Creative Solutions to Educational Challenges: Educational Units based on Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's published essays

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Creative Solutions to Educational Challenges: Educational Units based on Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's published essays
     - Dani Bieler

In memory of Rav Aharon, I wanted to create a learning project at our shul which would aim to accomplish two things
1. Approach the consistency of a general seder in learning
2. Approach the general love of learning "lishma" that R Aharon personified

My general audience does not consist of people who have a regular Gemara seder or who would/could get a lot out of reading typical Rav Aharon article. So instead of simply giving a shiur on a topic, we organized the following program that I hope R Aharon would be proud of. 

In order to pull the audience "in", we decided to concentrate on R Aharon's surveys of contemporary halachic issues. While R Aharon found meaning in Tiharot, not every simple Jew can. 

Instead of having the group read one of R Aharon's articles directly, my father and I went through the articles and picked out all of the primary sources. In order not to overwhelm anyone, we decided to do one to three sources per unit so that one could study the entire unit in 5-20 minutes. Each one was translated into English, and then we added two sets of thought provoking questions at the end - one on the sources itself and one on practical implications. 

In my community most people are married, and we have suggested that husbands and wives learn the topics together. This seems to have been working so far, although we are doing the topic of Marriage now, so let's see if it continues...

Daily Learning:
Every 3 days, I send out another unit on the topic with some type of teaser. I have an email group that people have signed up for and I also publish them to a private Facebook group. 
Lately, we have been asking one couple from the group to reply to the unit. Some of the replies are more content based, others are more about how people felt about the sources. 
Either way, because people have to send something to everyone, there is a definite sense of ownership and preparation in each response. 

Summary Meeting:
Every 6-8 weeks, we meet at someone's house to discuss the topic. For those who haven't kept completely up to date, this gives some impetus to catch up. I usually paste all the units together and print and bring to shul with me a few weeks before the meeting. The meetings are kept open in terms of agenda - although we ask each person to bring 3 things they learned and 3 things they have questions on. People get babysitters so that they can come to the meeting as a couple. Usually we jump back and forth through different topics and some of the discussions have been intense. 

So far, the feedback has been really great - people have felt engaged and in some ways pushed by the content. There have been several cases where people have been "offended" by some of the sources, but we have pushed them to try to deal with them directly and not to criticize one another.



     - Yaakov Bieler  

Over the course of my Jewish education, which I have experienced as a life-long project, I have felt a powerful sense of Hakarat HaTovtowards the great teachers who, via their classes, recordings and writings, have inspired and been influential on me in general and my learning and teaching in particular. I have often called upon an ecological metaphor to explain this personal sensibility of both calling and mission: these individuals through their great efforts have invested either directly or indirectly in who I have become, allowing me to participate in the Masora of the Jewish people, and I therefore have an obligation to try to do the same for others. 

In particular I take the statement in Yevamot 97b,

R. Yochanan stated in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: “The lips of a (deceased) scholar, in whose name a traditional statement is reported in this world, move gently in the grave.” 

not as something that happens only in a serendipity fashion, i.e., should someone happen to recall a thought that his teacher imparted to him, he should be sure to attribute its source, but rather as imposing a literal obligation upon those who teach Tora to strive to the best of their respective abilities to preserve the memories and legacy of the individuals who came before them, and from whom they have been privileged to have gained benefit. In other words, as long as the living quote the teachings of those who have preceded them, they give these individuals literal eternal life, in the spirit of, LeHavdil, a well-known comment in The Education of Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” While it may be true that when a student has learned something and has taken it to heart, a ripple effect is inevitably created where potentially future generations may be influenced as a result, it seems to me that R. Shimon b. Yochai is asserting that it is also the student’s obligation, when he can, to perpetuate his teacher’s ideas, and in turn, the teacher him/herself, by identifying these ideas’ points of origin. 

I have attempted to translate my appreciation for and gratitude towards the significant individuals who have been and continue to be my teachers, by not only regularly quoting their teachings, BeSheim Amram (in the name of those who said them), but also by giving entireShiurim and developing educational materials based upon their work. Among the many outstanding Tora teachers that I have had the good fortune to study with over the years, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Z”L, has been a seminal figure. I attended his Talmud Shiur when I was an undergraduate in Yeshiva College, as well as during the time I was a Jerusalem Fellow and he was teaching weekly at the Gruss Center. I have been especially taken by R. Lichtenstein’s total weltanschaung due to not only his incredible Tora knowledge, but also the extent to which he explicitly and seamlessly incorporated his secular learning into his Shiurim and writings, an ideal that is very fundamental to my own approach to thinking, learning and teaching. 

Our son Dani studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion for two years and continues to actively support and promote the Yeshiva’s and R. Lichtenstein’s work. Several months ago, Dani asked me to help with a project whereby he sought to disseminate and encourage his community members to read some of R. Lichtenstein’s essays. I chose several essays available on-line that were first published in the proceedings of the Orthodox Forum, Yeshiva University’s annual research conference, and have been developing educational units for them. Dani has electronically sent a selection of these units to his friends who have expressed interest in participating in this project, some of them have been asked to comment on the materials each week, and the entire group periodically gets together to discuss what they have been learning.

Methodologically, I focus each of the units related to a particular essay on the sources that R. Lichtenstein draws upon during the course of his wide-ranging and sharply analytical discussions. The essays are dense and require considerable concentration, and I felt that if those reading them would at least be assisted in familiarizing themselves with and processing the sources being cited, their ability to understand R. Lichtenstein’s essays would be enhanced. The sources are presented in Hebrew and English, references and commentaries with which readers may be unfamiliar are annotated with historical information, and each unit is concluded with questions for discussion, as well as possible practical implications in light of our contemporary experience.



Classroom use  

How might this material be used in educational contexts aside from adult education, for which they have been primarily developed?

Even if R. Lichtenstein’s essays themselves are not assumed to be read by the participants (I think that at the very least, whomever leads the group should read the original essay for context and background), any individual unit, or for that matter, combination of the units, could serve as the basis for stand-alone lessons/discussions. The leader of the group could choose which unit(s) he wishes to focus upon, or the group could discuss prior to the dissemination and study of the unit(s) what topic interests them the most. Since each unit contains more than one source, and rather than merely repeating the same material, the sources chosen, most of which are contained in the original essay by R. Lichtenstein, are intended to complement and expand the discussion of the topic being explored, it is important that they are brought to bear with one another. Perhaps they can first be studied individually, and then eventually compared and contrasted. This. Such an approach enhances not only the subject matter itself as well as class discussion, but also encourages critical thinking and analysis on the part of active participants, important aspects of the educational experience and the development of important habits of mind. Particularly when sources are perceived to be in ostensible conflict with one another, the group can be challenged to discover original resolutions for the conflict in the spirit of “BaMeh Devarim Emurim” (in which particular circumstance is each of these ideas pertinent?), before resorting to the more academic, but equally religiously significant, approach of that what is being reflected constitute different voices representing different personalities and religious orientations, always in the spirit of “Eilu VaEilu Divrei Elokim Chayim” (these and these are the Words of the Living God.)

The follow-up questions at the end of each unit were meant to stimulate not only more specific analysis of the material presented, but to expand the scope of the discussion to include either additional or contrary perspectives. It seems to me that such questions are optional vis-à-vis the sources themselves; they can be assigned to motivated or superior students for independent study and/or essay composition. 

Finally the question regarding personal application I consider crucial to all serious study, whether in Limudei Kodesh or otherwise. While some material that will be studied in certain subject areas may serve as foundational ideas for more sophisticated learning at a future date, all study of the humanities—and religious studies certainly qualify as such—should lead to introspection and reflection regarding an individual’s own experience as well as that of the human condition in general. Such an emphasis prevents learning that one does to be compartmentalized as simply material that must be mastered in order to do well in a particular Shiur or course, and urges the student to consider the pertinence of the material outside the context of a classroom or study group. Even if participants may be too self-conscious to share with the group their thoughts in this vein, regularly invoking such a perspective will hopefully encourage the individual to render his learning truly practical and overflowing with significant meaning, if not always, then at least on a regular basis.



A sample unit  

Fear of Heaven Unit 23 (General topic; unit number re a particular essay, whose link and full name can be found at )

Tora When embracing the world is a value, there is a concomitant threat to robust Yirat Shamayim. (The type of source that will be discussed; the issue that the source raises.)

Once again, R. Lichtenstein, Z”L, (“Contemporary Impediments to Yirat Shamayim” references a biblical verse when promoting a certain argument, in a manner that does not reflect how it has been traditionally understood by classical commentators: (An observation regarding the usage of the source in the essay at hand.)

I have previously touched upon the issue of excessive worldliness, and noted its negative impact upon spirituality in general, and yirat shamayim, in particular. The perennial question of how to relate to the world bears, however, a more fundamental aspect; and, at that plane, we – certainly, those of us with some modernist inclination – are basically positive. Despite significant nuanced differences, both the Rav and Rav Kook, the twin polestars of our hashkafah, shared this perception. The Rav, in particular, distanced himself from the polarities of James’s categories of world-acceptance and world-rejection, and insisted upon world-redemption. That, too, however, is grounded in fundamental affirmation. We categorically reject Augustine’s view of the natural order as massa perditionis, regarding that conception as inconsonant with the declaration,
וירא אלקים את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאד
“And God Surveyed all that He had Made and, behold, it was very good.”
– that evaluation remaining valid even after human lapse into sin. (p. 253) (A citation from the essay to contextualize the source; there is an underlying hope that by citing the essay, this will encourage the reader to read the essay itself, hopefully in its entirety.)
Hebrew and English translations of the sources and commentaries to enable the reader to directly grapple with the primary material in a straightforward fashion.

Download sources in as a pdf file at

Questions for thought and discussion: (Once the sources have been studied and reflected upon, additional questions are provided in order to direct the reader’s attention to certain issues, or to simply broaden the discussion. These questions can be omitted or addressed individually, without considering all of them simultaneously. In a class setting where an assignment is given, the student could be given an individual choice as to which to address.)

1. It would seem that the difference between the approach of the classical commentators and that of R. Lichtenstein with regard to Beraishit 1:31 is whether to look at the Tora’s comment from the perspective of God, the Creator, or man, the reader of the Tora. According to MaLBIM, the perspective of the latter might even lead to a conclusion that takes issue with the sentiment expressed in the Tora. Explain.

2. The dichotomy raised in question 1 above is further explored in the following commentary that assumes a similar position to that of MaLBIM above, but goes further: 
Nachalat Yaakov on Beraishit 1:31 s.v. VaYar Et Kol Asher Asa
Behold it appears strange to say that after His Creating, He Sees that it is good, as opposed to before His Making. This (only being able to appreciate what has been done once the project is completed) applies to human beings rather than HaShem, may He Be Blessed (Who does not Exist in a time-bound dimension). It would appear that the intent of the verse is to state that the Creation of the world never appears good to human beings as RaMBaM wrote in The Guide for the Perplexed (3:12) that the evils of this world are very many, and the Creation (man) sees them as if they are revenge taken against human beings, and so the Rabbis, Z”L have said: (see Eiruvin 13b, quoted in “Praying from the Depths” ) “Man would have been better off not to have been created, than to be created.” And in this way we have explained the verse in Tehillim 52:11 “I will give Thee thanks 'לעולם' forever, because Thou hast Done it; and I will wait for Thy Name, for It Is Good, in the presence of Thy Saints.” This is strange (why should the amount of time that one gives thanks depend upon Who has Done something?) And it would seem that the "ל' of "לעולם" connotes “for the sake of,” i.e., I will give thanks to You for the sake of the world that You have Made. And even though it might appear at first glance that it would have been preferable had You not Made it, nevertheless, “I will wait for Thy Name, because It Is Good,” i.e., I will wait for the Good, as You have Referred to it (in Beraishit 1:31) “in the presence of Thy Saints,” in the World to Come. And this is also the intent of the verse (1:31), that it comes to say that the Good in the Creation of the world, no (human) eye has seen it, and it is not apparent to human beings. It is only “And God (to the exclusion of man) Surveyed all that He had Made and, behold, it was very good.”

Why do you think that modern sensibilities, at least those shared by the Modern Orthodox, run counter to the view expressed in MaLBIM and Nachalat Yaakov that the world is only full of evil and therefore to be avoided as much as possible? Why might it be “easier” with respect to the development of Yirat Shamayim to take the older stance as opposed to a more modern one? 

Practical applications of the sources: (A portion of the unit that I think is particularly important. In my view, any sort of learning must be personalized in order for it to have maximal affect both in the short-, and more significantly long-term. Means should always be sought after whereby something that has been studied and discussed can be made maximally relevant to all concerned. If an individual thinks that there are alternate or additional ways for personalizing subject matter, they should by all means be introduced.)

1. Do you find your involvement in the culture and benefits of the general world detrimental to your religious experience? Why or why not? Are there things that would be appropriate to change as a result of such a reflection?




The essays themselves, as well as the educational units in their entirety, which I continue to add to on an almost daily basis, can be found on my website at: 

The essay that I am currently developing is “Contemporary Impediments to Yirat Shamayim” that can be found at: 

Please feel free to contact me with comments and/or questions, 
Yaakov Bieler 
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