Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Inexplicable Rejection of a Gadol

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ZTL
I care about what the Charedi world thinks. In fact I am accused of caring too much. But I vehemently deny that. There is no such thing as caring too much for fellow Jews, whether they are to my right or to my left.  Disagreement is fine. Even vehement disagreement. As long as there is no advocacy to breach Halacha or tolerance of theologically unacceptable ideas, Elu V’Elu should apply. But for me there is no bigger insult than being ignored. Especially when it involves the Petirah (death) of one of the greatest religious figures of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Case in point, the Petirah of Rav Aharon Lichtensein. It is no secret that the Charedi world does not agree with the Hashkafos of Rav Licthenstein. That is no problem. They have every right to disagree. But when popular Charedi magazines practically ignore the death of people  like that while at the same time write cover stories on the Petirah of minor Chasidic Rebbes, I can’t help but see that as a rejection. It is a rejection that makes no sense. A rejection that does not seem based on any semblance of reason. Other than the belief that their interpretation of what the God wants of His people is so true, that other interpretations are absolutely wrong. As if any recognition at all puts their own Hashkfos at risk. I don’t understand it and it disappoints me greatly.

Why do I care about what the right thinks? I have explained that many times. There is not a question in my mind that for a variety of reasons Charedim are the future of Judaism. The only question is how extreme their Hashkafos will be. And whether they will recognize that other Hashkafos have legitimacy too.

One can respect a Hashkafa even if it does not match you own. That is in fact how organizations like Agudah operate. They respect other Hashkafos. As long as those Hashkafos are to their right. And as long as Hashkafos like Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) are redefined in Charedi terms. So that when they plan a rally or public event, they want to assure that Satmar type Chasidim are included both in the audience and as speakers. And if there is a TIDE adherent invited to speak, that he expresses Charedi Hashkafos.

But when it comes to anyone even slightly to their left, they practically ignore them. Sure - they invite members of the left to attend their events. They see it as Kiruv. They want to win over those of us to their left. But when it comes to inviting our rabbinic leaders to address their audience - nobody’s home. Even a Gadol like Yeshiva University’s Rav Hershel Shachter, is persona non grata on the main dais of an Agudah event. Even though most of his Hashkafos differ little from those of mainstream Charedim. He is tainted by his association with YU and his mentor Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik. And Rav Aharon Lichtenstein? He doesn’t even exist. Even though his greatness in Torah and Midos matches anyone on the Agudah Moetzes.

Rabbi Shalom Carmy
If one reads the eulogies written by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s students, one can see just how much of a Torah giant he was. His brilliance in Torah; his Hasmada; his Midos; his humility; his uncompromising sense of right and wrong (even if it flew in the face of conventional wisdom);  and his care for the welfare of all of humanity… are all traits one sees only in Gedolei Yisroel. Add to that his mastery of Mada in the field of English Literature and his ability to incorporate that into his Avodas HaShem, and there was no one like him since the days of his mentor and father-in-law, Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik. He was a Gadol BaTorah and a Gadol B’Yisroel. There is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind about that.

Two of the most recent eulogies I read were written by people who studied under him back in the seventies and describe those traits. They saw him as a younger man. Those traits were the same then as they were when he died.

One was published in First Things and written by Rabbi Shalom Carmy, editor of Tradition Magazine and professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman
The other was published by Mishpacha Magazine and written by Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman in his weekly column.  Both were magnificent tributes to this Gadol B’Yisroel.  But other than that one column there was no mention at all about Rav Lichtenstein’s Petirah.  Other mainstream Charedi magazines had barely any mention of his Petirah at all. 

They may counter that they do pay attention to non Charedi Gedolim. They have indeed featured very respectful articles on Rav Hershel Shachter. But I now sense that this was never done out of respect for their Hashkafos. It was done to appeal to readers on their left. Even though they had nice things to say about him, it is now pretty clear they do not consider him to be a Gadol. No matter how much Torah he knows or how great his Midos are. They respected him about as much as they respect non Jewish leaders whom they have also had positive articles on.

Now it’s true that both the Yated and Hamodia ran positive stories on Rav Lichtenstien’s Peitrah. But as noted here before, Hamodia did not grant him the respect they give to even a minor Chasidic Rebbe. I will admit, however, being surprised that the Yated did give him that kind of respect. But as far as I know, they were the only Charedi publication to do so. And Charedi magazines designed to appeal to the broadest spectrum of Orthodox Jewry hardly mentioned his Petirah.

As I said above many people feel that I waste way too much time and effort caring about what those to my right think. I’ve already explained why I disagree. But even if I were to say, alright, I should just accept that they will never accept me and try and build up my own Centrist community, I believe that it would be futile to do so. We Centrists are a dying breed. The left is pulling away from us with full force and the right couldn’t care less about what happens to us. 

Charedim are the largest and fastest growing segment of Orthodoxy. Struggling to build a separate and distinct Centrist community while Charedim geometrically outnumber us now and continue to outpace our growth exponentially is a foolish enterprise. We eventually will pale into insignificance. Centrists will be swallowed up by the right. We will all just meld into a community of Moderate Charedim where our children will be educated and  (like it or not)  indoctrinated with Charedi values. This has been happening now for decades as even Centrist Yeshivos like HTC send their high school graduates to right wing Yeshivos in Israel. Those students come back with Charedi Hashkafos. And RW Yeshivos in Israel are growing at a far greater pace than Centrist Yeshivas like KBY and those to their left. It’s a losing battle. I admit it.

But that doesn’t mean we give up the fight for recognition and legitimacy by this largest and fastest growing majority of Orthodox Jewry. Numbers should never determine right and wrong. I will therefore continue to scream when our leaders are dismissed as irrelevant at best and illegitimate at worst. And it is why I spoke up today.

Alan Jay Gerber's euology for Rav Lichtenstein contains a collection of excerpts by people that actually did recognize R' Aharon Lichtenstein's Gadlus. It was published in the Jewish Star.