Monday, March 15, 2010

A Stormy Eye

I have never met the man. But HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein keeps rising up in my eyes every time I read something new by him or about him. If anyone can be considered a Gadol in our day, it is him. Although I’m sure that in his great modesty he would vigorously deny it.

Here is what I know about hm. He attended Yeshivas Chaim Berlin and is a student of its Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Yitzchak Hutner. He is also a student of his father in law Rav Soloveitchik and espouses the worldview of Centrist Orthodoxy.

He received Semicha from Yeshiva University and a PhD in English Literature from Harvard; is a Talmid Chacham with few peers and is also considered an expert in the works of 17th century poet John Milton. He is currently the Rosh HaYeshiva along with Rav Yehudah Amital at Yeshivat Har Etzion and maintains a position as Rosh Kollel at Gruss, the Yeshiva University Kollel in Israel.

To the best of my understanding Rav Lichtenstein’s worldview and my own are virtually identical. I do not recall ever reading anything by him with which I would disagree. And as would be the case with any Gadol, his integrity, honesty, and Ehrlichkiet are above reproach.

Rav Lichtenstein has recently published a review of ‘The Eye of the Storm’ a book by Rabbi Aharon Feldman.

Rabbi Aharon Feldman was educated in the United States and was a brilliant student of both Limudei Kodseh and Limudei Chol. He is a Major Talmid Chacham with few peers and has published many books in English. He is currently the Rosh HaYeshiva of Baltimore’s Ner Israel. In my view he had the potential to really rise above the crowd and become a Gadol himself. Ironically he was an early classmate of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s and they were good friends growing up. Although they parted ways after elementary school they actually attended the same Yeshiva – Chaim Berlin - later in life.

Much of what Rabbi Feldman has written in the past is to be admired – as pointed out by Rav Lichtenstein they include:

The Juggler and the King, which had served as a link to the Vilna Gaon’s machshavah, several of these earlier writings have been reprinted in the volume under review. These include: “Credo and Credence,” impressive for the candid quest for the certitude of faith; “Rabbinic Authority (Da’as Torah),” a blend of wise spiritual and pragmatic counsel, but shorn of excessive normative demands; and the widely circulated “Letter to a Homosexual Ba’al Teshuvah,” a balanced epistolary response which exudes sensitivity without conceding ideological or halachic ground. To these may be added, from this volume, the chapters on “Gedolim Books” and “The Chazon Ish,” which for those unfamiliar with the genre can provide a measure of perspective; and which, as regards the latter, brings us face to face with that towering magisterial exemplar of ironclad discipline, the fusion of intellect and will. In addition, the chapter on “The Steinsaltz English Talmud,” presents a fair and judicious account of a tool that has progressively serviced fresh adherents.

Too bad he didn’t stop there. Rav Lichtenstein’s review of Rabbi Feldman’s new book indicates that Rabbi Feldman has taken positions on some of the great issues of our time that are – at the very least - troubling. Those issues include: Zionism, feminism, Chabad and the so-called ‘Slifkin Affair’. All of these issues are of great import to the Torah world and ones I constantly deal with. They are among the defining issues of our day. The way they are looked at by the Torah world will determine the shape of Judaism in the future.

Rabbi Feldman’s polemic against Zionism is one of the primary focuses of Rav Lichtenstein’s review. That polemic is an angry one sided rant characterizing it as having no redeeming value. But what is worse his writing seems to be designed to stir hatred! From the review:

Emulating Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Rabbi Feldman asserts: “I, too, humbly submit that the criticisms in this book are directed towards those parts of the Jewish people which are not Jewish” (p. 4). In the interest of both accuracy and fairness, it should be added that the sequel reads, “My love for the Jewish people remains undiminished.” However, when we note that the source and precedent cited had not merely sought to justify criticism but to be stirred to hatred; that “the parts which are not Jewish” did not allude to unhalachically converted pseudo-Jews but to presumed ideological aberrants; and when we realize that these include a very significant segment of the Israeli yishuv, as well as its Diaspora supporters–many of us will, understandably, be shaken.

In essence Rabbi Feldman has dismissed what many Gedolei HaOlam of past generations have held calling those feeling unJewish! How much ‘love’ can Rabbi Feldman have for the Jewish people if he thinks my Rebbe Rav Ahron Soloveichik who said Hallel on Yom Ha’Atamaut and was a Gadol in his own right – is ideologically aberrant! How much love can he have if he so negatively characterizes the masses of religious Jews who live in Israel serve in the army. Some of whom have given their lives so that the masses of Torah Jewry who do not serve - can live in relative peace... with many of those thriving in Torah learning?

Has he no appreciation for the explosion of Torah Learning in Eretz Yisroel enabled by ‘the Zionist State’?

I have discussed my views about the correct approach to Zionism and the Jewish State many times. I am not surprised at all to read Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s views are identical:

I share Rabbi Feldman’s vision and his priorities… At one end of the spectrum, is it indeed desirable– or even possible–to engage in a foray of utter denial of Jewish worth to what the Zionist enterprise, albeit regarded as a monolithic behemoth, hath wrought? Must we, may we, be so radically judgmental as we deplore certain lapses in religious motivation and result? Is the reclamation of Eretz Yisrael, accompanied by gradual progress towards rov yoshvehah alehah, Jewishly neutral?
Torah Jewry needs to strive creatively, and, if necessary, to fight vigorously, in order to restore our full commitment to our national heritage. Some recognition of Religious Zionist claims regarding Divine assistance would be far too much to expect, and for this purpose, not crucial. What I have suggested, substantively and not just tactically, would still be quite meaningful, however. I believe that this formulation approaches the views of the Ponevehzher Rav, as I knew him. I also recall that when a rosh yeshivah from a prominent anti-Zionist Torah family was taken to tour Yamit, he remarked, with intuitive admiration– and perhaps with flashes of memories of Eastern Europe–“Zay vos Yidden haben da oyfgeboyt!” (“Just see what Jews have accomplished here!”) And I hope that an analogous response could continue to fill a capacious Torah heart today.

Rabbi Feldman has somehow bought into the rejectionist rhetoric of the extreme right, walks in lockstep with them and chooses to promote those views with an anger and a rancor that inspires hatred – all while proclaiming his love of all Jews! With the publication of this book he is truly a disappointment.