Rav Amital: Vision, Integrity and Courage
First appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Friday, July 17th, 2020.
It's been ten years since Rav Yehuda Amital, founding rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, left us. Distance allows for perspective, so perhaps this is an opportune moment to reflect upon certain aspects of the personality and impact of one of the more controversial leaders of the religious Zionist community in Israel. For us in the yeshiva, his main impact was educational. His influence upon the collective student body as well as his personal guidance in the areas of Torah and faith were powerful and lasting. However, we were also inspired by his engagement in what was transpiring in the broader community, and his unwillingness to remain uninvolved. It is with regard to the communal impact that I would like to focus my remarks.
Religious Zionism in Israel, which regarded the founding of the Jewish State as the beginning of the redemptive process was reinforced and invigorated in 1967 by what was perceived as divine involvement in the stunning military victory, and the liberation of the Temple Mount, East Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. This was true for Rav Amital as well. However, for Rav Amital, the State and the Six Day War were religiously significant for an additional reason. Rav Amital, a holocaust survivor, witnessed the terrible desecration of God’s name, when the chosen people were exterminated like vermin. With the renewal of Jewish sovereignty, the Jewish people could once again stand tall and take their place among the nations of the world. Rav Amital viewed this as a sanctification of God's name, which had been desecrated throughout the exile in general and particularly during the holocaust. Due to the Six Day War, the sanctification of God’s name reached new heights.
Following the War, Israeli religious Zionist leaders demanded that the territories, which were part of biblical Israel, be annexed and settled. The first area the government agreed to settle was Gush Etzion. When approached to head a hesder yeshiva that was to be built in that area, Rav Amital agreed.
A man of integrity and courage. Rav Amital often voiced opinions that went against the grain. He was the first Rosh Yeshiva I’m aware of, that questioned the wisdom of religious legislation. In 1982, his call for an inquiry following the Sabra and Shatila massacre angered many of his colleagues. However, Rav Amital could not remain silent to such atrocities which the IDF did nothing to prevent.
Serious treatment of Rav Amital’s positions demands thorough research and study beyond the scope of an editorial. However, I will try to clarify one core point which impacts the other issues as well. We noted that Rav Amital identified with the view that the establishment of the Jewish State was the beginning of the redemptive process. At some point, that position changed. Various theories have been suggested to explain the shift and probably there is more than one component. However, at the risk of oversimplification, I would like to propose what in my opinion was the primary factor.
It is important to clarify that Rav Amital never denied the potential of redemption. He rejected the assertion that redemption is inevitable. Those who adhere to the position that the redemptive process has already begun, believe that it is a one way street. The first and second commonwealth were destroyed. There can be no third destruction. If God is actively involved in an inevitable redemptive process, one doesn’t have to be concerned by geopolitical factors, public opinion or conventional morality. It is sufficient to commit oneself to what they consider God’s will. Moreover, if the leaders of the State lack religious faith, should one not violate human laws and rules to further what they perceive as the divine plan?
With acute perception, Rav Amital noticed the cracks forming between Religious Zionism and the State. He was troubled by the Jewish underground, which carried out a terror attack on Palestinian targets and viewed it as an expression of the wider phenomenon noted above. He was especially shocked by the plans of some to blow up the temple mount in order to stop the Sinai pullout and begin a worldwide jihad to expedite messianic redemption. He assessed that belief in the redemptive process was leading to extremism that was damaging to the State, the social cohesion of its citizens and unconcerned with how Israel was perceived by the world community. He realized that belief in the redemptive process was leading to immoral action and what he perceived as a desecration of God’s name. While others became disillusioned with the State when it began to fail in the realization of the redemptive process, Rav Amital became disillusioned with the redemptive process when it legitimized attacks on the State and its institutions, tolerated immorality as a means to an end and led to a desecration of God’s name.
Rav Amital often mentioned that each generation has its unique challenges and requires leadership that are able to respond to those specific challenges. Rav Amital was one of the leaders of his generation, but he also realized that a new generation would arise that would require a different leadership. In his later years, he had the foresight and wisdom to take a step back and provide space for a new leadership to arise. Nevertheless, ten years later, I yearn for a clear and courageous rabbinic voice defending the State and its institutions and not willing to tolerate immoral action as a means toward a perceived greater end. Ten years later I long for the voice of Rav Amital.