REVIEW: Our Roshei Yeshiva

Shlomo Zuckier Tradition Online

David J. Landes, Our Roshei Yeshiva: Reflections on the Lives, Thought, and Leadership of Rabbi Yehuda Amital zt”l and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l (Shikey Press, 2022)

This short but significant volume consists of two papers presented by David J. Landes, each honoring one of the two original Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion soon after their passing. He offered “Reflections on the Life and Teachings of Rav Yehuda Amital” in Chicago on September 5, 2010, and “The Rational Theology of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein” at Congregation Rinat Yisrael, in Teaneck, on May 24, 2015. Poignantly, this volume is published posthumously, as Landes passed away after a several-years battle with cancer, in September 2019. 

Before analyzing the book, a word about its author. David Landes, alongside a career in law and business, pursued a parallel career as an anthropologist of the Orthodox Jewish community. After a long pause, he completed his doctoral studies at Princeton in 2010 based on fieldwork attending shiurim at Yeshiva University. He produced insightful articles and talks on a variety of phenomena in the contemporary Orthodox community ranging from Tanakh be-Gova ha-Einayim, to analyzing Rav Shagar’s thought, to Lakewood’s BMG, to neo-Hasidic circles at Yeshiva University. I was fortunate enough to hear his talk on R. Lichtenstein presented in this volume when it was first delivered. 

Landes also comes to the topic of the thought of Rabbis Lichtenstein and Amital as an insider. He spent a year and a half in Yeshivat Har Etzion during the fateful period of 1973-74, spanning the Yom Kippur War, which took a significant toll on the new Yeshiva. The volume includes a letter he sent home at that time analyzing a speech by R. Amital at the time and mentions several times his interactions with the two subjects of study. As an alumnus, he remained closely engaged in and supportive of the Yeshiva, serving for several years as its Chairman of the Board. He thus comes at this topic with a uniquely insider-outsider perspective, using the skills of an anthropologist and inhabiting the positionality of a participant-observer.

The presentation of R. Amital’s biography and theology might be the best short summary of his life and thought produced to date. It incorporates his life story – from Hungarian yeshiva bochur to Holocaust survivor to student at the Hevron Yeshiva to IDF service to teaching at Yeshivat HaDarom, formulating the concept and pragmatics of joint yeshiva-army service, and founding and running Har Etzion from 1967 until his retirement, joined by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in 1971. It presents his significant theological turn from ideological rightist Gush Emunim stalwart committed to expanding the land, to a pragmatic member of the peace camp, and founder of the Meimad Party that was simultaneously Religious Zionist and pro-peace. It gives a sense of R. Amital’s religious personality: his powerful charisma as a speaker and leader, accompanied by humility and a down-to-earth sensibility, as well as the personal warmth he exuded in personal interaction. The essay also presents R. Amital’s Shoah theodicy – rejecting any justification (retributive or redemptive) for the murder of innocent children, and yet insisting that God was present in Auschwitz with the Jewish People. 

It presents R. Amital’s educational philosophy as well, noting that he chose to absent himself from Yeshivat Har Etzion’s inaugural opening day in order that students would make it their own, and his insistence that his students build their own religious lives and not become “mini-Amitals.” R. Amital also insisted that the Yeshiva be connected to the broader world, and remain concerned with communal crises and work to rectify them, a philosophy that was fulfilled with many yeshiva alumni involved in the rabbinate, education, academia, and Israeli society more broadly. 

The essay on R. Lichtenstein is less of a general summary of his approach and focuses instead on a particular theme, his approach to general literature, especially as represented in his dissertation-turned-book, Henry More: The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist. This is an understudied part of R. Lichtenstein’s oeuvre, with the only other sustained treatment of the issue appearing in the pages of TRADITION with Rabbi Shalom Carmy’s Music of the Left Hand: Personal Notes on the Place of Liberal Arts Education in the Teachings of R. Aharon Lichtenstein,” supplemented by the bibliographical review in the same issue by Jeffrey Saks. Significantly, as Landes notes, the substance of R. Lichtenstein’s literary approach integrates well with his broader theological approach to Judaism. 

Rabbis Amital and Lichtenstein (photo: Menachem Stein)

Landes lays out the setting of the book, a study of the theology of Henry More, one of the 17th century Platonists located at Cambridge who considered the proper approach to religious life, balancing ideas of intellectual religious activity, religious action, deiformity (imitating God), and morality in religious life. 

In addition to summarizing the arguments that R. Lichtenstein makes in that volume (which was based on his doctoral dissertation), Landes points to connections between R. Lichtenstein’s views in that book and the positions he took later throughout his career. If Landes is right, this constitutes R. Lichtenstein’s first theological writing, laying out in part his own religious philosophy, which was then manifest throughout the nearly six decades following writing that dissertation. 

In the Henry More book, when laying out three religious paths overall, R. Lichtenstein presents the Jewish view as one that has a single path, focused on (among other things) the intellectual pursuit of understanding God and His Torah. Landes connects this to R. Lichtenstein’s educational approach at Yeshivat Har Etzion, which was famously focused on intellectual engagement with Torah, but where R. Lichtenstein also took efforts to make the Torah accessible to others, including by presenting a conceptually clear shiur that emphasizing methodology.

Elsewhere, R. Lichtenstein critiques the view of moralism among some Christian thinkers of the early modern period, arguing that a commitment to morality cannot be outside of one’s religious commitments but must be seen as a part of them. Landes connects this to R. Lichtenstein’s arguments in his essay “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha,” where he argues that morality (along with any principled commitment one has) must be done as part of service to God and not independently. 

Along the way, R. Lichtenstein critiqued an account of rational theology (a term that appears in the title of his book) that saw the role of rationality as deciding whether religious approaches were acceptably rational. In his view, the role of one’s rational mind is not to criticize religious life (sitting in judgment of Torah is something he rejected on a variety of occasions), but rather a realm – the central realm – in which one directs oneself to serve God. Landes again notes that this is central to what R. Lichtenstein stood for over his career. 

Landes closes with this powerful passage:

I am overwhelmed by the realization that Rav Lichtenstein took this religious philosophy that he developed when he was 24 years old and proceeded to live his entire life by it. A life without simple solutions, a life with constant maximum effort, and a life lived continuously and consciously in the presence of God. 

This volume joins a growing literature about Yeshivat Har Etzion and its founding Roshei Yeshiva and their unique contributions to Jewish thought and communal leadership. Its two excellent essays are certainly worth reading, for those who are acquainted with the thought of these two figures and for those who are in need of an introduction to their lives, thought, and work. 

Shlomo Zuckier, a member of TRADITION’s editorial board, is a Research Associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a Maggid Shiur at Stern College. He recently completed a doctorate at Yale University and Kollel Elyon at RIETS. 


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