Leon M. Metzger

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine, Z”L – A Scholar Filled with Compassion

Leon M. Metzger

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine, z”l, was the quintessential torah u-madda scholar.  He “demonstrate[d] that economic analysis both sharpens the focus of halakhic study and serves it well as a tool which enhances its goals.”[1]  While most torah u-madda institutions and others of like ilk offer courses in torah and madda that coexist under the same roof, Rabbi Levine’s course, “Comparative Economic Systems,” integrated halakhah and economics to such an extent that one student could claim that she was taking a class in halakhah, while a second could say that he was taking a seminar in economics, and both statements would be correct.

Rabbi Levine possessed exceptional knowledge in Jewish civil and ritual law, on the one hand, and expertise in economics, on the other.  In contrast to mathematical economists, however, who focus on quantitative models, Rabbi Levine was an ethical economist, who concentrated on social responsibility, recognizing that “ethical conduct has many dimensions to it.”[2]  In both pointing to the interaction of halakhah and economics and to ethical economics, Rabbi Levine was ahead of his time. 

Initially, I encountered Rabbi Levine through his writings.  Subsequently, I unexpectedly met him for the first time at a wedding where he was m’sader qiddushin.  That chance meeting turned into a job interview, which led to a part-time career in teaching and a 25-year friendship.  In my experience, expertise in a particular subject does not make one a good teacher.  Pedagogically, Rabbi Levine taught me the importance of having compassion for students.

The Mishnah advises us, “Hevei dan eth kal adam l’kaf zekhuth (Pirqei Avoth 1:6).”  Rabbi Levine judged everyone favorably through the lens of compassion and he made himself accessible to whomever sought his counsel.  When people asked him questions, you could take his rulings “to the bank,” not because of his intuition, but because they were well thought out, based upon rabbinic sources.  I found him to be both lenient and strict at the same time—meiqil in that he employed maximum compassion in his rulings and mahmir to ensure that compassion was demonstrated.

We once talked about book reviews.  He felt that it was improper to write a negative book review because it violated the rules of l’shon ha-ra, since it was harmful, even if albeit true.  He felt that if the reviewer did not like the book, she should simply not praise it.  With regard to giving references, he felt that in the world of inflated recommendations, readers automatically discounted them; therefore, one should aim to say something that, when discounted by the average person, would reflect the subject’s character and abilities.

During the period of intense pain that he suffered, he concerned himself about others.  He was anxious about other sick people and inquired about their welfare.  The trait of compassion never left him.

Time and again, Rabbi Levine visited the topics of ona’ath d’varim, which he so neatly translated as, “causing needless mental anguish,” and imitatio dei, following in the footsteps of Gd.  He was driven by compassion and therefore it is entirely logical that these themes would recur in his scholarship.

Rabbi Levine believed that “integrating the ethical with the ritual is a praiseworthy endeavor rooted in Torah values.”  He recognized, however, that rabbis who understand laws of kashruth were not adequately knowledgeable to detect violations of ethical standards in the workplace.  He cleverly suggested that “kashrut organizations incorporate in their contracts with food companies a clause that requires the company to be fully compliant with the dina d’malchuta (government laws and regulations) that apply to their company.”  If the company violated dina d’malkhutha, depending on the facts and circumstances, including severity, it could lose its certification.[3]  Here we see an example of how he integrated his knowledge of halakhah, economics, and ethics to address a contemporary issue.

R. Shimon b. Gamliel said, “We do not make monuments for the righteous; their words are their memorial (Talmud Jerusalmi 7a).”  Why?  I would suggest that monuments celebrate the finite past but texts will live in the infinite future.  The author may no longer live physically, but his words continue to teach us daily.  Rabbi Levine, through his literature on halakhah, morality, business ethics, public policy, the marketplace, and economics, lives forever.

I once wondered why Rabbi Levine did not publish his works in l’shon ha-qodesh.  Sadly, the audience capable of understanding the economic concepts and familiar with that style of derekh ha-limmud was so limited that it was not economically feasible to publish that way.

In my career, both in financial services and as a teacher, the concept of risk-versus-reward has been an important subject.  Several days after the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I talked to Rabbi Levine about nuclear power plants.  First, I mentioned that the risk of a plant meltdown from a natural disaster could lead to radiation leaks.  Next, I discussed the reward from building those plants, namely an alternative source of energy, which could lead to less reliance on oil and simultaneously serve as a war deterrent.  Finally, I asked him, “Al pi halakhah, may one build a nuclear power plant?”  His response was the he was not familiar enough with the m’tziuth and therefore could not express a halakhic opinion.  To be clear, his reluctance to respond was not because of his physical weakness. 

This was classic Rabbi Levine—he was aware of what he knew and he recognized what he didn’t know.  Humble, modest, and unassuming in their most positive meanings, he did not pretend that his knowledge of torah made him an expert in every matter.  That’s why when he ruled, one could rely on his p’saq because he understood that he had the expertise to render a decision.  To me, this was the ultimate lesson that I learned from such a great person. 

And, it was the last sh’eilah I ever asked him.

Copyright © 2011 by Leon M. Metzger

[1] Economics and Jewish Law ( New York: Ktav Publishing Inc., Yeshiva University Press), 1987, p. xix

[2] “Ethics and efficiency and the role for government in fostering ethical conduct within the framework of Altman’s behavioral model,” Journal of Economic Psychology 26 (2005) 767–773

[3] http://www.jewishpress.com.

Leon M. Metzger is an adjunct professor at New York University and a lecturer at Yale University.