Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who died last Friday in Jerusalem at 85 after a long illness, was a unique blend of Talmud scholar and political activist who balanced his love of Israel with his advocacy for territorial concession to save lives.
A Holocaust survivor who lost his entire immediate family, he helped found the hesder yeshivas in Israel, combining rabbinic study and army service, and was rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, the country’s largest hesder yeshiva. He also helped found the Meimad political party, as an intended antidote to the move to the right among the religious, and he served as minister without portfolio in the Peres government following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
Rabbi Amital (original name Klein) was born in a small town in Hungary (now in Romania). Educated in the local cheder (Hebrew school), he studied with a Rabbi Levy, who introduced him to Lithuanian-style learning and the thought of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, a leading scholar who became the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in Palestine under the British Mandate.
Rabbi Amital survived the Holocaust after a year and a half in work camps, with his faith intact but with no surviving close relatives; he lost his entire immediate family. As soon as he was freed, he arranged to go to Palestine to return to his Torah studies.
As committed as Rabbi Amital was to Israel, he rejected any attempt to see the founding of the state as ameliorating the horrors of the Holocaust. To him it was the greatest chillul Hashem (desecration of the divine name) and the only possible response is kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the Divine name) through one’s life. It also taught him that there are questions for which we don’t have an answer.
Arriving in Israel, Rabbi Amital joined the Chevron (Hebron) Yeshiva, the premier haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem. Maintaining his independence he regularly attended the lectures of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop, Rabbi Kook’s disciple. He fought with the Haganah in the War of Independence, and wrote the first article about the appropriate role for the rabbinate in the Israeli army.
Rabbi Amital married Miriam Meltzer, the daughter of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Meltzer, and joined his father-in-law in yeshivot in Pardes Chana and Rehovot, where Rabbi Meltzer served as rabbi. The father and son-in-law together created the concept of a yeshiva that would combine Torah studies and army service, which became the hesder yeshivot movement.
After the Six-Day War, Rabbi Amital was asked to create a hesder yeshiva in the Gush Etzion bloc, an area in the West Bank that had been settled by Jews but destroyed when captured by the Jordanian army during the battle for independence. In appealing for students he quoted a chasidic story whose message was that one should not become so absorbed in Torah study that one not hear a baby crying. This epitomized his goal of a high-level yeshiva that remained concerned for the welfare of society.
In 1971 Rabbi Amital invited Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein to come from America and become rosh yeshiva. Rabbi Lichtenstein agreed to join him as joint roshei yeshiva, a partnership that lasted until Rabbi Amital retired officially in 2008.
Yeshivat Har Etzion has become the largest hesder yeshiva in Israel, known for its intellectual and open approach to Jewish learning, with a significant contingent of students coming yearly from the United States and other countries. Connected to the yeshiva are the Herzog college, the largest institution training Orthodox teachers, and the women’s seminary in Migdal Oz for advanced Jewish studies.
Rabbi Amital combined intellect and warmth. He consistently refused to make decisions for his students, unlike many other heads of yeshivas. As he put it, “I am not interested in making little Amitals.” He sought to develop independent thinking among his students and was prepared to allow those who opposed his views full expression.
In 1982, Rabbi Amital publicly demanded a governmental inquiry into Israeli negligence in allowing Lebanese Christians to enter Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatilla and massacre inhabitants. His views were controversial in the religious Zionist community. A gathering was held at the yeshiva, where Rabbi Amital explained his position. When he finished, Chanan Porat, a founder of the yeshiva who had become a Knesset member from a right-wing party, raised his hand. Rabbi Amital offered him the floor to present the opposite view. When Porat finished, Rabbi Amital did not respond to the criticism. Those who heard the debate were left to form their own position.
As much as Rabbi Amital loved the land of Israel and was a follower of Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook, he disagreed with Rabbi Kook’s son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who emphasized the mitzvah of settling the land as the highest priority. Rabbi Amital was convinced that the people of Israel are more important than the land. Accordingly he supported territorial concessions for the sake of peace. He strongly condemned illegal behavior and actions that flouted the authority of the government.
Concerned that the religious Zionist community had moved politically too far to the right and had become disconnected from the broader society, Rabbi Amital founded Meimad in 1988. As a party Meimad was not successful though it did influence the national dialogue. After the Rabin assassination, which to Rabbi Amital was a terrible chillul Hashem as well as a crime of an individual, he agreed to become a minister without portfolio in the Peres government. He traveled around the world trying to bring Jews together. For many non-Orthodox Jew he was an Orthodox rabbi whose genuine love for all Jews and integrity overcame stereotypes.
When Rabbi Amital turned 80, he announced his retirement and his desire to have successors in place to prevent succession disputes. One of the new proposed roshei yeshiva was a star pupil whose political views were far to the right of his own. Rabbi Amital’s reaction was that political attitudes should not influence the decision.
Religious life suffers from a dearth of independent leadership. It is rare to find a rabbi who was both prepared to take unpopular positions and secure enough to allow his own students to disagree with him. With Rabbi Amital’s passing, Orthodoxy has lost a unique combination of creativity and loyalty, faith and openness, warmth and integrity.