Leaves of Faith by R Aharon Lichtenstein

To put Leaves of Faith into context, it is worth dwelling briefly on Lichtenstein's background. Born in 1933 in France, his family escaped the Holocaust and fled to the States, ultimately coming to study under Rabbi JB Soleveitchik, of whom he became a lifelong talmid (and son-in-law) of. He also completed a PhD at Harvard University in English Literature, a subject that continued to influence his religious works, outlook and style, explicitly and implicitly. He then lived and worked in Israel as head of a talmudic college for over four decades; lecturing, mentoring and writing.

Leaves of Faith is a unique two volume work on Jewish learning and living, made up of the extraordinary intellectual contribution of the thought of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of the greatest twentieth century post-war thinkers. The author is not at all scared of tackling the most fundamental questions in Jewish life, and he does so with style, humility and rigour.

Volume 1, 'The World of Jewish Learning' is truly breathtaking in its diversity of 'Torah topics'. The first chapter is on 'Why Learn Gemara?', the classical ancient Jewish text that R Lichtenstein spent a life's work on. In a masterful breakdown of the subject, R Lichtenstein address key questions that form the bedrock of this study, such as why study over performing productive work and why study Talmud over Jewish law (halakhah). 

Then, he goes on to develop his 'conceptual approach' to learning. He fell in the broad category of the so-called 'Brisker method' of learning, where you undertake rigorous analysis and apply advanced techniques in order to uncover the legal methodology in the texts. At first you cannot help to notice the author's great awe at the prospect of Torah learning, where he quotes the verse in psalms 'open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law'. Nevertheless, the author feels that classic learning must be complemented by other types of divine service, such as prayer and acts of kindness.

Readers will be particularly interested in the chapter on 'The ideology of Hesder', which is a programme that limits study in order to pursue army service. This brings to light the comprehensive nature of R Lichtenstein's approach to living; that it be a juggling act of intellectual contemplation and real-world action. 

The final three chapters in the first volume, two on R JB Soleveitchik and one on R SZ Auerbach, give a strong sense of the author's appreciation and influence from the great thinkers of his time.

Volume 2 is quite different in scope and length - almost twice as long and dealing with very broad matters in Jewish living, such as prayer, conversion and politics and social action. Not many Rabbis in R Lichtenstein's generation would even be involved in such a diverse range of matters never mind that they have in-depth essays on all of them! Once again, the author is not frightened to delve into topics that might otherwise be viewed as 'no go areas' by some in the rabbinic leadership, for instance whether Judaism recognises an ethic independent of Halakha. 

Anyway, the first of sixteen chapters sets the agenda off at a rapid pace as the author makes a strong argument for dynamic interaction between religion and the state, quite a controversial view in the modern world which generally favours separation. Once again, in a style typical of Lichtenstein's approach, the essay's foundation are on the relevant biblical passages, before moving on to more recent texts and thinkers both in and outside the Jewish world. 

The third chapter is an especially heart-warming analysis on the fraternal nature of Judaism, where the author shows great sensitivity and skill in dealing with the reality of mass assimilation and how the religious ought to view the irreligious. Lichtenstein is a truly compassionate individual, and the complexity of life is a theme that runs through this entire work.

After dealing with some issues more technical in nature such as prayer, conversion and shmittah (the sabbatical year), the essays return to focus on social justice, identity and above all, how to balance Judaism with all its ancient customs and practices with technology and the modern world (modernity).

Chapter 16, the last, is a fantastic textual innovation as it deals with specific questions on the state of orthodoxy, belief, American Jewry, the Jewish nation and faith. A handful of questions are laid out at the start of the chapter and Lichtenstein masterfully answers alongside careful interlinking of the issues.

Overall, what makes this two-volume masterpiece such a worthwhile read is its suitability for every kind of Jew, whether secular or religious. Lichtenstein's scholarship is outstanding and is bound to capture the respect and imagination of the scholar and layman alike.

 Leaves of Faith by R Aharon Lichtenstein is published by Ktav


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