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Rav Amital of blessed memory

SOMETIMES you hear about someone’s passing and you just wish you knew this person in the flesh, panim el panim — in person, in their lifetime.

That is how I feel about Rav Yehuda Amital. I wish I had known him. And just like with the famous Talmudic teachers — study partners, chavrutah pairs — throughout our Jewish history, Rava and Abaye, Rav and Shmuel, Reish Lakish and Rav Yochanan, it is hard to think of Rav Amital of blessed memory without thinking of, to distinguish the living from those who have passed to the next world, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, may he be blessed with long life.

These two together carried a yeshiva for almost 40 years.

Theirs was a most unusual and rare model of partnership in the yeshiva world, of living a life of integrity, devotion and toil in holiness, in living a more elevated life, teaching and leading the Jewish people in such different ways, yet always together, side by side.

Rav Amital and Rav Aharon: they are almost a study in contrasts, he of blessed memory with his warm and emotional countenance; and Rav Aharon, the more reserved, introverted and disciplined scholar.

Yet, with these differences and their respective gifts, came a rich fusion. Theirs is a legacy of passing on the teachings of Torah in understanding, respect and harmony.

As it should be, of course.

And yet, unfortunately, so very rare and difficult — a duality nearly impossible to achieve. Dare I say, almost unheard of?

Not only did these two humble rabbinic giants, who obviously abdicated personal ego when acting in context of this precious, dual model of Torah leadership, succeed in achieving this in their lifetime; they also had the foresight and skill to sense when their course had reached its fullest, when the time was ripe to transition into the next generation of leadership. They made the choice to relinquish their roles and pass on the mantle of their yeshiva’s leadership to their disciples.

Rav Amital, together with Rav Aharon, had the nachas and satisfaction of seeing their Torah continue through their successors — their striving to attain truth and purity, continue in a spirit of tolerance, understanding and harmony.

BUT that is just one part. Rav Amital, lover of the Jewish people — scarred by her people’s pain and needs, founder of the largest hesder yeshiva in Israel — seemed to have lived so many different dimensions and roles in his one life here on earth.

Sole Holocaust survivor of his nuclear family, Haganah soldier who fought in Israel’s War of Independence, founder and builder of a hesder yeshiva and its surrounding community, politician (when he felt the moment and the need arose), teacher par excellence . . . a bridge figure.

A person who embodied the bridge from the old to the new, from the destroyed world of Europe to the rebuilding in Israel, the building of an entire movement and community in a new land,  literally with his blood, sweat and tears.

A person who almost chose to live on in his one life for thousands, if not millions of others who were silenced; suddenly, cruelly, gone! A bridge between the more sheltered yeshiva community the vastly different, broad and secular life of Israel.

Here was a person, despite his public persona and the personal cost, who had the deepest integrity, not to mention courage and adaptability, to make a change when he felt it was the right thing to do.

Rav Amital was initially one of the strong voices in the Israeli settlement community, but as the Yom Kippur war came and went in 1973, with this head of a yeshiva tragically burying his own students, he began making a painful, ideological paradigm shift. By the time the first Lebanon War had ended in 1986, he had turned to a different path, and even created a political party to express his evolving point of view.

Rav Amital was the ultimate evolver. He was a truth seeker, and as life unfolds new truths are revealed. Rav Amital developed with new circumstances. In this sense he sounds like a maverick rosh yeshiva.

From what I understand, on a simple human level of fellowship, he was a connector. This, as a teacher, a leader, a builder, a founder and an innovator, was, together with his genuine humility, a hallmark of this esteemed man, this leader of so many thousands of Jews.

So much about his dramatic decisions sounds organic, natural, even emotional — rather than ideological and intellectual. Something about the little I have heard about Rav Amital sounds so intuitive. Who knows, perhaps it was intuition, or perhaps it was another great soul who carried the shadow of the Holocaust on his heart, everywhere . . . another, gone.

I have no personal vignettes or inspiring interactions with him to share. I never even read the books he authored. I have my work cut out for me on my next trip to Jerusalem — to stop by a bookstore and meet Rav Amital through his words, and maybe muster the guts to go and finally meet his other half in Torah greatness and partnership, panim el panim, Rav Aharon. For now, in the annals of Jewish history, added to the famous pairs/chavrutot, like Abbaye and Rava, it will always also be Rav Amital and Rav Aharon.

Copyright © 2010 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park


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