The Old Rebbe: Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein

Meet the Old Rebbe: A nineteenth-century Messianic Jewish Pioneer with a modern identity problem.


Messianic LuminariesFeb 17, 2017

Messianic LuminariesFeb 17, 2017


Photo of Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein.

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The great nineteenth-century Messianic Jewish luminary and scholar, Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein, has an identity problem. One hundred and five years ago, on Shevat 24 (Monday, February 20 this year), Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein left this world and entered the world of truth. He was a pioneer of Messianic Judaism and one of my personal heroes, so I intend on honoring his yahrzeit this Sunday night. Before I do, however, I hope to clear up some of the confusion around Lichtenstein’s identity by distinguishing him from another Jewish believer who lived in the same era: Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein.

It’s easy to see why they have been confused. Two Messianic pioneers, both called Rabbi Lichtenstein, and both from the same general era. You may already be familiar with Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, a district rabbi from nineteenth-century Hungary who came to faith in Yeshua. We published an anthology of his writings under the title The Everlasting Jew, and his story is well-known among Messianic Jews. That’s not the Lichtenstein I’m talking about, but inevitably, the two men become conflated. Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein is so often confused with the far more famous Isaac Lichtenstein that it’s probably best not to refer to the former as “Lichtenstein” or “Rabbi Lichtenstein” at all. If we want to solve his identity problem, we need a different name for him, and I have a few suggestions.

Lichtenstein/Herschensohn

Lichtenstein was born into a Chasidic family with the surname Herschensohn/Lichtenstein in the Jewish world of 1831 Bessarabia (Moldavia). The Herschensohn/Lichtenstein family apparently occupied a significant place in one of the Chasidic dynasties of Jassy.

If we use the additional surname of Herschensohn (son of Hersch) when talking about Yechiel Tzvi, it can help alleviate some of the confusion with the other Rabbi Lichtenstein. Perhaps we should always refer to him as “Herschensohn/Lichtenstein” for the sake of clarity, but this is a long, cumbersome name, and we have a few other options that we might apply.

Young Herschensohn/Lichtenstein showed his genius early in life as a child prodigy, and he went on to advanced scholarship in Talmud, Midrash, Chassidut, and Jewish Mysticism. That learning served him well when, at a young age, a close relative in Jassy died, leaving him to inherit some type of a position as a Chasidic rabbi. He did not last long in the position of “rebbe.” He could not conscientiously justify the homage his chasidim paid him, so he resigned the position and left town. In later years, his students at the Institutum Judaicum in Leipzig called him “Rebbe,” alluding to his short stint as a Chassidic rabbi in Jassy.

Around the same time he left his vocation as a wonder-working rebbe, he purchased a Hebrew edition of the New Testament, became convinced about Yeshua, and persuaded a small circle of young men to join him in immersing themselves into Yeshua’s name. The young disciples did not want to join a church so they opted to immerse themselves in the River Pruth, near Jassy.

Lichtenstein/Herschensohn’s new convictions led him to conflict in the Jewish community, and he found himself quickly ostracized and excommunicated from the synagogue.

Even Tzohar

Lichtenstein/Herschensohn’s brilliant mind and depth of learning served him well in later years when he began to write books in defense of Yeshua-faith and the New Testament. He became an instructor at the school started by Franz Delitzsch, the Institutum Judaicum in Leipzig.
In those days, Messianic Luminary Theophillus Lucky (who was himself a man of many names) referred to Lichtenstein as the Even Tzohar. It means “the Shining Stone.” Lucky used it as a Hebrew wordplay on the meaning of the name “Lichtenstein” which, in German, means “light-stone.”

To my ears, the name Even Tzohar invokes the Jewish legend of the shining stone that Noah placed in the ark. Genesis 6:16 says, “You shall make a tzohar (צוֹהָר) for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top.” Rashi explains, “Some say the tzohar was a window, and some say it was a precious stone which provided light for them.” According to the latter opinion, the tzohar was not a “window” as most English translations suggest. Instead, it was a marvelous luminescent and shining stone which illuminated the dark interior of Noah’s ark. In Jewish interpretation, the shining stone of Noah’s ark symbolizes divine revelation, making it a most-appropriate appellation for the man who shone so much light on the New Testament.

Herschensohn/Lichtenstein was a great scholar. He wrote numerous Hebrew books including a commentary on the Delitzsch Hebrew New Testament. The Even Tzohar’s brilliant insights into the New Testament continue to inspire us today. David Stern heavily utilized that Hebrew commentary while writing his own Jewish New Testament Commentary, and I followed suit while writing Torah Club: Chronicles of the Messiah and Chronicles of the Apostles.

I like the name “Even Tzohar” because it speaks to Lichtenstein’s role as a Messianic Luminary and pioneer. Joseph Rabinowitz is widely considered to be the father of the modern Messianic Jewish movement, but Herschensohn/Lichtenstein illuminated the way before him. Long before Rabinowitz became a disciple of Yeshua, Lichtenstein gave him a copy the New Testament, with the provocative remark, “Who knows? Perhaps it is really he whom the prophets have foretold.” Not long after that, he married Rabinowitz’s sister, and not long after that, Rabinowitz became a disciple.

The Old Rebbe

As mentioned above, his students at the Institutum Judaicum in Leipzig referred to their teacher as “rebbe,” the Yiddish form of “rabbi,” and a special term of endearment for a Chasidic leader. They also affectionately referred to him as “der Alte,” that is, “The Old Man.”

This latter title is a little puzzling. Why did they call him “The Old Man”? At the time of his death, the Even Tzohar was 81 years old—old and full of years—but his students had been calling him “der Alte” since 1886 when, in his mid-fifties, he first arrived at the school in Leipzig to teach. Why? It seems possible to me that they might have had in mind the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Chasidic master Shneur Zalman, who was popularly known as der Alter Rebbe, i.e. “the old rebbe.”

As “the old rebbe” in a school for training Christian missionaries to the Jews, Lichtenstein never felt quite at home. He referred to himself as “a stranger.” He was a Messianic Jew in the Gentile Christian world. A Danish student, Irenius Fauerholdt, once remarked, “He was a stranger among the German Christians and would have been at home in apostolic times and in the apostolic church. He lived in the writings of the Law and the Prophets, and literally pondered the words of the Lord day and night and had little sense of the present.”

The “stranger” was known to publicly interrupt preachers, lecturers, and other instructors, objecting, “Ganz falsch!”, i.e. “All wrong!” Then, if given the opportunity, he would always proceed to correct the teaching, at length if necessary.

The Old Rebbe had worked out a nuanced, Messianic Jewish reading of the New Testament that was, at many points, so ahead of its time that we are only now beginning to grapple with his insights. When trying to explain his ideas, he would emphatically preface his words by shouting, “Ich will Ihnen sagen,” i.e. “I will tell you…”

Disciple of Yeshua

How would Lichtenstein want us to remember him? What appellation would he prefer? He would prefer to be remembered simply as a disciple of Yeshua. When he died at the age of 81, they buried him in the same Christian churchyard where his colleague Franz Delitzsch had been buried twenty-two years earlier. Before Lichtenstein died, he left instructions for a German and Hebrew inscription on his gravestone. The German inscription said:

Yechiel Zvi Lichtenstein
A witness to Israel about Jesus
14 June 1831 - 12 February 1912

The Hebrew text beneath the inscription read:

Here rests Yeshua Messiah’s disciple, in spirit member of the Jerusalem Assembly.

R. Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein, may his memory be a blessing.

The gravestone is no longer there, but we aim to keep his memory alive in the Messianic movement. Whether we remember him as Lichtenstein/Herschensohn, the Old Man, the Old Rebbe, or the Even Tzohar, does not matter so much as that we remember him as a true disciple of Yeshua. His memory is a blessing.

Sources:

Kai Kjær-Hansen, “Yechiel Zwi Herschensohn /Lichtenstein - 1831-1912 “der Alte” and the Stranger,” LCJE International Conference, Lake Balaton (2007).

Louis Meyer, “The Jewish Era: Jeckiel Herschensohn-Lichtenstein,” The Missionary Department (May 5, 1912):82-83.

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About the Author: D. Thomas Lancaster is Director of Education at First Fruits of Zion, the author of the Torah Club programs and several books and study programs. He is also the pastor of Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, WI. More articles by D. Thomas Lancaster

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