to work within the ambience of the Jewish people, and the Torah-oriented part in particular. What form that would take subsequently, I didn’t know at the age of twelve. At the age of twelve, I knew that I wanted to make a difference, that I wanted to be a teacher of Torah, but that still left a question as to whether I would be able to do it. At the age of twelve I do not expect that I considered that question as such; I was too young to perceive that. I do recall a conversation while I was a student at Yeshiva College, when several of us discussed our plans for the future, and I said, “I want to give a shiur; I want to spread Torah.” One of them asked, “Will you be able to do it?” I said, without arrogance and without vanity, that I thought I could do a good job. However, until you actually take the plunge, you cannot know for certain whether you will succeed. You can predict that certain people are going to succeed, and maybe you want to include yourself among those; but, at some point, the plunge has to be taken.
The aspiration, the yearning, the valuing of making the world a better place – that could have taken on a number of forms. This aspiration appeared in much of the Victorian literature that I like, in musar literature, and in the words of my rebbe’im and others who influenced me. Rav Hutner started Chaim Berlin with four students in 1936 in a basement in Brooklyn, and it grew into a major yeshiva. The Mirrer Yeshiva, with thousands of students now, started with only ten. I do not say that I have that measure of success, but I have the desire to spread Torah, out of a love for Torah, out of a love for my fellow Jew, out of a conviction that Torah is the lifeline, the lifeblood, of the Jewish people. In order to help the Jewish people, then, I wanted to help in a manner connected to Torah.
At the same time, I didn’t want to lead a cloistered, Ivy League, ivory-tower life. I knew all about the debate about the ivory tower, and it is a debate which, to some extent, I live with, trying to avoid making a move or making a decision too far in one direction or the other; I try to encompass both elements. I give a shiur in Menachot; that is the “ivory tower” part of me – a wonderful part, which I appreciate and love. Still, there is also a need to try to impact upon communal life as well. There are two ways of doing that. One is to become engaged and involved in communal life directly, and the other is to help build up an institution which will indirectly impact in some way. I do not tell you that at some point I sat down and made the calculation one way or the other. At the very outset, when HaRav Amital invited me to join him here, his letter was clear. He wrote me, “You know for yourself what the relationship between the yeshiva world and the non-yeshiva world is like, and what attitudes they have towards each other; let’s go change it!”
This decision is something that grows upon you; it is not as if you sit down one morning, make a list of the pros and cons, and simply decide. It is one of the most important decisions of your life; it takes time, and then one morning you wake up and you know that this is it: this is what you want; this is where you are headed; this is what you can see yourself doing.
SUCCESSES AND FRUSTRATIONS
If I had to point to a single success, I think, without a doubt, it is my family. I think that we navigated difficult waters, my wife and I, and I give her full credit. I think we have children of whom we are justifiably proud – proud not because they are our children, but because of who they are.
In terms of what I have accomplished in harbatzat ha-Torah, I think I have had some success in teaching and in writing. As for who I am, in certain respects I think I have done well, but in other respects I could have done much better. I would have wanted and liked to be a bigger lamdan than I am, a bigger tzaddik than I am. I say that without being self-denigrating: that’s the truth. I am, in a healthy way – I hope it’s healthy – envious of some people who I feel have done better and gone further. I had a good start; I made much of it, but I have not made all of it.
There are, then, frustrations – frustrations with oneself, as I have mentioned, and frustrations in terms of things that I would have liked to have attained more fully in the arena of harbatzat Torah and the public arena in general. I think that we have been able to do much at the yeshiva here: I think we have produced many students of whom I am justifiably proud, but I would have liked to see a better “batting average.” In terms of some of the intensity, some of the sweep and the scope that you have, say, in some of the Charedi world, I would have liked to see more of that here. I would have liked to build a larger community of people who are genuinely, passionately moved by a mishna in Avot or by a gloss of Rabbi Akiva Eiger. We have not been able to build this. When I say “we,” I do not mean just Yeshivat Har Etzion, but our whole milieu. The world of which Yeshivat Har Etzion is a part is doing many wonderful things, but we have not yet merited to build the kind of community to whom the Minchat Chinukh speaks with a passion.
Likewise, I experience frustration with regard to my position within the Israeli public scene. I have been active to some extent in the political area, but with little success. I think mine has been a moderating voice, in certain respects a positive one; but, by and large, the religious Zionist community has, I think, been taken over, politically and sociologically, by people who have misguided values, and that is not a good feeling. First, I am, politically speaking, almost a lone wolf. Second, it pains me, not for myself – I’m not ready for the Knesset, no matter what – but I am pained for our society. We have been losing so many kids with wonderful values, so many great idealists. They have not absorbed the totality of the counsel which Matthew Arnold quoted in the name of Bishop Wilson; he said, “Firstly, never go against the best light you have; secondly, take care that your light be not darkness.” These are kids full of idealism, but the wrong ideals, misguided priorities.
Also, I have had some difficulty in trying to mold people to follow this path fully, to become people who have deep roots in the world of Torah and the world of lomdus and, at the same time, have an appreciation and understanding of general culture. What happens to many people is that either they do not take that kind of a plunge, or if they take it, they stumble, and, in attaining the general culture, they lose something of the cutting edge, the intense passion, the inner commitment, to talmud Torah. That’s a frustration.
Let us end where we began. To a certain degree, my course started in Paris. Still, as I have said on more than one occasion, I think that anyone who, in 1933, would try to make a bet on the chances that fifty or sixty years later I would be where I am, the odds would have been ten thousand to one, at least. Nevertheless, Divine Providence directed me from where I was, and I have a sense that a person who was been privileged such as I have been, who has been exposed to certain individuals, who has been given certain opportunities as I have, has an enormous duty to try to build on those opportunities.
This essay is adapted from a sicha delivered in choref 5767 (2007) to overseas students at Yeshivat Har Etzion. It was adapted by Reuven Ziegler with Yoseif Bloch from a transcript prepared by Marc Herman and Dov Karoll.