Letters to the Editor: Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Remembers Rav Hunter

Rav Matis Greenblatt’s sensitive and illuminating portrait (“Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner: The Vision Before His Eyes,” Summer 2001) of our mutual rebbi, served both the Rosh Yeshivah (as we all called him) and the readers of Jewish Action well. On the one hand, it has enlarged the spiritual bounds of a public to whom he was, unfortunately, insufficiently known, and parts of which were distanced by his presumed Chareidi identity-as if his capacious soul could be so neatly categorized! On the ocher hand, it has deservedly enhanced his reputation as both a masterful gadol and a preemi­nent educator. Nevertheless, I believe a number of salient elements were not sufficiently noted, and I wish to fill in this lacuna, in brief

      1. 1. The Rosh Yeshivah was highly sen­sitive to the use of language. This con­cerned, in part, matters of style but focused, in particular, upon nomencla­ture and terminology, especially as regards discrimination between kodesh and On this point, he was punc­tilious without being pedantic, and could be fastidiously critical of those who failed to meet his standards.

 

2. He was very self-conscious. This is a trait which was of course encour­aged by the Musar Movement, general­ly; but, upon its traditions, he imposed his personal stamp. This quality was apparently ingrained from the outset-as evidenced by a remark­ able letter, penned when he was 15 (excerpts of which were quoted in his daughter’s biographical sketch)-but were no doubt sharpened as he crafted the reality and the image of his spiritu­al self In his presence, one often won­dered whether the presumably sponta­neous had not, broadly speaking, been subtly planned, after all.

3. The force of his personality was overwhelming. AB such, it elicited powerful emotional responses. Of his talmidim, many loved him passionate­ly, but all, in some sense, feared him. His criticism-particularly of individ­uals or institutions of which, on prin­ciple, he disapproved–could be devas­tating, his scorn, energized by a well­ honed sense of humor, By the same token, his approval was gen­rous and genuinely meaningful.

4. In a related vein, he sought, and largely attained, spiritual control. From talmidim, in particular, he brooked no challenge. On one occa­sion, when a talmid, by then well ­established in the Torah world as a rav, disagreed with him with respect to a communal halachic issue, he conclud­ed the discussion by remonstrating that he had long since concluded that he had no mortgage over the latter’s mind; and he then told a confidant who had been privy to the interchange that the day had been, for him, a mini-Tisha B’av. In the public arena, likewise, he largely restricted his visible activity (it was rumored that, behind the scenes, he was more widely engaged) to a domain in which he was firmly in charge.

5. He was the Rosh Yeshivah, par excellence-in many respects, the most gifted and impressive of his gen­eration; and yet, that, I believe, in a limited sense. He effected wonders in striving to achieve his primary goal­ the molding of spiritually charged talmidei chachamim; and he attained it through a combination of intensive personal contact and the creation of a context and a climate within which they could flourish. With respect to pure learning, however-as regards either the content of lamdut or its methodology or the area of pesak-it is my impression that his imprint was circumscribed. If we may look to his roots in Slobodka for analogues, his role was probably much closer to that of the Alter than to that of Rav Mosheh Mordecai Epstein. As I left the Mesivta at a relatively young age, it may be that my perception on this point is somewhat skewed. I am rea­sonably convinced, however, that it is accurate; and I think the observation is worth noting. It should, of course, be added, that his role was the result of conscious priority and not of limita­tions. Admirers and critics alike never questioned his credentials as a lamdan of the first rank.

6. Finally, I would have liked to hear more about a crucial matter which Rav Greenblatt knows far better than myself: the Rosh Yeshivah’s spiritual odyssey. His fundamental orientation remained fairly stable throughout; and yet, he was a dynamic person, ever careful to distinguish between consis­tency and stagnation. As such, he underwent a measure of change, as regards both ideology and practice. The removal of Rav Kook’s picture from his sukkah, to cite one example, was surely pregnant with significance. While some of the change was in lock­ step with broader sociological develop­ments, it surely bore his personal stamp. Fleshing our this account would be of value-particularly, inasmuch as some of the changes concern issues which currently confront and divide the community of shomrei mitzvah.

Let me conclude by stressing the obvious. None of the above is intend­ ed to detract one iota from the srarure of a genuine gadol, to whom the Torah world is deeply indebted and from whom I, personally, benefited immensely. It is presented as an adden­dum to a portrait which can help us understand and appreciate a magisteri­al figure who continues both to illumi­nate and, in the positive sense of the term, to cast a long shadow.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Yeshivat Har Etzion, Gush Etzion, Israel

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This article was featured in the Summer 2002 issue of Jewish Action.
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