Commentary

My Last Conversation with Rav Amital

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Yehudah Mirsky

In Rav Amital’s last years, I sometimes went to a Shabbat morning minyan that would gather in his home. Near the end of Sivan 5770, after tefillah and kiddush, I sat down to speak with him. His physical frailty was unmistakable. I opened the conversation as I always opened my conversations with him by asking, “What has the Rav been thinking about lately?” He answered me: “Higi’a ha-zman la-ze’irim lahshov mahashavot―it’s time for the young people to think thoughts.”

After taking a deep breath, I told him a story I had once heard: it described an elderly rabbi who came on aliyah who once told the Hazon Ish that he had nothing more left to give. The Hazon Ish quoted to him Psalm 92: “The righteous will flower like the palm… in old age they yet bear fruit… to tell that God is just…” He then went on to say this: precisely when we grow old, we have a duty to teach!

I sat with him for a few more minutes before I left. It was a long walk home, and I had a lot of time to think. I understood that with these words, Rav Amital was saying goodbye; I would never see him again. I knew that with these words, he was passing on to me the teaching, the principles of education and faith, that he had tried to convey to us all over the years: to think, with alertness and depth, hand-in-hand with commitment and taking responsibility for ourselves as well as the world around us. He was faithful to that teaching throughout his life, even to the end.

****

When I came to the shivah, the room was full; I took a seat several rows back. Someone I didn’t know was telling the family a story:

When I came to the yeshiva, I had already spent eight years in another yeshiva, and I used to lay tefillin at minhah. The gabba’im came to me and said, “Look, we don’t do this around here.” I decided to ask Rav Amital. He said to me, “You know, this business of wearing tefillin at minhah, by Rav Isser Zalman―I didn’t see this. But you never saw Rav Isser Zalman. Think about what you want to do, and make a decision.”[1]

****

Two weeks after his passing, we gathered again for Shabbat tefillah in the family apartment in Jerusalem on Rehov Shahal. Afterwards, we all sat down at tables for one last Kiddush. Rabbanit Miriam Amital stood up from her chair, looked around in a compassionate gaze, and said, “I’m standing because I want to see you all.” She too took pains to see each and every one of us.

****

Ten years have passed since then. We have all had lots to think about and many decisions to make.

In 2012, I received an invitation from an American university to teach Jewish and Israel Studies, and I accepted. After about eight years, we decided to return to Jerusalem. I learned again, in my bones, that even good decisions are hard. We have to keep within ourselves a solid moral and spiritual foundation while seeing the complexity in the world and―with both in hand―acting. This work is “the study that leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b), and as Rav Amital said time and again, “There are no gimmicks.” Ein patentim.

As surprising as it sounds, even in a university framework, distant from yeshiva as it is, Rav Amital’s personal example lit my way. I learned from him to assume the role of educator, help students the best I could through a blend of support and challenge, and build their moral and intellectual worlds. In every course I teach―be it a survey of Hasidism, the history of Zionism, or human rights―I begin the first meeting by asking the students, “How do we want to live?”

***

As the years went by, the question deepened. Where did Rav Amital find that moral and intellectual courage, that inner freedom? I think they came to him from the Torah he learned in his youth.

As is known, Rav Amital regularly spoke of Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner, the rabbi of Klausenberg, great-grandson of Hatam Sofer, author of Dor Revi’i on Tractate Hullin and Responsa of the same name, and grandfather of the rosh yeshiva he so admired and loved in his native Grosvardein, Rav Hayim Yehudah Levi, who was murdered along with his family in Auschwitz. Again and again, Rav Amital cited Rav Glasner’s lengthy Introduction to his volume on Hullin, in which he says:

That which the explanation of the Torah was given orally and forbidden to write, was so as not to leave it standing for generations, and so as not to tie the hands of the Sages of each generation to explain scripture as they understand it, because only thus can we understand the eternity of Torah, for the shifts in generations and their views, their material circumstance and station demand changing their rulings, ordinances and enactments…which is a wondrous wisdom of the Torah’s wisdom… so that the Torah will live with the nation and develop with it, and that is its eternity. (Dor Revi’i al Masekhet Hullin, p. 3)[2]

To Rav Glasner, Torah is akin to creation, which he describes on the first page:

For there, too, human beings cannot create something out of nothing, but only mix and smelt distinct energies and elements by finding inner, hidden connections among them. Thus, Torah and creation are equal in that, and there is no difference except that creation was given to all the world’s inhabitants―and our holy Torah to the chosen people, to the children of Israel, to us―to cherish and better it, to meditate on it with self-sacrifice, to attain the illumination that is in it, that it reveal to us new lights that give substance to our spiritual lives.

Like the world, Torah is given to us such that we could neither fashion it for ourselves nor utterly change it. What we do have in our hands is the ability to learn about the world, to learn Torah, and to reveal the potential it holds to bring light to the world. As a result, “All that is abominable to humanity in general, even if not expressly prohibited in the Torah, is more forbidden to us than the prohibitions of Torah” (page 26). Israel’s Torah does not stand in contradiction to human moral sensitivities, which obligate us no less than the obligations of Torah.

But more―in the last year, I became aware of an additional work of Rav Glasner’s: a collection of talks on the weekly Torah reading and analyses of a number of Talmudic passages, written by his students, entitled Shevivei Esh.[3]

In this volume, I found audacious teachings which seemed to prefigure Rav Amital’s ideas about moral and intellectual integrity as an integral part of serving God. What most struck me were his comments on the declaration na’aseh ve-nishma―“we will do, and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7). He says that when the children of Israel said ‘we will do’ before saying ‘we will listen,’ they showed that “they wanted to act before listening and learning, for they despised learning, and so the sin of the Golden Calf took place because they refused to study so that they would understand what they are doing” (ibid., 14a, Terumah).[4] Moreover, he says elsewhere: even if they said, ‘We will do, and we will listen,’ they “didn’t want to be responsible for one another and let the guilt of the community be on each of their heads” (ibid., 49a, Shavuot).[5]

Rav Glasner is critical of the Israelites who refused to learn and think before acting, and he explains that this is how they fell into the sin of the Golden Calf. He connects their theological failure to the moral―study and understanding elicit moral responsibility and an awareness of shame. That takes everyone thinking for themselves, and Israel wasn’t interested.

These comments of Rav Glasner bespeak deep faith in God, His world, and His Torah, and in the human beings to whom He has given both, to cultivate and keep. This is no limp, passive faith, but a demanding call for intellectual, moral and soulful exertion. It is a faith that calls on us to see what is shared among Israel and all the world’s inhabitants without giving up on our own identity as the people of the Torah.

****

Quarried from home and the pits of slaughter, this is the Torah Rav Amital brought with him to the Land of Israel. Back in Hungary he had already begun to conjoin his masters’ teachings with those of Rav Kook (as is well known).[6] In light of the Torah of his youth, we can better understand his being drawn to Rav Kook’s call to find piety in our natural moral sense―and on that solid foundation, build society and ourselves.[7]

One feature of Rav Kook’s teaching is the call to realize our own interiority―not by fleeing responsibility for the world around us, but by taking on that responsibility: the understanding that each and every one of us, in all our distinctiveness, is created in God’s image. That is why Rav Amital said over and over that he didn’t want a bunch of “little Amitals” but urged us to think for ourselves and make decisions on our own, whether they concerned laying tefillin at minhah or matters of public affairs bearing more far-reaching consequences.

Our world today – a decade after his death – seems more challenging than ever: society is torn between bitter tribalism and crushing globalization, looming ecological catastrophe along with new technologies rendering beyond recognition the very experience of being human. These challenges can summon us to deeper solidarities, to deeper awareness of our fitting place on earth, to our humanity. This is the time for us to think thoughts and act―and, with the Torah, answer the question: “How do we want to live?”


[1] Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, author of Even ha-Ezel on Maimonides’s Code, was one of the greatest Torah scholars of the twentieth century, and the grandfather of Rabbanit Miriam Amital.

[2] Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Dor Revi’i al Masekhet Hullin (Klausenberg: Weinstein & Friedman, 1921). These and the other works of Rav Glasner mentioned here are available at hebrewbooks.org. Rav Amital wrote a short, moving profile of his own rebbe, Rav Levi, which appears as an appendix to his work, Resisei Tal, Volume One (Alon Shvut: Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2010), 308-309.

[3] Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Shevivei Esh (Des: Jacob Goldstein, 1903). I became aware of this work thanks to Dr. David Glasner, Rav Glasner’s great-grandson, who has made many of his ancestor’s works available on the internet (including in English translation) and has lately been distributing a weekly parashah sheet based on these teachings. Some of the materials can be found here http://wwwarchive.math.psu.edu/glasner/Dor4/ and at Dr. Glasner’s blog https://dor4daf.com/. All translations in this essay, though, are mine.

Yoav Sorek has recently written a doctoral dissertation on Rav Glasner, though I haven’t had the opportunity to see it. One can’t help contemplating the similarities and differences between Rav Glasner’s independent cast of mind and that of his illustrious forbear, whose remarkable self-confidence was rooted not only in personality but also his understanding of his own place in the fabric of Ashkenazi tradition as well as the Kabbalah; on this, see Maoz Kahana’s remarkable book, Me-Ha-Noda’-bi-Yehudah le-Hatam Sofer: Halakhah ve-Hagut le-Nokhah Etgarei Ha-Zman (Jerusalem: Mercaz Shazar, 2015) as well as his “Hatam Sofer: Ha-Posek be-Eyney ‘Atzmo,” Tarbitz 76:3-4 (2007), 519-556.

[4] Rav Glasner bases this reading on Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah (Vilna. Ed. Naso, 7):

Rabbi Meir says it is neither like one’s words, or the others; rather, even when they were saying “All God says we will do and hear,” they were saying one thing while another was in their hearts, as it is written: “Yet they deceived Him with their speech, lied to him with their words” (Psalm 78:36). Lo, even on that very day they were standing before Sinai, their hearts were not true to their Creator, and this is what Isaiah says “on the day you plant, you enter into strife” (Isaiah 17:11).

This is also how Rav Glasner reconciles the seeming anomaly between Hazal’s view that God commanded the Mishkan as soon as Israel said “na’aseh ve-nishma” (Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu Rabbah 17) and that the Mishkan was meant as a therapeutic cure for the Sin of the Calf (Megillah 13b). While he doesn’t say so explicitly, he seems to also have in mind the comment in Shabbat 88a―that the people of Israel were “an impetuous people, whose mouths ran ahead of their ears.”

Shortly after completing this essay, I came across a very interesting passage in Rabbeinu Menahem ha-Meiri, Hibbur ha-Teshuvah – Shever Gaon, 12 (Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 2018) [Moshe Zuriel, ed.], p. 519, which says that “na’aseh ve-nishma” means undertaking study of the meaning and reasons of mitzvot hand-in-hand with performance, since Israel was assured that the mitzvot were sure to be rooted in divine wisdom, as God would not issue arbitrary commands.

[5] Thus Rav Glasner explains why God enjoined Moses to speak harshly to Israel before the revelation at Sinai, saying “and now, if you will listen carefully to My voice” (Exodus 19:5).

[6] See, in general, Reuven Ziegler and Yehudah Mirsky, “Torah and Humanity in a Time of Rebirth: Rabbi Yehuda Amital as Educator and Thinker,” in Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, eds. Meir Y. Soloveichik, Stuart W. Halpern, and Shlomo Zuckier (Jerusalem/New York: Maggid Books/Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, 2015), 179–217. The essay is available at this writer’s page on academia.edu.

[7] This idea is found woven throughout Rav Kook’s corpus of writings; the best-known formulation, often cited by Rav Amital, appears in Orot ha-Kodesh, vol. 3, p. 27; it also appears in Shemonah Kevatzim 1:75.