Rav Lichtenstein to Zionist Rabbis: “Some Humility, Please”

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rav-aharon-lichtensteinWalla! News’ weekly discussion  was with Rav Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein, one of the heads of the hesder yeshiva in Alon Shvut, and one of the senior rabbis of the religious Zionist movement.

Rabbi Lichtenstein was born in 1933 in France, and in 1940 fled with his parents from the Nazi occupation to the United States. He received his rabbinic education at Yeshiva University in New York, where he was ordained as a rabbi by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the leading Modern Orthodox figures in the United States and a leader of the Mizrachi Movement of religious Zionism, who would later become Rabbi Lichtenstein’s father-in-law.

Rabbi Lichtenstein completed a doctorate in English literature at Harvard, and briefly taught English at YU. In 1971, Rabbi Lichtenstein immigrated to Israel with his family in order to serve as the head of the Har Etzion yeshiva, and has since then served as its leader along with the yeshiva’s founder, Rabbi Yehuda Amital ob”m. R. Lichtenstein is considered a moderate among Zionist rabbis.

Unlike many Zionist rabbis, you refrained from expressing an opinion on the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Why?
“To express a position is a fine thing when you have a position, when things are clear, unequivocal, when you have the sense that you understand not just the intricacies of the political moves but also what God would want. I didn’t feel I had the tools or ability to express a position. I don’t have God’s phone number, the way some others seem to have. I was raised on the words of the Talmud about Balaam: he claimed having knowledge of ‘the will of the Supreme.’ He couldn’t even tell what his own beast wanted, and he claimed to know the will of the Supreme?!

“Please, have a little humility. Not the fake kind, but the kind that rises from a person’s understanding of who the Almighty is and who man is – a base, ignominious creature. I understand there were people for whom it was clear where the disengagement was leading and what God wanted. That’s not how I grew up. Humility is not only an expression of religious awe bit also an expression of wisdom.”

Are you insinuating criticism of the rabbis who opposed the disengagement?
“I don’t have to insinuate anything. It’s no secret that there are large, self-confident segments of the public, that have the sense that you can take a chapter of the book of Isaiah or Malachi and find a perfect match between the text and what’s happening before our eyes. I’m not comfortable with that; I’m uncomfortable with that also from a religious perspective. It’s true: those of us within the religious Zionism camp have for years continued to march forward spiritually, economically and socially, with trust in God. Without that belief, it is doubtful that the religious Zionist stream would have come into existence to begin with. It began out of belief and hope, out of the feeling that mankind has a role to play in history. But the difference between that and the sense that I can explain exactly why a bus explodes and kills 22 children is enormous. It is religious arrogance. It also smacks of people over-stepping their limitations.

Lately, the separation of religion and state has again become a subject of public debate. Many feel that religion is destroying the state and vice versa. Is it time for such a separation?

“I think that would represent a tremendous risk. I’m not sure that ‘riches endure forever.’ I’m not sure we can continue to suspend public transportation on the Sabbath in the long term, but if, God forbid, public transportation becomes available on the Sabbath I’d view it as a change for the worse and a significant defeat in terms of Israel’s religious landscape. Similarly, with civil marriage, it’s not only a problem in the sense of the religious prohibition people would be transgressing as a result of making it available, but also in terms of what this would do to the nature of Jewish society in general. If, as a result, there would be a huge increase in the number of mamzerim it would be a dreadful tragedy. On the other hand, we’re also liable to see a situation in which the possibility of getting married solely through the rabbinate creates friction and divisions; as it is, a growing segment of the population is not getting married the traditional, halakhic way. If we get to a point where continuing the current state of affairs is no longer possible, unless we outright make it impossible for people to get married, we’d obviously have to rethink the issue. I hope that day never comes. Even in the current situation where we have no civil marriage, and there is no concern about mamzerut or about destroying the fabric of life here by creating the need for separate books of marriageability for religiously observant folk, I still feel we’d have to think twice before manning the barricades.”

You came out against the rabbinic open letter forbidding Jews to sell or rent housing to Arabs. You wrote, “The wisdom seems flawed.” If Jewish religious law does, in fact, determine that it is prohibited to sell or rent to non-Jews, why oppose the letter?
“Here I take the position of Rabbi Eliyashiv. There may be things we want that are unattainable. Wisdom includes the ability to apply principles, of having desires encounter reality. In this case, even if discussing the issue from the halakhic point of view, it’s not so simple or clear. So, are we supposed to hurry to publish an open letter on an issue that cannot be implemented and that furthermore stains our reputation, both internationally and internally within the larger community in Israel? You have to know how to choose your battles and that choice involves wisdom: people have to understand where their choices lead them, and here, unfortunately, ‘the wisdom of their wise shall perish,’ quote the prophet Isaiah, and we’re paying a price for that.”

You recently signed an open letter of protest opposing the rabbis who announced their support for President Katzav. What was the basis for your position?
“I approach this issue not out of a sense that I know if he [former President Katzav; ML] is guilty or not. I didn’t read the material and I don’t have the tools to make a determination on the issue itself. But that’s not the point. The point is, and was, the attitude we, as citizens of the State of Israel, have to a civilized system of justice. Here were some rabbis who wrote an open letter that dismissed, with the stroke of a pen, the entire legal system and its many layers, saying in effect that the whole system is either stupid or evil. I know the verses the rabbis cited from the book of Isaiah just as well as they do. But what do they want? To have no legal system whatsoever? To live in total social anarchy?

“I think we find ourselves in an odd position here. I’m considered illegitimate by many in the religious Zionist camp. I’m not Zionistic enough. I grew up in the Diaspora, I came to Israel at a relatively late age, and some argue that I carry my Diaspora education like a hump on my back. I think I’m a super-Zionist compared to those who would delegitimize the entire legal system and its institutions here in Israel. Would I like to see the vision of ‘Restore our judges as of old’ realized? Of course I would. But for now, there needs to be some kind of system of justice.”

What would you like to tell readers?
“That they should construct their lives on the basis of holiness and purity [kedusha v’tahara] – on the basis of moral and Torah-inspired ideals. That’s the general direction. As for the details, well, that’s up to each one of us: who one is, where one lives, to which world one belongs. But the general directions must be devotion to the past of the Jewish people coupled with the good and beautiful elements one can find also in general culture, though the center of gravity must lean to devotion to the Torah.”

{Motti Levi, Walla! News, Kol Harav/Matzav.com}


  1. I’m not sure why R’ Lichtenstein says that allowing civil marriage would result in more mamzerim; adirabah: (1) a child born out of wedlock in halachah is not a mamzer, and
    (2)since (according to the view of Rav Moshe Feinstein Ztz’l, a civil or conservative or reform marriage is not an halachic marriage, even if (a) the woman is unfaithful to her husband or (b) re-marries without a Get, there would be no mamzer problem because she is not considered to be an Aishes Ish according to the halachah, so there would probably end up being a DECREASE in mamzerus!

  2. With all due respect to Rav Lichtenstein, he is a da’at yachid. The rabbinic letter regarding selling apartments to Arabs (who are being financed by enemy countries to take over Jewish neighborhoods and cities – even to the extent that the right of Jews to live in Yafo and Acco has now been questioned by the self-hating Left)was signed by Charedi and National Religious rabbanim and by both “right-wing” and “moderate” rabbanim.
    As for the support of Katzav, this was expressed in a private letter (not an open letter as claimed) which someone in his circle leaked to the media without asking the rabbanim. Any human justice system is fallible – especially when cases are tried in the press instead of the courtroom. This is the price of a judicial system that does not engage in secret trials. However, if someone, whether a rabbi or a layman, thinks that an innocent man has been convicted he has the right and obligation to give that person whatever chizuk he can.

  3. EM (posting #1) is incorrect
    Only the type of mamzeirus arising from a first conservative or reform marriage would possibly be avoided. However, their are many other possibilities for mamzeirus which would be increased if there were no restraint on unhallachic marriages. Additionally, there is something inherently wrong, at least in my view, in a Jewish state recognizing, even in a civil mode, inappropriate marriages.


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