By Faith Alone
The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital
By Elyashiv Reichner
Translated by Eli Fischer
Maggid Books, 2011, 377 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 10, 2011
Rabbi Yehuda Amital (1924-2010) was an influential Israeli educator. While he had only a fourth grade secular education, he built an educational institution that altered and enhanced many lives. By Faith Alone is a beautifully written story of his life.
When the rabbi was twelve and approached bar mitzvah age, custom required that he deliver a sermon. He begged his father to hire a teacher to help him write his speech, but his father refused. He insisted on teaching his son independence. Thus when the educational institution that he started, Yeshivat Har Etzion, opened its doors on November 23, 1968, Rabbi Amital, its head, did not appear. He only sent word that his first lecture would start tomorrow. He wanted to make it clear "from day one (that) the yeshiva (a school devoted to Talmud and Torah study) revolved around its students and their studies – and not around him." It was designed to teach them, as his father taught him, independent thinking. Thus, for example, when students asked him if they could smoke while studying, he told them to set the policy. As a result, when the rabbi wanted to smoke, he had to go outside the building. But he drew the line when it came to the administration of the Yeshiva. When the students complained that a maintenance man shouldn't have been demoted, he strongly reprimand them for interfering where they do not belong.
This focus on students thinking for themselves is not the only distinction that he introduced. He was the first to integrate yeshiva studies with military service. He called it a Hesder (arrangement) Program, a concept that took root in other yeshivot. As a result many Orthodox Jewish Israeli youth serve their country both by becoming more knowledgeable through their studies and by protecting it with military service. Yet, he didn't want the Hesder boys to have religious commanders, for he didn't want to separate them from non-religious soldiers; they're all Israelis.
Once, when a unit was placed on alert, the soldiers were told that they must train on Shabbat. A soldier called Rabbi Amital greatly disturbed, worried that he was being told to violate the Sabbath. The rabbi answered, "Don't worry. It's a mitzvah," proper, do it.
He opposed the practice of many Yeshivot who refused to teach the Bible because of the many questions it raises, such as how could the prophet Samuel order King Saul to kill all of the people of Amalek. They avoid teaching Torah, and focus instead on the Talmud, and claim that their students are smart enough to study Torah by themselves. Rabbi Amital had Bible taught in his Yeshiva. An example of one way that Bible was taught is the biblical theory of Amital's close friend Rabbi Mordekhai Breuer. Breuer agreed with the Bible critics that the Torah "has multiple sources, which can be proved scientifically. At the same time, I do not accept their opinion that these sources were written by multiple authors. Rather, I instead offer the Jewish belief that they were indeed authored by God … this question depends solely on faith; science can offer no opinion on this."
Despite his strong feelings about the importance of Torah study and the need for Jews to observe the Torah commands, Rabbi Amital was opposed to rabbis setting public policy. Rabbis can advise politicians if the politicians want to hear their ideas, but it must be understood that the rabbi's opinion carries no halakhic (religious or legal) force.
Similarly, he refused to answer many of his students' private questions to teach them personal responsibility. "I'm not your chasidishe rebbe," he said, referring to the practice among many Chasidim and many ultra-orthodox of bringing all kinds of personal questions to their rabbi for his advice: "Should I marry this girl?" "Should I take this job?" "Should I take a vacation?"
Rabbi Amital was a humble man. He brought into the Yeshiva as a co-head Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a man with a Ph.D. The two worked together for some forty years in a remarkable manner to build the Yeshiva. Readers will find it interesting to read how the world views and educational approaches of the two differed, and yet how they worked well with each other. Rabbi Lichtenstein is the son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and is loyal to his teachings. Rabbi Amital's worldview was more mystical. He followed the approach of Rabbi Abraham Kook. Both emphasized that people need to have faith.
Rabbi Amital spoke against the extreme practices of many young religious Jews, such as wearing their tzitzit (fringes) hanging outside their pants. This, he said is the result of "the lack of confidence characteristic of many members of the younger generation." He wrote that "stringencies can be a sign of weakness."