A rare breed, this `simple Jew'
On the eve of his retirement from Har Etzion Yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Amital sums up his scholarly and political path.
Every graduate of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva (combining religious studies and army service) in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Bethlehem knows the story that Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the head of the yeshiva, tells about the "crying baby." So well do they know it that for the graduates it has become a code - beginning to mention it is enough to evoke the yeshiva and the rabbi. He has told the story countless times, whenever he is asked about what sets the yeshiva apart and about its educational conception.
The story is about the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect, Rabbi Shneur-Zalman of Liadi, who was once sitting and studying Torah. In the next room his grandson (who would himself one day become a Chabad leader) was also studying, and in a third room a baby was sleeping. Suddenly the baby woke up and started to cry. The grandson was so immersed in his study that he did not hear the crying, and the grandfather, whose room was farther away, got up and calmed the baby. Afterward he told his grandson: If you are studying Torah and do not hear the weeping of someone who is crying for help, your studying is flawed.
Two weeks ago, on the Lag Ba'omer holiday, the yeshiva marked Amital's 80th birthday in a mass event at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, attended by hundreds of the 3,000 graduates who have studied at the yeshiva. On this occasion the "crying baby" was repeatedly mentioned to explain not only Amital's worldview but also various aspects of his biography.
It was by means of this story that Amital in the past explained his foray into politics, in order to establish Meimad, a religious party that espoused a moderate viewpoint. He also uses the story to explain his identification with those of his students who have turned to public activity completely different from his.
Years ago, when Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a member of the yeshiva's first graduating class - scheduled to replace Amital as head of the yeshiva in a few months - told him that he was going to stage a hunger strike against the Oslo Accords, Amital told him: "You know that I am against hunger strikes in principle, and I also see the political map differently from you. But I cannot hide from you that I feel a sense of pride: The yeshiva's first student is fulfilling its educational message - when a Jewish child cries he closes the Gemara and looks after the needs of the crying baby."
To this day, he says, he views the yeshiva's greatest achievement to be that "we succeeded in cultivating the approach that it is all right for the students to think differently from the head of the yeshiva, and on the other hand, that one must respect those with whom one differs." In the same spirit he explains that "already when we established the yeshiva I said that two groups would not enter here: Merkaz Harav and Chabad, because both think that the truth is theirs alone and are unwilling to listen to others."
Many of his students "repay him" in the same currency. One of the speakers at the event marking his 80th birthday was Bentzi Lieberman, chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements (in the West Bank and Gaza) and a graduate of the yeshiva, whose views are certainly far from Amital's dovish outlook. In his remarks Lieberman noted that at critical junctures of his public activity, he often asks himself what Rabbi Amital would advise him to do. "It is clear to me that he does not agree with the content of my activity, but I believe he is proud that I am working for what I believe in."
Still, this tolerance does not always exist even at the yeshiva itself. Just recently an invitation to Dror Etkes, one of the leaders of Peace Now, to address a group of students from the yeshiva was canceled. Amital admits that he backed the decision: "We will invite him another time, but at this point it would have caused demonstrations, and that I did not want."
On the occasion of the festive event, Amital agreed to break the public silence he has imposed on himself in recent years, when he ceased his activity in Meimad and gave very few interviews. He explained that he stopped doing so because "I felt the media was exploiting me. They like to interview me to tarnish the religious sector and the rabbinic establishment, but when I had other things to say they didn't want to publish them."
As for his political activity, he left "because of my age. I felt I had reached an age at which I had to be focused. Shimon Peres chose to focus on politics, I chose the yeshiva. So for several years I have not agreed to appear at any event or lecture, but only to be at the yeshiva." He also used the time to write, and recently published a book about halakha (Jewish religious law) entitled "Resisei tal" ("Fragments of Dew"). He is now working on a new book, explaining that "these books make it possible for things I wrote in other spheres to be accepted more."
Amital is a yeshiva head of a rare breed, a person who is proud to describe himself - and not as a pretense of humility - as a "simple Jew." In the same spirit, he enjoys quoting what Rabbi Medan said last Hanukkah, at an event during which it was announced that Medan and Rabbi Baruch Gigi would be the new yeshiva heads. Medan related that he chose Amital as his rabbi because "I was looking for a rabbi that would not be an angel and would not be holy. A rabbi who would be a human being." There are quite a few rabbis, especially yeshiva heads, who would not be proud of such a "human" description; Amital views it as a great compliment.
As a "simple Jew," his worldview is based on basic feelings and on common sense more than on a precise theological doctrine. Indeed, not only is he ideologically opposed to phenomena reflecting extreme religious severity - he also mocks them. Not long ago, for example, he described a student who asked him why he was not strict concerning a certain matter, about which it is written that those who are God-fearing should be severe. The rabbi's reply: "When you read an admonition to the God-fearing, you are convinced that it is you who is being referred to. I have no such pretense." In one interview he speaks mockingly about a neighbors' son, who took to wearing "a skullcap the size of a dish." He especially does not like those who insist on asking the rabbis about every possible subject, as "that attests to a situation of serious insecurity, and when adults behave like that they also display insecurity to their children."
One might have thought that someone like Amital, who constantly emphasizes the importance of simple human and religious feeling over halakhic severity and detached learning, would "connect" to the "Jewish New Age" phenomenon, which has spread through the religious Zionist movement in recent years (via a connection through music and Hasidic studies with various influences of the Eastern religions). In practice, though, Amital is one of the greatest critics of the phenomenon and in the past few years has used some of his sermons to castigate it. He attacks the phenomenon first of all because it concentrates on personal elevation at the expense of engagement with problems of society: "I do not understand what people see in India. After all, they have not solved any social problems there. All they say is that it is possible to die quietly, without making noise. In contrast, in Judaism tikkun olam [repairing or healing the world] is at the center."
But the rabbi's criticism is also prompted by his concern about conditional religiosity - the approach whereby one only observes those commandments to which one "connects." With all his fondness for religious feeling, he nevertheless believes, like traditional yeshiva heads, that the main thing is learning, and not the Bible or Jewish thought but Gemara: "The intellect is the cardinal quality of human beings, and that is also the way it should be in worshiping God. It is inconceivable that we should worship God with all our organs, just not with the mind."
Rabbi Amital is a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. His entire nuclear family - his parents and two siblings - perished in the Holocaust. He does not hesitate to say that from a religious perspective, the Holocaust was and remains a "great question" for him, "a question to which I do not have an answer." In the same spirit, he is also sharply critical of rabbis who seek to ascribe to the Holocaust theological "justification": "Rabbi Zvi-Yehuda Kook [the rabbi of the Gush Emunim - Bloc of the Faithful - settlement movement, who headed Merkaz Harav in Jerusalem] said once that the Holocaust `was intended' to hasten the Jews in getting to the Land of Israel faster. That is something I cannot accept under any circumstances. A million-and-a-half children were murdered to `hasten' the Jews to get to the Land of Israel?"
To a friend, also a Holocaust survivor, who once asked him how he remained religiously observant, Amital replied: "And if I had not remained religious, would the questions be understandable?"
Under the influence of the Holocaust he also assails those who are now promising - in relation to the disengagement plan or any other subject - that "God will not let it happen": "Sixty years after the Holocaust, how is it possible to make promises like that?" His personal lesson from the Holocaust is "the feeling that I have to act also in the name of those who did not survive. That is what gives me strength."
After the Yom Kippur War Amital wrote a book, "Ma'alot mima'amakim," which develops the doctrine of redemption as propounded by Rabbi Kook, and ironically the book became one of the basic texts of Gush Emunim. He began to give expression to a more dovish approach during the Lebanon War. Some of his students say the change occurred because of the trauma that was inflicted by the hesder yeshiva students who were killed - the rate of casualties among them was particularly high at the start of the war. That explanation may sound logical, but becomes problematic in the light of the fact that nine years earlier, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, eight students from Har Etzion Yeshiva were killed.
Amital himself maintains that there has been no substantive change in his attitude, or at most in the emphases: "Even when I wrote `Ma'alot mima'amakim,' I did not think that the doctrine of redemption is a recipe for everyday policy. But when I saw that many were interpreting redemption in that way, I started to make clear my objections to that publicly."
Today he is a sharp opponent of the Greater Israel approach. In a sermon he delivered in the yeshiva just a month ago, he said: "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." That sentence, he relates with a twinkle of pleasure in his eyes, was apparently considered so radical by his students that they decided on their own to censor it in the printed version of the sermon. At the same time, Amital is definitely not an advocate of the disengagement plan: "I am very unhappy with that plan, mainly because of its unilateral aspect. The fact that it is unilateral also adds to the pain the evacuees feel, because in this situation they also do not understand why they have to undergo the pain."
In regard to the reactions to the evacuation he is less worried about possible violence ("With that [the authorities] will be able to cope") than about two other matters: "First of all, I hope the parents there will have the good sense at least to evacuate their children in advance. Can you imagine that children will witness their parents being dragged out of the house by soldiers? What a trauma that could foment in them!" Even more than this he is concerned about a scenario of "the disengagement of religious Zionism from the state, just when the society is so much in need of a Jewish identity."
He is one of the rabbis who spoke about the need to address the social distress long before it became fashionable among the rabbis of the religious Zionist movement. At the same time, now he emphasizes that "the social alienation is even worse than the poverty," and he feels that "we must first of all address the alienation." What most worries him in the public sphere is "the level of the leadership," because "after all, the leading candidates today are those who already failed in the past. Is this all we have to offer?"
One of the things that most impress those who are familiar with the history of the yeshiva world, and perhaps with institutions and organizations in general, is the long-term success of the model of two yeshiva heads at Har Etzion Yeshiva. Rabbi Amital and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein both carry the same title and the identical status, yet have managed to maintain excellent and harmonious relations for 36 years. At the birthday event, the two revealed to their graduates that Amital had long ago suggested to Lichtenstein that he serve as yeshiva head on his own, while he would make do with the title of "spiritual supervisor." Lichtenstein rejected the offer and the rest, as they say, is history - not least in the light of the pronounced personality differences between them: Amital the tempestuous and outgoing versus Lichtenstein, the introverted scholar - "he with a doctorate from Harvard [in English literature] and me with my four years of schooling."
Half a year ago, the two set another precedent when they announced their intention to resign and to pass on their posts this coming Hannukah - a move rarely made by yeshiva heads. Amital explains: "We saw what happened in other yeshivas, in which wars of succession simply destroyed the yeshiva from within. We did not want that to happen here."
Thus Medan and Gigi were appointed the successors. Not a few people who are familiar with the yeshiva are asking themselves whether the successors will be able to fill the big shoes of the two serving yeshiva heads, each in his own way: Lichtenstein with his vast religious and general knowledge, Amital with his public and social sensitivity. Amital admits that this question underlay the decision to continue the model of two yeshiva heads in the future, too: "At first we thought to appoint one yeshiva head this time, but we found that there is no one candidate with all the qualities we sought. So we decided to choose two heads again."
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