Yitzchak Blau

The Enduring Relevance of R. Amital’s Wisdom

The recent publication of leOlam Yehe Adam turns our attention back to R. Yehuda Amital (1924-2010) as we approach his 14th yahrzeit. I would like to focus on an older volume, leAvdekha beEmet, a collection of 67 eulogies and articles (ed. Reuven Ziegler and Reuven Gafni 2011) about R. Amital. Before embarking on our analysis, let me begin with a personal recollection. I came to Yeshivat Har Etzion in 1986 and was quickly enthralled by R. Aharon Lichtenstein due to his masterful Gemara shiurim, his sterling moral personality, and his ability and willingness to integrate John Milton and W. B. Yeats into sichot. Unfortunately, my focus on R. Lichtenstein blinded me somewhat to the greatness of R. Amital and only subsequent years of reading helped me realize my error.

I will begin with a few quick points about R. Amital’s thought before addressing a handful of themes in greater depth. 1) There are no shortcuts or as R. Amital put it, ein patentim. 2) The Hesder system is not a concession but rather an ideal. 3) R. Amital was extremely sensitive to the problem of desecrating God’s name, especially in a century that had experienced the Holocaust. 4) Yeshiva curricula include more than just Gemara. According to R. Yoel Ben Nun, Mercaz Harav already incorporated Jewish thought before 1967 so Har Etzion’s bigger innovation was serious Tanakh study. R. Amital provided a platform for R. Mordechai Breuer to develop and teach his signature approach to Tanakh. 5) A sense of humor is important for maintaining perspective and being a God fearing Jew. R. Amital would famously leave weddings early saying that he had to attend a family simcha. When pressed as to the nature of that simcha, he would answer: “My family is happy when I am home.”

We now turn to five further ideas that merit slightly longer analysis.

6) R. Amital was a dynamic personality capable of changing his mind. In the early 70s, he spoke in the messianic language of Gush Emunim before subsequent events led him to found the more dovish Meimad party. He did not begin his educational career as a strong advocate for advanced women’s learning but he did become one, partially through the influence of R. Lichtenstein. Along the same lines, he was one of the few people about whom you could not always predict how they would respond to particular questions.

The dynamism went together with theological boldness. Even though great rabbinic sages had rooted service of God in gratitude, R. Amital argued that this was no longer possible after the Holocaust. In our contemporary situation, we will have to rely on other bases for divine service.

7) He emphasized the need to be a human being with all of the accompanying frailties and limitations. R. Amital cited the Kotzker’s reading of “ve-anshei kodesh tihiyun li” (Shemot 22:30). God declares that he has enough angels; He desires holy humans. As the chazzan on Yomim Noraim, he emphasized the words “u-ven adam,” and he loved the piyut about God wanting to hear the praises of both angels and people. This theme leads to default rejection of extremist religious requirements.

8) R. Amital was not threatened by having other talented people around even if they disagreed with him. His bringing in R. Lichtenstein to hand over the Rosh Yeshiva keys (the latter insisted on a partnership) was one of the most remarkable educational acts of our time. He never minded R. Yaakov Medan, a Ram in the yeshiva, vociferously disagreeing with him. When he gave a famous moza”sh sicha explaining his new political stance, he invited up Chanan Porat, the well-known Gush Emunim activist from Kfar Etzion, to rebut his position and allowed Chanan the last word. Very few people in the world would have done that.

9) Not being afraid of what others will say allowed freedom in yeshiva decisions. A yeshiva can have a fish pond to add beauty even if it does not look like the grounds of Volozhin.

So too on a personal level, R. Amital presented no false fronts or Rosh Yeshiva airs. He willingly sat with the ba’al habatim in Givat Mordechai for the mishnayot shiur between mincha and maariv. R. Yossi Rimon tells a very powerful story about a Gush Ramim meeting where the staff discussed what parts of Bava Metzia to learn in the upcoming zman. R. Lichtenstein made reference to starting with 93a and many rabbeim were embarrassed to admit they did not recall what is on that page. Immediately, R. Amital said: “Bring me a gemara. I do not remember what is on 93a.”

10) R. Amital was very wary of rabbeim using their platform for an ego trip or forging unhealthy relationships with students. He once told R. Yitzchak Dor that it was important to get married so that when you one day get called haRav haGaon, you will come home to someone who can remind you who you truly are. When asked why more students did not consult with him about personal questions, he responded: “Apparently, I did not need it.”  Both stories reflect his characteristic sense of humor but they also convey an educational ideology.

This approach animated a playful dvar Torah he would cite. The Gemara says that the “et” in “et Hashem elokekha tira” comes to include talmidei hakhamim (Pesachim 22b). This means that others have to show reverence to scholars. However, R. Amital would interpret it to mean that the scholars also need to have reverence for God.

The traits and positions outlined above are always significant but our current condition highlights in particular the need for points 9 and 10. Fear of what people will say is too influential; domineering and authoritarian rabbis are far too numerous. R. Amital’s wisdom remains relevant now more than ever.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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