Books: Torah in uniform

Excerpts from Elyashiv Reichner’s ‘By Faith Alone’ shed light on Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s time as rabbinic liaison between the army and the hesder yeshivot after the Yom Kippur War.

Rabbi Yehuda (photo credit: Courtesy Maggid Books)
Rabbi Yehuda
(photo credit: Courtesy Maggid Books)
During the Yom Kippur War and its immediate aftermath, Rav Amital would travel, as mentioned, from base to base, visiting his students. Not infrequently he could only get onto the base by means of a clever ruse. One was a picture that he kept in his wallet. The picture appeared in the newspaper Haaretz soon after the yeshiva moved to Alon Shvut. It shows Rav Amital sitting in a sukka, flanked by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Central Military District Commander Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi.
On one of Rav Amital’s visits to Sinai after the war, soldiers stopped him at a checkpoint and informed him that the area had been closed to visitors under the general’s orders. Rav Amital took the checkpoint commander aside and showed him the picture. Dayan was still serving as Defense Minister, and Ze’evi was the head of the General Staff Directorate and Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff. “As you can see,” Rav Amital said to the officer, “I would have no problem getting approval to pass through.” The officer was convinced, and he allowed Rav Amital and his escorts to continue on their way.
His frequent visits brought him into close contact with senior IDF commanders, and soon after the war he was asked by the upper command echelons of the IDF to be the rabbinic liaison between the army and the hesder yeshivot. The military even awarded him a brevet rank and unfettered entry, in uniform, into IDF camps. In the context of this role, Rav Amital often met with General Staff officers, especially the heads of the Manpower Directorate, whose role included responsibility for the military service of hesder students.
With nearly all of them, Rav Amital developed warm relationships that continued even after he concluded his tenure in the mid-1980s.
After the Yom Kippur War, the IDF viewed hesder students as a significant pool from which to replenish the battalions depleted by the war. The many hesder students who took part in combat made a very positive impression on the chain of command, and the army began pressuring them to extend their military service and to become commanders and officers, an option that until then had not been available to hesder students.
In that vein, the military brass agreed to open an officers’ course, shorter than the regular officers’ course, especially for hesder students.
Rav Amital was instrumental in creating the special course for yeshiva boys. During his military service, R. Yehoshua Ben-Meir, [later] founder and Rosh Yeshiva of the Shvut Yisrael hesder yeshiva in Efrat, got to know the commander of the IDF Armored Corps, General Moshe “Musa” Peled. Rav Ben-Meir described how Peled got angry with him for introducing him first to rabbis who opposed opening the officers’ course for hesder students and not immediately to Rav Amital, whom he discovered to be “an amazing Jew.”... Over the years, Peled and Rav Amital developed a deep and meaningful relationship. In December 1978, the day before completing his task as the commander of the Armored Corps, he wrote to Rav Amital: “I received a lot of help from you – more than you can imagine: spirit, faith, tenacity, friendship, and love of the people and the land…” ...Among the first officers to come out of Yeshivat Har Etzion were General Gershon Hacohen, the son of Rav Amital’s friend Yedaya Hacohen; his brother, Rav Re’em Hacohen, who now heads the hesder yeshiva in Otniel; and Rav Yuval Cherlow, now head of the hesder yeshiva in Petah Tikva. Cherlow and Re’em Hacohen both belonged to the eighth class of the yeshiva, which began its studies during the 1974-75 academic year – the year after the Yom Kippur War. The following class produced more officers than any other: half of the students in the class served as officers. Col. (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, later commander of an armored division in the reserves, belonged to that ninth class, and he describes the strong sense of mission that Rav Amital imparted to those students who became officers. “He inculcated within us the notion that joining the army leadership was the order of the day. His main reason was the army’s need for officers after the crisis of the Yom Kippur War, but he also spoke about the great privilege of serving in the military after the Holocaust.”
Less enthusiastic about the students joining the ranks of officers was Rav Lichtenstein, who was concerned that the students’ prolonged service would harm their development in Torah study as well as the general academic atmosphere of the yeshiva. At first he did not explicitly articulate his opposition, but by the end of the 1970s, when the proportion of students who wished to enter the officers corps swelled to significant dimensions, he began to curb enthusiasm and limit the number of students in the officers’ course. Rav Amital did not change his mind about the importance of the course, but he honored his colleague’s opposition, and the number of yeshiva students becoming officers dropped. Rav Amital continued to maintain that becoming part of the military leadership ought not harm a student’s spiritual progress. As proof, he pointed to Rabbis Cherlow and Hacohen, who served as officers and still became Rashei Yeshiva.
Rav Amital’s positive attitude toward military service found expression in other ways as well. Col. Ben-Ner tells how Rav Amital made an astonishing proposal to him in the mid-1970s: he wished to establish emergency weapons storage units near the yeshiva, to be available to the students in case of emergency. The units were not built because the yeshiva did not have enough manpower to justify it, but the proposal demonstrates the importance that Rav Amital ascribed to his students’ military service....
Recently, there have been frequent tensions between the army and the heads of the various hesder yeshivot.
During Rav Amital’s tenure as liaison between the sides, there were no recorded conflicts. He projected to the officers a sense that he was working with them as a partner, which prevented any conflict.
Col. (Res.) Mordekhai Tzipori, who got to know Rav Amital while he was commander of the Armor School and of the Armored Corps, attributes Rav Amital’s good relations with the officers to the dual responsibility that he bore: “His responsibility was not only to Torah study, but also to making sure that his people took part in the country’s defense. Even when he concerned himself with the needs of his students, he did so with an understanding of the army’s needs.”
Major General (Res.) Moshe Nativ, who served as the head of the Manpower Directorate during the 1970s, believed that the emphasis placed by Rav Amital on his students’ military service stemmed from his view that their period of service was an opportunity for positive interaction and bridging between religious and non-religious soldiers.
The importance that Rav Amital ascribed to military training occasionally impacted his halakhic rulings. Nissan Zisken, a student from the yeshiva’s early years, recalls that about a year and a half after the Yom Kippur War, a state of high alert was declared, and he and his friends were required to train on Shabbat.
They told us that the decision to train had already cleared all the necessary hurdles, so we trained. But as a tank driver, I tried to do some things in a backhanded manner to mitigate the degree of Shabbat violation involved.
A week later I met Rav Amital and told him how I trained on Shabbat. He said to me, “There was no need for you to act that way.
One cannot train for battle backhandedly.”
DESPITE HIS concern and sympathy for security and military needs, Rav Amital knew how to be stubborn and not compromise on principles that he deemed important.
When one of the heads of the Manpower Division asked him if female soldiers could instruct the yeshiva student-soldiers as part of their professional training, he completely rejected the idea. The senior officer tried to persuade Rav Amital, saying, telling him, “We’ll get halakhic permission.”
Rav Amital responded that it was not a question of halakhic license, but of educational values. “I do not want female instructors for our soldiers.” The officer gave in, and the issue was dropped.
In his visits to IDF bases in the context of his job as rabbinic liaison, Rav Amital did not view himself as a spiritual supervisor in charge of resolving halakhic issues, but as a rabbi coming to boost his students’ morale. Menashe Goldblatt was a company commander in the Armored Corps Five-Hundredth Brigade, in which yeshiva students served, during the 1970s.
Goldblatt, a religious man though not a yeshiva student, described a significant difference between Rav Amital’s visits and the visits of rabbis from the military rabbinate: 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. I also witnessed visits by the military rabbinate. The rabbis would come and make sure that the silverware was kosher, that there were enough prayer books, and that the synagogue had everything it needed. There was a huge difference between those rabbis of technicalities and Rav Amital, a real rabbi. Everybody noticed the difference. Rav Amital was a rabbi to his students. I think that with regard to kashrut he trusted that they would manage. He didn’t come all the way to the base to solve halakhic problems. He came to speak with his students and to be with them....
RAV AMITAL’S frequent visits to his soldier- students were an emotional experience for him no less than for his students.
Years later, in a letter that he sent to his students in the army, he described those visits as a spiritual experience: The encounter of a rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva with his students in uniform, somewhere out there in a camp or in the field, in the Israel Defense Forces, is always especially exciting for me. Something that rabbis throughout the ages never got the opportunity to do, I, despite my unworthiness, have been privileged by the grace of God to do. God, Who oversees history, gave us the task, among others, of belonging to a generation in which the beating of the wings of a unique history, guided by Divine Providence, can be heard even in the most routine of events.
RAV AMITAL’S role as rabbinic liaison demanded his intervention in incidents that were personally difficult. Such an incident occurred in 1978 when a student from the hesder yeshiva in Yamit took his own life during a course in the Armor School. At first suspicion was raised that the suicide was caused by abuse that the soldier suffered at the hands of his commander.
Rav Amital immediately traveled to the Armor School to investigate the incident.
When details of the incident were leaked to the media, he even granted a wide-ranging interview on the subject to the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. In the interview with reporter Menahem Ro’i, he expressed shock at the soldier’s suicide and reservations about hazing of soldiers, but refrained from blaming the army before the final conclusions of the investigation were submitted.
In that same interview, he was asked why he does not insist that hesder units have only religious commanders. He answered: “We have no interest in creating a closed ghetto for religious soldiers only… our soldiers, the yeshiva students, must get used to living together with non-religious soldiers and serving under the command of non-religious officers.”
Rav Amital advocated dispersing yeshiva students throughout the units in which they served, since he wanted them to interact with other soldiers. But he had another reason to prefer their broader distribution: after the yeshiva’s terrible loss of eight students in the Yom Kippur War, Rav Amital thought that it was worth it to break up the yeshiva students into different companies and not create separate companies. That way, during wartime, an entire company of yeshiva students could not be hit. Other Rashei Yeshiva preferred to concentrate their students in homogeneous companies.
Their main reason was educational – to reinforce the shared religious steadfastness of all yeshiva students in the army. There was a technical reason as well – so that rabbis could meet with as many of their students as possible during their visits to the base. Ultimately, the students were not dispersed through the various companies, and Rav Amital’s fears came true during the First Lebanon War when many yeshiva students who served together were injured at the battle of Sultan Yacoub. Only after the war did the gradual dispersal of yeshiva students begin.
Excerpted with permission from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem © 2011.