Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rav Amital Speaks

I've only once had the pleasure of meeting R. Yehuda Amital. It was when I was working in a Teaneck restaurant and waited on him. He did not know what to order and chose Hungarian Beef Goulash because he was born in Hungary. I'm not sure what the lesson is from that story, but the Talmud tells us that even the mundane discussions of Torah scholars require study.

Since he is the only rosh yeshiva on whom I waited during my brief career in the restaurant industry, I was happy to study his new book Commitment and Complexity: Jewish Wisdom in an Age of Upheaval. The book is a collection of quotations from R. Amital's books and articles, many of which appear in English translation here for the first time. The excerpts are arranged topically and address some of the biggest political and religious challenges of our times. What makes R. Amital's thoughts so interesting is that he is a fiercely independent thinker.

Click here to read moreA Holocaust survivor, R. Amital is a rosh yeshiva in the traditional sense and bases his views on his Hungarian upbringing, his studies in the Chevron Yeshiva, and his continued experience learning and teaching Torah. Nevertheless, his outlook is unique. When asked in his entrance examination to the Chevron Yeshiva how he remained a "Ben Torah" after his suffering during the Holocaust, he replied that he managed to keep with him a booklet written by Rav Kook that kept him inspired through the ordeal. R. Amital went on to excel in his studies and receive rabbinic ordination from R. Isser Zalman Meltzer (and marry his granddaughter).

In addition to his Torah studies, R. Amital was a volunteer in the Haganah and fought in the War of Independence. After the Six Day War, R. Amital founded a yeshiva in the newly conquered Kfar Etzion, site of a famous battle in the War of Independence. In 1988, R. Amital founded the left-leaning religious Meimad movement that eventually became a political party. It is for this "sin" of being different from the typical right-leaning Religious Zionist that I am sure I will have to edit out the insults right-leaning commenters will add to this post. However, it also means that his views are interesting. They represent a Da'as Torah -- a Torah-inspired viewpoint -- that is insightful and thought-provoking, yet not often heard.

This book, Commitment and Complexity, is an excellent introduction to R. Amital's thoughts. It gives readers an overview of his approach to many different topics. Not being a student of R. Amital's, I was not aware of his prior English books. A wonderful aspect of this book is that while the excerpts stand on their own they also let the reader know of other works by the author. Readers who find R. Amital's outlook on a particular topic interesting have the option of following the reference and reading a fuller exposition on the subject.

Here are some random excerpts from the book:

On Prayer (pp. 98-99):

Man, who was created in the image of God, enjoys an enormous privilege in that God has made it possible for him to pray. Humanity would look different -- more sad, more dejected -- were it not for this privilege which has been bestowed upon us... Let me share with you a conversation I had with the director of a large retirement home in Miami. The residents' children all lived far away -- New York, Washington, Chicago. There were three categories of children. Some sent a check every month to their parents. Sometimes the son or daughter would include a short note, sometimes not even that. In any event, the parents knew that the child remembered him or her every month. Others sent the monthly check straight to the retirement home office; it didn't go to the parent, but at least they remembered their parents every month. The third type, explained the director, were those who made use of a standing bank order, such that the money was sent each month by a teller at the bank without the child having any idea as to whether his parent was even still alive. Everything was conducted automatically. This was the difference between Ya'akov and Esav. God told Ya'akov, "You have to ask every time. You'll receive nothing without asking." Esav, on the other hand, enjoyed the benefits of a "standing bank order." [Jewish Values, 117, 121]
On Education (pp. 19-20):
Every educational institution, by its very nature, has a built-in problem: the student knows who is teaching him, and the teacher knows whom he is teaching. This situation -- direct education, of which both sides are fully conscious -- frequently generates resistance on the part of the student against accepting the teacher's world outlook and moral admonitions. This situation is liable to hurt the teacher as well: knowing that he is serving as a role model, he may conduct himself in an unnatural manner. The greatest educational impact is achieved when the teacher is unaware that he is teaching and the student is unaware that he is learning. This is the meaning of "the Name of Heaven shall become beloved through you" (Yoma 86a) -- a person through his ordinary conduct should bring about a sanctification of God's Name, without even being aware that he is influencing others through his behavior. [Jewish Values, 150-151]
On Halakhah (p. 48):
We live in an era in which educated religious circles like to emphasize the certainty of Halakha, and commitment to it, in Judaism. I can say that in my youth in pre-Holocaust Hungary, I didn't hear people talking all the time about "Halakha." People conducted themselves in the tradition of their forefathers, and where an halakhic problem arose, they consulted a rabbi. Reliance on Halakha and unconditional commitment to it mean, for many people, a stable anchor whose purpose is to maintain the purity of Judaism, even within the modern world. To my mind, this excessive emphasis of Halakha has exacted a high cost. The impression created is that there is nothing in Torah but that which exists in Halakha, and that in any confrontation with the new problems that arise in modern society, answers should be sought exclusively in books of Halakha. Many of the fundamental values of the Torah which are based on the general commandments of "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2) and "You shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God" (Devarim 6:18), which were not given formal, operative formulation, have not only lost some of their status, but they have also lost their validity in the eyes of a public that regards itself as committed to Halakha. ["Not Everything is Halakha," Alon Shevut Bogrim 13 (5759), 96)]

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