Hitzei Yehonatan— Year XI:  Appreciations Of Aggadah

by Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman

NITZAVIM  (Supplement)

A Memorial  Tribute to Rav Yehudah Amital, Ztz”l

The following tribute was originally intended for the sheloshim, and was postponed due to my illness.

On Erev Shabbat, 27 Tammuz, July 9, Rav Yehudah Amital, founder and for over forty years rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, departed this world.


I think of Rav Amital as a kind of quintessential Israeli talmid hakham.  He integrated the worlds of Hasidism and of traditional yeshiva Talmudic learning with the pressing needs and reality of life in Eretz Yisrael;  he possessed a rare mixture of powerful intellect and deep emotion;  of openness and tradition.  Born in 1924 in Transylvania, Rav Amital was taken by the Nazis to a forced labor camp in 1943.  He was the only to survive from his entire family, who were murdered at Auschwitz—a factor that has deeply affected his thinking.  He has written and spoken about the subject of the Holocaust, with much passion.  (A compilation of his talks and writings on the Shoah, edited by his student Moshe Mayah, was published under the title ‘Olam banuy ve-harev u-banuyA World Built, Destroyed and Rebuilt).  Following his liberation from the camps, he came to Eretz Yisrael, where he continued his yeshiva studies at the Hebron Yeshivah in Jerusalem, receiving semikhah from Rav Issar Zalman Meltzer, ztz”l, whose granddaughter, Miriam, he later married.  He fought in the War of Independence, and after the war became a Safra de-Dayna (rabbinic secretary) in the Rabbinical Court in Rehovot, and two years later an instructor in Yeshivat ha-Darom, where he helped to formulate the concept of yeshivot hesder. After the Six Day War, he was called upon by Moshe Moskovic—a survivor of the l948 battle of Gush Etzion—to found a yeshivat hesder in Gush Etzion.  In l968, the Yeshiva opened in Kfar Etzion, not far from its present location in Alon Shevut.

The creation of the yeshivat hesder was based upon an urgently-felt need to provide an alternative to the model of the traditional, “Haredi”-type yeshiva.  The blanket exemption of yeshiva students from military service has been one of the greatest blemishes on religion in Israel, leading to controversy and great hostility towards the self-proclaimed “Torah world,” particularly among the vast majority of Israeli parents whose sons are called upon to give three of their best years, not to mention risking life and limb, while the yeshiva bokhurim alone are free from this burden.  The yeshivat hesder was thus based upon the concept, that should have been self-evident, that  responsibility to society is itself a fundamental Jewish and Torah value and that yeshiva students, far from using their study as a pretext for shirking these duties, must be a model to the rest of society, first and foremost in their commitment to its needs.  In the hesder, the students alternate periods of military service with yeshiva study—while being available, like every other soldier, for emergency call-ups and, later on in life, for reserve duty (miluim).  

All this came at a high price:  Rav Amital, over the years, has seen dozens of his students fall in battle or in line of duty.  The dozens of funerals over the years, the mourning families to comfort, the many promising young lives nipped in the bud—all these clearly took a deep toll on the man, and profoundly affected his thinking in the direction of a passionate desire to end the bloodshed.  Almost alone in the Religious Zionist world, he became a passionate advocate of peace with the Arabs.

This brings us to a second major aspect of Rav Amital’s public life.  Following the Six Day War (in his book Ha-Ma’alot mi-ma’amakim, for example), he saw redemptive qualities in the “liberation” of the territories in the West Bank, much like many of his Rabbinic colleagues of the Rav Kook school.  But after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and even more so after the war in Lebanon in 1982, he increasingly saw the need for peace as the call of the hour.  In this he went against the mainstream of Religious Zionism, much as he went against the consensus of the yeshiva world when he championed the idea of the hesder.  The National Religious Party had by then become identified with hitnahalut, was virtually the party of the settlers, thereby identifying religion in the public mind with a triumphalist attitude towards the West Bank and Gaza settlements and, gradually, a kind of colonialist superiority to the native Palestinian Arabs, in which their own humanity was often forgotten.  This was to prove a tragic error which, as may be seen today, colors the public discourse on religion and Judaism in many unhealthy ways.  In 1988 Rav Amital provided the charismatic leadership and religious authority needed to coalesce several groups (including Ne’emanei Torah va-Avodah, the Religious Kibbutz movement, and the circle of Histadrut Rabbi Menahem Hacohen) to establish a Left-centrist religious party called Meimad, as a political alternative within the religious camp.

Although the new party failed to receive even one seat in the 1988 elections, it caught the public eye and, in 1995, after the Rabin assassination, Rav Amital was called upon by acting PM Shimon Peres to serve in the interim government as minister-without-portfolio.  In 1996 Meimad merged with the Labor Party, and until 2008 enjoyed a modest representation in the person of Rabbi Michael Melchior, who served as minister in the short-lived Barak government.

Thus far the formal obituary, the “official,” public facts of Rav Amital’s life, as known also from public sources.  I now turn to some personal impressions:

Neginah—music—was an important form of religious expression for Rav Amital. Gifted with a strong, striking and strangely moving voice, throughout the years he served as ba’al tefillah during the Yamim Noraim at the yeshiva—a role that he continued to fulfill well into his 80s.  When I first came to the yeshiva in Elul 1974, my experience of the Days of Awe (or “High Holy Days,” as they were known in America) had been limited, with one or two exceptions, to services in conventional neighborhood synagogues (including those which I myself conducted in outlying Jewish communities).  The davening in the yeshivah was, for me, nothing short of a revelation:  the intense, concentrated energy of the silent Amidah on the First Night of Rosh Hashanah and thereafter;  the voices of 300 young men raised in unison in joyful song—and in all this Rav Amital, as Baal Tefillah, played a central role.

Similarly, Rav Amital’s talks at the yeshiva, on Friday evenings or at the Third Shabbat Meal, left a deep impression.  Short, insightful words, filled with wisdom and humor and passion.  But at no times was this as true as on Rosh Hashanah, before the Shofar blowing, and on Yom Kippur, before Kol Nidrei and Neilah, when he wrapped himself in his tallit and spoke in the special maggid’s chant—an old-fashioned sing-song, half niggun and half speech, used to convey deep emotion and spiritual longing.

Rav Amital also played a special role at the festivities at the yeshiva—singing, telling stories, recalling the Jewish past.   If Rav Lichtenstein was the one who taught the what, who formulated the contents in objective, intellectual terms, it was Rav Amital who provided the niggun: the flavor, the taste of the mitzvot.  But he functioned not only as an unofficial mashpi’a ruhani, a spiritual model, but also as a rosh yeshivah.  He was a very serious lamdan: I remember well his shiurim kelali’im, his incisive, comprehensive lectures every Wednesday to the entire yeshiva student body summarizing in depth the sugya being studied by the yeshiva.  As R. Yoel Amital commented in his eulogy for his father, he had an unusual breadth of knowledge of the responsa literature, as reflected inter alia in the two-volumes of his Talmudic hiddushim, Resisei Tal.  (The Friday night after the funeral I took this book off my shelves and was overwhelmed by the incisiveness, the depth and scope of his halakhic thinking.)

A word about Rav Amital’s role as rosh yeshivah:  Har Etzion was one of the very few, if not the only major yeshiva, that was for decades been led by two rashei-yeshiva working together in tandem--it is more usual for there to be only one figure “at the top”—serving as an unusual and refreshing example of cooperation and modesty.  Indeed, the two complemented one another in many ways:  Rav Lichtenstein, a more cerebral, rather reserved, even shy personality, with a highly systematic, almost scientific way of thinking and teaching in Torah;  Rav Amital, more emotive, effusive, more spontaneous and flowing, bridging the Hasidic world of avodah with solid, deep halakhic erudition.  In recent years, as the two of them moved into their retirement years, two younger rashei yeshivah were appointed, and then a third, to continue this model of joint leadership into the next generation.

During the midday break at the yeshivah, between lunch and Minhah, optional classes were offered on a variety of topics, each one usually meeting once a week.  Rav Amital gave many such classes—on Sefer ha-Kuzari, on Rav Zaddok Hakohen, and on other subjects.  I still remember his opening shiur on the Kuzari:  the Khazar king had a repeated dream in which he was told by God that “your intentions are acceptable, but your actions are not acceptable”—a dream which served as the catalyst for his search for the correct religious path.  Rav Amital spoke here of the role of the emotions in Judaism:  that the quest for Torah begins with a certain sense of dissatisfaction.  He noted that every baal teshuvah or convert he had ever encountered came to Judaism, not through being convinced by logical, rational argumentation, but almost inevitably as the result of some emotional experience:  by a sense of dissatisfaction with the direction their lives had taken thus far, and a sense of having found—in Shabbat, in tefillah, in Torah study— something that spoke to their soul.  In this, as in virtually everything of Rav Amital that I have heard or read, there stands out the central importance of the emotional, spiritual element in Judaism, alongside the halakhic norms and intellectual contents.

At a celebration of Rav Amital’s eightieth birthday some years ago, one of the speakers drew an analogy between Rav Amital’s musical acumen and his consequent distaste for “false notes” in niggunim, and his objection to what the speaker called “false notes” in avodat hashem, in the religious life.  That is, the need for authenticity, for thorough-going truth and honesty, and the rejection of false piety or pretence.  He was particularly critical of certain new streams and tendencies in current religious life, especially popular among young people, of so-called “spirituality”—too often translated into subjectivism, emotionalism, and transient experiences of ecstasy, often at the expense of serious learning and study, disciplined use of the mind, and an a priori commitment to halakhah.  He would ask:  Does one sing and dance to create a mood of ecstasy, a “high,” or does one sing or dance because one feels ecstasy in God’s Presence?  (Several of his talks on this subject are gathered in a small pamphlet entitled Bein Hithabrut la-Mehuyavut:  five talks on the contrast between feeling “connected”—a buzz-word among Israeli youth--vs.  commitment).

Rav Amital was deeply troubled about the direction of Israeli society.  This is perhaps the crucial difference between religion in the Diaspora or within the Haredi community, both of which are more oriented towards individual piety or towards a minority community, and that of an Israeli Rav who takes the meaning of Zionism seriously:  namely, that one must think about the needs of the state and the society as a whole.  “Why don’t the religious parties want the position of Minister of Health?” he once said, when Meimad first began, arguing that it is as important in terms of religious values as those ministries involved in budgets for synagogues, mikvaot, yeshivot, religious schools, or West Bank settlements.  He saw issues of health policy (as he did other social issues) as entailing decisions that were literally a matter of life and death for tens or even hundreds of thousands of people—and hence of religious significance.

Yet notwithstanding his passionate commitment to a very definite path, Rav Amital was able to accept students who chose profoundly different paths;  some of his students were to become the leaders of the West Bank settler movement, and he maintained warm personal relations despite their ideological differences.  One might say that, as a corollary of his valuing of intellectual and moral integrity and authenticity, he was able to accept sharp differences, and even admire the independence of thought expressed thereby.

Rav Yoel, his son, made an interesting comment at the funeral.  He said that his father was found of quoting Rambam at Hilkhot De’ot 3.4, which in turn quotes Kohelet 7:16:  “Be not overly righteous, nor make yourself to be overly clever;  why should you be dumbfounded,” which he translated into contemporary idiom as a kind of personal motto:  “Be normal!!”  Religious people often translate their fervor into exaggerated piety, and/or bookishness, forgetting that one must lives in a real world, with ordinary people.  And indeed, alongside his religious concerns, his wisdom and learning, there was something very down-to-earth about Rav Amital.

I felt this quality very strongly the last time I saw him, at one of the gatherings of graduates arranged by the yeshiva for its 40th anniversary.  Late at night, after midnight, there was a gathering with Rav Amital at which he spoke off the cuff.  His presence was still strong, his voice powerful.  He commented, with great chen, that upon his retirement he saw himself as fulfilling the role of elter bakhur—the oldest student at the yeshiva, who would simply sit and learn, and now-and-again teach something if asked to do so.  He addressed the men’s wives, saying that marrying a yeshiva bakhur was no simple choice—the message being that, even after years in the world, working in their professions, the years of study at yeshiva left their mark on the graduates’ approach to life and scale of values.  What came out most strongly in this gathering was his real love for his students, and a certain simplicity and directness.

This “normalcy” also connects to his admiration and fondness for ordinary Jews.  During the last years of his life, when he no longer stayed in the yeshiva in the late afternoon, he davened Minhah at the local neighborhood synagogue in Givat Mordechai, where he would participate in a lesson in Mishnah given there by an ordinary Jew.  Even though such a class was obviously far below his own level of learning, it was important for him to show respect in this way to an ordinary Jew who taught Torah to others.

May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration for our own generation.


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