Tuesday, August 30, 2005

R. Aharon Lichtenstein is an Outdated, Anti-Modern, Lithuanian-Talmudo-Centric Closet Haredi but a Really Nice Guy

I initially set aside Dr. Alan Brill's review in The Edah Journal of R. Aharon Lichtenstein's books because its title, "An Ideal Rosh Yeshiva," made it seem overly praiseworthy, the kind of review that rarely adds insight. It was only after I finally read it that I realized that the title was a left-handed compliment -- the presumably intended implication is that he is a great yeshiva dean but as a thinker or communal leader, not necessarily so great. Dr. Brill proceeds with a careful analysis of R. Aharon Lichtenstein's thought as presented in the two volumes of Leaves of Faith (I & II) published to date and the one volume of By His Light. While Dr. Brill's writing is a bit winding and unfocused, and contains way too many offhand technical references for a popular work, his point is very clear.

After a brief but interesting biography of R. Lichtenstein, Dr. Brill makes a distinction that is critical for his essay. He distinguishes between Modern Orthodoxy and Centrist Orthodoxy. While he did not invent these terms, he invests them with his own distinctive meanings that those who took his Yeshiva College course on Modern Orthodoxy probably understand but the majority of his readers do not. He helps us out by providing his unique definition of Centrist Orthodoxy but we are left trying to infer his definition of Modern Orthodoxy from his other points. I'll make my own attempt to reach his definition later.

Dr. Brill's analysis of R. Lichtenstein is quite perceptive and generally right on the money (UPDATE: A student of R. Lichtenstein has privately disputed many of Dr. Brill's conclusions as exaggerated and sometimes blatantly false. I've got no insight into this.). Here are some of his conclusions about R. Lichtenstein:
1. He is Talmudic-centric, to the exclusion (largely) of midrash, piyutim, medieval philosophers and kabbalists. This includes teaching philosophy from halakhah rather than from traditional Jewish works of philosophy.
2. He is a proponent of the Brisker approach to studying Talmud.
3. In conjunction with the two previous points, R. Lichtenstein favors East European talmudic scholars almost entirely to the exclusion of West European rabbis.
4. He believes in the importance of gedolim and roshei yeshivah.
5. R. Lichtenstein, Dr. Brill points out, is not his father-in-law, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. They have different views on certain subjects. (In today's context, these are fighting words, despite being fairly obvious.)
6. He believes that we can only derive values from Torah and not from secular sources. He quotes secular sources only to bolster Torah values or to serve as a contrast.
7. Secular studies are ancillary to Torah study.
8. He is against Wissenschaft des Judentums, i.e. academic study of the Torah.
9. The canon of his secular wisdom is obscure and outdated. He seems entirely unaware of the philosophical challenges to the nineteenth century secular scholars he likes to quote.
10. He seems to be unaware of the current reality in the secular world.
11. R. Lichtenstein is intensely moral and sympathetic. He somehow makes his ideology, that is so full of flaws, work because he is such a great guy. (But what happens when he passes on and his students, who might not live up to his great example, take the helm?)

According to Dr. Brill, all of the above make R. Lichtenstein decidedly non-Modern Orthodox. Rather, he is Centrist Orthodox, which Dr. Brill defines as follows:

This transformation [to Centrist Orthodoxy] involved the transfer of authority to roshei yeshivah from pulpit rabbis, the adoption of a pan-halakhic approach to Judaism, an effacing of a self-conscious need to deal with modernity, and increased emphasis on Torah study, especially in the fashionable conceptual manner, and a shifting of the focus of Judaism to the life of a yeshiva student.
Presumably, Modern Orthodoxy means seeing Judaism as more than just halakhah; gaining (some, perhaps few) values from wherever they emerge, whether Torah or secular sources; greater personal autonomy and more local-rabbinic authority; a more holistic view to Jewish life, emphasizing good deeds over Torah study; acceptance of Wissenschaft des Judentums; embracing secular studies as a valid and primary source of wisdom; being up-to-date in our knowledge of and involvement with the secular world.

If that is what we want, implies Dr. Brill, then R. Lichtenstein is not our leader. He's a great guy, really nice and moral, but not one of ours. He is a leader of Centrist Orthodoxy and we wish that movement well on its charted course to becoming pseudo-Haredim. However, Dr. Brill seems to imply, Modern Orthodox readers of The Edah Journal need to look elsewhere for leadership, if leadership is what they want at all. But R. Lichtenstein's authority should be seen as coming from another camp and not reflecting normative Modern Orthodoxy.

Words do not escape me about my reaction to this article but I'll just leave it as "Oy vey iz mir." (For those of my readers who lack seikhel and basic reading skills, this is intended to show my disapproval.)

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