By Ben Thwaites
A tribute to leading scholar Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein who passed away five years ago
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was one of the foremost Jewish scholars of this generation. He was at the forefront of the Modern/Centrist Orthodox community and carried the torch for those interested in combining wisdom and erudition across both Jewish and secular studies. Many of his students describe how they literally trembled before him due to his immense scholarship and piety. At the same time however, they were forever mesmerised by his refusal to consider himself special or better than anyone.
One occasion when Rav Aharon went to visit an army base on Rabbinic business captured his genuine humility. Somehow Rav Lichtenstein went missing. After much searching, he was found buried under a mountain of washing up in the kitchen. An officer on the base, unaware of who Rav Aharon was, had sent him to the kitchen to be useful. Rav Aharon did not object or take offence, he went right ahead to get involved. Those aware of the situation were horrified to find this senior figure in the kitchen but Rav Aharon was totally unfazed. Numerous stories of a similar vein have been circulated, including his refusal to receive any honours or special treatment. Rav Aharon was a leader who inspired greatness in all those who met him. His life, and the values he was driven by demanded an intense striving to reach potential, but there was never a trace of judgment towards any individual. Never a sense of arrogance or self-importance.
One of our most well-known Biblical stories – the Akeida, the binding of Isaac – provides both a source and a powerful insight into the challenge of maintaining individual greatness and complete lack of superiority. As Abraham re-enters society, following this incredibly challenging episode, we find a peculiar redundancy in the text and it is here we discover a subtle but profound lesson.
The verse just after the Akeida informs us as follows – ‘Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba…’
The word together here seems unnecessary and provokes us to explore why it was added. One of our brilliant and worldly scholars of the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, addresses this question. He suggests that the addition of the word together in this context is informing us that Abraham did not just go along with the servants, but rather they went in partnership, shoulder to shoulder, as equals. The journey to Beer-sheba was a shared mission. To prove this interpretation, he notes that a few verses earlier, when the Torah describes the journey of Abraham and Isaac, we also find the word together added to demonstrate that they were ‘in sync’ despite the challenge that had been asked of them.
Rav Hirsch comments further, pointing out that especially in the culture and norms of the world 3,000 years ago, it is rather surprising that Abraham nonchalantly resumes with his servants just where he left off a few days prior. He has just experienced a significant test of his faith, a high point in his career of closeness and commitment to God, yet we find no trace of Abraham relating to himself as too good to go side by side with his workers. It would not be out of place if he thought, ‘I have just done something extraordinary, something special and it’s not so fitting that I return to these mere mortals’. We find however that he returns as if nothing had happened. No doubt he knew he was different, but he had no desire or even awareness of his actions being a cause for thinking he is better than others.
Jewish ideas and texts have often led to a disruption of established norms in society. Exploring other historic texts, we commonly find caste systems, such as the Hammurabi code for example, judging people to be of different worth. Sadly, some of these approaches still exist today. A fundamental of the Bible is that everyone is created in the image of God. Individuals might, and often should, be on different journeys or have different roles, but this provides no reason or legitimacy to create hierarchies of value in people that will lead to feelings of arrogance.
Both inside the Jewish community and beyond, challenges abound with the calibre of those in leadership positions and the ability for leaders to engage those looking for guidance. Expressions of egotism, judgment, and superiority play a significant role in creating alienation and the breakdown of relationships.
Perhaps there could be more focus on cultivating a deep unshakeable respect for our fellow human, whatever their viewpoint, alongside the striving for greatness and achieving potential. Maintaining the perspective of equality and avoiding judgement, could create more possibility for people to work together, in partnership, despite their differences, and to achieve their own personal greatness alongside furthering the common good.
Ben Thwaites is Director, Forum for Jewish Leadership (U.K.).