His World had Been Destroyed. We were the Rebuilding.

By Asher Altshul '93


A Yehudi Pashut

It was a cold New York winter day. We were walking down 72nd St. at a very quick pace. We had heard that he was in NY for Shabbat and we finally found out where he was staying. There he was. His walk was distinguishable from any distance. I almost ran. I caught up. I quietly tapped him on the shoulder. He swiftly turned around. "Sha'lom!" and a warm familiar smile. His wife turned around also and was equally happy to see us. Who would have thought? A group of students in the middle of the Upper West Side. After exchanging greetings, we began to talk. What were we doing in NY? Well, we were members of the recently founded Lincoln Square Synagogue Kollel. We were learning and teaching Torah in the NY area. We asked about his visit. It became clear that he had no plans for Motzaei Shabbat. Shabbat was ending early. Maybe he would be interested in getting together.

"Bevadai!"

After Havdala we quickly returned to the apartment, picked him and his wife up, and brought them to the Joseph's (Rabbi Josh and Julie Stern Joseph). We sat for over three hours. Just sitting and talking about Torah, the Yeshiva, Israel, politics and family. Like a loving grandfather he answered all of our questions and comments. Always with his frank honesty and his humorous wit.

That was Rav Amital. .

Last week the Jewish people lost a great leader.

I lost a beloved teacher and mentor.

Rav Yehuda Amital was a very special person. I am very proud to have been one of his students.

To the Israeli public he is known as the founder of the "Meimad" party.

This distinction was important to him, but his legacy went far beyond his political activities.

 

To Hear the Cry

Rav Amital explained the ideology of our Yeshiva with a story. A baby was crying in the next room. The father, engrossed in Torah, was deaf to the young tears. The grandfather one room over heard the wailing and came to comfort the infant. He returned the baby to its cradle and approached the young scholar. "Son", he interrupted. "If your torah does not let you hear the cries of a baby it is not worth anything".

He taught us to hear the crying and try to find ways to comfort.

 

A World Lost

Rav Amital was driven by his traumatic experiences during the Holocaust. He once reminisced of his sweet childhood. A rumor that Mashiach was coming spread through his Cheder. He and the young boys began to dance around a tree.

This, he described, was the simple happiness of Avodat Hashem.

This was the world of his youth. The small Jewish town in Transylvania, the Hungarian Yeshiva, were replaced with Nazi work camps.

All of his family was lost. His beloved parents, his siblings.

He came to Palestine alone.

A world was lost. Destroyed.

For him, it was an unfathomable tragedy.

To us, his students, he would always describe it simply:

The greatest chilul Hashem.

 

The Greatest Kiddush Hashem

He used to say, "The greatest Chilul Hashem in History needed an answer.

The answer was the greatest Kiddush Hashem in History.

The establishment of the State of Israel."

For Rav Amital, Zionism was not the derivative of complex philosophy; it was very simply the greatest Kiddush Hashem.

 Rav Amital arrived in Israel on Chanukah. Chanukah and Yom HaAztmaut were very special. On each occasion, Rav Amital delivered a traditional sicha (lecture). Even if they differed slightly, the central message was always the same.

The Rambam in the Laws of Chanukah described the history of the Hasmonean Dynasty. This was an interesting digression from the usual legal material. Rav Amital further quoted that the Rambam included in the miracle of Chanukah the establishment of a monarchy that stood more that two centuries!

"And what kind Kingdom do you think they had!!" He used to yell out. And the Rambam said for this we say Hallel. Do you realize what an unbelievable thing that we have? What a chesed Hashem has done for us? We should never take it for granted.

 The Yeshiva has a number of interesting customs with regard to the prayers. The prayer for the state of Israel is said by everyone quietly and not by the chazzan. The origin for many of the unique practices was often Rav Amital. In the early days of the Yeshiva the special prayer that was written by Agnon and designated by the Rabbanut was not incorporated. This was due to two main reasons. The first, Rav Amital was very traditional. He did not like making changes.  More importantly, Rav Amital told us, we don't need a special prayer for the State of Israel. The State of Israel already is in all of our prayers! So why did we start to recited the special prayer? In other circles the word that in Yeshivat Har Etzion they don't say the Tefilah for the State was misunderstood. So we added it.

 A world rebuilt.

 

Simplicity and Complexity

My personal relationship with Rav Amital began in his weekly class on Kuzari. It was for the first year students. Around forty students quietly entered the classroom.  He walked into the classroom walking down the center isle. He looked around the room. The new crop. He opened the old worn book and began to read with his soft, almost falsetto, voice. He looked up smoothed his mustache, and explained the passage. The Kuzari. Yehuda HaLevi's masterpiece of Jewish Thought. Rav Amital wanted us to have a strong foundation. His students would eventually have doctorates in philosophy, in law. They are medical doctors and scientists. He was proud of their achievements.

Every Friday night sicha began the same way. The first verse of the Parsha. The first Rashi. The ideas varied and the messages developed but the source remained the same.

He wanted us to begin with the basics.

 

A Simple Jew.

On Purim, the Yeshiva was special. The usually serious, quiet, and almost somber tone, was replaced with jubilance and boisterousness.

Rav Amital was at the center. It would begin with Shabbat Zachor. Rav Amital gave a "Tisch". Song, Hassidic chants, and popcorn

Rav Amital would often be assisted in his seasonal festive mood with imported spirits. "Chivas Tzion" he would say. The songs and the popcorn were usually the same so was Rav Amital's message.

Be a simple Jew. A "Yehudi Pashut".

One year he turned to Rav Rachmani – the Rabbi that oversees the Jewish Thought learning program in the Yeshiva. Rav Racmani taught us the Rambam's Guide, other major works. Complex thought, challenging intellectual concepts. Rav Amital turned to him and said "Rachmani, forget all you philosophizing – all you need to be is a simple Jew!" All year round Rav Amital encouraged us to learn on the highest level possible. But he wanted us not to forget the importance of the simplicity. Pure faith, Yirat Shamaim, complexity with simplicity.

 

Israeli Society and the Jewish People

Rav Amital loved Hashem. He loved Yahadut. He loved the Jewish People as well. He wanted other Jews to love Judaism as well. One of the topics that came up on at the Joseph's home was the Religious Laws in Israel. Rav Amital did not like them. You can’t make a law that someone should keep the Mitzvoth That is not religion. Teach, spread love and goodwill, people will join. You can't use force. Rav Amital started Meimad with a message that there is a different way. His worldview did not stem from modern or post-modern liberalism. His world view was a natural outgrowth of some simple ideals of his upbringing. Yiddischkeit, Menchlichkeit. Many will speak about his pursuit of peace. He told us very clearly at the Joseph's home.

The most important thing is that people don't think there is the only one way.

The Torah and God's will are not in the hands of anyone. During the year in New York, we were confronted by a group of Orthodox Jews at a college campus that were upset with our joint programming with the Hillel, which at that time was directed by a Reform rabbi. Among the individuals that we consulted with was Rav Amital. He was very supportive. If you can do good work and you do not have to compromise who you are – continue.

When the new Yeshiva building was built Rav Amital visited the site. He saw that the windows were very small. No. That would not do. We must be able to see out of the window. I thanked Rav Amital for that. For many years my seat was right next to one of those windows. He wanted us to realize that although during our Yeshiva years we are to be focused on intensive study, we should not forget to look out the windows.


An Open Check with Money in the Bank

He used to complain about the people who instead of praying, give Hashem a laundry list of advice.

Don’t give Hashem advice how he should improve our situation. What should we pray for? Leave it open. An open check.

Pray that he should bestow goodness on us all. In his divine wisdom he will know how, just don't give him advice.

If you send a check or use plastic make sure that you have money in the bank. He repeated this often. In Rav Amital's words. "Tzarich Kissui Balev". You need to have coverage in your heart.

Don’t be a phony. You want to adopt new chumrot, rock back and forth in your prayers, be my guest. Just make sure that your actions are supported with your heart.


She'erit Hapleitah

Rav Amital was a teacher. With all the talk about his public persona, his unique personality, and his distinctive ideas, we could forget what he did for so many years.

He taught torah.

He began his teaching career at Yeshivat Hadarom in Rechovot. It was probably a very unique experience to learn in Yeshivat HaDarom during those years. Rav Amital, Rav Shach, Rav Mordechai Breuer. I wonder how the staff meetings looked.

Many don't know that Yeshivat Hadarom had another name – Kletsk. When Rav Amital was approached to be the head of a new Yeshiva at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, he took Kletzk to the Judean hills.

For a few years I used to give an introductory tour of the Yeshiva and its surroundings to the overseas students. I would always include a brief history of the Yeshiva and the explanation how we are the Israeli cousins of Lakewood.

Rav Amital's torah was deeply rooted in the traditions of European Yeshivot. Rav Amital challenged us to follow his line of reasoning on a virtual roller coaster. His Shiur Klali was not known for its length. But that does not mean that it was simple.

When it was my turn to give a review shiur, it was always a new challenge. I had to make sure I followed his reasoning and how it was reflected in all of the sources. I was also introduced to many torah giants that I never had heard of before. Rav Amital was always available and helpful when I wanted to make sure that I understood him properly and was prepared.

Rav Amital sometimes made himself very clear. When we were learning the laws of conversion he quoted an opinion that compared the laws of (child) conversion to an acquisition. To this he belted out "Judaism is not a business!!" and went on to endorse an alternate explanation to the case.

Rav Amital was a master of responsa literature. As students, this would often be evident in his classes and his sichot when he mentioned a previously unheard of name and source.

I think his love for the responsa was also deeply rooted in his life story. He saw himself as the last of a world that miraculously escaped alive. The generations of Torah scholarship and legal traditions are alive in these response works. This was his window back into that world.


Tradition and Innovation

With all of his rooted tradition, Rav Amital encouraged innovation. Sometimes he himself did not relate, or have the same opinion, but he was always supportive. When the first modern day Techlet was produced we approached him with the information. He listened carefully and was interested. In the end his answer was "I am too old for things like this".

I think he wanted to wear the same talis that his father and teacher wore. But he was supportive.

In yeshiva the modern study of Tanach grew to proportions beyond his dreams. Rav Amital invited his former colleague and close friend, Rav Mordechai Breuer to teach in Yeshiva. Rav Breuer was teaching methods that were completely innovative. I remember Rav Breuer once marveling at the fact that Rav Amital let him teach this at the Yeshiva. In the last years at Yeshiva, I learned in university and began to deal with some of the issues of academics and Torah learning and looking at sugyot in their historical context. After one discussion, he told me frankly, "You know, maybe one day we will all be learning this way".

 

(Re)Placing a Crown

Rav Amital taught us how to pray. He spoke about tefillah during many of his sichot. He always had deep insights and sound practical advice.

Prayer was a gift. Hashem gave us the right to approach him. We have a daily personal invitation to the King's private chamber. This is an unbelievable gift.

The challenges of maintaining the lofty ideals of prayer and kavana were not beyond Rav Amital. He once told us that Tefilla with a minyan has importance even if all you do is just go. If you can't get all of your thoughts out of your head, don't fight them, integrate them into your prayers.

But that is not the only manner he taught. He taught by example. His private prayer was always a source of inspiration, but he will always be remembered for his chazanut. Rav Amital was the shaliach tzibbur. Slichot, Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur Neila, Vetaher Lebeinu, HavaNesaper, Hoshana Raba.

The highlights of the Yom Kippur prayers, Keter, Mareh Kohen, I remember every year. Every service that I have participated in since my yeshiva years is immediately compared. The sounds echo and return. The voice calling out

"Keter!!!"

 

Humming Along

I remember Rav Amital every week. For many of us, the Yeshiva was our home. We had no other address in Israel. While some would rush somewhere else for Shabbat, many of us would cherish just staying in. Rav Amital's Shabbat was special and although I have many memories one simple thing stands out, Havdalah. Rav Amital had a simple tune that allowed for an accompanying hum. Bein Kodesh lechoI, mmmm, Bein Ohr Lechoshech mmmm, Bein Yisrael Leamim, mmmm…I try my best to reproduce his tune.

 

A Mem Mem

Rav Amital was a leader. But his leadership was not always completely understood. He once told us his experiences in the early days on the Independence War. He was in the Hagana when he was approached by a ranking officer with a rifle. He gave him the rifle and said – "Ata Mem mem". "You are a company officer." Rav Amital declined. I think he may have regretted this later on. In any case, he jokingly thought out loud what would have happened had he answered to the affirmative.

 

Find Yourself your own Jabla

He told us that he did not want us to be "little Amitals". He wanted us to think for ourselves and grow. He was very clear that the modern concept of Da'at Torah was a new phenomenon and that people should make their own life decisions.

On the other hand, Rav Amital had clear limits. He used to say. "You don’t like the way I am doing something – find yourself your own jabla (hill)".

 

Under his Staff

As a leader, Rav Amital felt the burden of responsibility. I remember one of the most moving points of the service was during the Yizkor. Rav Amital would read out the names of the fallen students of the Yeshiva. He read them out as a father. I used to go down to the Library and look at their pictures. One had the same name as I.

He was always there. If a student wanted to speak to him you could always approach. The yeshiva taught us to think for ourselves and take initiative. This had a price. Many students did not seize all of the opportunities. Some may have interpreted this as indifference.

 

Reim Ahuvim

Rav Amital was unique leader. The most lucid example was his partnership with Rav Lichtenstein.

After the Rabin assassination the Yeshiva became an address for international media. I was often asked to show them around. I would bring the visitors to the opposite doors of the Roshei Yeshiva. Very often this was the highlight.

We have two leaders. "They get along?" Yes, I would answer. How? I would explain, If you asked Rav Lichtenstein who the Rosh Yeshiva was he would answer "Rav Amital" and if you asked Rav Amital the same question he would answer "Rav Lichtenstein".

The Midrash explains one of the first verses in Breishit. There were two great lights. The moon complained – two cannot rule in the same kingdom. You are right Mr. Moon, so make yourself smaller.

The Midrash did not foresee the option that two great men could lead if they both would limit themselves.

 

Rover or Reuven?

Although their partnership was legendary, Rav Amital and Rav Lichtenstein did not agree on all issues. One classic ongoing debate regarded the limits of technical Halacha and human morality. If one is stranded on a desert island and all that is left to eat is the carcass of a canine or a human, who shall be consumed first?

Rav Lichtenstien citing the technical halacha would prefer Reuven. To consume Rover would be a direct transgression of the Law.

Rav Amital argued that Reuven should not be eaten first if a dog is available.

Not everything must be directed by the technical letter of the law.


Connecting People

Recent developments in Israel bothered Rav Amital. He was not excited about the Carlebach style of davening and the new modes of dress. He frowned upon the need for "connecting" with torah. He was not against the ideal of "chanoch LaNaar al pi darko", rather I think he felt that at the core people must feel a basic commitment.

If people were continuously looking for things that made them feel good and that they connected with, they would not go far.

 

The Yellow Brick Road

Rav Amital warned often – "Ein Patentim!". There are no shortcuts. There is no easy way. The true path is often difficult and void of immediate reward. Rav Amital paid a dear price for the path he chose. He was often lonely. He left his peers from Chevron years ago. His singular path set him aside from his later companions. He was hailed and respected by many in the general public, but they lacked an appreciation for his Torah.

He had us. His students. He did not ask us to agree. and many didn't.

He asked us to listen. To think. To grow. To learn.

We did our best.

 

Our Rav Amital. My Rav Amital

 Rav Amital belonged to the entire Jewish people. But he was also ours. I was often asked to drive him to the weddings. I used to go to his house on Purim, on Succoth. A friendly smile. How is your family? What are you doing now?

A song, some wafers, a pretzel.

His world had been destroyed. We were the rebuilding.

Some have mistakenly spoken about Rav Amital representing the end of an era

– oh, ever are they wrong.

This is just the beginning…

אשרינו מה טוב חלקנו

 

 

 

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