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 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 (see 1,2,3,4,5) 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 a 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: That Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was studying Torah, 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. He 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.