A lesson in religious tolerance

Former rosh yeshiva Rabbi Yehuda Amital welcomed disparate views and was not afraid to advocate ideals that went against mainstream Orthodox trends.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Maggid Books)
Rabbi Yehuda Amital 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Maggid Books)
Yidele Klein was born in October 1924 in Romania and died in July 2010 as the Israeli religious- educational-political leader Rabbi Yehuda Amital. His biographer, Elyashiv Reichner, describes the rabbi as having a “complex, multifaceted, and often contradictory personality.”
Reichner spells out these complexities in the introduction to his engrossing, well-researched and nicely translated book about the pioneering head of Yeshivat Har Etzion:
“He was the founder of an important stream within Religious Zionism, yet often swam against the current. As an educator, he emphasized independent thinking and refused to become a Hassidic Rebbe, and yet his Hassidic spirit and charismatic personality made him just such a figure for hundreds of students. He was a rabbi who opposed the involvement of rabbis in politics, and yet he founded and headed a political party [the Meimad party]. He headed the first yeshiva founded in Judea and Samaria, loved Eretz Yisrael, and spoke of messianic Zionism, and yet he expressed support for territorial compromise. He was a courageous leader and original thinker who was not prepared to compromise in his commitment to halacha.”
When Reichner mentioned these paradoxes in the course of interviewing him, the rabbi replied: “I have many other contradictions that I haven’t been able to reconcile.”
But Reichner does succeed in providing insight into Amital’s weltanschauung. The sole survivor of his family, Amital escaped the Holocaust with a strong faith and no pretensions of comprehending the unknowable.
“I went through the Holocaust; I can’t say that every question has an answer,” he once said, and he told his students: “I saw God’s hand in the Holocaust, but I did not understand what it meant.”
During his military service in the War of Independence, Amital helped lay the groundwork for religious soldiers in the Jewish army. It was he who coined the term hesder – literally, “arrangement” – to define the institutionalized combination of Torah study with military service that he saw as the ideal. His father-in-law, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Meltzer, lobbied hard to have this concept approved by the government in 1959. (In later years, Amital “was sorry that he did not use a more meaningful name for the program,” Reichner writes.)
However, it was the Yom Kippur War that seems to have influenced his thinking most dramatically.
At the time, Amital was leading Yeshivat Har Etzion – today a flourishing hesder yeshiva in Alon Shvut, the Gush Etzion town established after the Six Day War as a home for the yeshiva – into its sixth year. Many of the 200 students were called up at the outbreak of the war, and Amital accepted an offer to become a liaison between the hesder yeshivot and the army. He traveled from base to base visiting the student-soldiers, even after eight Har Etzion boys fell in the first 20 days of the battle.
In tearfully eulogizing these students, Amital expressed his feeling that “the grief over the Yom Kippur War fallen was so great that it obscured the great salvation that the war wrought.” Many within the religious-Zionist world traced Amital’s subsequent land-for-peace support to the trauma of this experience, though Amital himself said the more left-wing views he started articulating after the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre “were the result of the delayed impact of the Holocaust.”
As a rosh yeshiva, Amital stressed the importance of taking personal responsibility, using common sense and respecting differing opinions. “I have no interest in little Amitals,” he would say. Wishing to present students with alternative models of scholarship, he brought the highly intellectual Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein on as co-rosh yeshiva in the second year.
Amital had many occasions in his controversial career to practice what he preached. Entering the political arena and publicly prioritizing the people of Israel over the greater land of Israel – as well as his support for the Oslo accords and call to abolish the chief rabbinate and allow for civil marriages – brought Amital into conflict with many students and contemporaries.
Despite any personal pain this may have caused him, Amital both defended his own positions and respected those of his opponents. One of his favorite stories concerned the founder of the Chabad movement, who stopped his Torah studies to soothe a baby crying in another room. The sage reprimanded his grandson, who hadn’t noticed the cries: “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear the crying of a Jewish baby, there is something very wrong with his learning.”
And so, when his former student Rav Ya’akov Medan set up a protest tent and began a hunger strike against the arming of Palestinian police as part of the Oslo agreement (and who later became a Har Etzion rosh yeshiva with Amital’s blessing), Amital visited and praised his actions although he did not agree with them.
“I cannot hide the fact that I am proud,” he told Medan. “The yeshiva’s first student is fulfilling its educational message: when a Jewish child is crying, he closes his Gemara and takes care of the crying baby.”
Flawed only by occasional typo, By Faith Alone provides a highly readable and informative portrait of a fascinating man.