Sunday, December 5th, 2021

Rabbi Yehuda Amital zt”l: Reflections by Nathaniel Helfgot, Yehudah Mirsky, Alex Israel, Yair Kahn, and Reuven Ziegler

July 17, 2010 by  
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To read two essays of Rav Amital’s published in Tradition, click here

Rav Amital and the Complexity of Life and Judaism

By Nathaniel Helfgot

 The passing of Moreinu Verabeinu Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l has deeply affected us all who were his direct or indirect students. It is difficult to write a comprehensive retrospective of such a unique, courageous yet humble gadol baTorah and leader of the Jewish people and I will not attempt to do so here. As the years pass, unique figures such as these who united in their life experiences so much of modern-Jewish history are far and few between.  These experiences include: learning in pre-war yeshivot and fighting in Israel’s War of Independence; surviving the Shoah and building one of the most significant Yeshivot Hesder; fusing the simplicity and innocence of pure yirat shamayim of classical hasidut coupled with sophisticated and profound thinking of the highest level; all infused with a deep and robust love of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. It is especially difficult for me to write about someone who I came to know and love on a personal level outside of the yeshiva: at Pesah sedarim in his home; Shabbat and Yom Tov visits; and help in transliterating his speeches at Yeshivat Har Eztion dinners into Hebrew characters in the Olcott Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side all those years ago; and so many other situations where he and his wife opened their home and hearts to me.

Yeshivat Har Etzion has been preparing a volume during the last two years celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its founding. As an alumnus I submitted an essay for that volume on the theme of complexity as a core value of the yeshiva and its educational philosophy. As a tribute to Rav Amital zt”l, I share with the readers of Text and Texture a portion of a draft of that essay that focuses on Rav Amital and the complexity of the human condition and Judaism. May his memory be forever a blessing.

 The Holocaust and the State of Israel

                R. Amital was born in Transylvania, Hungary in 1924 and was taken to a slave labor camp during the war years; he narrowly escaped being sent to a death camp on a number of occasions. His entire family, many friends, and his primary teacher were murdered at the hands of the Nazis, may their name be blotted out. He made aliya in 1945, studied in Yeshivat Chevron, and fought in the Hagana during Israel’s War of Independence. Moshe Maya has written a small but important volume on Rav Amital’s theology and perspective on the Holocaust, which also relates to his perspective on the meaning of the modern State of Israel.  There is no need to review the insightful comments and analysis that are presented in that superb monograph; my intention is simply to focus on the impact of these two seminal events in the life of R. Amital in sharpening his sense of the complexity of the world, Jewish history, halakha, and the human condition.

In a number of sichot, R. Amital expresses the notion that simply continuing to live with one’s historical world-view or religious approach to God after the Shoah, as if nothing occurred, is simply impossible. The simple, black and white categories of how Divine Providence operates and the perspectives on reward and punishment, the march of history, and the Divine plan that many in both the Charedi and Religious-Zionist camps espouse cannot encompass the reality and meaning of the Shoah. Thus, for example, the classic religious approach of basing one’s service of God on basic gratitude, hakarat ha-tov, as articulated by Rabbeinu Bachaya Ibn Pakuda in his classic “Duties of the Heart,” cannot be sustained:

In the Gate of Distinction, Rabbeinu Bachaya expands on the need to constantly think about God’s kindness; thus, the obligation of Divine service springs from belief in His unity and recognition of His good… More than a few modern rabbis and preachers have continued to espouse the idea of gratitude as a basis for worshipping God… After the awesome devastation of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, how, if at all, can we talk about our worship of God being based on gratitude or recognition of God’s grace?… Can a Jew who lost his wife and children possibly serve God out of the recognition of his kindness? Can a Jew whose job was the removal of the charred remains of the corpses from the crematoria be capable of serving God on the basis of gratitude? No, not in any way, shape or form!… Rabbenu Bachaya in the tenth section of his Chovot Ha-levavot, the Gate of the Love of God, sets out a different path of Divine service…

 In place of faith based on gratitude, a more nuanced and profound faith and belief system must emerge:

…a Divine love not based on gratitude but on faith, which persists even in an era of Divine concealment. The mishna (Sota 5:5) states: “On that very day, R. Yehoshua Ben Hyrcanus preached: Job served God out of love, as it says: ‘Even though He slays me, I will trust in Him.’”[1]

 In similar fashion, in R. Amital’s view, the Holocaust and its aftermath, including the rise of the State of Israel, have overturned the all-encompassing religious historiography of both Chareidi and Religious-Zionist ideologues:

Great leaders, among them most of the Chassidic Rebbes, rejected Zionism. In the meantime, a Holocaust took place. In the meantime, the State was established, but to the Chareidi view, it cannot be possible that the leaders were mistaken… The correct answer… is that no one foresaw – nor was anyone capable of foreseeing – the Holocaust… People are afraid to state openly that there are things that Rav Kook did not foresee, and this in and of itself does not diminish his greatness. R. Akiva… believed that Bar Kochva was the Messiah and he was mistaken, but nevertheless he remained R. Akiva.[2]

 Moshe Maya summarizes:

The Holocaust confounded the entire ideological system and forces us to renewed evaluation of our religious world-view… It is impossible to maintain either a Religious–Zionist or Chareidi world-view and ignore the Holocaust.[3]

 For R. Amital, then, one must be prepared to reevaluate one’s most deeply held ideological convictions in light of reality in order to arrive at a true and honest path in the service of God. Sloganeering and facile conceptions of ideology held on to without analysis and consideration of all factors yield false and superficial beliefs and world-views.

The Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel are, in Rav Amital’s view, also significant religious moments in Jewish history from a halakhic perspective.  In his view, these events have not only upset long-held notions about the way Jewish history should play out, but classical halakhic categories as well. To take one example, the classic categories of tzaddik and rasha simply can not remain in light of the experience of the Shoah and the new and complex reality of the secular Israeli Jew and his devotion to people and country:

Are we permitted to condemn people who find it difficult to have faith after all that the Holocaust did to Jewish souls? If Rav Kook and the Chazon Ish spoke of “coerced innocents” before the Holocaust, what shall we say today?… In Talmudic times, people who desecrated the Sabbath were also suspect regarding theft and robbery. Today, high ethical standards and moral standards can be found among people who reject the authority of the Torah and have abandoned religious observance. In recent generations, we have seen people devoid of religious faith give their lives for ethical–moral ideals or for the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, it is only natural that we should adopt a different stance.

There was a time when the Jews were hated for being the bearers of the Torah. As soon as a Jew stopped living according to his religion and accepted the religion of his Gentile milieu, the hatred ceased. Contemporary Jew hatred is racial, directed against people in whom Jewish blood flows… In Auschwitz, the Germans did not check Jews for their opinions or degree of observance. Are we going to do so as a preliminary to observing the mitzvot of “You shall love your fellow as yourself” and “Your brother shall live with you?” If we believe that the State of Israel is a haven for millions of Jews and if we believe that the survival of those Jews hinges on peace for Israel and the Jewish State’s capacity to withstand its many enemies, and if we believe that the re-establishment of the Jewish state is and its survival constitute a Kiddush Hashem… then we had better realize that the State of Israel is not going to endure without cordial relations between all sectors of the nation.[4]

 The Thought of Rav Kook

The writings and life’s work of R. Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Kohen Kook zt”l had a profound effect on the intellectual, social, religious and political culture, discussion, and agendas of Israel, its leaders, thinkers, and intellectuals for the past seven decades. In particular, the thought of Rav Kook and his personality, as interpreted by his son, R. Tzvi Yehuda zt”l and his followers, have dominated the thinking, ethos, and perspectives of much of the Religious-Zionist community in Israel for two generations.  In addition, the philosophical and mystical writings of Rav Kook have become a central area of study in modern Jewish thought, both in the modern-Orthodox yeshiva world and in the academy. A central feature of R. Kook’s world-view is a sophisticated and multi-layered view of reality. It is rooted in a kabbalistic orientation that adopts a dialectical perspective regarding the nature of various phenomena in human and Jewish history. Phenomena that may, on their surface, be easily categorized as “good” or “bad” must be more fully analyzed in order to recognize their core energy and essence, which may reflect ultimate “truths” or goods from the more long-term perspective of the Divine economy and providence.  The same can often hold true for the experiences of the individual and his study and exposure to both the holy and the “not yet holy” phenomena of life.

R. Kook’s writings are characterized by a deep appreciation for the multi-faceted nature of the world we experience, the partial reality that we are exposed to, and the need to go beyond surface and initial perceptions to get to the heart and essence of a topic or phenomena. To take one example of this type of thought, Rav Kook’s short comments on holiness are paradigmatic of his entire approach:

Just as the soul of man is higher and more inward than the angels and precisely because of its greatness, it descended to the lowest level, and from there will arise with great and awesome spiritual wealth to prepare the entire world for ascent to the source—so that the sacred that is within the mundane, which descended to the utterly profane, is more lofty and holy than the sacred within the realm of the sacred, only that it is extremely hidden. There is no end to the tikkunim that will accrue to the world via the mundane, which will be manifestly revealed at the happy time when there will be no light… Before the Light of the Messiah (may it be revealed speedily in our days), the power of holiness within the secular will be aroused, which initially will arouse the secular. “All will speak the language of men, not the language of God (Zohar).”[5]

From his early adulthood, Rav Amital was heavily influenced by the writings of Rav Kook and viewed himself as a student of R. Kook, R. Yaacov Moshe Charlap zt”l, one of Rav Kook’s closest students and confidantes, and Rav Kook’s son, R. Tzvi Yehuda.[6]

R. Amital has written that “My spiritual outlook is based on and nourished by the writings of Rav Kook.” Most poignantly, he responded to someone who inquired what had kept him going during the Holocaust, “I had a booklet by Rav Kook, that’s what sustained me.” Rav Amital expanded on that comment in a later talk:

I became aware of the writings of R. Kook at an early age while still in Hungary, where I was born. As a young yeshiva student, I was studying a book about legends of our Sages by a modern author, and I came upon a quote, an excerpt from R. Kook’s Orot. It was night and I saw there was a great light. It seized my imagination. I began to search for writings by Rav Kook… I was seventeen when the Germans came, and I was summoned to be transported to a labor camp in an unknown location… I didn’t know what awaited me. I took a few small books in a bag; a Pentateuch, Prophets, Mishna, and I thought there would be a need for something else, that would perhaps maintain the necessary morale in hard times. And so I took Mishnat Ha-Rav [a compilation of Rav Kook’s teachings edited by R. Moshe Zvi Neryia zt”l]. Indeed, I received encouragement and strength from that book.[7] 

 In a more lengthy passage, Rav Amital clearly indicates his appreciation and identification with Rav Kook’s intellectual approach. In it, he articulates which elements of his thought and perspective are still relevant today, some seventy years after Rav Kook’s death. In that context, he particularly notes Rav Kook’s insistence on a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of Jewish thought and a rejection of the superficial and simple-minded approach:

We should also stress his [R. Kook’s] constant struggle against the superficial approach in understanding basic concepts of Judaism and his continual cry for deep study of the theoretical part of the Torah… Let us not blind ourselves to the fact that religious Jewry of today is showing great vitality to flourish and prosper with its “simple religiosity,” proste frumkeit, in Rav Kook’s phrase (Letters Vol. 1, p. 160), without concern for its religious and godly concepts… I think it would be irresponsible on our part to proceed in the confidence that there will be no religious crisis in the future arising from the poverty of religious thought and confused, sometimes childish conceptions of the principles of faith.[8]

 The Study of Responsa Literature

R. Amital’s intellectual background and training is a blend of classical Hungarian lehrnen together with the Lithuanian method of learning Talmud that he was exposed to both in Hungary and upon his entry into the halls of Yeshivat Chevron in Jerusalem. As anyone who has seen the dozens and dozens of stacks of sefarim in R. Amital’s house can attest, R. Amital carries with him a great interest, as well as deep familiarity with and control of, the vast body of responsa literature.

Exposure to and identification with that literature can and often does lead to a greater awareness and appreciation of the complexities and challenges of life as it is lived in both normal and extreme situations.  Extensive reading of responsa literature undermines a common misconception amongst those who view halakhic decision making in formalistic legal terms. In this rarified conception, the posek is a sort of objective quasi-computer, punching out clear answers based on the input of sources fed into his memory. The reality that emerges from study of response, however, is one of a vibrant and pulsating world of differential pesak rooted in context, the weighing of various factors, the reality of human and spiritual needs (often recognized by halakha in terms such as tza’ar, she’at ha-dechak, kevod ha-beriyot, mishum iggun, etc.), balanced exquisitely with fidelity to the written codes, texts, and their intent. As Rav Lichtenstein has noted in his discussion of Chazal’s license to make use of minority opinions in addressing situations of she’at ha-dechak:

Implicit in this formulation is the concept of differential pesak, the principle that divergent answers may be given to the identical halakhic question, depending upon the attendant human and social circumstances; and it is this concept which holds the key to the advocacy of sensitivity in halakhic decision.[9]

Control and mastery of the responsa literature is thus an important element in sensitizing any religious leader to the complexities of Jewish life, both personal and communal. In addition, in addressing important questions of Halakha, public policy, and issues of individual guidance it provides the sensitive posek with a range of materials to draw from and make use of, beyond the cut and dry presentations of the formal codes, in providing advice and hora’ah.



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) 

No Shortcut Judaism

By Alex Israel

Rav Yehuda Amital passed away last week at age 86. He was my Rosh Yeshiva, my teacher, to whom I am indebted for much of my value system and my spiritual path in life. He was a Holocaust survivor, an ideologue, an institution builder, a master teacher, a Talmid Chacham, a humble Jew who cared about every other Jew, a proud Israeli who fought in the war of Independence, and founded Yeshivot Hesder, sending his own students to fight in the army, who began as a leading settler, and ended up as a supporter of Peace. He stepped into Israeli politics when he felt that his unique contribution could make a difference. Much has been written about him.  However, in some manner of tribute I would like to add a few personal reflections. One caveat – a short blog entry could not do any justice to the depth of his learning, his extensive achievements, the magnetism and warmth of his personality, nor his personal charisma.

No Shortcuts – “אין פטנטים

I believe that no student could pass through the Yeshiva without hearing Rav Amital’s trademark saying – אין פטנטים. By this he meant that there are no shortcuts to spirituality, to mastery of Torah, to God. Rav Amital sought authenticity. He would sing over and over: וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת – In other words, ‘God purify us that we serve you authentically, in truth, in depth” and Rav Amital believed that this was hard work. He insisted that the Yeshiva be a place of learning without distraction, of depth and devoted study. He spoke about prayer and how religious connection is an “Avoda sheba-lev (service of the heart)” meaning that it was an Avoda – hard work. Spiritual highs cannot come instantaneously.

Rav Amital expressed his disdain for religious fads, superficial expressions of piety, and what he saw as shallow spiritual thrills. Furthermore, he was uninterested in religious practices that took a person out of the cycle of the “normal.” Once, a friend of mine – a ba’al teshuva – was pedantically cleaning his hands PRIOR to Netilat Yadayim. He had studied the directive of the Mishna Berura that required that one ensure that no substance become a barrier to the waters and interfere with the ritual washing of the hands. Rav Amital saw him and gently said to him: “Danny. Be normal!” He believed that strict and full accordance with the Halakha was a way of life that demanded effort and work, but that it should not take a person away from the orbit of normal people, or regular living.

In this vein, he voiced his wariness with the increasing practice within the Religious-Zionist community to grow peyot (sidelocks) and don huge kippot (yarmulkas). He spoke against it saying that these outer trappings were an expression of fear and insecurity, that people were frightened that they could not withstand the pressures of secularism and modernity. He encouraged people to have confidence in the religious traditions of their families, in the depth and power of shemirat mitzvoth, and not to resort strange dress, and anti-establishment acts.

Truth, ideological shifting, courage.

Rav Amital’s sense of truth expressed itself in other ways. After the Six-Day War, Rav Amital saw the euphoria of Israel’s successes as a sign of divine Redemption and encouraged that ideology as a practical roadmap for settlement of the land. However with the traumas of the Yom Kippur War (in which he lost 8 students – a tenth of his Yeshiva) and the moral questions of the Lebanon war, Rav Amital questioned his ideological priorities.

He felt that Religious Zionism had become morally compromised. When he set up Meimad, his political party, it was not designed to be left wing. It was designed to make the statement that the Land of Israel was not the sole challenge of Religious Zionists, not Judaism’s prime emphasis. Rather Religious Zionism had to adopt other priorities such as social justice and reconnect with the mainstream of Israeli body-politic. He was ostracized for his views, but twenty years later, more and more people talk in that vein.

He had the courage to change his opinions even when his students and the entire Religious-Zionist world ridiculed and vilified him. He was the first major religious leader to suggest that territorial compromise might be the best policy (under the circumstances) for the State of Israel. He was the first person to raise a self-critical voice calling for introspection after the Rabin assassination.

He always called for full allegiance and respect for the Israeli government, understanding that if we uproot our adherence to the source of our sovereignty, we risk everything.

In all these policies he spoke against the Religious-Zionist mainstream, but believed that the truth must be voiced, whatever the personal cost.

Empowerment and Truth

Rav Amital believed in empowering his students. On the inaugural evening of the Yeshiva, he stayed at home. People did not understand why he wasn’t there at the inception of his institution. He replied to the boys: ‘It is YOUR Yeshiva. I will help you, but YOU will make this place succeed or make it fail.”

He invited a talmid chacham who was ten years his junior and a new Oleh – Rav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit”a – to take over the Yeshiva because he felt (his words) that he wanted a superior scholar to lead the institution. In a move of mind-boggling proportions, Rav Amital extended Rav Lichtenstein the position of leading the institution single-handedly as Rosh Yeshiva, and that he (Rav Amital) would merely teach on the faculty! In Rav Lichtenstein’s words: “He left the keys on the table.” Needless to say, Rav Lichtenstein accepted on condition that he partner with Rav Amital. Let me simply say that it is rare to see such an amazing partnership of mutual respect and love. But Rav Amital’s humility allowed that to happen.

When he once gave a political speech in Yeshiva, he allowed his student (Hanan Porat), a leading Right Winger, to get up and take the podium immediately afterwards, to give a different perspective.

He believed that each person needed to find their truth. When asked by Shimon Peres what the political stance of Yeshivat Har Etzion was, he said the following:

Our stance has 3 principles.

First, that every problem of the nation must deeply bother every student.
Second, that the students must think about the problem carefully, long and hard, evaluating the arguments and implications to the full.
Third, we have no political stance – each student must make up their own mind.

The Crying Baby

No one can talk about Rav Amital without mentioning his famous story of the crying baby. It goes like this: While Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was studying Torah, he heard the crying of his infant grandson. The elder rebbe rose from his studying and soothed the baby to sleep. Meanwhile, his son, the boy’s father, was too involved in his study to hear the baby cry. When R. Zalman noticed his son’s lack of involvement, he proclaimed, “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear the cry of a Jewish baby, there is something very wrong with his learning.”

Rav Amital believed that everyone had a sense of mission to the Jewish people. That when the baby cried, one had to engage, to alleviate the pain. When they built the unconventional architectural structure of the Har Etzion Beit Midrash, the architect had planned the modern design without windows. Rav Amital insisted that the Yeshiva have big windows. Why? Because the Beit Midrash must be connected to the people, to Am Yisrael.

There was so much more to Rav Amital. His attachment to all of Am Yisrael. His beautiful, elevating tear-stained davening on the Yamim Noraim.

As was said at the funeral, Rav Amital was a wonderful fusion of idealism and pragmatism, of conservatism and change, of misnagdic intellectualism and hassidic-mysticism, of the Beit-Midrash and the needs of the nation. However, unlike the Brisker dialectic weighing and balancing the two perspectives and reaching some manner of resolution, Rav Amital’s moderation was visceral, seamless and spontaneous, rather than dialectical or intellectual. In this regard, I always saw his expertise and mastery of שו”תים – the Responsa literature – as a reflection of his connection to life, pragmatism, real people and their problems, rather than an inclination to theoretical scholarly ponderings.

There is so much that I owe him that it is difficult to describe. His ideas and students will live on. I am privileged to have studied with such a giant of the spirit, such a loving, God-fearing Rav, a true guide to the perplexing times in which we live.


 Ve-Chai Bahem – And You Shall Live by Them

By Yair Kahn

 When I was a student at YU, Rav Goren came and delivered a shiur to the yeshiva. He began with the Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:1):

The entire house of Israel is commanded to sanctify the great and holy name… How so? If a gentile should arise and force a Jew to violate one of the Torah’s commandments or be killed, he should violate and not be killed, as it says [in reference to the mitzvot], “that man should do and live by them” (Vayikra 18:5) – live by them and not die by them.

Only in the following halakha does the Rambam codify the conditions whereby one must sacrifice one’s life in order to sanctify the name of God. Rav Goren questioned the order of these halakhot. After all, the Rambam is discussing the command to sanctify the name of God; shouldn’t he have begun with the cases in which we are commanded to sacrifice our lives to sanctify His name? Rav Goren concluded that the greatest sanctification of God’s name is achieved through life, not death.

When the German invasion was imminent, a group of friends in a small town in Hungary engaged in a passionate debate. One group, led by Yehoshua Hager (nephew of the Viznitzer Rebbe zt”l and half brother of Rav Lau shlit”a), claimed that they should run away and try to reach Eretz Yisrael. The second group, led by Yehuda Klein (who would later change his name to Amital), argued that the plan to run away was not realistic. The Germans were everywhere. “We should prepare ourselves to die in the sanctification of the name of Hashem.”  Yehoshua Hager, through his Viznitzer connections, escaped and was able to reach Eretz Yisrael. Yehuda Klein remained in Hungary and was sent to a labor camp. He managed to survive until the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers. Upon his liberation, even before the war had ended, Yehuda traveled to Israel, arriving by rail from the north. He immediately enrolled in the Chevron Yeshiva.

Once he went to visit the religious kibbutz of Kfar Etzion, south of Yerushalayim. There he met Yehoshua Hager. “Yehuda, is that you? You survived? You, who insisted that we die in the sanctification of the holy name?” he said angrily. He continued, “Yehuda, do you still believe? Did you remain religious?” Yehuda answered, “Had I lost my faith, would I have answers? Is it any simpler for one who is not religious?” In a televised symposium with the poet and partisan Abba Kovner, Rav Amital commented: “The questions posed by the Holocaust are much greater for one who doesn’t believe in God. What is left for him to believe in – humanity? Can one believe in humanity after the Holocaust, after what the Nazis and their cohorts did to the Jews?” Although he couldn’t explain the Shoah, Rav Amital’s faith was unshaken. Even during the dark days in the labor camps, he felt the presence of Hashem, even though he couldn’t understand the meaning of what was taking place.

After the terrible desecration of God’s name that took place on the national level during the Holocaust years, Rav Amital viewed the creation of the Jewish State, establishing Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael, as a national kiddush Hashem. (It should be noted that Rav Amital did not view this as an explanation for the Holocaust.) He dedicated his life to continuing the legacy of his teachers, passing on Torah to the next generation. He was a driving force and inspiration to the Religious Zionist camp in Israel. He wrote a guide to aid halakhic observance for soldiers serving in the army. He conceived the idea of “hesder” – combining army service with Torah studies. Following the Six Day War, he agreed to head a yeshivat hesder to be founded in the heart of the Etzion Bloc, a group of Jewish settlements south of Yerushalayim that were destroyed in 1948. Yeshivat Har Etzion was founded in 1968, and together with his co-Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Amital built it into one of the more prominent and influential yeshivot in Israel.

Rav Amital’s focus, however, was not limited to the religious. He was concerned with all Jews, religious as well as non-religious. All Jews, dati and not dati, jointly participated in the establishment of Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael, and the kiddush Hashem of the Israeli State could be fully achieved only through unity. When Rav Amital noted a widening rift between the religious and secular camps in Israel, he began to act on the national level. He viewed religious legislation and coercion as counterproductive, and began to demand that the benefits of these policies be re-examined. He could not remain silent when Hashem’s name was desecrated in the wake of the Sabra-Shatilla massacre. When the religious right began attacking government policy and undermining its authority on politico-religious grounds, he was vocal in his opposition. When he noticed the rift between the religious right and the secular left growing deeper, he felt the need establish “Meimad,” a religious party that had moderate political policies and was in favor of religious-secular dialogue, as opposed to religious coercion. Rav Amital considered the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin at the hands of religious extremist Yigal Amir as a terrible desecration of Hashem’s name. He felt the divide between the religious right and secular left had reached critical proportions. As a result, he agreed to join the Peres government to try to heal the wound. He paid a high price, as he was censured strongly by many Religious Zionist leaders and was deserted by some of his own talmidim. Nevertheless, Rav Amital, always a man of conviction and courage, was not deterred. 

One of the more difficult aspects of serving as minister was being torn away from the yeshiva that he had created and that was so much part of his life. He came to the yeshiva regularly to deliver the shiur klali (the weekly lecture given to the entire yeshiva by the Rosh Yeshiva) when his turn came. When his term as minister ended, he was relieved to be able to return to his beit midrash as a regular Rosh Yeshiva.

He continued teaching Torah until he felt it was time to leave room for the next generation. Instead of appointing a successor, he nobly made room for an independent committee to make the best decision. Despite stepping down from duties as Rosh Yeshiva, he continued to travel from Yerushalayim to Gush Etzion to teach Torah for as long as his health allowed.

The above is a very brief sketch. It obviously cannot do justice to the complexity and greatness of Mori ve-Rabbi Ha-Rav Amital, hareini kaparat mishkavo. Nevertheless, let me sum up with a few points directly connected to the above.

Rav Amital was revered and loved by his talmidim, past and present. He was an inspiration by example in the beautiful relationship that existed between him and Mori ve-Rabbi Rav Lichtenstein shlit”a. The legacy he left included a burning love for Jews, all Jews, faith in Ha-Kadosh Barush Hu that survived unthinkable horrors, and a fiery desire that the name of Hashem should be sanctified through Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael, which can only be achieved through unity of the Jewish People.

No, Yehoshua – Rav Amital did not give up his life to sanctify the name of Hashem in the furnaces of Europe. Hashem saved Rav Amital and brought him to Israel, so that he could sanctify Hashem’s name throughout his life. Yehi zikhro barukh

“Understand the Years of Each Generation”:

A Eulogy for Mori ve-Rabbi Harav Yehuda Amital zt”l

 By Reuven Ziegler

                 About ten years ago, Rav Amital was handed a draft of a book someone had written about his thought.  I asked a person in the know what Rav Amital thought of it.  He said, “He didn’t like it, because it presented him as having changed his mind.”  He paused and added, “But then he changed his mind.”

                Another story: In 1995, I was present when Rav Amital told a gathering of the kollel that he did not feel women needed to study Talmud; his grandmother and mother had been very pious Jews without it.  A year or two later, he addressed a women’s learning program with the words, “You know, I used to think that Talmud study for women was unnecessary, but now I think it is absolutely essential!”  Soon afterwards, Yeshivat Har Etzion decided to open a women’s division in Migdal Oz, where Talmud study is a major part of the curriculum.  

               With Rav Amital, you never knew what he was going to say next.  Even into his 70’s and 80’s, he maintained his dynamism, continuing to consider matters afresh and never losing the capacity to surprise.  When the State of Israel turned 51 (and Rav Amital was 74), he told us that it was time to reconsider the meaning of malkhut Yisrael (Jewish sovereignty): we should stop thinking about in terms of security and nation-building, and start thinking about it in terms of establishing a dominion of justice and truth.  When he was 75, he was among the first to note and analyze the phenomenon of “new Chasidut” in the Religious Zionist community, and to formulate a detailed response.  When he turned 80, he said it was time for a different understanding of “reishit tzemichat ge’ulatenu.”

                Why was Rav Amital often so unpredictable?  I believe it was because he was so grounded in reality, in life as lived.  Abstractions don’t change; reality does.  If someone lives in the realm of abstractions, he need never change his positions.  But if a person has a feel for reality, for the shifting needs of individuals and society, he will sometimes need – if he is honest with himself and sufficiently courageous – to adjust his stand in light of changing circumstances and emerging trends.

                This characteristic accounts for Rav Amital’s special love and mastery of the responsa literature, a literature not so much of concepts or generalizations but of Halakha as applied in real circumstances at specific times and places.  This also explains why all his talks were peppered with stories, many of them regarding his own experiences – he viewed life through the prism of experience and not abstractions, and he valued his interactions with people. 

                His grounding in reality made him acutely sensitive to all forms of self-deception, such as escapist mysticism or taking on chumrot that are not appropriate to one’s spiritual level.  He also objected to forms of religiosity that removed one from reality, constricting life and closing one to the world and to broader society.

                Rav Amital’s grounding in reality and his sensitivity to shifting societal and historical trends often enabled him to foresee future developments and take timely action.  Probably his major historical contribution is formulating the idea of yeshivot hesder; he foresaw the need to strengthen the Religious Zionist community with a broad cadre of talmidei chakhamim, as well as to prevent alienation between yeshiva students and the state.  His sensitivity to emerging trends – the rising threat of Iran, the looming conflict over the Jewish character of Israel, the growing identification of Religious Zionism with militarism and the use of force, and the increasing alienation between different sectors in Israeli society and between Israel and the Diaspora – also led him (as far back as the 1980’s) to take unpopular stands on political issues and even to change his position when necessary. 

                Beyond his grounding in reality and his sensitivity to the present and the future, Rav Amital tried to give us, his talmidim, something invaluable, something that we could not have gained on our own: a sense of historical perspective.  He lived Jewish history; he embodied Jewish history.  He allowed us to see the miracle of the founding of the State of Israel through the eyes of someone who had gone from the depths of the Holocaust to fighting in the War of Independence, from the ingathering of the exiles to the tragedy of the Yom Kippur War.  Who can forget his electrifying reading the verses from Zekharia (8:4-6)?

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall yet again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand because of his old age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. Thus says the Lord of hosts: If it will be wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this nation in those days, it will also be wondrous in My eyes, says the Lord of hosts. 

What is so wondrous about old people sitting on benches and young children playing?  Yet not only is it “wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this nation,” it is even “wondrous in My eyes, says the Lord of hosts”!   Only someone with historical perspective, someone who was a “remnant of this nation,” someone whose whole family – “old men and old women,” “boys and girls” – perished in Auschwitz, someone who prepared himself numerous times to die al kiddush Hashem, could convey the enormity and wonder of seeing old people and children living a normal life in the streets of Jerusalem.

                Rav Amital also used his historical perspective to give his students a sense of proportion.  On the one hand, seeing old people in Jerusalem is wondrous; on the other hand, no matter how bad things are now, they have been much, much worse.  And once you have some of Rav Amital’s sense of historical perspective, you cannot help but share his opposition to “achshavism” – the desire to have everything now, whether “Peace Now” or “Mashiach Now” or “Zbeng ve-gamarnu,” one big military operation that will solve all our problems.  In all areas of life – religious, social, educational, etc. – he had nothing but disdain for quick, easy, black-and-white solutions to complex problems.

                Rav Amital’s sense of perspective, proportion and grounding in reality all combined with a deep faith in his teachings on prayer.  He taught us that that prayer should be natural, like a conversation (“Va-yetze Yitzchak lasuach ba-sadeh”); that it defines man (who is called a “mav’eh” in the mishna in Bava Kama); that it is a necessity for man; that it is a sublime pleasure.  He was realistic about prayer: he taught that there is value even to rote prayer, and that kavvana is elusive.  He liked to recount that when the students of the Baal Shem Tov asked him how they could know whether a certain person was a true tzaddik or a charlatan, the Besht answered: “Ask him whether he has a segula against foreign thoughts intruding on prayer.  If he says yes, you can be sure he is a charlatan.” 

               Yet even though Rav Amital was opposed to all kinds of segulot, shortcuts and magic solutions, he wisely suggested a technique for dealing with foreign thoughts: “You must translate the problem which occupies your thoughts into the language of prayer. Whether you are thinking about business or family or anything else, God is certainly able to help you in solving the problem. Don’t banish this ‘foreign thought’ from your mind; on the contrary – keep it with you, and turn that very thought into a prayer.”

              Yet what we learned most of all from Rav Amital was the power of prayer – not when he talked about it, but when he served as sheliach tzibbur for Selichot and Yamim Noraim.  You could not listen to him without realizing that he wasn’t praying for himself; he was pleading with God to have mercy on Am Yisrael.  It wasn’t the tunes or his pleasant voice that swept up the tzibbur; it was his genuineness, sincerity and authenticity.  His prayers swelled up from the depths of his heart, and found their way into the hearts of his talmidim.

              Rav Amital’s love of prayer and song, his frequent recourse to Chasidic tales and teachings, his humility and directness, his love for “simple Jews,” his warm and outgoing nature – all these led people to characterize him as a Chasid.  If so, what kind of Chasid was he?  Even if he emulated the ahavat Yisrael of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the psychological sensitivity of R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, the intellectualism of Chabad, and the depth of R. Tzadok, I think that his Chasidut was closest to Kotzk. 

             Like the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Amital cherished truth above all and had a visceral, almost allergic, reaction against pretense and hypocrisy.  (It is no coincidence that the song talmidim associate with him most closely is “Ve-taher libenu le-ovdekha be-emet,” Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.)  Like the Kotzker Chasidim, about whom it was said that they performed mitzvot in private but not in public, he disdained external displays of piety.  He felt such forms of “chitzoniyut” were tainted with the desire for public acclaim but lacked inner authenticity; they were like writing checks without sufficient funds to cover them. 

             The Kotzker Rebbe, furthermore, provided a cornerstone of Rav Amital’s educational philosophy.  Commenting on the verse, “And you shall be holy people to me” (Shemot 22:6), the Kotzker explained: “God, as it were, is saying here: Angels I have in sufficient quantity; I am looking for human beings who will be holy people.”

             Like the Kotzker, Rav Amital was always pithy and could also be sharp at times.  When his daughter asked him why throngs of people came for advice to a certain rabbi and not to him, he answered, “Ka-nireh she-ani lo zakuk le-zeh” (Apparently, I don’t need it).  This also reveals another similarity: like the Kotzker, he did not want to be a rebbe.  Even though he was overflowing with charisma, he did not want students to be dependent on him or to imitate him; he wanted them to think for themselves; he wanted them to be themselves.  (This, I believe, is one of the reasons he lived in Jerusalem and not in Alon Shevut: had he lived near the yeshiva, students would have knocked at his door at all hours of the day and made him into a rebbe.)

             Although Rav Amital taught Chasidut long before it was popular in the Religious Zionist world, and although he had certain Chasidic tendencies, he had mixed feelings, as mentioned above, regarding the recent “neo-Chasidic” trend in Religious Zionist circles.  Although he acknowledged that it expressed a legitimate critique of contemporary religiosity, and that it was driven by a desire for authenticity, he also felt that it often devolved into a form of spiritual thrill-seeking that ignored the needs of society and lacked a firm commitment to mitzvot.  Rav Amital frequently quoted a lost midrash cited in the introduction to Ein Yaakov: the most encompassing principle of the Torah, the cornerstone of Judaism, is not “Shema Yisrael” nor “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but rather “You shall bring one lamb in the morning and one lamb in the evening.”  The daily sacrifice, the routine of commandments, normal life and not peak experiences – these are the foundations of religious existence.

              This emphasis on daily sacrifice leads us to one of his most central teachings: “Ein patentim.”  There are no shortcuts, no tricks, no magic solutions in religious existence, in education, or in any other area of life.  There is just hard work and commitment to slow, gradual improvement.  Yet even though he emphasized the importance of routine and of incremental change, he often found the poetry within the prose, and one could sense the sweetness, beauty, freshness and newness that suffused his Torah and his mitzva observance.

                The word that most often comes to mind when I think of Rav Amital is wisdom.  I don’t mean that he was smart (though he was very, very smart); I mean that he was wise.  He understood life, he understood people, he saw several steps ahead, he considered consequences, and he saw the big picture.  For example, he advised a couple who wanted to start keeping mitzvot to follow the model of the three mitzvot given to the Jews at Mara, before they reached Mt. Sinai (see Rashi, Shemot 15:25):

1) Shabbat: If it is too hard to be a Jew seven days a week, then try at least one day a week.

2) Honoring parents: Pick any mitzva bein adam le-chavero and observe it scrupulously.  It is important to stress that Halakha does not relate only to matters between man and God, but also legislates interpersonal ethics.

3) Para aduma: Choose a mitzva you don’t understand and observe it as well.  One must realize that despite all the rationales behind the mitzvot, ultimately we cannot understand everything and we do not base our observance only on our rational appreciation of the mitzvot.

              Of course, his wisdom is clearly manifested in two of his most startling and far-sighted decisions: inviting Rav Lichtenstein to serve as rosh yeshiva and appointing his successors before his retirement.  The first made his yeshiva into what it is; the second ensured its continuity.  By bringing in a rosh yeshiva so different from himself, Rav Amital ensured that his students would learn to see the merits of differing positions, to think broadly and with complexity.  This is also the reason he declared that although the writings of Chabad, R. Nachman of Breslov and R. Kook would be taught in yeshiva, they would not be taught by “chasidim” of these approaches, since the latter tended to believe that their way is the exclusive truth and all other approaches are less legitimate.

                When I sat down to make a list of the characteristics, ideas and divrei Torah of Rav Amital I wanted to mention in this essay, my list grew within minutes to an unmanageable length.  (I gave up after I reached 56 points.)  Rav Amital was such a broad and multifaceted person that I cannot hope to paint a comprehensive portrait.  I have barely touched on his qualities as a lamdan, posek, leader, or master communicator; nor on his commitment to morality, menschlichkeit, kiddush Hashem, and common sense; nor on his ahavat ha-Torah, yirat Shamayim, and yearning for devekut; nor on his harmonious integration of openness and conservatism, vision and pragmatism, simplicity and greatness.  The composite portrait painted by his students, colleagues, family members and admirers in their eulogies will round out the picture.

                When speaking of Rav Amital, I must conclude with something related to parashat ha-shavua.  In a sicha on parashat Devarim, Rav Amital asked why Moshe’s speech is prefaced by such a lengthy description of its exact place (“in the desert, facing Suf, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di-Zahav”), time (“in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month”), and historical circumstances (“after he had slain Sichon, king of the Emorites, who dwelled in Cheshbon, and Og, king of Bashan, who dwelled in Ashtarot in Edre’i”).  He answered that the Torah wishes to teach us that “When a person involves himself in Torah and mitzvot, he must never allow himself to be cut off from the place and time in which he exists. He must look around and think how best to apply his Torah learning to the circumstances around him.”

                Rav Amital was animated by the sense that the Torah is relevant to each generation.  The poles for carrying the Ark of the Covenant were never to be removed, he explained, in order to symbolize the Torah’s portability, its relevance under all circumstances.  In this context (as in many others), he quoted the Chiddushei ha-Rim’s comment on the verse “Understand the years of each generation” (Devarim 32:7): Every generation is granted a new understanding of the Torah, one that is appropriate to the generation and necessary to address its challenges.  It is the function of the tzaddik in each generation to uncover this understanding and teach it to his generation. 

                Nothing could better summarize Rav Amital’s mission and accomplishment.


Endnotes to N. Helfgot’s Essay:

[1]    Cited in M. Maya, A World Built, Destroyed, and Rebuilt (Alon Shvut, 2005), trans. Kaeren Fish, pp. 147-148.

[2]  Ibid., p 41.

[3] Ibid., p. 42.

[4]  “The Status of Secular Jews,” Tradition, 1989

[5]  Orot, pp. 196-197 in the English edition, trans. Bezalel Naor (New Jersey, 1993).

[6] Rav Amital later broke with Rav Tzvi Yehuda regarding issues of territorial compromise, Rav Tzvi Yehuda’s insistence on viewing the present State of Israel in messianic terms, as well as his focus on the view of Nahmanides on the mitzvah of settling the land of Israel.

[7]        Cited in A World Built, Destroyed and Rebuilt, pg. 67-68.

[8]        “The Significance of Rav Kook’s Teaching for Our Generation,” in The World of Rav Kook’s Thought (Avi Chai, 1991), trans. S. Carmy and B. Casper from the Hebrew Yovel Orot, eds. B. Ish Shalom, S. Rosenberg, pp. 425-426.

[9]        Leaves of Faith, Vol. 1, pp. 169-170.


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