The rabbi of intellectual openness

Rabbi Amital left a profound, far-reaching legacy.

It was accurately noted over the weekend that Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who passed away last Thursday night at the age of 85, never managed to muster serious political power. His dovish Meimad party, founded in 1988, perennially failed to garner on its own the minimum electoral backing needed for Knesset representation, entering parliament only as a minor grouping within the Labor party. Yet Amital’s influence as an educator and as a religious thinker was profound and far-reaching.
Religious movements tend to encourage monolithic, dogmatic thought that discourages or limits individual expression. The faithful are expected to adhere to a higher authority, sometimes against their own sense of right and wrong. For some, this is comforting.
Relinquishing responsibility for difficult decisions and putting one’s trust in a spiritual leader can make life easier and can provide a deceptive sense of purposefulness.
This tendency toward herd mentality and consensus thinking – especially in political opinions – afflicts the religious Zionist movement in Israel. Nevertheless, in comparison to other faith-based movements, religious Zionism is relatively diverse and opinionated, and this is in no small degree thanks to Amital.
After the Six Day War, Amital, a Holocaust survivor who fought in the War of Independence, broke with his haredi roots to establish the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva that combines military service with advanced Torah study. Amital, who saw Jewish sovereignty as an opportunity for profound religious development, rejected the possibility that piety overrides menschlichkeit, roughly translated as natural morality. If Jewish society functioned better without the demands of faith, this was a sign of a misguided faith. Devotion to Torah scholarship was no excuse for exemption from military service. And long before Zionist rabbis supported extended military service, Amital encouraged suitable students to pursue officers’ training, even if it left less time for Torah.
Shortly after Har Etzion was founded in the West Bank settlement Alon Shvut, Amital invited Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who holds a doctorate in English literature from Harvard University, to share the leadership with him. The two encouraged an atmosphere of intellectual openness and independent thinking.
A real protege of Amital’s was one who could intelligently disagree with his teacher, as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva, was lovingly told by Amital when teacher and student ended up on opposite sides of a public debate. Har Etzion has produced numerous independent-minded rabbinic leaders over the years, including Rabbi Benny Lau, Rabbi Re’em Hacohen and Rabbi Ya’acov Medan, who happen to be among the most dynamic, original and moderate leaders of religious Zionism.
AMITAL GUIDED his own actions with the same intellectual independence that he passed on to his students. The same man who established the first yeshiva beyond the Green Line and was a central leader of the Gush Emunim settlement movement gradually changed ideological directions after the Yom Kippur War, but more pronouncedly so after the first Lebanon War.
If a true teacher shows the possible, Amital did just that by abandoning what a former student called Gush Emunim’s “fervor of certainty” regarding the centrality of the settlement movement. In the process, Amital paid a high personal price, but never backtracked. Just a few years ago he noted that “a Palestinian state is the light at the end of the tunnel of what we have undergone in the past few years, because only a Palestinian state will save us from losing the Jewish state.” The courage to make such a statement in religious Zionist circles should not be discounted.
From his own experiences with narrowmindedness, Amital – and Amital’s students – learned to more fully appreciate the importance of tolerance for the diverse opinions of others. Amital embraced liberal democracy as the best form of government in a contentious Jewish state and entered into dialogue with secular and non-Orthodox Jews.
Amital’s political endeavors with Meimad may not have resulted in electoral windfalls, but his impact on what could have been a very monolithic religious Zionist society is undeniable. Thankfully, Amital’s legacy is alive in hundreds of students.