Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir

Some memories of Rabbi Aaron Levine ztz”I

Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir

I first became familiar with Rabbi Levine through his published works. As the research director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, I wad keenly aware of the paucity of serious works applying Torah principles in a broad and incisive way to modern economic questions, and equally aware that even among those works that did exist Rabbi Levine’s books reached a level of Torah and secular scholarship that was far beyond anything else published.

I believe that I first made his personal acquaintance at a conference at Bar Ilan on the topic of economics and Judaism. I had the privilege of sitting next to him at the banquet. We were two of very few people, perhaps the only two people, who were trained economists and rabbis and professionally occupied with applying Torah to modern economic life, and I thought we would have an interesting exchange of ideas. I quickly learned how unequal the exchange would be when the discourse was conducted on a strictly Torah level; I made some objection to a conclusion he made in one of his books and was met by an avalanche of sources — from Chazal and Rishonim — answering my objection. I then realized that in all the vast amount of material in his books, there was nothing included based on hunches or “approaches”; every single conclusion was scrupulously backed by sources.

Rabbi Levine was always extremely supportive of my work. I would almost invariably consult him when I had some shaila or difficult question in my work; he always responded promptly and profoundly. I feel that he actively looked for ways to advance my career, including inviting me to speak at YU, mentioning me in some of his books, referring writing or speaking invitations to me and so on. (I did my best to requite the favor though I found that Rabbi Levine was sometimes reluctant to take on speaking engagements in Israel.)

I must also mention that Rabbi Levine was always the first address I turned to when I personally had a shaila relating to business conduct. I made a point of mentioning this when people asked me shailos; I would point out that I don’t even posken shailos for myself, rather I always consult with Rabbi Levine. On many occasions I asked him shailos in other areas of halacha as well. (It was very humbling for me to learn that Rabbi Levine in turn often referred my shailos to gedolim that he considered even greater, in particular Rabbi Dovid Cohen.)

We did talk in learning on many occasions, but as I mentioned it was never really a dialogue of equals, more of an opportunity for me to broaden my knowledge and to raise some points of interest for Rabbi Levine’s interest. However, we did conduct a genuine dialogue on questions of ethics. Both of us were busy wrestling with the question of the exact relationship between halacha and ethics: To what extent are halachic obligations ethical obligations? To what extent do they exhaust our ethical obligations? When are they a model for relations between Jews and non-Jews, or for relations among non-Jews? I feel that I was a genuine help to Rabbi Levine in carefully defining his approach to this important issue. Certainly his approach was a powerful influence on me and the standard against which I defined my own thoughts.

It was sometimes a bit of an embarrassment to me when Rabbi Levine, with his famous modesty, would refer to me as a talmid chacham, but I never corrected him. I am not a person of profound scholarship but I do study the sources with seriousness and to the best of my ability and I think that is all he meant. Certainly he was not the kind of person who would flatter or engage in geneivas daas.

I would like to mention one personal story Rabbi Levine told me, I hope that I am relating it exactly. The story was that someone Rabbi Levine was acquainted with sought to adopt a child. The judge in the case had respect for Rabbi Levine’s judgment and contacted him privately to ask if he thought the man was a good candidate, and Rabbi Levine responded with absolute candor that he was. Rabbi Levine told me that he later regretted this private communication. Evidently he felt there was a certain impropriety in this ex parte conversation outside the strict limits of the “system”. Rabbi Levine never viewed the secular law system as Torah miSinai, but he always had due respect for its merits as a framework for fostering ethical conduct and was extremely wary of legitimating any deviations from it.

Another opportunity I had for benefiting from Rabbi Levine’s unique combination of scholarship and contemporary awareness was the RCA Task Force on ethical conduct in the kosher food industry. The RCA asked me to chair this task force, but it was quite obvious that given Rabbi Levine’s stature it was impossible for him to be out of the loop and equally impossible for him to be just another member. After a brief talk he agreed to act as the Task Force’s senior advisor, and he was always articulate and very persuasive in presenting his point of view to Task Force members. He knew how to stand up firmly on points where he had strong views and could strongly support his view, but also knew how to compromise and harmonize his views with those of the many other distinguished figures in the Task Force.

Given the immense energy he devoted to editing the Oxford Handbook in his last days, I had no idea he was sick. The news of his death came to me as a great shock, and I was very surprised when I heard at the levaya that he had been sick for years. His energy in illness would put to shame the energy most of us demonstrate in health.

Many years ago I composed a Wikipedia entry for Dr. Meir Tamari, and soon afterwards I began to compose an entry for Rabbi Levine. I never finished or posted it but I hope that by the yahrzeit I will complete this endeavor. Leon Metzger and Gil Student have provided material help in this regard.

Rabbi Levine’s death is not only an occasion for great personal sadness and mourning, for the loss of a great Torah scholar and teacher, but also a source of professional difficulty as I no longer have this great mentor to turn to. Recently Jewish Action asked me to write an article; in the past my magazine articles were always written with the guidance of Rabbi Levine, and I do not know who I will turn to now. I will be sure to mention in my article the help Rabbi Levine provided me in the past and the great loss I have suffered by his untimely passing.

Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir is Research Director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org). He studied at Harvard, received a PhD in Economics from MIT, and rabbinic ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Prior to moving to Israel, he worked at the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration. Rabbi Dr. Meir is also a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Jerusalem College of Technology and has published several articles on business, economics and Jewish law. He is the author of the two-volume, “Meaning in Mitzvot (Feldheim), and his Aish.com columns form the basis of the “Jewish Ethicist” book (ktav.com).