This morning we mourn the death of Harav Yehuda Amital zt”l, a truly courageous and moral leader of our time.
Here is the opening of an article that I wrote about him a few years ago in my review of Rav Amital’s book “Worlds Destroyed Worlds Rebuilt: The Religious Thought of R. Yehudah Amital” (the essay originally appeared in the 2006 Edah Journal) :
* Rabbi Amital is a profound visionary driven by his memory of the past with a unique natural sense of Judaism. Yehudah Klein (later changed to Amital) was born in 1925 in Transylvania. As a boy he studied in heder and yeshiva and had only four years of elementary secular education; his teacher in Hungary was the Lithuanian R. Hayyim Yehudah Halevi, a student of R. Hayyim Ozer and of Reb Barukh Baer Leibowitz. R. Amital recounts a story of his youth in which he imagined a ball of fire in the sky. His vivid and active imagination took it as a messianic sign, and he persuaded his classmates to dance around a tree in celebration. R. Amital didn’t himself experience this envisioned messianic redemption, for in 1943 the Nazis deported him to a labor camp, and the rest of his family perished in Auschwitz. Upon his release, he came to Israel in December of 1944 and resumed his yeshiva studies, receiving ordination from R. Isser Zalman Meltzer and then married the latter’s granddaughter. R. Amital joined the Haganah and fought in the battles of Latrun and the Western Galilee. After the war, R. Amital became a rabbinic secretary in the Rabbinical Court in Rehovot, and two years later, he started giving a Talmud shiur in Yeshivat Ha-Darom together with his colleague Rabbi Elazar Mann Shakh.
While at Yeshivat Ha-Darom, R. Amital formulated the idea of the yeshivat hesder, which combines yeshiva study and military service. The exemption from army service granted to yeshiva students increased the friction between the religious and secular communities, so R. Amital created the yeshivat hesder to unite these two communities, as well as to illustrate the religious significance of the accomplishments of the new state. This decisive move shifted R. Amital from his haredi background to a religious Zionist affiliation and distinguished his teachings from those of his colleague Rav Shakh, who came to lead the anti-Zionist yeshiva ideology at the Ponovitch Yeshiva in Benei Beraq. For R. Amital, there was no turning back: the secular state was a reality. The hesder form of Religious Zionism became a distinct variety of Modern Orthodoxy, one that consisted of helping to build the state under labor Zionism, and combining Torah study with army service. (One should note the difference between this form of religious Zionism and Hirsch’s diaspora keeping of mitsvot, Hildesheimer’s academic study of Talmud, or American suburbanization).
Propelled by Holocaust memories, R. Amital became a force in the building of the modern state of Israel, and, after the liberation of the Gush Etzion in the Six-Day War of 1967, Rabbi Amital founded the yeshiva in Kefar Etzion. (In 1971, R. Amital invited R. Aharon Lichtenstein to join him as Rosh Yeshiva.) R. Amital later led the politically liberal religious party Meimad and served as a cabinet minister. He publicly displayed his pain over the 1973 and 1982 wars, especially the loss of some of his earliest students, and raised three generations of primarily Israeli students, teaching them to think independently, sensitively and subtly about the complex issues of morality, piety and politics that the modern Israeli faces. His combination of simple interpersonal directness and complex inner theology makes him, to quote a recent Ha’aretz article, “a simple Jew… a rare breed” and one from whom American Jews can learn much.