A great rabbi was walking into the beit midrash, the study hall, when he heard a pay phone ring near the entryway. He stopped to answer the phone, and heard the voice of a young woman on the other end. The rabbi asked how he could be of help. She requested that he retrieve her boyfriend from the study hall, and the great rabbi – the academy head – obligingly sought out the young man in the study hall and informed him that he had received a phone call.
Stunned that his rosh yeshiva had taken time out of his busy schedule for this phone call, the young man sheepishly went outside and picked up the receiver. His girlfriend said hello, and asked him, “Who was the nice man named Aharon who spoke to me on the phone?”
Indeed, who was this great scholar and saint, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein?
Stories like this one have been spreading through Israeli and North American Jewish media in the weeks since Rabbi Lichtenstein passed away at the end of April. These stories rarely describe his stunning erudition, deep faith and masterful scholarship. Instead they portray a person of fine character and humble demeanour.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was born in Paris in 1933. He escaped with his family to the United States before World War II, where he studied in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin under Rabbi Yitchok Hutner and later under Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik and his brother Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University.
From a young age, Rabbi Lichtenstein was recognized as both a genius and an amazingly diligent student, as he quickly grew to prominence within the modern Orthodox community. After earning a PhD in English literature from Harvard University in 1957, Rabbi Lichtenstein served as a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University. In 1971, he answered the call of Rabbi Yehuda Amital to join him at the helm of Yeshivat Har Etzion, near Jerusalem. There, he taught and mentored thousands of students, authored hundreds of publications, and became the standard bearer for a vision of Judaism that engaged the complexities of modern life while remaining firmly rooted in Torah. Last year, Rabbi Lichtenstein received the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honour, for Jewish religious literature.
But back to the stories.
One year during tikkun layl shavuot – the all-night study session to celebrate the giving of the Torah – Rabbi Lichtenstein disappeared from the beit midrash. The students continued their learning, when suddenly they heard the voice of their teacher. They looked around but could not see him. No one knew where his voice was coming from. They students searched out and eventually found Rabbi Lichtenstein in the balcony, delivering a personal class to his daughter, Estee.
Here’s another: A young Rabbi Lichtenstein was once playing basketball with his students when he suddenly stopped the game and said that he would not play anymore. The boys, he argued, were not playing ethically. When one of them asked what ethics has to do with basketball, he explained that if everyone did not put their heart into the game – working hard on defence and offence – then they were compromising on how the game should be played.
These stories, and many more like them, tell us something important about Rabbi Lichtenstein, and about the Torah and the Jewish People. They reveal that such fine personalities still walk this earth. They expose a Torah that is still capable of honing a man’s character and generating unique human goodness. The stories show us that the genes and the culture that produced men like Rabbi Akiva still operate among us.
In an era such as our own, when so much cynicism surrounds authority figures, these stories are essential. They teach us that great men can still be good men.
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler is the rabbi of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto.