Yehudah Mirsky

Rabbinic voices combining ethics with halakha, faithfulness with freedom, intellectual and spiritual, are unbearably rare. One such was mori ve-rabi Rav Yehudah Amital zt’l, Though he passed away at 85, his death leaves a void.

He was a complex man who taught students to appreciate complexity while striving for simplicity. He wanted us both to love Torah and think for ourselves. He was passionately committed to mitzvot and halakha and passionately committed to freedom. His path and teachings are hard to summarize. He was, after all, an original.

In trying to put into words just who and what he and his Torah meant, three of the many talks I was privileged to hear him give over the years somehow bring him and his message into focus.

In the fall of 1978, he spoke in the yeshiva about Rashi’s comment on Abraham’s bidding the three three mysterious visitors he welcomed to his tent, “and wash your feet,” (Gen. 18:4) – Abraham suspected, Rashi said, that they were idolaters, who “would bow down to the dust on their feet., and he took care not to bring idolatry into his home.” Rashi’s answer raises the question, what sort of idolatry is that?

Rav Amital leaned forward and said: “Some people worship God, and some worshop themselves by way of God. They worship the framework of their own lives. God may loom large in the framework, so much so that there isn’t room for anyone or anything else. But it’s all inside a framework, made of ‘me.’

He spoke briefly, as always, leaned back, and was done. We all sat in stunned silence, each one of us catapulted into probing cheshbon ha-nefesh.  It was a long few minutes before our singing resumed.

The second was in the spring of 1980, on a shabbat when many alumni and their families came to the yeshiva. He talked about the Israelites’ terror at Mount Sinai, (Deut. 5:22): “But now, why should we die? For it will consume us, this great fire; if we continue to hear the voice of Hashem our God anymore, we will die!”

He said: “Some people seek fire, but a little fire, nice, tame, that won’t hurt anybody. Don’t be like that. Always be one of those who seeks the great fire.”

Always be one of those, who seeks the great fire.

And finally, from December 1982, at the founding assembly of Netivot Shalom, the religious peace movement formed in the wake of the first Lebanon War.  He said:  “There are three kinds of false messianism afoot in the Land of Israel today: Gush Emunim (with which he had formerly been engaged), Peace Now and Ariel Sharon.”

He continued: “We live in a complex reality and each proposes a simple answer: Gush Emumin offers faith, Peace Now offers good intentions, and Ariel Sharon offers force. Not one of them is sufficient. All three are necessary; we need good intentions, and faith, and, when necessary, force.”

These three talks burned themselves into me, from the moment I first heard them, and down through the years. Discoursing on them at length would only dilute their power.  When I think of why these three stayed with me, more than all the rest, I would have to say that they etch a vision of striving for truth in religious life and serving God, coupled with an awareness of complexity and a will to searching self-criticism.

In other words, Torah is real, and will free us both from the wretchedness of this world, and from the pathetic shallowness of worshipping ourselves. This liberation takes the willingness to take clear and hard looks at ourselves, our politics, society and our religion. It takes audacity, the willingness to take risks, and the desire to touch the essentials, bearers of great creativity and destruction. Serving God takes courage. And in matters of politics and society, as in our own lives, we have to undertake piercing introspection on ourselves, our ideals, and our assumptions.

This balance is so, so missing in Israel today, between conviction and complexity, between self-respect and self-worship, between good intentions, faith and force. The country is full of wonderful people who do extraordinary things, and yet something seems fundamentally broken, leaving us in a place where, as Yeats said, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We still don’t know how to live with that great fire, balance its creative and destructive powers, know how to worship God without worshipping ourselves, know how to keep alive the very idea of redemption, while false messianisms, left, right and center, claim their victims all around us.

If I were to put into my own words what I think I learned from Rav Amital, it is that anybody who thinks that God is in his own pocket doesn’t know the meaning of “God,” or “is.” That truth is as terrifying as it is liberating, as is perhaps the meaning of the great fire of Sinai.

Rav Amital told us, to the very end, to think for ourselves, and to cling to “simple Jews,” – both supreme acts of powerful faith, in God and Torah, and in our ability to live in this world, while searching for the great fire.

They will follow God, He will roar like a lion. (Hosea 11:10)


Originally Posted on Tradition: Text and Texture


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