This Day in Jewish History / A Yeshiva Head and Settler Who Had a Change of Heart Is Born

Rabbi Yehuda Amital fought for the establishment of Israel but was shattered by his yeshiva’s losses in war and began to question the settlement project.

David Green
David B. Green
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Rabbi Yehuda Amital Credit: Archive
David Green
David B. Green

October 31, 1924, is the birthdate of Yehuda Amital, the late settler-rabbi who made his mark by conceiving of the hesder system for joint study and army service, by establishing the Har Etzion yeshiva and by failing nobly to move his camp to the left via a foray into politics. Rabbi Amital’s openness and enormous spirit enabled him to retain the respect of even those who disagreed with him vociferously.

Yehuda Amital was born Yehuda Klein, the son of Yekutiel Ze’ev and Devora Klein, in the Romanian city of Oradea. His family was religiously observant, and Yehuda had only four years of secular primary education before he began to study with Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Levi, a Lithuanian-trained Torah scholar.

During World War II, Oradea came under Hungarian control, before Germany occupied it in 1944. The Germans deported Yehuda’s parents and two siblings to Auschwitz, where they died. He was sent to a labor camp, which he survived, being liberated by the Red Army in October 1944. A short time later, he made his way to Palestine, where, after a brief detention by the British in Atlit prison, he began studying at the Hebron Yeshiva (which had relocated to Jerusalem after the 1929 Hebron massacre).

Amital, as he now called himself, received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, whose granddaughter Amital married. He joined the Haganah, the prestate Jewish defense force, and saw combat in the 1948-49 War of Independence.

It was during this war that Amital wrote what may have been the first essay on the significance of being a soldier in Israel from a Jewish religious and moral perspective. Soon after, he formulated the idea of hesder (literally “arrangement”) service, by which young men could combine army service with Torah study. He saw this as a remedy to two potential problems: the resentment by the secular of their religious peers who were exempted from service because they were enrolled in yeshiva, and a sense of alienation by the same religious youth from the institutions of the state.

Both problems persist, of course, in the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the Zionist public.

The founding of the Har Etzion yeshiva

In 1968, after the West Bank came under Israeli control, Amital was asked to head a new yeshiva in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, which had been evacuated during the War of Independence. The result was the Har Etzion yeshiva, today situated in the nearby settlement of Alon Shvut.

Har Etzion reflected the open-minded approach of its founding rabbi, who wanted the institution to be “built with windows,” as he put it, and to turn out scholars who would not be so focused on their studies that they would not “hear the baby’s cry.”

Intellectual and observance standards remained high, but Amital was committed to an atmosphere that allowed for questioning, even if that meant disagreeing with the yeshiva head. He also invited another teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who also holds a doctorate in English literature, to join him as co-yeshiva head.

Har Etzion suffered significant losses among its students in both the 1973 Yom Kippur War and nine years later, in the Lebanon War. Both conflicts shook Rabbi Amital deeply, and it was in the wake of the Lebanon War that he began to see danger in excessive devotion to the settlement project, and to consider the possibility of territorial compromise. But the “false messianisms” against which Amital warned also included, in his eyes, the left-wing organization Peace Now.

In the late 1980s, Amital founded a progressive-Orthodox political party, Meimad (a Hebrew acronym for “a Jewish state, a democratic state”). It did not pass the threshold to enter the Knesset, but in 1995, after Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a yeshiva-educated national religious man, Shimon Peres became prime minister and asked Amital to join his government as a minister without portfolio, to serve as a bridge between the religious and secular publics.

In 2006, Amital, wanting to avoid a dispute over succession, asked his colleagues at Har Etzion to choose the men who would follow him and Lichtenstein as leaders. Two years later, he retired.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital died on July 9, 2010, at the age of 85.