Monday, April 27, 2015

Faith Restored - How Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l helped me regain my faith



Where were his answers? How could he not have dealt with such important and pressing questions? As the most profound thinker in the Orthodox world, how could Rav Aharon Lichtenstein not have written something that would answer the challenges presented by biblical criticism? I was floundering, and desperately trying to hold onto my faith, and I needed the answers to my questions.

Looking back at that early stage of my search, I realize that the premise on which my questions were asked was flawed. As I was to discover, there are no perfect answers to the questions of biblical criticism that, magically, make the questions go away. Still, for a long time I was dismayed by the fact that Rav Aharon zt”l had not thought to take the issue on. To be sure, I was to discover that to some degree, Rav Aharon had in fact dealt with some aspects of biblical criticism. Still, he had limited that to a particular area, one that did not address my questions.

What struck me as odd at the time, was how frum (in the negative sense of the term) Rav Aharon’s approach to avoiding these questions seemed to me. How could someone with such an intellect, and depth and breadth of knowledge, simply suggest that one remain faithful. Couldn’t he, at the very least, explain to us how he had done so, and why the questions did not bother him? Or, if in fact they did bother him, why not explain how he lived with those questions?

Eventually I discovered that he had in fact given me the tools to stay within the world of faith. In 1996, Rav Aharon wrote, what for me was one of the most profound essays on faith. In it, he wrote:

What I received from all my mentors, at home or in yeshiva, was the key to confronting life, particularly modern life, in all its complexity: the recognition that it was not so necessary to have all the answers as to learn to live with the questions. Regardless of what issues--moral, theological, textual or historical--vexed me, I was confident that they had been raised by masters far sharper and wiser than myself; and if they had remained impregnably steadfast in their commitment, so should and could I. I intuited that, his categorical formulations and imperial certitude notwithstanding, Rav Hutner had surely confronted whatever questions occurred to me. Later, I felt virtually certain the Rav had, so that the depth and intensity of their service of G-d was doubly reassuring. (Emphasis added)

It seems he had questions of his own, and yet, due to his own humility and trust in those who had taught him, Rav Aharon had managed to live with the questions. If a gadol like him could live with the questions, and not just live, but live with a deep and profound faith, I too could live with my questions.

It is here that I come to what might be the most profound lesson that Rav Aharon can teach those of us in the world of Modern Orthodoxy. Many times, we are blown away by intellect. We speak about Torah U’Mada, dialectic, and synthesis. Some trot out Rav Aharon’s PHD from Harvard, as if that somehow validates him. Too often, we assume that serious intellectual engagement and deep faith are incompatible. Rav Aharon showed otherwise. The same person who knew Shas, and, l’havdil, Milton, cold, could say “Yehei Shmei Rabbah” with all of his strength, and read the words “Dirshu HaShem B’himatzo” from the depths of his soul. While I’m not sure how much we can take away from his searing intellect, I know how much we have to learn from his deep and passionate faith.

6 comments:

  1. "As I was to discover, there are no perfect answers to the questions of biblical criticism that, magically, make the questions go away."

    Sure there are. You just don't like those answers.

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    1. If you think the questions have been answered, I'm afraid you haven't investigated sufficiently.

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  2. An overwhelming scholarly consensus exists among Bible scholars that the documentary hypothesis, as it has been refined and developed over the 100+ years since Wellhausen, is broadly speaking correct. A thinker cannot ignore that just by saying that traditional faith claims that on their face are contradicted by that consensus have been good enough for others. First, people have all kinds of personal reasons why they do something. Once a person owes his position in a yeshiva or community to his going with the program, he may not wish to rock the boat or to give it all up and leave. That may be a conscious decision or those personal reasons may prevent him subconsciously from fully confronting the questions. Second, how many thinkers DID leave the faith with which they grew up after studying Biblical criticism? Did RAL take a survey and decide based on the majority? That's not what a thinker does. If a person relies on the overwhelming scholarly consensus then that's sufficient--not every one can be expected to spend 10 years learning Akkadian and reviewing from scratch the major original sources. But if a thinker rejects it or believes that it's irrelevant to traditional Judaism, then the burden is on him to explain in detail.

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    1. I would hope that in the 50+ year's since Kuhn wrote about paradigm shifts, we would recognize that "consensus of scholars", particularly in the areas outside of the hard-sciences, should not be seen as a prove. We all have our biases. Mine allow me to feel comfortable to rely on the minority of scholars.

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  3. I think the more compelling reason why we reject the 'overwhelming scholarly consensus' is because among that group there are no Talmidei Chachamim. The 'scholars' who don't know how to decipher the writings of the Vilna Gaon and Rebbe Akiva Eiger have decided that they are the only Biblical scholars on the world. This is why their opinions are not relevant, not because we don't care to think about serious questions.

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    1. That might be part of it, but I don't think it's the only reason.

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