Rav Aharon Lichtenstein holds a Q and A session in Teaneck

This past Shabbat, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein held a question and answer session in Teaneck. The questions were indicative of where the community is at right now, while the answers led the older members of the audience to sense their own mortality.

The four questions asked were:
1] After all the effort put into day school education, we are losing members of our community- some of them to the right but many more to the left by their not continuing on the path of modern Orthodoxy. What are your thoughts?
2] How should we relate to Homosexuality? Is it a choice or natural orientation? Do we accept them as synagogue members? Enroll their kids in day school? Welcome them into the community?
3] Could we hear your thoughts on women rabbis or women serving in a public position?
4] Why are there so few religious Zionist leaders who defend democracy today?

They offer a good sense of what is bothering the community right now.

Very Short versions of the answers are as follows:
1] Defection from the community- This is not a new phenomena. There were places in Europe where 80% of the youth stopped keeping Shabbat. [AB- There were places that had 95% defection.] It was tough in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was tough in the 1950’s. And even in the 1970’s Peter Berger would not have envisioned the rise of yeshivot and observance. Back in the 1950’s almost no one had a Sukkah, today everyone in Teaneck has a sukkah.
There is no need to question the money spent on day schools since that is our spiritual goal, our axiology, our formative activity. What else would we build and spend our money on?

2] He did not grasp the first part of the question at first. Rabbi Nati Helfgott, who drafted the Statement of Principle and was named one of the Forward’s 50 last week, was in the first row reformulated the question. The answer was formulated a tension between minimizing the issue by considering the person halakhic with an idiosyncrasy and on the other hand letting this aspect of their life override our ability to see their commitment to learning and a halakhic life. (Someone mentioned to me how 15 years ago even this position would have been rare in the community).

3] He did not want to use analogous thinking to other cases, if a woman cannot be A or B then she cannot be a rabbi. We have to appreciate everything she can do like teach and we have to appreciate the inherent virtue of being conservative in our judgment.

4] In 1952, in the first elections in Israel, the religious party went from those who God forefend davened in shorts to the Agudah and the gedolim supported it. More 1950’s stories.

Immediate reaction to those I spoke to: Oy we are getting old. I remember Rav Aharon when he gave me my bechinah in 1974. He was so strong and robust., now he is frail. And Oy, I use 1970’s stories with my college age kids the way Rav Aharon starts everything with a early 1950’s story.

Some (many?) were frustrated with the answers as not addressing the community. And happily, a HS senior reacted to the talk with “It was really good.” He gave subtle answers framing the issues in an intelligent way and showing how to think critically about the topic. He showed both sides on the issues. But for the passage of time, I think many of the old timer would have given the same answer, but they cannot go back again.
(If you were there and think I did not get the details correct, then email with corrections.)

9 responses to “Rav Aharon Lichtenstein holds a Q and A session in Teaneck

  1. Perhaps I am missing something, but the answers do not seem responsive to the questions. Was he deliberately being vague? How old is he now? His father, Rav Yechiel Lichtenstein was my teacher in high school.

    • All of the above. He is post-stoke frail. He did not want to enter the fray on any of the topics. He is known for his analysis more than solutions. He was looking back over the course of his life.

    • Rav Lichtenstein is 77 (pardon the anachronism, he was born on Yom Yerhushalayim, 1933).
      Those of us who remember him when he was younger (i.e., even at age 70) realize that he’s much slower. Nevertheless, the amount of work he does to this day is astounding.

  2. I don’t understand 3 at all. Could you explain what you meant by that?

  3. did he really say “by considering the person halakhic with an idiosyncrasy “? i never heard him use the term “halakhic person” and his teacher’s “halakhic man” was a philosophical construct, not a sociological category.

  4. I just came from a session with rabbis in Chicago and Rav Lichtenstein. While this was supposed to be questions and answers, it was really one question with a follow up. The question centered around Motti Elon and the controversey.
    Yes, Rav Aaron is frail, and you have to listen carefully, but he was extraordinary in describing the complexities, his own personal feelings, and in his wonderful way of not giving a simple yes or no response. He spoke with empathy and supported people’s internal conflicts. He remains a treasure to the Orthodox community.

  5. I wonder how much of the shock at “getting old” and feeling the community shifting is a result of the changes, and how much from the breaking of an implicit promise. The return to Orthodoxy was billed as a return to “Judaism Eternal,” and the assimilation (and intermarriage) of earlier generations was attributed to ignorance of Judaism — which day schools (and then yeshiva in Israel) promised to correct.

    In other words, we did everything right. Why isn’t it working?

    My inner Hirschian wonders whether the failure of this generation’s Jewish education to keep kids frum is correlated with the displacement of Hirschian ethical and universal values by the parochial and particularistic. Is today’s Jewish education the same as it was back in the ’70s and early ’80s?

  6. I see an inflation of corrective measures: first day school was supposed to “do the trick”, then yeshiva in Israel, now stay away from college, who knows what they’ll think of next – all the while having to become more and more wealthy to support all of these crown jewels (many institutions are much less than that).
    Maybe nothing works, and Orthodoxy is actually doing no better than it ever did. Which of course is terrible, thanks for asking, becuase Orthodoxy needs crises to survive.

  7. Rav Lichtenstein is not only growing older but he has always had a conservative bent and as an earlier poster mentioned, a preference for analysis over position.
    His son however, Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, is of a different nature. Not as well-known in America, it would be good to see his profile increase, as he is unafraid to speak his mind and give more definitive often provocative answers to the sorts of questions mentioned above.

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