8/30/2005

R' Lichtenstein and Modern Orthodoxy

Imagine the following scenario: Somehow, every Rabbi in Israel is compelled to go to Binyanei Ha-Umah and locked in with the following instruction: nobody leaves until you decide on a single individual who will be reinstated with the original semikhah, invested with the power to authoritatively decide the normative meaning of the Torah, to share that authority with others, and to grant the authority to adjudicate the full range of legal issues that may arise. It would become clear pretty quickly that factionalism and ideology, not to mention politics, would take over the discussion. But a mandate is a mandate; nobody is leaving. Pretty quickly, it would become clear that the person chosen would have to be a 'compromise' candidate, not in the sense that he's not the most accomplished or greatest, but in the sense that his own personal stances are most agreeable to most people. Someone conservative by nature, but fully articulate and capable of expressing religious ideas in a contemporary, if obtuse, manner. He would be a staunch traditionalist, and an exemplar of proper religious behavior and attitude, yet have his eyes wide open to contemporary ideas and reality. He would need to be fully at home in both the language of the tradition, and the language of current international discourse. After much debating and deliberating, it would be clear that the obvious choice would be Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.



Granted, the entire scenario is unrealistic (unfortunately). But to reinforce that, given the scenario, the outcome itself is likely, note that the current Pope was selected by a very similar process

I have not yet begun to read works of Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), though I plan to, but I've heard and read that his basic attitude and relationship with contemporary thought is very similar in many ways. Of course, they both draw from the writings and legacy of perhaps the greatest hero of faith in the face of the condition of modernity, John Henry Cardinal Newman


Newman, an Oxford professor, Anglican by birth, training, and life, converted to Catholicism and thereby provoked the ridicule of his colleagues. His autobiographical defense of his own religious experiences and choices, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, remains a masterpiece of modern religious thought.

Regardless of R' Lichtenstein's location along the spectrum of modern and postmodern religious thinkers, his ability to digest the full range of encounter between the Halakhic community and its interface with the contemporary world, and articulate both problem and solution in contemporary language is of tremendous significance to each and every one of us. We are fortunate to belong to his generation.

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