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Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a Leader of Modern Orthodoxy, Dies at 81

Jewish community mourns scholar, political dove, who educated generations

Yair Rosenberg
April 20, 2015
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein at Yeshivat Har Etzion. (Yeshivat Har Etzion)
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein at Yeshivat Har Etzion. (Yeshivat Har Etzion)

This morning, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, rabbinic dean of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a leader of Modern Orthodox Jewry, passed away at the age of 81. The American-raised Talmudist and philosopher is being mourned across the Israeli political and religious spectrum as a scholar, humanist and societal bridge-builder.

Last year, when Lichtenstein was awarded the Israel Prize for his contributions to religious literature, Tablet recounted his many accomplishments:

[Lichtenstein] was born in Paris, but grew up in the United States, where he was ordained at Yeshiva University, studied under his father-in-law Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and received his PhD in English literature from Harvard. In 1971, he moved to Israel at the invitation of Holocaust survivor Rabbi Yehuda Amital to join him at the helm of Yeshivat Har Etzion, a religious Zionist yeshiva in the West Bank region of Gush Etzion. (The area had been inhabited by Jews until they were massacred in 1948, and was resettled after the Six Day War in 1967.)

As dean of the yeshiva, Lichtenstein has educated generations of Israeli and American Orthodox leaders in a humanistic tradition that seeks to combine religious learning and striving with the intellectual fruits of the secular world. His writings in Hebrew and English have become staples of the Modern Orthodox bookshelf, and under his leadership, Har Etzion has opened both an academic teacher’s college and a sister seminary at Migdal Oz run by his daughter Esti Rosenberg, which launched an advanced Talmud and Jewish law institute for women in 2013. Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, one of the earliest efforts to teach Torah over the internet, now reaches thousands of subscribers.

Lichtenstein has also distinguished himself on the Israeli scene for his dovish political stances. Together with Amital, he supported the Oslo Accords and subsequent peace process. (A founding father of the religious peace party Meimad, Amital would serve as a minister without portfolio in the government of Shimon Peres.) When several prominent religious leaders in the settlement movement eulogized Baruch Goldstein after he massacred Muslim worshipers in Hebron in 1994, Lichtenstein famously rebuked them. Drawing on his vast Talmudic and halakhic erudition, he has also defended the right of the Israeli government to cede territory under Jewish law, publicly inveighed against price tag attacks against Palestinians, and refuted the rationales for rabbinic bans against selling Israeli land to Arabs.

Today, Lichtenstein was mourned by students and admirers both in Israel and outside it.

“Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was, in the words of the rabbinic sages, ‘a lion who came up from Babylon‘ (i.e. the diaspora),” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, “a powerful religious force, a moral person, a Torah giant, and Israel Prize laureate in religious literature who, with the late Rabbi [Yehuda] Amital, established an entire world of Torah.”

And as the news broke early this morning, Prime Minister Netanyahu took to Twitter to air his condolences, writing, “Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was a Zionist, rooted, sharply perceptive, and of a single mind, who raised thousands of students. He loved the people of Israel, the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel. May his memory be blessed.”

Overseas, tributes to Lichtenstein have been posted by his many foreign students. “Today I mourn the loss of my revered Rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l,” wrote British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. “The Jewish people ha[ve] lost a true giant.”

Lichtenstein’s funeral procession will begin Tuesday at Yeshivat Har Etzion at 10 a.m., Jerusalem time. View a live stream here.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.