A Rabbi Who knew how to be a Human Being

A Eulogy of Harav Yehuda Amital 

Rav Amnon Bazak

 

 

            My revered teacher, HaRav Yehuda Amital, to whose name I find it so difficult to append the words, "of blessed memory," was one of the spiritual giants of the Jewish people in recent generations. Even the apparently dry facts of his biography teach of his greatness: a Holocaust survivor, who lost his parents and family, arrived in Eretz Israel alone, and by virtue of his personality and Torah knowledge became one of the most influential rabbinic figures in the religious Zionist camp. Rav Amital was one of the originators of the idea of Hesder Yeshivot, which he based on the belief in the need for a combination of military service and Yeshiva study, and he was the founder of one of the first and largest of such Yeshivot, Yeshivat Har Etzion. His disciples include many tens of Roshei Yeshiva, city and community rabbis, Ramim and educators, and also many distinguished public figures in all walks of life. Rav Amital was also known for his public service, and in the period following the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, the then Prime Minister Shimon Peres, turned to him and invited him to serve as a cabinet minister, in order to mend the rifts in Israeli society.

 

            These details, however, do not even begin to describe the significance of Rav Amital's unique personality for his thousands of students. Rav Amital was not only a great Torah authority, with a profound and complex spiritual world, but also a man of intense feelings, whose prayers on the High Holy Days and the many niggunim that he taught his students, stirred hearts for decades. Rav Amital had exceptional charisma, and with a single, unique and original statement, he could electrify a hall filled with hundreds of students. Rav Amital loved to tell stories in all different realms, in a fascinating manner and with a unique sense of humor. For over and beyond all his other virtues, Rav Amital was first and foremost a human being, and this point was the center of his spiritual thought.

 

            This thought, which was of rare power, unique and so relevant to our times, was Rav Amital's most important trait. As opposed to the prevalent outlooks in today's religious world, Rav Amital placed the emphasis in his religious thought on man, with all his complexity and humanity. Rav Amital used to say that if a rabbi's students imitate his ways and conduct, this is a sign of educational failure. Each individual has his own unique personality, and he must build it in a way that is appropriate for him. The student must receive from his teacher what is appropriate for him to receive, and he must be open to receive also from other rabbis and men of spirit. This process must be based on modesty and humility, on the one hand, but on the understanding of the unique personality of each individual, on the other. Rav Amital refused as a matter of principle to give his students practical guidance regarding the paths of life: he was always prepared to listen, to discuss, and to counsel, but he firmly believed that the final decision had to be made by each and every person on his own.

 

            For this reason Rav Amital opposed the approach of "halakhic activism," which tries to involve the halakhic system in every realm of life. He repeatedly emphasized that "not everything is Halakha," and that regarding many issues, the Torah leaves the decision to man how he will act, based on broad considerations. Among other things, Rav Amital placed special emphasis on the issue of natural morality. He would often mention the approach of Rav Glazner, author of "Dor ha-Revi'i," who argued that the most basic natural morality precedes the world of Halakha.

 

            In a most natural manner, HaRav Amital emphasized the importance of man's moral and social behavior, and often cited the words of the Rosh, that the commandments governing the relationship between a person and his fellow take precedence over the commandments that govern the relationship between man and God. Derekh Eretz came before the Torah, and for that reason Rav Amital trained his students in basic human conduct, "mentschlichkeit" in Yiddish, as an exceedingly important component of their personality. And above all else, Rav Amital emphasized the human dimensions of man – not to try to leap up to spiritual levels that are beyond one's reach, that have no true coverage; not to ignore the weaknesses found in each individual; and not to panic in moments of crisis, which are an inseparable part of each person. Rav Amital demanded of his students total genuineness when standing before God, and absolute avoidance of artificial behavior and external poses.

 

            Rav Amital trained his students to think independently, and he himself served as a clear example. It seems to me that the greatest tragedy in Rav Amital's personality was that he paid a heavy communal price for his independent thinking. One of the fundamental points in Rav Amital's thought was the notion that what is good for the people of Israel takes precedence over all other values, including that of Eretz Israel, and therefore he did not categorically dismiss the possibility of returning parts of Eretz Israel, if indeed that would be to the Jewish people's benefit. Rav Amital also vigorously opposed the attempt to issue halakhic rulings on political issues, for the complexity of these topics does not allow rulings in light of the earlier sources, but rather demands deep consideration, based on the weighting of conflicting values and the ability to give them practical expression.

 

            Large sectors of the national religious community had difficulty accepting the political implications of Rav Amital's thought, and also missed the greatness of his personality. His thousands of students had no difficulty whatsoever accepting their teacher's approach, even if they did not absolutely agree with it. For, as was noted above, Rav Amital never thought that his students must think as he does. His many students admired his ability to think in an independent and original manner. Even if they did not accept his position in the political context, nevertheless they learned much from it about the need for independent thinking, about his courage, and about his love for the entire people of Israel, which was so important in Rav Amital's thought.

 

Thank you, my revered teacher. Thank you for fashioning my spiritual world, for the legitimization that you gave me to be myself, for calming me down at difficult moments, for teaching me not to become alarmed by human weaknesses. You taught me to view my routine, daily learning as being of chief importance. You explained to me that the most sublime experiences find expression in the routine. You moved me with your prayers and talks, you gladdened me with your stories, and you planted within me the tools to deal me with different situations in life. Your image will continue to accompany me every moment of my life, and I will never cease to hear your voice echoing in my head.

 

(Translated by David Strauss) 

 

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