Some Thoughts from, and about, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

Many of my friends and teachers have been posting memories and reflections on the passing of Moreinu V’Rabbenu Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. I’m not sure I’m ready to do that quite yet, nor am I sure I have something profound to say. While there will be eulogies here in Yeshiva tomorrow, today we are having several shiurim focusing on R. Aharon’s Torah, allowing his lips to continue to move even after his passing, as the Gemara so beautifully captures here:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יבמות דף צז עמוד א

אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי: כל תח שאומרים דבר שמועה מפיו בעולם הזה, שפתותיו דובבות בקבר. אמר ריצחק בן זעירא, ואיתימא שמעון נזירא: מאי קראה? וחכך כיין הטוב הולך לדודי למישרים דובב שפתי ישנים, ככומר של ענבים, מה כומר של ענבים כיון שמניח אדם אצבעו עליו מיד דובב, אף תלמידי חכמים כיון שאומרים דבר שמועה מפיהם בעוהז, שפתותיהם דובבות בקבר

So, to focus on one of R. Aharon’s pieces that is both brilliant and reflects (for me, at least) so much of who R. Aharon was. This piece was originally published in Kavod HaRav, and has been republished and translated several times since then. It focuses on the nature of Talmud Torah.  It is referenced and linked at numbers 47 and 95 on his bibliography (here).

The Gemara in Moed Katan 9b rules that while in general osek bimitzvah patur min hamitzvah, one who is involved in the performance of a mitzvah is exempt from performing other mitzvot, this rule does not generally apply to Talmud Torah. If the mitzvah can be done by others, one is permitted to continue learning. If, however, it cannot be, then one must stop learning to perform the mitzvah. While the Rambam rules in accordance with this law generally, in the context of marriage, the Rambam writes that one can push off marriage and having children on the basis of osek bimitzvah – claiming that this is a kal vachomer – meaning Talmud Torah, far from being an exception to the rule, is the mitzvah most likely to override all others! Many answers have been suggested by the achronim. Some claim (ex. Maharm Shick) that having children is fundamentally a mitzvah on society overall, making it a mitzvah that can be done by others. Others (Shulchan Aruch HaRav) argue that in fact there are two aspects to the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, studying and knowing, and the exemption only applies to the latter, but not the former. Some (ex. The Gra) claim that every word is a separate mitzvah, so one can never really be osek in a unified mitzvah of Talmud Torah.

R. Lichtenstein suggested something different. He claimed that Talmud Torah should exempt one from all mitzvot, just like any other mitzvah. However, Torah by its very definition must be al menaot laasot – studied with the intent to fulfill. If not, the Torah is not Torah. Thus, in general, the reason that osek b’mitzvah does not apply to Talmud Torah is that if one would turn one’s back on doing a mitzvah because he was learning, his learning would lose all value, cease to be a mitzvah, and therefore eliminate the exemption. In the case of marriage, however, one is only delaying getting married to learn, and therefore it is not considered turning one’s back on the Torah, allowing the normal rule of osek b’mitzvah to apply.

Not only is this answer brilliant and beautiful, but I think it highlights R. Lichtenstein’s personality and thought in many ways, as well as attempts to square a circle in Litvish thought more generally. Starting with the latter – R. Lichtenstein very much came from the world of Brisk, which had internalized R. Chaim Volozhin’s notion of Talmud Torah Lishmah – that the highest level of Torah is that learned for it’s own sake. Hence, the Briskers in all their permutations are known for studying kodshim and other esoteric, not yet practical, areas of Halacha. Yet, this commitment often comes into tension with the emphasis in many places in Chazal and poskim that Halacha is great because it leads to action (a statement I cannot try to analyze fully here). R. Aharon manages to square that circle, I think, with this answer. On the one hand, he embraces the notion that Talmud Torah is the greatest of mitzvot, in and of itself. Hence, fundamentally, Talmud Torah should be able to push aside all other mitzvot even more than anything else. On the other, he uses the conviction that Talmud Torah must not remain theoretical but be implemented to define Torah itself, thus preventing this rarification of study from overshadowing the importance of action.

As for the former – more than anyone I have ever met, was balanced and insightful, and had profound things to say about everything important. His positions were permeated by his Torah, his general knowledge and wisdom, and his perfection of character – his tzidkus. He was committed to the world of the mind, of perfecting and clearly articulating his Torah infused thoughts in all areas of life, from the most practical to the most esoteric, from the mussar he would give to us, to his shiurim on kodshim and taharos. Still, more amazingly, it was always al menat laasot. There was no distance between the ideals he articulated and the ideals he lived. If he thought it and said it, he meant it and did it. Even more scary for us was that he expected that of his students as well.

I was zoche for several years to have studied with him, but more importantly, I, my family, friends, and so many others will do our best to be worthy of being called his students for the rest of our lives.

יהי זכרו ברוך

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