In Memory of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l
These last few days, I have been thinking of Elisha crying after Eliyahu, “My father, my father! Chariot of Israel!” as the prophet is seized from his pupil in a whirlwind. To me, and to thousands of his students and followers around the globe, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, was the gadol hador – the greatest rabbinic personality in the world, and his departure from us Monday morning is an upheaving whirlwind. His Talmudic prowess – together with his literary heart and philosophical genius – made him a Torah giant without parallel. He was the intellectual leader and center of Modern Orthodoxy, a living model of the greatness born by the highest Torah and finest human thinking as governed by overwhelming religious piety.
But Rav Aharon’s greatness was equally manifest in his tremendous humility and humanity, in which he excelled no less than in his scholarship.
I once held a door for Rav Lichtestein. He was carrying a stack of books on his way to deliver a shiur, and his tall frame hunched over them as he shuffled down the long hallway, so it was only as he came near me that he noticed I was standing there waiting for him. When he realized this, his eyes widened in surprise, his face flushed, and he raced the last ten feet so as not to delay me further. But he was 68, and a master of Torah, and I was only 19. It was natural that I should hold the door for him, and a privilege. But his humility was so viscerally central to his character that, even after years of receiving adulation from his followers, a basic modicum of respect still caused his face to flush.
When I went to visit Rav Lichtenstein this summer, I asked him questions to which he told me he did not have shoulders broad enough to answer. My face must have fallen because he commiserated with me, telling me that people who only knew him, but not his rebbe, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, miss something. “It’s a gap,” he said. “We’re not producing more Rav-Aharon-Soloveitchiks.”
I was dumbfounded. To me, he was Rav Aharon, but to him, Rav Aharon was somebody else. He seemed not to know how great he was to us. “We don’t have more of you, either,” I said, feeling helpless like a child.
He smiled, looked away, and told me to do two impossible things. First, “Don’t promise that,” he said. But this is a promise I think we cannot avoid. He was one of a kind.
The second task it anguishes me to be unable to fulfill he charged to me as our conversation drew to a close: “Come talk to me when you come (to Israel) again.”
We will be forever lost for not being able to go talk to him again, and it is almost certain that none of us will ever encounter a man like him again in our lifetimes.
Rabbi Effy Unterman, a Wexner graduate Fellowship Alum (Class 19), serves as the Associate Rabbi and Director of Education and Outreach at Congregation Torat Emet in Columbus, Ohio. He holds a BA, MA, and received Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshiva University. Previously Effy served as the Jewish Education Specialist for the Kingsbay YM-YWHA in New York City. Effy also enjoys baseball, photography, poetry and hiking. He can be reached at email@example.com.