Jewish Thought

JA 1986 Symposium – Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, born and educated in the United States, has been the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Elon Shvut, Israel, since its inception. A prolific writer and thinker, he is head of the Oz Veshalom movement. Lichtenstein writes of a “divisiveness that weakens K’lal Yisrael morally and materially” and compares the “problem of leadership” to “a festering sore which has infected our body politic.” He proposes that we “reexamine” and explore the halachik guidelines of “personal halachik status” that face our generation to “meet prevalent Orthodox standards.”

A symposium which opens by asking participants to identify “our generation’s greatest achievement” was, presumably, planned by an optimist; and I’m afraid that, within its context, the designation of “survival and continuity” as a response must seem disappointingly pessimistic. Yet, what else can one say? In 1942, or in 1945 for that matter, did anyone envision any more pressing need? Continuity should never be taken lightly and, in the latter half of the twentieth century, surely cannot be taken for granted. Ours is an epoch, in which, mutatis mutandis, one may say of Klal Yisrael what Chazal said with respect to the Ribbono Shel Olam: His awesomeness is manifested, even as His domain is ravaged and His people subjugated, by the very fact that His people are able to survive, solitarily, amongst the nations of the World (Yoma 69b).

Not, of course, mere passive survival. Ours is an age in which diastolic and systolic alternations are frequently compressed into a single movement. Laboring under the pressures of the time, we consolidate by creating and, albeit to a lesser extent, create by consolidating. Yet, our primary thrust has been advisedly conservative. We have been impelled to fulfill me mitzvah of peru urvu, literally and figuratively. But it has largely confronted us in its second manifestation, as mandated to Noah rather than Adam. Building a pristine world-order would be both invigorating and ennobling. But for our generation, its background the macabre ruins of European Jewish channels, the first priority and the primary achievement has been the restoration and sustenance of decimated Jewry. Even should ten generations lapse before an Avraham reappears, we shall have been those who rekindled the Torah and passed it along.

“Mass Jewish education is in shambles; and unless we recognize the depth and scope of the crisis and mobilize in response to it, it is likely to remain as such for the foreseeable future.”

Survival and continuity–of what or of whom? At one level, of Klal Yisrael itself. The ravages of migration and assimilation notwithstanding, Jewry of several continents has sustained itself as a vibrant community, whatever the mode of identity. At a second level, of the State of Israel. Its gestation and birth are to the credit of the previous generation, but its maintenance in our own, as a remarkable instance of the interaction of ferment and consolidation, is a remarkable achievement in its own right. In its thirty-ninth year, we regard the state pretty much as a given, and hope its neighbors will do likewise. But we ought not forget just how tenuous its existence has been.

At a third level, of the Torah world. Limited in scope but qualitatively central, that world has enjoyed a truly remarkable renaissance. Despite the currently popular idealization of pre-1939 Eastern Europe as a spiritual bastion, the fact remains that there, as elsewhere, within both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic world, in Eretz Yisrael as well as in the Diaspora, the status of Talmud Torah was seriously and continuously eroded. Among adherents and opponents alike, the prevalent perception–obviously, not always verbalized or admitted–was that the yeshivas had little future, other than as a fossil on the periphery of modern society; and the war, of course, exacerbated this feeling. The contrast with the present is self-evident. Much current Torah production is admittedly Alexandrian in nature–collation, summary compilation, monographic codification. But that is precisely the point: survival and continuity.

Mrubim tsarchai amecha–the array of problems confronting Klal Yisrael today is formidable; V’daatem ktsara–and the wisdom needed to cope with them is in relatively short supply. As regards the former, the external threat of anti-Semitism is of course perennial, but despite recent worrisome tendencies, Russian Jewry possibly excepted, it is not presently primary (the threat to the State of Israel posed by its Arab adversaries belongs in a different category). Our major, current problems are internal. First and foremost, there is the frightful decline in sheer numbers, of simple yiddishkeit. “Not with a bang, but with a whimper.” Vigorous ideological opposition is now, except in some circles in Eretz Yisrael, relatively muted. But an amalgam of ignorance and indifference has produced a severe spiritual crisis, of almost unprecedented scope and intensity. Widespread radical am ha’artzot would have been bad enough, per se, but in the modern context it has gone hand in hand, as both cause and effect, with loss of faith. The resultant abandonment of religious values and observance has issued, at the juncture of the internal and external, in rampant assimilation and intermarriage. These have led to well-publicized jeremiads about the impending fin du peuple juive. These projections, written with sociological expertise but with jaded faith, reflect genuine alarm; but they do not faze maaminim bnei maaminim. (One also wonders when futurists, given their anemic composite batting average, will practice humility in earnest.) But even a surviving people is concerned about its sons and daughters. The current disaffection of most is our greatest single problem. Mass Jewish education is in shambles; and unless we recognize the depth and scope of the crisis and mobilize in response to it, it is likely to remain as such for the foreseeable future.

Our spiritual conflagration is aggravated by the paucity of resources needed to fight it. Funding is a familiar issue but here I refer primarily to our overriding need: human resources. At one level, we are sorely in need of qualified communal and educational personnel. At another, we are confronted by a crisis of leadership. Within the Torah world and without, in Israel as well as in the Diaspora, we lack first-rank individuals in whom knowledge and charisma, sweep and vision, perspicacity and sensitivity, fuse to mold an authentic and authoritative leader. There are, for instance, many eminent Talmidai Chachamim, even some Gedolim, in Eretz Yisrael today; but, as a leader, is there anyone who invites comparison with the Hazon Ish?

“There are, for instance, many eminent Talmidai Chachamim, even some Gedolim, in Eretz Yisrael today; but, as a leader, is there anyone who invites comparison with the Hazon Ish?”

The problem of leadership is exacerbated by the sharpened divisiveness which, like a festering sore, has infected our body politic. Polarization makes it difficult to hear even figures of stature across ideological chasms. Divisiveness is, however, primarily a central problem in its own right. It has weakened Klal Yisrael morally and materially. It has encouraged pettiness and aggressiveness, and it has diverted energies from creative growth to internecine strife. Disunity and distrust sap our collective strength; and let us bear in mind that we are paying a spiritual price, as well. Self-righteousness often obstructs true righteousness.

This catalogue consists of familiar and largely general problems, but conclude it with a more specific issue–yochsin. Historically, the question of personal halachik status, particularly with respect to marriage, has been a major public concern in some periods, while confined to isolated instances in others. Our generation has been, in this regard, an age of sad transition. Sexual libertarianism, rising divorce rates, dubious conversions, and deviant definitions–all have combined to foster an exponential growth in the number of beclouded Jews. Their plight portends a dangerous national cleavage, on the one hand, and posits possible personal tragedy, on the other. Yet, despite its potentially alarming proportions, the problem has been treated by many with a complacent equanimity which is frightening in itself.

The problems are more easily formulated than their solutions. Nevertheless, some general directions and tentative suggestions may be delineated. With respect to our most critical problem, the constriction of Jewish commitment, no pat solutions can be offered, especially since many of the relevant factors are mostly, if not wholly, beyond our control. However, one element is clearly and urgently needed: the examination and recommendation of priorities, and this at the highest level. We are what we are, and simply don’t have enough fingers to dam all the dikes. But given a clearer sense of strategy and purpose, we can surely reduce duplication and waste; and by raising certain questions, we can strive to utilize our resources most effectively. Should, for instance, the effort currently being expended to maintain standards of kashruth superior to those of the Shulchan Aruch be better diverted to education? How many of the average talmidim filling our Kollelim could serve Klal Yisrael better through outreach? Does our educational structure strike the optimal present balance between quantity and quality? In an age in which, as Rav Michel Feinstein recently lamented, over half of Klal Yisrael does not even know Shema Yisrael, are we sufficiently assessing the importance of minimal mass commitment as opposed to the need for maintaining a small intensive core? Are we doing enough to communicate a sense of the initial urgency of the problem? In the process of determining priorities, these questions, and many more, need to be asked–radically, honestly and, if need be, painfully. Perhaps, in the end, the answers will change little; but at last then we will know that we are acting on the basis of conscious choice rather than out of haphazardness, inertia, or possibly even a measure of self-interest.

Reappraisal would presumably ameliorate the dearth of human resources–first, by attracting to the field of Jewish communal service (broadly defined, to include education) qualified people who are now deterred by poor salaries and low status. Second, by directing individuals to areas in which their contribution can be maximal. It would not, in and of itself, produce leaders of whom it may largely be said that nascitus non fit: they are born rather than made. But here, too, the impact of reassigned priorities could be significant. During the past generation, some segments of the Orthodox would have almost totally neglected significant investment in providing opportunity for leaders to develop; others have recognized–in a sense, even exaggerated–this need but have largely produced scions capable of shepherding their own flock, up to a point, but quite incapable of addressing themselves to most of contemporary Klal Yisrael, whose social dynamic and inner spiritual reality they do not truly understand.

“There are, for instance, many eminent Talmidai Chachamim, even some Gedolim, in Eretz Yisrael today; but, as a leader, is there anyone who invites comparison with the Hazon Ish?”

Some progress has been made of late in this direction, and we must beware of losing heart should the early crops be disappointing. Given collective will and recognition of the importance of the issue, a better spiritual and material climate for growth can be provided; and in time, there shall be a harvest.

With respect to reducing polarization, I am convinced that the best approach does not call for minimizing difference bur rather for maximizing community. Basic ideological differences do exist, and to dismiss or blur them is both irresponsible and anti-halachik. Orthodoxy cannot accord secularists or dissenters the hechsher they so insistently demand. We can, however, place greater emphasis upon the factors which, without denying difference, transcend it; upon confraternity, upon historical and existential ties, upon essential components of a shared moral and spiritual vision, upon elements of both a common fate and a common destiny. We should not only concede but assert that, whatever their deviations, other camps include people genuinely in search of the Ribbono Shel Olam; that secular Jewry, too, harbors moral idealism and a commitment to Klal Yisrael; and that while we reject leveling compromises, we strive for understanding and respect. This will no doubt seem excessively liberal to some and terribly patronizing to others; but such responses should hardly faze us.

With respect to yochsin, finally, we need to act out of a sense of both the importance and the urgency of the problem. There is a real danger that by the time the seriousness of the issue sufficiently penetrates the Torah world to the point that it might entertain solutions we would ordinarily shun, the magnitude of the problem would, in the interim, have grown to such an extent that even those palliative solutions would then only dent it. Possible approaches- all partial, none palatable-should be considered now. Conditional kiddushin, problematic though they be, should be reexamined–in the light of present pressures, as regards both mamzerut and agunot. With respect to geyrut, we ought at least probe the option of a modus operandi whereby we might recognize conversions which would be effected under the aegis of others, but which, in practice, would be administered according to halachik guidelines and meet prevalent Orthodox standards. Such a proposal touches the raw nerve of legitimization, an issue towards which we are properly sensitive. But in an age in which the “tears of the oppressed” are potentially so common and abuses so widespread, it, at least, bears exploration.

This brief discourse has broken very little fresh ground; nor was novelty its intention. If, however, it will help focus thought and stimulate discussion, it shall more than have served its purpose.

This article first appeared in the Fall/Winter 1986 issue of Jewish Action.

Rav Lichtenstein zt”l was rosh hayeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel.

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