Seeking his presence

Yedioth Ahronoth/Chemed Books, 2016

In August 2011, Yedioth Ahronoth/Chemed Books published Mevakshei Paneicha (literally, ‘Seeking Your Presence’) which, despite its complex subject matter as a book of Jewish thought and philosophy, was sold out before its release date. Mevakshei Paneicha is the title of a delightful (hebrew) book containing a record of twenty wide ranging conversations between Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and one of the greatest Torah scholars of this generation, and Rabbi Haim Sabato, founder of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe and a leading scholar and novelist. These conversations, which were held in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s home in late 2010-early 2011, focused on a variety of areas of Jewish thought and offered a unique glimpse into the complex personality of this incredible Torah thinker. 

Sadly, Rabbi Lichtenstein passed away last year. However, Mevakshei Paneicha has just been translated into English by Binyamin Shalom under the title Seeking His Presence, which means that those for whom the original book was inaccessible – either in terms of language (ie. it was written in hebrew), or perhaps complexity of language (ie. it was written in hard hebrew) – now have the opportunity to read and reflect on the refreshing perspectives of Rav Lichtenstein zt’l. 

There are eighteen chapters in Seeking His Presence, each of which touch on important areas of Jewish thought and its application to Jewish life. For example, there is a chapter the religious experience of studying Torah, another discussing the feeling of reduced dependence upon God in the modern age, another addressing the topic of innovation in halakha, and another on students taking positions independent of their teachers. The insights of Rav Lichtenstein are profound, and the translator has done a tremendous job in preserving the poetic quality of his original remarks. 

As would be expected, Seeking His Presence is peppered with Talmudic and Rabbinic quotes and it also includes a chapter on Rav Soloveitchik who was the father-in-law and primary teacher of Rav Lichtenstein. However, it also contains numerous references to other scholars such as Aquinas, Camus, Kant and Milton. In fact, it is here where we learn about Rav Lichtenstein’s personal approach to secular study. In one of the many beautiful pieces in Seeking His Presence, Rav Lichtenstein remarks:

‘I am enveloped by Torah. I am suffused with it. I am bound up in it, and I gain much more from it than I might gain from other pursuits. But precisely because one can be so fulfilled within this world, he may ignore that which can be found elsewhere. There are those who will say that secular material is mere vanity and foolishness – who needs it? I have no response to this claim other than to speak the truth about myself. There are certain needs of mine that are only met elsewhere.’

To give you a further example of the richness in this work, in a passage addressing the question of our changing moral universe, Rav Lichtenstein explains that:

‘Of course we must strive for the world to progress ethically, ideologically, philosophically, behaviourally and in its willingness and ability to integrate the best lessons from the past with current moral reality. There is no question that we must aspire to this… We must ask ourselves what our role should be, as moral and Torah-oriented people, in a world in which there will be major changes, and to what extent must we be the ones leading that revolution.’

When discussing the topic of reduced dependence upon God in the modern age, Rav Lichtenstein observes how: 

‘The feeling of dependence does not offer intellectual respite. It offers a deep connection to transcendental reality, to the Almighty as the foundation of existence… When a person needs to be comforted to the very depths of his soul, the feeling of dependence provides him with much more reassurance than knowledge alone can bring.’

And when discussing Zionism and the State of Israel, Rav Lichtenstein states that:

‘When I arrive in the World of Truth I would prefer to be asked why I gave Ben Gurion credit for what he did rather than be asked why I did not give him the credit he deserved.’

In the final chapter of Seeking His Presence, Rav Lichtenstein speaks about his faith, noting that:

‘Passionate believe has more than one source. It arises from studying Torah, trusting in tradition, pondering the elaborate structure of the world and the vicissitudes of history, and personal experience. I do not believe that we need to choose between these sources. I believe they are all interrelated, interdependent. Within this symphony, some elements dominate, but as a whole, they create the feeling of belief. You do not need to choose only one path.’ 

Seeking His Presence is a wonderfully engaging and intellectually stimulating book that touches on some of the most profound questions about religion and faith and provides answers from one of the most wise and worldly Torah scholars. It was an absolute pleasure to read, and I am certain that it is a volume that I am likely to revisit on a regular basis.