The Quintessential Scribe
I had the privilege of studying in Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's Talmud shiur for two years, 1966-1968. Each year he invited us talmidim to his house for latkes on Hanukkah. There in his apartment we sat with his little kids and his wife, 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 came by. One of us asked him to join the game. He did and he played aggressively, and just like a regular guy. For some reason, that blew my mind.
And one year, in our Yeshiva College student Purim shpiel, 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 along with us. For some reason, that really blew my mind.
These three anecdotes aside, Rav Aharon imbued me with three indelible lessons that I took 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 would quote Milton or Spencer freely. 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 learning Torah was his true vocation.
Rav Aharon taught me that you could critically study and deeply love the lifestyle teachings, or hashkafah, of the Torah. Each week we read and discussed a chapter in Rav Bar Shaul's inspirational Hebrew treatise, Mitzvah Valev, the commandments and the heart Using 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 subject of learning. The administration told him that he had to give us exams in Talmud. So he used that as an opportunity to teach us more. He would give 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. Related to something we learned before, he would give us a text and ask us to comment on it. We had to decide what commentary he had plucked the text from and then explain why we came to that conclusion.
That is how Rav Aharon taught me that an exam could do more that ask a student to regurgitate what he had learned. He tested my knowledge and my thinking powers at the same time. The rabbi was the only teacher that I ever had who truly knew details of my personal style of learning, 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 and elsewhere.
After I went on to become a professor, I would take extended leaves to work on my research in Jerusalem, Israel. My family has an apartment in Katamon neighborhood where I would go to live while in Jerusalem. In the morning I would frequently go to 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 and sit near him and join him at prayer. That would lift my spirits for the day.
Rav Aharon embodies the ideals of the scribe archetype...