Blame Rav Aharon Lichtenstein: A Response to Marom Zour

I came across an eye-opening item in a friend’s Facebook trough late last week. She was re-posting something which had come across her inbox from an irate secular Israeli with whom she is not personally acquainted. (The first words below are “To all those who have shown.”)

Naale

I found this rant illuminating because it points up in one hyper-dramatic paragraph the problem faced by secular Yishuvim all over Israel. By cutting religion out of their children’s connections to Israel, secular Israelis of the previous generation gave their children little reason to continue living there. Absent a Divine mandate, living in Israel becomes an act of asceticism at best and near-suicide at worst. What rational, secular-minded individual, raised without an ideology that only with God’s help can we win our battles, would choose to live in a country which any military tactician would label a ticking time-bomb? There are far more convenient places on earth to live – in fact probably almost any other country would be.

So naturally, this person’s children grew up, moved to a different country and, broadly speaking, all of her friend’s children did the same. Now her neighborhood has lots of open real estate and no one to move in – except for the kind of people who believe that a country with so few rational qualities may be worth living in anyway on account of its many esoteric ones. And then Ms. Zour goes on Facebook to rail against the religious for buying up homes in her settlement. But it is a too-little-too-late case of misplaced frustration. Ms. Zour blaming the religious folk for moving in is about as reasonable as castigating poor people for moving in to a suburban American neighborhood after the exodus of enough industry has caused real estate prices to plummet. (Incidentally, it has not gotten past me that the petitioner’s name means “traffic light.” Alias? Ideologically bankrupt parents? Matchmaking mishap? Hard to say.)

I was thinking about Ms. Zour over Shabbat as I heard so many beautiful stories about Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l. To be true to Brisker style, I would divide the recollections I have read and heard about this giant over the past week into two categories: those relating to the cheftza, the Torah he produced and his towering abilities in learning; and those related to the gavra, the magnanimity of his chessed and the strength of his personality. Yet an aspect of his greatness about which I have seen less discussion is the way in which he reshaped the conversation, both in America and in Israel, about the religious character of the State and of religious people’s contribution to it.

To be sure, Rav Aharon was not the first Orthodox American oleh, but the 1971 defection of Rav Soloveitchik’s 38-year-old son-in-law and heir apparent caused reverberations still felt when I arrived there decades later. Yeshivat Gush Etzion, of which Rav Aharon became co-Rosh Yeshiva, was not the first Hesder yeshiva; but it grew the acceptance in which Hesder would come to be felt by American young men. And as those boys began to learn and serve their Homeland, many stayed to live. American communities would be created, neighborhoods would be “mitchareid,” yishuvim could be reborn with mikvaot and religious schools, and Ms. Zour could one day hurl invective at her religious victors as they marched off the field smiling at her sudden defensiveness and loss of composure.

In line with the way he lived his life, Rav Aharon’s legacy as a patriarch of the new religious center-right ideology was not born of fiery oration or the creation of a political party. His was an understated, patient influence, one made evident by the conviction of his ideals, the sophistication of his intellectual passion, and by the glow of his personal example. As for Ms. Zour, her world was lost in 1971. While she was steadfastly and committedly giving her children little incentive to stay in Israel, Rav Aharon was, with equal gusto and by the force of his fertile mind and tactile personality, giving young men by the dozen every reason to stay, build communities, and remake the nation in a religious image. That Ms. Zour’s rant was published on or close to Rav Aharon’s passing drives home the irony that it is he who is to blame for Ms. Zour’s real estate problems. And who knows if, had he not been such a magnanimously genteel person, Rav Aharon himself might have chuckled at that very irony.

Yihi Zichro Baruch.

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