BY: Shlomo Zuckier.
This tribute to R. Yehuda Amital, zts”l and his legacy will begin on a personal note. I studied in R. Amital’s yeshivah (Yeshivat Har Etzion) and heard dozens of shi’urim and sihot from him during my time there. Following his passing on July 9, I have felt compelled to further examine his writings and ideas. In this attempt to portray his most striking qualities and the character traits that made him unique, I hope to fairly present his hashkafic oeuvre and not shortchange or misconstrue his positions in any way.
R. Yehuda Amital (originally Yehuda Klein) was born in Transylvania in 1924. He studied in yeshivah for several years before being sent to a work camp during the Holocaust. After being liberated in 1944, he departed to Israel and continued learning in Yeshivat Hevron, by then located in Yerushalayim. After studying under the tutelage of R. Isser Zalman Meltzer and marrying his granddaughter, R. Amital taught for several years at Yeshivat ha-Darom. In 1969, he founded Yeshivat Har Etzion (known colloquially as “the Gush”), where he served as Rosh Yeshivah (following 1971, he was co-Rosh Yeshivah alongside R. Aharon Lichtenstein) until 2008.
It goes without saying that R. Amital was a first-rate talmid hakham, at home in both the worlds of lomdut (Talmudic analysis) and pesak Halakhah (legal decision making). He gave many shi’urim throughout his career as a teacher, and many of his hiddushim (novellae) have been published in the book Resisei Tal.[i] For the purposes of this article, however, I would like to focus on the mahashavah (thought) of R. Amital, which has been both unique within, and impactful upon, the Dati Le’umi community in Israel.
One very powerful derashah which I remember hearing from R. Amital was delivered on Rosh ha-Shanah almost three years ago.[ii] He began by asking how we can reach the level of serving God in truth (le-ovdekha be-emet[iii]) and then went on to explicate the sugya (topic) of tannur shel Akhnai (the oven of Akhnai) in Bava Metsi’a 59b. That case is the locus classicus for the rule of the majority and the ignoring of any extra-human elements in deciding Halakhah. The Talmud concludes that we follow the majority opinion of the Sages and not R. Eliezer, because lo ba-shamayim hi – the Law is not in Heaven, but in human hands.[iv] But what was the source of the dispute? The two sides argued over whether an oven made out of pieces that were glued together with sand is susceptible to tum’ah (impurity) – R. Eliezer thought it was not, while the Sages thought it was. R. Amital explained the basis of the dispute as follows: only if this makeshift oven has the status of a vessel (a shem keli) is it susceptible to impurity, so the main question at hand is whether it is considered a vessel or not. R. Eliezer claimed it did not count as a keli due to the fact that, on an objective level, it did not qualify as such; it consisted of shards glued together. The Hakhamim, however, responded that, despite this drawback, the oven still qualified as a vessel since it functioned like a vessel on a subjective level. When viewed through the prism of human existence as we know it, this tannur shel Akhnai is functional enough to qualify as a vessel and therefore is susceptible to contracting impurity. Furthermore, this idea is directly parallel to the very question of whom the Halakhah follows; despite the myriad heavenly signs supporting R. Eliezer’s position, we ultimately rule like the opinion of the majority, the Hakhamim. It may be that in the objective realm, the Halakhah should follow R. Eliezer’s view, but in the human realm it is sufficient to observe the Hakhamim’s ruling, since all we have to work with is our own, human, subjective outlook. R. Amital then reverted to his original question and said that, while we may not be able to achieve the objective Emet (Truth), a prayer of true devotion and sincerity that would stand up to divine scrutiny, we can at least reach a level of subjective emet, where, within our human limitations, we do as best as we can to be truthful in our prayers. And just like our human weakness necessitates the definition of an oven on a subjective level, as we see from Bava Metsi’a 59b, God only requires from us a subjectively true tefillah, prayer at our best, and that qualifies as emet.
This derashah was one which had a profound impact on me, as well as on my fellow students. Such a powerful explanation of the Talmud, emphasizing the weakness of human endeavor, especially in the context of a sugya which specifically hands over the reins of Halakhah to man, reveals R. Amital’s profound understanding of the human condition and his masterful ability to convey deep messages. His galvanizing and charismatic speaking skills enraptured the audience, this time as many times before, to hear his deep ideas about Torah and the world.
And “Torah and the world” was just what R. Amital stood for. On many occasions, he would retell a meaningful story in which the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch rebuked his son-in-law for being too engrossed in learning to hear his own child’s cry. A learning that ignores the condition of the broader world and that does not endeavor to support the olam outside of the beit midrash, said R. Amital, is a flawed endeavor indeed.
R. Amital took this message and put it into action as he interspersed throughout his learning and teaching career a sustained period of national service, at first in the Haganah and IDF and later in national politics. He founded the Meimad political party in 1988 and served as a minister in the Israeli government following the Rabin assassination. Learning Torah intensely and bringing those values to the broader world was not just a cliché; it was the very goal that R. Amital lived for. He did not want his yeshivah to only educate generations of rashei yeshivah (though it definitely did accomplish that); he also endeavored to raise a group of educated ba’alei bayit to serve the State of Israel in various capacities, and in that he was successful as well.
The years of service that R. Amital gave to the Jewish state in the army, in the government, and in his most prized contribution, his yeshivah, which he led for almost 40 years, reflected an attitude beyond a passive interest in the wellbeing of Kelal Yisrael. He spoke on several occasions about the sense of obligation he felt to the Jewish people as a result of being saved from death in the Holocaust. His response to the Holocaust was not to create a new theology, nor to blame sinners as its cause, but rather to treat it as an inexplicable act of God – but an act He did while accompanying Am Yisrael in its pain. The Holocaust inspired him to take a personal charge, as a nitsol Sho’ah (someone saved from the Holocaust), to assist the Jewish people to as great a degree as possible.
R. Amital viewed the establishment of the State of Israel as a miraculous, proto-messianic occurrence and as a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) that counteracted the hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) of the Holocaust. He originally allied himself with the Gush Emunim school, disciples of R. Tsevi Yehudah Kook who believed that every piece of land under Israeli sovereignty is important and is a direct step towards the full realization of the messianic era. Later in his career, though, following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and other drawbacks of Israeli expansion, R. Amital radically shifted his opinions and joined the peace camp, even supporting the Oslo Accords. This change of position is reflective of another one of his principles, that of critically evaluating his opinions at every stage and not blindly accepting the consensus or the status quo.
Being that he viewed the State of Israel as a kiddush Hashem, he felt it was his job to speak up any time something took place within it that constituted a hillul Hashem. And so, following the Lebanese massacres of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, he was the only Israeli rabbi (the Rav was the only American one[v]) to vocally speak out against Israeli negligence in this area in the public sphere, and he did so in order to try to counteract the hillul Hashem. He later published a halakhic piece explaining why the murder of non-Jews is a biblical prohibition.[vi]
In general, R. Amital spent many of his lectures and much of his mental energy grappling with issues of morality and Halakhah. How could it be, he wondered, that eating human flesh is, according to most opinions, on a lower level of prohibition than eating pig? He could not imagine such a possibility and so would invoke the Dor Revi’i[vii] who claims that it is an unstated issur de-Oraita (a powerful but dangerous move) and that someone stranded on a desert island and confronted with such a choice (one of the only cases in which this question would come up) should eat the pig and not the human flesh. R. Amital was not predisposed in this direction due to secular influences that emphasized the importance of morality in itself,[viii] but rather arrived at it out of his deep internal conviction that Torah must always be moral, which he learned internally from the Torah.
He viewed himself as a simple Jew even as he attained the status of a talmid hakham, holding strong feelings of fealty and commitment to God while simultaneously thinking deeply and critically about important issues. His book, Jewish Values in a Changing World (Hebrew, Ve-ha-Arets Natan li-Benei Adam), deals with, among other things, these important questions of how one should build his spiritual life, humrot (stringencies), yir’at Shamayim, and other similarly central and profound issues to a sincere religious Jew. These matters are discussed from a perspective firmly rooted in the sources, while at the same time sensitive to and insightful about human, emotional, and psychological considerations, and one that always considers coming close to God to be its sole and direct goal.
The combined effect of R. Amital’s commitment to truth and his concurrent references to human weakness was that he took a modest approach regarding his own religious claims. As noted above, R. Amital’s political positions changed radically, and he was open to the possibility that he was wrong in other contexts, as well. He would often say that he does not have all the answers, and that anyone who tells you he has all the answers is lying. With regard to his students, his goal was to establish them on their own footing and not to create “miniature Amitals,” as he put it.
This approach also manifested itself in relating to the positions of others with whom he did not agree. During the 1990s, R. Yaaqov Medan, one of R. Amital’s close students (and a current Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivat Har Etzion) was virulently opposed to the peace process and staged a public hunger strike in front of the Prime Minister’s residence. At that time, R. Amital came to visit his student and remarked that, though he disagreed with R. Medan’s political views (he was pro-peace at that point in time), as well as with his methods (he was fundamentally opposed to hunger strikes), he still supported his talmid, because at the very least R. Medan’s intentions were to do what he felt was best for Am Yisrael. He also welcomed into his yeshivah a certain degree of openness and allowed some latitude in terms of people’s exact religious positions, on the basis that people trying to do the right thing were welcome there.
R. Amital, zts”l, was one of the great Modern Orthodox thinkers of our time. His impact has been much greater in Erets Yisrael than it has been in the United States (and Huts la-Arets in general), due to all sorts of sociological factors, but this should not stop us from reading his works, both in Torah and Hashkafah,[ix] and from being strengthened and enlightened by his message. He was the talmid hakham and simple Jew, the moralist who had a deep understanding of the human soul and someone who truly wished and strived for ve-taher libbenu le-ovdekha be-emet.
Shlomo Zuckier is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Editor-in-Chief for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] R. Yehuda Amital, Resisei Tal: Hiddushim, Be’urim, u-Berurim be-Inyanim Shonim ba-Halakhah (Alon Shvut, Israel: Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2005).
[ii] R. Amital presented this derashah multiple times in the past.
[iii] On a related note, R. Amital would periodically lead groups in chanting a song with the very same name. For a link to one student’s fond recollections of this song, see http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3931128,00.html.
[iv] Devarim 30:12.
[v] Personal correspondence with R. Binyamin Tabory.
[vi] Letter to the Editor, Alon Shevut 100.
[vii] This appears in the Dor Revi’i’s introduction to Hullin and is quoted on p. 40 of R. Amital’s Jewish Values in a Changing World (Alon Shevut: Yeshivat Har Etzion; Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House,.2005).
[viii] R. Amital’s secular education consisted of four years of elementary school. He often remarked how ironic and powerful it was that a yeshivah could be co-led by someone with his education and someone with a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard.
[ix] For a bibliography of R. Amital’s early writings, see Alon Shevut Bogerim 3,(1994): 103–110 or Alei Etzion 2 (1995): 65–74. Some of his more recent articles and lectures can be linked to at http://www.haretzion.org/. More recent and important books by him include Jewish Values in a Changing World (above, n. 7), Resisei Tal (above, n. 1), and Commitment and Complexity: Jewish Wisdom in an Age of Upheaval (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2008).