Maverick rabbi stirred religious left

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 15, 2010
A young Rav Amital with his followers. He presented a left-wing religious alternative

A young Rav Amital with his followers. He presented a left-wing religious alternative

Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who died last Friday in Jerusalem, could have been one of the most significant religious leaders of his generation. But by embracing left-wing positions on the Israeli-Palestinian question and trying to represent a voice of religious moderation, he chose a lonelier path.

As a young rabbi in the 1950s, he was the first to encourage his students to combine their advanced Torah study with military service in combat units. He was a respected educator and his attempts to fuse the often disparate worlds of study, Mitzvah observance and a young, idealistic, and essentially secular Zionist society, gained him many admirers.

And so when, after the Six-Day War, the children of the Etzion bloc just outside Jerusalem returned to the hilltops on which their fathers had died in 1948, they approached him to found a new yeshivah there.

In those days, Rabbi Amital still ascribed to the messianic view coming out of Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, which saw the military victories of the state as part of the irreversible process of redemption of the Jewish people.

But the Yom Kippur War six years later ended all that. Eight of his students were killed in battle. Rabbi Amital, who was strongly influenced by his Holocaust experience in Romania and Hungary as a child, never saw things the same way again.

The settlers' movement, Gush Emunim, which was challenging the first Rabin government in the 1970s with their attempts to establish new Jewish outposts in the West Bank, wanted him as their spiritual figurehead. But he rejected their ideology, claiming that man cannot divine for himself God's designs and that the sanctity of human life took precedence over the sanctity of the land of Israel.

For real peace, he said, he would even be willing to relinquish the settlement of Alon Shvut, with his beloved Yeshivat Har Etzion - by now by far the most prestigious national-religious yeshivah in Israel - in it.

His new brand of left-wing religious Zionism became evident when, in 1982, he forbade his students to join the thousands of protesters in Yamit, who were trying to block the evacuation of the Sinai town as part of the Israel-Egypt peace accord.

Later that year he called for an immediate investigation into the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Israeli-controlled Beirut, an event which to him was the worst possible chilul hashem (desecration of God's name). In doing so he was going against the national-religious consensus, which by then had been firmly coupled with a right-wing settler agenda.

The split was confirmed when in 1988 he founded Meimad, a religious left-wing political party, in a direct challenge to the old Mizrachi establishment of the National Religious Party. But Meimad failed to gain any seats in the Knesset and dwindled for years in obscurity, as an insignificant wing of the Labour party.

For a few months he served as a minister in Shimon Peres's government after Yitzhak Rabin's murder in 1995, in an attempt to achieve reconciliation with the religious community, but few yeshivahs wanted to have him speak.

In numerical terms, Rabbi Amital failed to create a viable religious political alternative, but he gave legitimacy to those within the community who could not follow the consensus. He provided the inspiration for groups like Tzohar who are at the cutting edge of modern Orthodoxy.

In Yeshivat Har Etzion, or as it is more widely known, "Gush", he created the nucleus for a new generation of rabbis, determined to lead communities fully integrated in Israeli society. Perhaps more than his political activity, this ultimately will be his legacy.

Last updated: 12:50pm, July 15 2010