Ve-Chai Bahem - And You Shall Live by Them

By Rav Yair Kahn


When I was a student at YU, Rav Goren came and delivered a shiur to the yeshiva. He began with the Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:1):

The entire house of Israel is commanded to sanctify the great and holy name… How so? If a gentile should arise and force a Jew to violate one of the Torah’s commandments or be killed, he should violate and not be killed, as it says [in reference to the mitzvot], “that man should do and live by them” (Vayikra 18:5) – live by them and not die by them.

Only in the following halakha does the Rambam codify the conditions whereby one must sacrifice one’s life in order to sanctify the name of God. Rav Goren questioned the order of these halakhot. After all, the Rambam is discussing the command to sanctify the name of God; shouldn’t he have begun with the cases in which we are commanded to sacrifice our lives to sanctify His name? Rav Goren concluded that the greatest sanctification of God’s name is achieved through life, not death.

When the German invasion was imminent, a group of friends in a small town in Hungary engaged in a passionate debate. One group, led by Yehoshua Hager (nephew of the Viznitzer Rebbe zt”l and half brother of Rav Lau shlit”a), claimed that they should run away and try to reach Eretz Yisrael. The second group, led by Yehuda Klein (who would later change his name to Amital), argued that the plan to run away was not realistic. The Germans were everywhere. “We should prepare ourselves to die in the sanctification of the name of Hashem.”  Yehoshua Hager, through his Viznitzer connections, escaped and was able to reach Eretz Yisrael. Yehuda Klein remained in Hungary and was sent to a labor camp. He managed to survive until the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers. Upon his liberation, even before the war had ended, Yehuda traveled to Israel, arriving by rail from the north. He immediately enrolled in the Chevron Yeshiva.

Once he went to visit the religious kibbutz of Kfar Etzion, south of Yerushalayim. There he met Yehoshua Hager. “Yehuda, is that you? You survived? You, who insisted that we die in the sanctification of the holy name?” he said angrily. He continued, “Yehuda, do you still believe? Did you remain religious?” Yehuda answered, “Had I lost my faith, would I have answers? Is it any simpler for one who is not religious?” In a televised symposium with the poet and partisan Abba Kovner, Rav Amital commented: “The questions posed by the Holocaust are much greater for one who doesn’t believe in God. What is left for him to believe in - humanity? Can one believe in humanity after the Holocaust, after what the Nazis and their cohorts did to the Jews?” Although he couldn’t explain the Shoah, Rav Amital’s faith was unshaken. Even during the dark days in the labor camps, he felt the presence of Hashem, even though he couldn’t understand the meaning of what was taking place.

After the terrible desecration of God’s name that took place on the national level during the Holocaust years, Rav Amital viewed the creation of the Jewish State, establishing Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael, as a national kiddush Hashem. (It should be noted that Rav Amital did not view this as an explanation for the Holocaust.) He dedicated his life to continuing the legacy of his teachers, passing on Torah to the next generation. He was a driving force and inspiration to the Religious Zionist camp in Israel. He wrote a guide to aid halakhic observance for soldiers serving in the army. He conceived the idea of “hesder” – combining army service with Torah studies. Following the Six Day War, he agreed to head a yeshivat hesder to be founded in the heart of the Etzion Bloc, a group of Jewish settlements south of Yerushalayim that were destroyed in 1948. Yeshivat Har Etzion was founded in 1968, and together with his co-Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Amital built it into one of the more prominent and influential yeshivot in Israel.

Rav Amital’s focus, however, was not limited to the religious. He was concerned with all Jews, religious as well as non-religious. All Jews, dati and not dati, jointly participated in the establishment of Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael, and the kiddush Hashem of the Israeli State could be fully achieved only through unity. When Rav Amital noted a widening rift between the religious and secular camps in Israel, he began to act on the national level. He viewed religious legislation and coercion as counterproductive, and began to demand that the benefits of these policies be re-examined. He could not remain silent when Hashem’s name was desecrated in the wake of the Sabra-Shatilla massacre. When the religious right began attacking government policy and undermining its authority on politico-religious grounds, he was vocal in his opposition. When he noticed the rift between the religious right and the secular left growing deeper, he felt the need establish “Meimad,” a religious party that had moderate political policies and was in favor of religious-secular dialogue, as opposed to religious coercion. Rav Amital considered the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin at the hands of religious extremist Yigal Amir as a terrible desecration of Hashem’s name. He felt the divide between the religious right and secular left had reached critical proportions. As a result, he agreed to join the Peres government to try to heal the wound. He paid a high price, as he was censured strongly by many Religious Zionist leaders and was deserted by some of his own talmidim. Nevertheless, Rav Amital, always a man of conviction and courage, was not deterred. 

One of the more difficult aspects of serving as minister was being torn away from the yeshiva that he had created and that was so much part of his life. He came to the yeshiva regularly to deliver the shiur klali (the weekly lecture given to the entire yeshiva by the Rosh Yeshiva) when his turn came. When his term as minister ended, he was relieved to be able to return to his beit midrash as a regular Rosh Yeshiva.

He continued teaching Torah until he felt it was time to leave room for the next generation. Instead of appointing a successor, he nobly made room for an independent committee to make the best decision. Despite stepping down from duties as Rosh Yeshiva, he continued to travel from Yerushalayim to Gush Etzion to teach Torah for as long as his health allowed.

The above is a very brief sketch. It obviously cannot do justice to the complexity and greatness of Mori ve-Rabbi Ha-Rav Amital, hareini kaparat mishkavo. Nevertheless, let me sum up with a few points directly connected to the above.

Rav Amital was revered and loved by his talmidim, past and present. He was an inspiration by example in the beautiful relationship that existed between him and Mori ve-Rabbi Rav Lichtenstein shlit”a. The legacy he left included a burning love for Jews, all Jews, faith in Ha-Kadosh Barush Hu that survived unthinkable horrors, and a fiery desire that the name of Hashem should be sanctified through Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael, which can only be achieved through unity of the Jewish People.

No, Yehoshua - Rav Amital did not give up his life to sanctify the name of Hashem in the furnaces of Europe. Hashem saved Rav Amital and brought him to Israel, so that he could sanctify Hashem’s name throughout his life. Yehi zikhro barukh


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