Yaakov Kornreich

A Rav for Our Times – An Appreciation of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine, A”H

An abbreviated version of this article was published in the Jewish Action. We thank the OU and Jewish Action for granting permission to post this article here.

In today’s complex modern world, Orthodox Jews who choose to interact with contemporary American society, rather than retreating into self-policing ghetto communities, face a daunting challenge in managing the interface between our Torah principles and contemporary business practices. As we seek to navigate the daunting complexities of the economic marketplace, which now impacts so many facets of our daily lives, where do we turn for guidance from a Torah point of view?

For the past 30 years, the answer has been the writings of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine, chairman of the Economics Department of Yeshiva University. In an Orthodox community that has become more fragmented and compartmentalized than ever before, Rabbi Dr. Levine was one of the few halachic authorities able to transcend narrow institutional and ideological labels to command respect across the entire Orthodox spectrum. This allowed him to define clear Torah standards of conduct for the contemporary economic marketplace.

Economic pressures have been a challenge to American Orthodoxy for generations. From 1880-1914, two million Jews fled the uncertainty and persecution of Eastern Europe to seek the freedom and safety offered by the United States. But there they faced a new kind of threat to their Jewish survival, the American melting pot culture. Combined with an economic reality that made Shabbos observant jobs for newly-arrived immigrants almost impossible to find, these challenges took a terrible spiritual toll on American Jewry in the first half of the 20th century.

Eventually, American Orthodoxy overcame its culture shock. It developed new institutional and communal models. It took advantage of evolving concepts of religious rights and new opportunities in the American marketplace for Orthodox Jews to compete and succeed. But they needed clear guidance to do so without violating or compromising their Torah principles. Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine, A”H, was uniquely qualified for that task by virtue of his distinguished family background, great intellectual capacity and saintly personality.

Aaron Levine was a descendant of European gedolim, including the Chacham Tzvi and the Maharam MiLublin. He was the great-great grandson of the Beis Yitzchak, and the grandson and namesake of the Raisher Rav, one of pre-war Poland’s leading Torah personalities and communal leaders. Aaron Levine was born in 1946, 5 years after his grandfather was killed in the Holocaust. Raised in Boro Park, young Aaron became the talmid muvhak, star protégé, and eventually the son-in-law of Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik, zt”1, the Rosh Hayeshiva of the RJJ yeshiva, then one of this country’s premiere Torah institutions. From 1967-1976, Aaron Levine served as editor-in-chief of the RJJ Torah journal “Kol Yaakov.”

He earned semicha Yoreh Yoreh and Yadin Yadin from RJJ, and a doctorate in economics from New York University. After joining the faculty of Yeshiva University, he won the support of YU President, Dr. Norman Lamm. In 1987, he was appointed the Samson and Halina Bitensky Professor of Economics, in addition to his role as chairman of YU’s Economics department.

His articles on Torah and economics were published in leading journals of Jewish thought, such as Tradition. He lectured on marketplace ethics to Wall Street executives and investors. In 1980, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine  debated the “Morality of the Marketplace” with Milton Friedman, the leading economist of his day. He served as a guest lecturer on Jewish business ethics at dozens of prestigious universities, symposiums and shuls around the world.

His books became standard references on contemporary Jewish business ethics. Through them, Rabbi Dr. Levine defined a new academic sub-discipline, and became known as the world’s foremost economic ethicist.

In a 2009 article titled “The Global Recession and Jewish Law,” published in the American Economist, Rabbi Dr. Levine showed how a fundamental breakdown in market ethics led directly to the 2008 international financial crisis.

Oxford University Press selected Dr. Levine to edit its comprehensive “Handbook on Judaism and Economics,” which was published shortly before his death.

Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, Dr. Yisrael Robert Aumann described Rabbi Dr. Levine as “the foremost authority in the world on the relation between what the Halacha has to say about Business Practices and Business Ethics, and in general on Economics in the Talmud and in Halacha.”

In addition to his halachic expertise, Rabbi Levine was also renowned for his people skills at conflict resolution. He was a paragon of fairness and integrity, in great demand as a dayan or arbitrator in the bais din of the Rabbinical Council of America. He won the admiration of his colleagues for his thorough and creative approach to every case.

The force of his Torah personality made an indelible impression on hundreds of his students at Yeshiva University during his 38 years on the faculty. His Yeshiva College class on Comparative Economic Systems was a tour de force in the application of Torah principles to the most difficult problems in economics. To three generations of Yeshiva University students, he was an inspirational role model of humility, personal sensitivity and the very finest midos, reflecting the pervasive influence of the mussar teachings of his rebbe, Rabbi Warshavchik.

Because of Rabbi Dr. Levine’s long association with the school, many at YU believed that he was a product of YU’s Torah Ummada philosophy. But in fact, Rabbi Levine was never a talmid in the YU bais medrash. His ability to create an original Torah approach to economics was the product of his own genius and creativity. His midos and character were the product of total dedication to living a life fully imbued with Torah principles.

I first met Rabbi Dr. Levine almost 30 years ago as the chairman of the rabbinic search committee of the Young Israel of Avenue J in Flatbush, Brooklyn. From the outset, the depth and integrity of his Torah personality was even more impressive than his encyclopedic Torah knowledge and his keen intellect and powers of analysis. For me, his outstanding character was always his rarest and most precious trait. When some of my fellow members asked me why I so strongly preferred Rabbi Dr. Levine over other well-qualified applicants for the pulpit, my answer was, “I have two young sons in yeshiva. I want to be able to take them to shul on Shabbos, point to the bimah, and tell them to be like him.”

Over the years, my appreciation for Rabbi Dr. Levine steadily grew. The authority of his psak was never questioned. His sensitivity, humanity and anivus were a constant source of inspiration. He always put the welfare of his congregants first, and he saw promoting that welfare as his primary mission as their rav. His dedication to the shul was above and beyond the call of duty, including vacations to which he was entitled, but never took, and his constant concern over everything which affected the shul.

Over the years, many rabbis from other communities who retired to live in Flatbush would join the Young Israel of Avenue J, rather than the many other shuls in our neighborhood, because Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine was their idea of a rabbi’s rabbi. His Shabbos morning drashas were timely, creative and as precisely accurate as his writings on economics. He never hesitated to speak his mind on controversial communal issues, but like his namesake, Aharon Hacohen, he was always an ohav shalom and a rodef shalom, doing everything possible to be maybe shalom bein adorn 1’chavero.

He was constantly encouraging the members of his shul to emulate his own keen sense of responsibility to help the poor, both in the community and in Israel. His efforts were responsible for the fact that our shul was disproportionately generous for its size in its contributions to the Ezras Torah Fund and Od Yosef Chai, reflecting his love for his fellow Jews and Eretz Yisroel. Most of his personal acts of chessed remain unknown to us, because he would never talk about them publicly. Since his passing, his acts of kindness and sensitivity have become the stuff of local legend, which will undoubtedly grow as more is revealed.

During the last years of Rabbi Dr. Levine’ s life, his determination and sense of mission enabled him to overcome the effects of a pernicious disease. With indomitable courage, he continued to function as a college professor, a community rav and academic author par excellence, until the last few weeks of his life.

In looking back to find similar role models, I was struck by the parallels between Rabbi Dr. Levine and Yaakov Avinu, whom the Torah describes as an ish tarn, yoshev ohalim. Yoshev ohalim means someone engrossed in scholarship, which is clearly consistent with one aspect of Aaron Levine’s personality.

But what is the meaning of ish tam? On one level, it means a humble man of simple tastes, which Rabbi Dr. Levine certainly was. But on another level, it means temimus, a complete and authentic Torah personality. It was this characteristic, in addition to his Torah learning, which sustained Yaakov Avinu through the many challenges he faced in his life. It allowed him to survive the treachery of his brother, Eisav, and, his uncle, Lavan. It allowed him to endure the loss of his beloved son, Yosef. Ultimately, it gave him the courage to lead his family into the galus of Mitzrayim on the strength of his faith in Hashem’s promise of ultimate Redemption.

That same temimus in Rabbi Dr. Levine’s personality enabled him to illuminate for us, through his writings and lectures, the Torah way to navigate the treacherous shoals of an increasingly complex and amoral economic marketplace. For those of us fortunate enough to have interacted with Aaron Levine’s tamim personality first hand, the experience will serve as an inspiration for the rest of our lives.

Yaakov Kornreich is an Anglo-Jewish journalist and freelance writer. During the 1970’s he was the Director of Public Relations and Publications of the Orthodox Union. In that capacity, he served as the Managing Editor of Jewish Life and Jewish Action. In the 1980’s he served as the editor of Young Israel Viewpoint. He currently writes regularly for Yated Ne’eman and The Jewish Press.