“A Tree Planted on Many Waters”: Something About R. Aaron Levine z”l
When almost all of my mother’s local friends, and most of her relatives, were dead, and she could not go out on her own, and I was away much of the time, how did she continue to live at home? Without new friends and companions, there would have been no alternative to a nursing home. I asked Rabbi Aaron Levine to nominate women in our neighborhood who could help, and it is thanks to them that she developed new friendships and lived her last years with the dignity she deserved. After R. Aaron’s death, one of these righteous ladies recounted to me the extraordinary tact and sensitivity with which he had confided our need to her. For this alone I should be grateful eternally.
For many rabbanim, charity begins at home. A shul’s needs are many, as are those of other local institutions. Money is finite, even in good times. This was not R. Levine’s attitude. He raised funds, with palpable and infectious enthusiasm, for a variety of causes that were not directly connected to the Young Israel of Avenue J or the Flatbush community. He took enormous pride in the fact that his shul was in the forefront of support for organizations like Ezras Torah and Od Yosef Chai, both of which primarily provide assistance to needy families in Israel. All of this apart from innumerable acts of individual charity that occurred “under the radar,” known only to those whose partnership he required. And don’t forget the innumerable evenings when he interrupted his return home from Yeshiva to visit the sick at Manhattan’s hospitals. His zest for this work transformed my outlook on tsedakah; he did the same for many others.
Why do I speak of his activities as a communal rav when R. Levine’s international reputation is not based on his good works but on his pioneering application of economic theory to Halakhah? Well, kibbud em and charity are prominent among those mitsvot whose fruits nourish us in this world while the capital sustains us in the next world.2 I need no excuse to dwell on my debt in these areas. The great testimony to R. Levine’s achievement as a talmid hakham and as a scholar is available to all who desire – the voluminous publications into which he poured so much of his energy. Though much of his productivity on battei din or as a local posek is not in the public domain, the published material suffices to initiate the interested. These words continue to speak to us from the grave, and will continue to inspire his successors.
I choose to set R. Levine’s intellectual life work against the backdrop of his conduct because he was one of those whose deeds were greater than his wisdom and learning, of whom the Mishnah says that their wisdom and learning will endure.3 Truly, he was gifted intellectually. His retention was phenomenal: Once, in the mid-1970s, when he was a young instructor and I was even younger, we discussed over the phone a halakhic issue (not connected with economics in any way). At one point I suggested that it would be more time-efficient if he simply told me the name of the book he was reading from, only to learn that there was no book – R. Aaron was quoting from memory. Such gifts, even when fully developed, make a brilliant scholar but make neither a religious leader, nor a guide and support to others, nor a saintly individual.
It is not just that he worked hard. He approached every question with painstaking meticulousness and detail, whether it was a monetary dispute in a rabbinic court, personal advice, a shul decision, or the disposition of an article for Tradition. In the last years, when he was often in great pain, I lightened his workload for the journal, and often he begged off a refereeing assignment. Yet when his participation was essential he took the lead and followed up on every detail until we reached a fair and honest result, as best as we could achieve it.
R. Levine was a team-player, a diplomat and at the same time, and perhaps for that very reason, an individual ready to fight for what really mattered to him. Even if an editorial decision went against him, he accepted it and did his utmost to ensure that the outcome was successful.
For many of his admirers, R. Levine’s crowning achievement was his editing of the Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics. From the viewpoint of internal Orthodox self-validation, this massive work marked the arrival of “Halakhah and Economics” as a recognized scholarly discipline. R. Levine insisted that the book must not contain anything objectionable from the viewpoint of normative Jewish belief. In the modernist academic culture of theological “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it is difficult enough to maintain standards in books explicitly identified as Orthodox. In order to attain his goal, it was necessary for R. Levine to become familiar with approaches to Halakhah alien to him, that reject the divine origin of Torah she-be-al Peh. He had to understand what motivates them, and to negotiate acceptable formulations with scholars who have no commitment to Orthodox principles. Earlier in his career he had learned to participate in symposia, both face-to-face and in writing, where he debated respectfully with individuals who fell far short of his halakhic or economic knowledge. Now, often in pain, he presided over this last book. We had many conversations about these projects but I still do not fully understand how he pulled it off.
He whose actions are greater than his learning, to what does he compare?4 To answer, the Mishnah cited above quotes Jeremiah: Such a person is like a “tree planted on waters… and is not anxious in years of draught and does not cease from bearing fruit.”5 R. Levine was such a person. He could be hurt like anyone else when treated disrespectfully, but he got over it astonishingly fast. Throughout his life he was a prodigious writer and teacher, an indefatigable man of hesed. In years of cancer he showed no anxiety. He was the same as he had been, only physically weaker. Despite the pain, the prospect of a shiur or a class, or the blank page waiting for his writing, was enough to take him out of this world. Throughout his career he was blessed with a household that understood him and was devoted to his goals.
When actions are greater than learning, the results are not only unshakable moral stability and relentless religious commitment, indomitable work habits and tranquility in crisis. There is also a superior truthfulness that is conferred upon the individual whose learning is rooted in his life. One conversation I had with R. Aaron may convey something of what is at stake: The New York Times has a weekly feature in which a journalist judges ethical dilemmas. The perspectives generally express a predictable liberal secularism. One week the following scenario was presented: On a commuter train, passengers notice that an elderly woman prefers to stand throughout the trip rather than sit next to a black person. The questioner asks whether it is proper to vacate one’s own seat, taking the one the “racist lady” has spurned in order to accommodate her peculiar preference. The answer was that one should have no mercy on the offending woman; she should be allowed to suffer for her intolerance.
To me this seemed unjustifiably harsh. By occupying the rejected seat one was surely demonstrating a lack of sympathy for the old woman’s prejudice, while treating her, who had presumably come to her attitudes long ago and was confirmed in them, with a degree of pity, sparing her aged body a long ride in a swaying train. The Times verdict sounded too vindictive, too reminiscent of the self-righteous liberals we meet too often in real life, so memorably depicted in works like Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” Those with whom I discussed the column either agreed with me or were hesitant to disagree.
For R. Levine, by contrast, there was one overriding criterion: the strict halakhah of ona’at devarim, the prohibition of oppressing another person by word or gesture. The old woman was guilty of ona’at devarim; to accommodate her was to abet her iniquity. Of course, if there was danger of her being injured, she should be helped. Short of that, the Times Ethicist for once had it right. What matters in this discussion is not whether one can question R. Aaron’s reaction but how it illustrates the way a man’s mind works when he has internalized the Halakhah not only academically but existentially.
He is gone. To whom can I turn for that kind of insight?
Rabbi Shalom Carmy is an associate professor of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshiva College, and is the editor of Tradition.
1 Psalms 1:3.
2 Pe’ah 1:1.
3 Avot 3:9.
4 Avot 3:17.
5 Jeremiah 17:8.