The Making of a Rosh Yeshivah Biography

Reviewed Book: Elyashiv Reichner, By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2011).

 

Biographies have the power to humanize even the most herculean warriors, the most charismatic statesman, the holiest saints. Relating an accomplished person’s youthful mistakes and challenges, private anxieties, and great existential crises and failures alongside their successes can give insight that penetrates the veneer of greatness. What remains is a portrait of a human being, albeit an exceptional one, at his most basic level. For that reason, when I first saw the biography of R. Yehuda Amital, I was intrigued. How would a biography capture the essence of R. Amital, who was a soldier, politician, and deeply spiritual man, but whose primary vocation was that of rosh yeshivah? That there is a dearth of objective biographies of the great rabbis is a much-lamented truism, and the lacuna persists in the Modern Orthodox world as well as in the Haredi world. Would this book provide a revelatory account of R. Amital’s life, showing new facets of a great man while holding together his legacy?

Of all rashei yeshivah to choose from as the subject of a biography, R. Amital might be the most obvious. He was the self-proclaimed yehudi pashut (simple Jew), never promoting stringencies, always relying on a very basic faith in his life. On multiple occasions, he stood up to religious disingenuousness, and always tried to be “normal,” deliberately declining to strive for any elitist ideal. Of all the teachers I have ever studied with, he was the one who most provided a focus on the human element, man’s existential weaknesses and spiritual abilities, especially in religious contexts. For a biographer, this fact simultaneously diminishes and deepens the challenge. Relating to a self-identified human rosh yeshivah is infinitely easier than trying to bring one who strives to be an angel down to earthly existence. At the same time, the essence of anyone with such a nuanced personality would be hard to capture in a mere book.

By Faith Alone, a translated and slightly expanded edition of the Hebrew Be-Emunato,[i] succeeds in relating R. Amital’s younger years, both in Europe (Grosswardein, Transylvania) and Israel, periods of his life not discussed in published material elsewhere, to my knowledge. It provides a short biographical sketch of R. Amital’s first rebbe, R. Hayyim Yehuda Levi, who had a significant impact on R. Amital’s Talmudic methodology. It also offers a fairly sustained discussion of R. Amital’s involvement in the founding and leadership of Yeshivat Har Etzion and the Meimad political party, though these accounts are accessible elsewhere. However, despite its attention to many important issues in R. Amital’s life, the book also leaves behind several plotholes in his biography. For example, why did the book’s protagonist leave Yeshivat Hadarom, where he taught alongside R. Eliezer Shach, and move to Giv’at Mordekhai,[ii] where he lacked a full-time job and had to work several jobs to make ends meet? And, possibly more significantly, why did he leave Yeshivat Chevron and the Haredi world in the first place? Was this a dissonance stemming from his studies with R. Abraham Isaac Kook while in a Haredi yeshivah, or did other factors contribute to this shift? The book leaves such lacunae unfilled.

These gaps might be blamed on the structure of the book. Instead of striding forward through a historical progression of R. Amital’s life, the book flits back and forth between different parts of his life, with no particular order or pattern. It may seem reasonable that a book based on interviews could fall prey to the stream-of-consciousness approach rather than the presentation of a cogent, historical narrative, but this form of presentation does little to help the reader understand the trajectory of the protagonist’s life. Flashing back and forth between the planning for Yeshivat Har Etzion (chapter 1), R. Amital’s childhood (2), the opening of the yeshivah (3), the first years of the yeshivah (4), R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s joining the yeshivah (5), R. Amital’s early years in Israel (6), and the Yom Kippur War (7), the book confuses the reader and does not provide a flowing narrative.

Moving from form to content, Reichner successfully presents R. Amital as the manifestly charismatic man that he was. One particularly strong passage reads:

Although he refused to be a Hasidic rebbe, it did not take long for the students to discover that Rav Amital possessed rebbe-like qualities. His overflowing charisma, rhetorical skill, Hasidic soul and inspiring leadership won him the adoration of his pupils, even if he refused to admit it. Other characteristics that turned him into a reluctant rebbe were the Hasidic tunes that he taught, the stories with which he peppered lectures and communal meals, and of course his penchant for singing and dancing. When he stood at the center of a circle of dancing students, eyes closed, singing solo, he looked, to an observer, exactly like a Hasidic master surrounded by his devotees.[iii]

His magnetism carried over from his tishn to his speeches, as well. The first time I heard R. Amital speak on Rosh ha-Shanah in yeshivah, he referred to his experiences in a concentration camp and meditated upon “karov Hashem le-khol kore’av le-khol asher yikra’uhu be-emet” – “The Lord is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him in truth.”[iv] At the time, I recall feeling especially drawn in by this particular speech, feeling that it relayed a message of especial immediacy and projected vast and imminent significance. After hearing R. Amital speak several more times, I realized that this magnetic pull was a function not only of the circumstance but of his charisma, and that many talks conveyed that same sense of urgency.[v]

Reichner also discusses how R. Amital used his charm in support of his students serving during the Yom Kippur War:

When Rav Amital would meet with his students, there was more warmth than when a father meets his sons. He would embrace the students, speak with them, pull one of them aside and speak with him privately, and then do the same for another. He would gather them together, teach them a shiur, and speak about the importance of military service. I witnessed a special bond between him and his students; it was quite exceptional…[vi]

Despite effectively describing R. Amital’s charming personality and deep concern for his students, the book fails to capture the full ramifications of his personal appeal. Tefillot of the Yamim Nora’im at Gush were electrically charged due to his powerful hazzanut, his ability to bring together the entire yeshivah community with a call of “Keter,” and his powerful speeches that rallied the spiritual troops.[vii] Despite mentioning R. Amital’s similarity to a Hasidic rebbe,[viii] Reichner fails to fully underscore this paradoxical identity for a Lithuanian rosh yeshivah. R. Amital’s tishn, opened with his witty comments over schnapps, and followed by powerful singing, punctuated by his leading of a responsive ”ve-taher libbenu le-ovdekha be-emet” –  “and purify our hearts to serve you in truth,” were a true Hasidic experience for the otherwise mitnaggedic Gush students. R. Amital had his own niggunim, and it was he, in fact, who introduced more Hasidic dancing and singing into Israeli, Lithuanian-influenced, yeshivot hesder. This admixture could only be borne by a Hungarian Jew with a Lithuanian yeshiva education such as R. Amital, whose background is discussed by Reichner in chapter two, but without conveying the full ramifications of this unique combination.

While the book, for the most part, offers a richly descriptive presentation of R. Amital’s personality, it is rather flat in discussing his foils in yeshivah and political life, R. Aharon Lichtenstein and R. Michael Melchior, respectively. (If R. Lichtenstein is R. Amital’s foil in Yeshivat Har Etzion, R. Michael Melchior is R. Amital’s alter ego within the Meimad party. R. Amital established the Meimad party in 1988 as one of its central leaders, and his involvement in the party waxed and waned over time. The primary figure to take over the party following R. Amital’s departure was Melchior.)  For each of them, Reichner seizes upon a certain theme that singularly defines his character, while ignoring any other traits, leading to the presentation of an unhelpful caricature in place of a robust personality. Whereas R. Amital is depicted as a warm and insightful personality, an innovative pragmatist, and a student of R. Kook with minimal formal education, R. Lichtenstein is portrayed as a cold and stable person who is cautiously conservative, whose education included studying with R. Soloveitchik and receiving a Harvard Ph.D. in English Literature. Of course, in real life, these simple dichotomies do not always stand up to scrutiny. R. Amital himself pointed to the facile nature of this comparison, as he remarked, at a time when both rashei yeshivah were hurt, that “even now we’re different. I injured my knee, but he injured his hip.”[ix] The book’s inability to move beyond this clichéd dichotomy is a clear weakness.

In the political arena, R. Melchior is presented as an opportunist, always willing to further his political ambitions, who ultimately sells out the Meimad party for his own personal advancement.  The tone that Reichner uses to describe Melchior’s actions speaks for itself:  He “quickly filled” the vacuum left in Meimad in 1996,[x] led Meimad in a more political direction, “much to the chagrin” of most of the Meimad leadership,[xi] he “did not try to hide his political ambitions” after the fall of the Peres government,[xii] implying a role of subterfuge beforehand.  He was in a “rush to push Ben-Meir (another party founder) out of the movement”[xiii] to make way for his affiliation with Labor, until ultimately Meimad “became a party of one man” – Melchior.[xiv] Melchior’s opportunism serves as a contrast to R. Amital’s idealistic founding and stewardship of the party, even as R. Amital supported certain aspects of Melchior’s path. Given these very limited portraits of Rabbis Lichtenstein and Melchior, the critical reader will have his doubts as to whether each of these figures really is as one-dimensional as he is presented in the book.

A significant portion of the book’s narrative (chapters 16 to 20) is devoted to R. Amital’s relatively short political career with the Meimad movement. From a certain perspective this is understandable, as political goings-on are readily available to a journalist, and because one’s impact on broader society can be more easily felt in governmental involvement than in a yeshivah on a hilltop. Still, it is fair to ask whether such a focus on the more public domain is warranted, especially for someone who spent so much of his life dedicated to Yeshivat Har Etzion, and for whom political pursuits were a diversion, albeit a significant one, from the primary goal of teaching Torah.

Reichner does not critically evaluate R. Amital’s career to any significant degree,[xv] with the exception of his political career. The book contains no speculation as to whether R. Amital was correct in leaving the Haredi world or not, or whether the project of yeshivot hesder was altogether proper. The controversies over what a yeshivah should look like, such as the question of Tanakh study in a yeshivah, especially be-govah ha-einayim (openness to criticism of Biblical characters) are not given significant treatment. Reichner notes in his introduction his connections to R. Amital – his “father was a member of Yeshivat Har Etzion’s first class,” and his “uncle, Rav Yehuda Gilad, is married to Rav Amital’s daughter Dina.”[xvi] This reader wonders whether these associations limited the book’s scope by leading the author to simply describe R. Amital’s life and achievements rather than present a more critical view. It is likely that R. Amital would be the first to welcome critical perspectives on his legacy; he was always harsh on himself and did not believe in privileging one’s own biases over the truth.

The book, with its flaws and successes, focuses squarely on the life and times of R. Amital, largely leaving aside both his philosophy of life and his contributions to Jewish thought. A partial attempt to fill this gap appears at the tail end of the English version of the book, in two distinct ways. First, the second-to-last chapter of the book deals with both the end of R. Amital’s life and some of his hashkafic observations (Ve-Ha-Arets Natan Livnei Adam[xvii] and Kol Yehudah[xviii]) and hiddushei Torah (Resisei Tal[xix]) that were published in the last decade of his life. Additionally, it includes an afterword on R. Amital’s thought, written by Aviad Hacohen, which provides an entrée to his belief system. Each of these additions, while presenting some of R. Amital’s contributions to contemporary religious discourse in Israel, fails to channel the full thrust of his religious worldview.[xx]

For the reader with no prior exposure to R. Amital, By Faith Alone offers a window into his life and times that is so often blocked for religious leaders, and particularly for rashei yeshivah. For those who spent time in Yeshivat Har Etzion while he was active, the book touches upon the important themes but fails to transcend a first stage impression and provide a broader analysis. (For example, this reviewer had already heard a majority of the snippets of stories told about R. Amital, many from R. Amital’s own mouth, prior to reading them in the book.) Still, the state of affairs in the world of rosh yeshivah biography (and not hagiography) has certainly been enhanced by this stellar book. By Faith Alone, with its limitations, sets the standard for biographies of rashei yeshivah – respectful but not uncritical, thorough yet providing the broader picture, and capturing the essence of the protagonist rather than providing platitudinous blandishments.

Shlomo Zuckier is a student at RIETS, and is a former editor-in-chief of Kol Hamevaser. His visage, partially obscured, appears on p. 326 of By Faith Alone.

 

 


[i] Published Elyashiv Reichner, Yediot: 2010.

[ii]  Ibid. 84-6.

[iii] Ibid. 40.

[iv] Psalms 145:18, modified JPS translation.

[v] For another example of a gripping derashah of R. Amital, see this reviewer’s “Ve-Taher Libbenu le-Ovdekha be-Emet: Appreciating a True Posheter Yid” in Kol Hamevaser 4:1 (2010), accessible at: http://www.kolhamevaser.com/2010/08/ve-taher-libbenu-le-ovdekha-be-emet-appreciating-a-true-posheter-yid/.

[vi] Reichner 158.

[vii] A partial account of this area of R. Amital’s virtuosity appears at Reichner 53.

[viii] Ibid. 40.

[ix] Ibid. 325.

[x] Ibid. 294.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid. 295.

[xiii] Ibid. 298.

[xiv] Ibid. 299.

[xv] This point is merely descriptive, and does not take a stance as to whether critical evaluation of a rosh yeshivah’s activities is warranted.

[xvi] Reichner, xiii.

[xvii] Ed. Amnon Bazak (Alon Shevut: Tevunot, 2004). Published in English as Jewish Values in a Changing World, ed. Amnon Bazak, transl. David Strauss (Jersey City: Ktav, 2005).

[xviii] Ed. Aviad Hacohen (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2005). Published in English as Commitment and Complexity: Jewish Wisdom in an Age of Upheaval, ed. Reuben Ziegler (Jersey City: Ktav, 2008).

[xix] R. Yehuda Amital. Resisei Tal: Hiddushim, Be’urim, u-Berurim be-Inyanim Shonim ba-Halakhah (Alon Shevut: Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2005).

[xx] For secondary sources that analyze R. Amital’s thought, see Moshe Maya’s A World Built, Destroyed, and Rebuilt: Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s Confrontation with the Memory of the Holocaust, Ktav, 2005, Alan Brill’s “Worlds Destroyed, Worlds Rebuilt: The Religious Thought of Rabbi Yehuda Amital,” Edah Journal 5:2, and the recent (Hebrew) collection of articles on R. Amital’s personality and approach, Le-Ovdekha Be-Emet, eds. Reuven Ziegler and Reuven Gafni, Maggid Press, 2011.