Originally published in February 2014.
My chaver Billy Altshul informed me that our rebbe Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has been awarded the Israel Prize 2014 in Jewish religious literature.
He was one of the finest teachers that I studied with in college – a genius as an educator and a sincere and compassionate human being. He is the person that I chose to personify the quintessential scribe personality of prayer in my book “God’s Favorite Prayers (p. 71 ff).”
The Scribe’s Prayers
Shema — n 1. the central statement of Jewish belief, the sentence “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is your God; the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4) 2. the section of the liturgy consisting of this and related biblical passages, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41, recited in the morning and evening prayers and on retiring at night [Hebrew, literally: hear]
—Collins English Dictionary, 2009
I had the privilege of studying in Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s Talmud shiur (class) for two years, 1966-1968. Each December, he invited us talmidim (disciples) to his house for latkes (potato pancakes) on Hanukkah. There, in his apartment, we sat with his little kids and his wife Tovah, daughter of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The latkes were good and the Lichtensteins appeared to be a regular family. For some reason, that surprised me.
Once, during the years that I was in his shiur, while I was out with some of the guys playing basketball on the courts between the Yeshiva College dorms, Rav Aharon, a lanky, thin and tall man, came walking by. One of us had the chutzpah to ask him to join the ball game. He said okay and he played aggressively—and just like a regular guy. For some reason, that blew my mind.
And, one year, in our student play, the Yeshiva College Purim shpiel, a satiric revue for the holiday, I played the role of Rav Aharon. In my performance, I hemmed and hawed and exaggerated my rebbe’s mannerisms much more than I should have. And there in the audience sat my rebbe, laughing heartily along with us. For some reason, that really blew my mind.
These three anecdotes aside, Rav Aharon was not just a regular guy. He also was a special teacher who imbued me with indelible lessons that I have taken with me throughout my life.
Rav Aharon taught me that you could be both a humanist and a Talmudic scholar, a lamdan. He clearly loved English literature, which he had studied at Harvard. He often and freely quoted poets John Milton and Edmund Spenser. He happily contrasted the ideas of the enlightenment with those of the Torah. But all the time it was clear to me that literature was his avocation and that learning Torah was his true vocation.
Rav Aharon also taught me that you could critically study and deeply love the lifestyle instructions—called the hashkafah—of the Torah. Each week, we read and discussed a chapter in Rabbi Elimelech Bar Shaul’s inspirational Hebrew treatise, Mitzvah Valev (Tel Aviv, 1956), which means the commandments and the heart. Through that work, Rav Aharon taught us that the cognitive understanding of a commandment needed to be joined to the emotional commitment of one’s heart. His lessons had a profoundly powerful and positive impact on my faith.
Finally, Rav Aharon taught me that you could be a vitally creative pedagogue even in the most traditional subjects of learning. The college administration told him that he had to give us exams in Talmud, the main subject that he taught us, so he used that as an opportunity to teach us more. He gave us thought-questions. Based on something we learned previously, he would ask us to resolve a new scenario. Or he would give us text-questions. He would have us examine a brand new text, related to some passage we had learned before, and then he asked us to parse it and to comment on it. We had to decide what commentary he had plucked the text from, tell him what the text meant and then explain why we came to our conclusions. That was hard.
That is how Rav Aharon taught me that an exam could do more than ask a student to regurgitate what he had learned. The rabbi tested my knowledge and my thinking powers at the same time, and was the only teacher that I ever had who truly knew details of my personal styles of learning and of my own intellectual strengths and weaknesses. I happily confess that I used elements of Rav Aharon’s methodology of thought-questions and text-questions in many of the Talmud and Jewish Studies courses that I taught over the years at the University of Minnesota, the Jewish Theological Seminary and elsewhere.
After I went on to become a professor, I would take extended leaves to work on my research in Jerusalem, Israel. My father owns a Katamon-neighborhood apartment that he inherited from his parents, who moved to Israel in the 1950s from New York City. That is where I lived while in Jerusalem. In the mornings, I frequently would go to the shacharit morning services at the Shtiblach nearby. The Shtiblach was a veritable prayer mall, a busy set of connected, one-room prayer-halls in a single, modest neighborhood building. There, I would often see the saintly Rav Aharon at one of the services, sitting near him and thereby joining him de facto at prayer. That would lift my spirits for the day. Because Rav Aharon embodies the ideals of the scribe archetype, I use his name to refer now to that remarkable model of prayer that I met during my spiritual quests in search of perfect prayer….
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