The Untraveled Road from Ma’aleh Adumim to Alon Shevut
Reviewed Book: Haim Sabato, In Quest of Your Presence: Conversations with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Aharonoth Books and Chemed Books, 2011).
This past Rosh Hodesh Elul, for the first time in recent Israeli publishing history, a non-fiction book was sold out before its release date.1 Mevakshei Panekha (the Hebrew title) has created a stir in educated Israeli society that is unprecedented for a book authored by figures representing a group such as the elite intellectualist stratum of the hesder yeshivah community. The book is the product of a series of twenty interviews conducted by R. Haim Sabato, written in transcript form and organized into seventeen topics. The interviews include treatment of several issues at the forefront of conversation in the National Religious community in Israel today, such as feminism and the status of secular Jews in Israeli society, as well as topics of broader relevance, such as religious humanism and the State of Israel. Many of the topics covered in the book are ones that R. Lichtenstein has himself written about in the past, whether in English, Hebrew, or both, as evidenced by the relevant excerpts from his writings included at the end of each chapter. Thus, for readers familiar with R. Lichtenstein’s weltanschauung, which serves as the philosophical foundation of Yeshivat Har Etzion (the hesder yeshivah headed by R. Lichtenstein) and, to a large extent, Yeshiva University, much of the book will feel very familiar. That being said, the book is distinguished from all of R. Lichtenstein’s other writings by one factor: It was not written to be read by Gushnikim (a colloquial term used to refer to students at Yeshivat Har Etzion).
A primary manifestation of this distinctiveness is that, unlike R. Lichtenstein’s other books, Mevakshei Panekha was published by Yediot Sefarim. A branch of the prominent Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Yediot Sefarim publishes popular books with the intention of appealing to a broad consumer base and making a profit, as do most other publishing companies. The same cannot be said of Ktav or Machon Herzog, two publishing houses that have published much of R. Lichtenstein’s writing in the past and which are primarily focused on publishing academic works. The change in publisher may indeed be reflective of a change in goal. Until now, the objective of publishing R. Lichtenstein’s thoughts and writings was to make them accessible in print to his students and to the extended Yeshivat Har Etzion and YU community, who were already familiar with the overarching concepts that define R. Lichtenstein’s hashkafah. This book, however, seems to have been written in order to deliberately engage people who might not otherwise know anything about its contents. For Yediot, perhaps, this means revenue. For R. Lichtenstein, this means disseminating his ideas and views to an audience much larger and more diverse than those who already consider themselves his followers.
As part of the far-reaching advertising campaign that preceded the book’s publication, a blurb was written by Yediot Sefarim, singing the praises of the two rabbinic figures involved and romanticizing the beauty and brilliance that was supposedly brought forth through their collaboration.2 The blurb placed a great deal of emphasis on the remarkable nature of the meeting of two giants from such different backgrounds: a scion of the Lithuanian Brisker dynasty and the Cairo-born heir to a distinguished Aleppan rabbinic family. Yet with the exception of the chapter named for the Brisker method, the presumed vast cultural chasms in the upbringings of R. Lichtenstein and R. Sabato did not profoundly affect the book. More significantly, however, the blurb seemed, to this writer, to dilute the complexity and nuance of R. Lichtenstein’s personality in order to “speak to” and “inspire” readers by giving them a glimpse of this previously hidden remarkable human being.
The decided majority of Dati Le‘umi (Religious Zionist) youths in Israel do not subscribe to the ideals of the Brisker tradition upon which, to a large extent, Yeshivat Har Etzion was founded (with the exception of Brisk’s anti-Zionism, which Yeshivat Har Etzion rejects). This is evidenced by the fact that Yeshivat Har Etzion is one of the very few yeshivot hesder with a program of study that does not place a heavy emphasis on the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. With Yeshivat Merkaz Harav as the original institution devoted to carrying on the torch of R. Kook’s philosophy, the vast majority of yeshivot have been modeled after its basic curriculum, with a few exceptions including Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim (headed by R. Sabato), and Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa of the Kibbutz Hadati movement. R. Kook’s philosophy draws on a great deal of mysticism, in a manner similar to neo-Hassidic movements that have cropped up recently in Israel. Thus, the popular brand of ideology for most of Dati Le‘umi Israeli youth today is decidedly Kooknik (associated with the tradition of R. Kook) and neo-Hassidic — adjectives that cannot be accurately used to describe R. Lichtenstein’s worldview.
The idea for this particular book was conceived by Sabato, who began the project after making a very well-received proposal to Yediot.3 However, as evidenced by several recent steps taken by R. Lichtenstein and Yeshivat Har Etzion, the book is also part of an agenda to expose broader Israeli Dati Le‘umi society to the yeshivah’s hashkafah, generally, and to R. Lichtenstein’s, specifically. Last December, R. Lichtenstein addressed a strongly worded open letter to the 50 Israeli rabbis who came out with a statement halakhically prohibiting the sale or rental of real estate in Israel to non-Jews.4 Only two months ago, he co-signed a letter condemning the “price tag” activities of extreme right-wing activists in the West Bank.5 It seems clear, then, that Mevakshei Panekha was written with particular intent to speak to the broader Dati Le’umi society.
Given the limited appeal of R. Lichtenstein’s worldview and the attempt to attract a broader audience, one may wonder whether the hashkafic integrity and nuance of the book were compromised in an effort to deal with these realities. However, though the book does not mirror the rigorous academic style typical of R. Lichtenstein’s writings, his views are fairly and accurately represented.
Though the public response to Mevakshei Panekha was, on the whole, overwhelmingly positive, the reasons for its enthusiastic reception varied from one community to the next. The book was hailed in the secular Israeli media as a triumph of humanism and as evidence that, at its heart, the National Religious enterprise is in line with the values of social justice lauded by the Israeli left. “A reading of the book… illustrates R. Lichtenstein’s character as a brilliant intellectual in the realm of Halakha, a very open-minded man of the humanities, and, primarily, as a great religious humanist.”6 In the religious camp, however, despite not being unanimously deemed an innovative work, the book is viewed primarily as a work of Jewish thought by a prominent Torah scholar and community leader.
These divergent responses to the book are reminiscent of the varying and occasionally contradictory ways that different communities understood R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s works. After the death of the Rav (and, to some degree, during his lifetime), there was and continues to be disagreement on whether the Rav was, at his core, a man of Halakhah, of Jewish philosophy, or of the general arts and sciences. The publication and publicizing of Mevakshei Panekha in a manner that attracted the attention of communities previously unfamiliar with R. Lichtenstein has triggered attempts to harness the novel phenomenon that is R. Lichtenstein’s worldview for purposes of bolstering social agendas across the spectrum of the educated Israeli populace.
The advertising campaign responsible for this phenomenon focused heavily on the respective virtues of Rabbis Lichtenstein and Sabato, and the indubitable greatness that would result from the joining of these two forces to produce a philosophical work. This campaign was presumptuous on two counts: First, the extent to which R. Sabato’s playing the role of interviewer contributed to the book is certainly subject to dispute; second, dubbing the book “the most important Jewish philosophical book since Rabbi [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik” presumes that it is actually a work of philosophy, a premise that has already been questioned in the Israeli media and blogosphere.7
Throughout the book, R. Lichtenstein makes use of many aggadic anecdotes and Talmudic metaphors to illustrate his thoughts. The book is full of references to sugyot (topics) in the Gemara and to rabbinic figures throughout the ages. As a result, the reading experience can vary greatly depending on the knowledge base of the reader. However, understanding these concepts is not crucial to following the gist of the material; a grasp of the referenced information will only serve to enhance the reading experience
The questions R. Sabato poses to R. Lichtenstein in the interviews, while sometimes preceded by brief explanations, make up a very small percentage of the book. This makes it difficult to discern whether R. Sabato’s role as interviewer is particularly significant. In this writer’s view, his value as interviewer lies in his extensive and in-depth knowledge of both Jewish tradition and Israeli history and society. The questions were productively framed, and R. Sabato was often persistent in pushing R. Lichtenstein to get to the heart of a matter he had not adequately covered or had theorized into abstract oblivion. Furthermore, R. Sabato’s style is poetic and flows beautifully to ears attuned to literary Hebrew. However, this will be lost on readers not proficient in Hebrew, and may actually prove to be an annoyance to foreign readers.
With the decided majority of the text of the book being R. Lichtenstein’s verbose and multi-step answers to R. Sabato’s questions, the reader gets the feeling that R. Lichtenstein is speaking through the pages. While this writer would not characterize Mevakshei Panekha as a “light read,” particularly for readers whose Hebrew reading comprehension is limited, it reads far more easily than R. Lichtenstein’s own writing, which is peppered with Latin phrases and esoteric references. Mevakshei Panekha retains a casual, albeit lofty, tone, such that the reader need not consult a Latin-English dictionary to stay afloat amongst R. Lichtenstein’s thoughts. It should be noted, however, that, though the references in the book are most frequently Talmudic in nature, R. Lichtenstein’s anecdotes and references do span a broad cultural range, from Lithuanian rabbinic lore to American Modern Orthodox culture to Israeli Dati Le’umi society to early American and British literature.
Though I found Yediot’s blurb about Mevakshei Panekha alarming because of its inaccurate description of R. Lichtenstein and his hashkafah, the content of the book itself did not reflect these errors. The book is written in a refreshing format and does not compromise the values underlying the corpus of R. Lichtenstein’s writings. While I would not recommend it to a reader seeking a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of R. Lichtenstein’s weltanschauung, it is certainly a worthy read for someone looking for an overarching account of R. Lichtenstein’s take on many issues relevant to today’s Dati Le‘umi and Modern Orthodox communities.
Talya Laufer is a junior at SCW majoring in Biochemistry and Judaic studies, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
1 Uri Pollack, “Entire First Printing of Mevakshei Panekha Sold in Advance,” Kipa, August 22, 2011, available at: www.kipa.co.il.
2 Available at: http://tinyurl.com/yediotsefarim-mevaksheipanecha.
4 Jonah Mandel, “Rivlin: ‘Rabbis’ Letter’ is Discriminatory,” The Jerusalem Post, December 15, 2010, available at: www.jpost.com.
5 Akiva Novick, “Rabbis Slam ‘Price Tag’ Activities,” Ynet News, September 19, 2011, available at: www.ynetnews.com.
6 Dov Alboim, “Gesher al Mayim So’arim” (Hebrew), 7 Yamim, October 7, 2011, 30-36, available at: http://etzion.haretzion.org/images/stories/YHE/pdf/ral-gesher-mayim-soarim.pdf. Translation is the author’s.
7 Daniel Lehmann, “Lamrot ha-Pirsomot, hu Lo Sefer Mahashavah” (Hebrew), Srugim, September 6, 2011, available at: http:// tinyurl.com/srugim-mevakshei-panekha.