The Searing Silence: An Appreciation of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

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Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was a talmudic giant of his era.

The Jewish world lost a giant last week. From humble beginnings as a refugee child in New York seeking asylum from Vichy France to last year’s induction into the pantheon of Israel Prize recipients, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s life was a most extraordinary journey. His ascent began in the hallowed Talmudic study halls of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin and Yeshiva University, and from there to the study carols of Harvard University.
 
Armed with a Ph.D. in English Literature, he returned to New York to teach at Y.U. and to apprentice under his teacher, mentor, and father-in-law, the famed Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick. Then, in 1971, Rabbi Lichtenstein made the fateful decision to leave his extended family and a promising career at the helm of American Modern Orthodox Jewry in order to join Rabbi Yehuda Amital as rosh yeshiva of what was then a fledgling institution in Gush Etzion that combined advanced Torah study with full-fledged military service.
 
It was, to him, nothing less than the fulfillment of a Divine mandate to live and to learn in the Land of Israel. In the years that followed, his reputation as a man of unimpeachable ethics and unfathomable erudition grew by leaps and bounds. His lectures grew in size. His writings were increasingly prized. His guidance was widely sought. He was, in short, a man of incomparable words and yet, in the wake of his passing on April 20, I find myself fixated on his silence.  
 
In the time that has elapsed since his passing at the age of 81, Israeli and Jewish media outlets have been ablaze with tributes to a man who was truly yahid b'doro, singular in his generation. Some spoke of his unparalleled breadth: the ability to move from Rambam to Kierkegaard and back to Rabbeinu Bechaye while marshaling John Milton and Henry More in service of Ramban and Ramchal. Some spoke of his profundity and depth: talmudic analysis characterized by unyielding questioning, razor-sharp distinctions, and sweeping classifications; biblical insights plumbed from an uncanny understanding of the human psyche and the human condition; philosophical discourses marked by a desire to harmonize dialogical tension between seemingly cacophonous truths. The eulogizers memorialized the pages he wrote, the words he spoke. Yet in my own reminiscence of the time I spent watching him, listening to him and struggling mightily to understand him, I find myself drawn more to the page that was blank, the moments in which he said nothing.
 
Scattered between the obituaries of those who knew Rav Lichtenstein from afar were insights shared by those privileged to orbit his innermost sanctum. These were memories that were tender and real. Whether it was the bellowing of dirshu Hashem (search for God) on a fast-day afternoon, the fear-inducing "Tomar," with which an unsuspecting student was called on to read and explain a complex text, the gentle way he'd count steps for his elderly father who had lost his vision, or the humility bordering on effacement with which he'd carry on conversations with those around him, these were peeks behind the curtain, glimpses of gadlut or greatness. And even so, to me the silence said that much more.
 
I can't tell you how many times it happened over the course of the year I spent learning in his shiur at Yeshivat Har Etzion. It wasn't every day and it wasn't every week. But it was frequent enough that we came to expect it and impressive enough that I have yet to forget it. In all likelihood, we were 45 minutes to an hour into our lecture for the day. Rav Lichtenstein had reviewed the pertinent Gemara and commentators which he had asked us to prepare, started asking the conceptual questions — or, more precisely, asking us for the conceptual questions — for which his variation of the Brisker method of Talmud study was known, and outlining an approach toward answering them.
 
Then, drawing upon a cocktail of the best of Israeli nerve and verve mixed with the fearlessness of an active duty soldier and the keen intellect of a budding scholar, one of the older Israeli students would offer an alternative approach to the issue at hand. All of a sudden the Rosh Yeshiva — known for his words — would go silent. Sitting at his table at the front of the room, his eyes would shut, his head would rest on his hand as his face would contort into the deepest of furrows. A minute would go by, and then two. The silence was searing. A twitch. A shift. Would he say something? He looked up. He looked down. Not yet ready, he returned to the furrow. Eventually he'd emerge, prepared either to rigorously defend his position or, more impressive still, ready to cast away his initial approach in favor of the alternative suggested by his student.  
 
While it felt like an eternity, the silence never lasted more than a few minutes. But to me, those few moments provided a thin-slice of greatness unlike any other. It was then and there that intellect met empathy, stature met humility, and an unfettered pursuit of truth — God's truth as revealed in His Torah and through its expounders — became life's singular objective. It was then and there that we were taught how to listen and how to learn; how to be firm yet not stubborn; how to open ourselves up while remaining deeply grounded.  
 
As the months and years go by, more and more of Rav Lichtenstein's Torah will be committed to writing, and more and more of the world will benefit from the legacy of wisdom he left behind. Amid all of the shiurim and the lectures, the articles and the books, though, we'd benefit immensely by remembering his silence as well.
 
Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl is the head of school at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station and the chief academic officer of the Kohelet Foundation. He spent two years studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion under the direction of the late Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, ztz”l.