Commentary

A Yahrzeit & A Pandemic: Thoughts On R. Amital In The Age of Covid

Rabbi Wolfson's daughters, Mika and Tal (the latter named for Rav Amital) help students and others distribute food on the Lower East Side.
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Joe Wolfson

Rav Yehuda Amital, the legendary founding rosh yeshiva of Har Etzion, passed away ten years ago this month. It would be easy for such anniversaries to be forgotten as the world reels from the reality of COVID. And yet as I have tried to reorient my work as a rabbi in downtown Manhattan around the demands and needs of the pandemic, Rav Amital’s legacy has been at the forefront of my mind.

In his own words, Rav Amital lived “a very long life in a very short space of time.” Hungarian Jew. Holocaust survivor. Student in the yeshivot of Europe and Israel and fighter in the Haganah and War of Independence in the 1930s and 1940s. A founder of the Yeshivot Hesder movement, in which students combine Torah study with army service, in the late 1950s. The darling of the Gush Emunim settlement enterprise in the 60s and 70s. The founder of the left-wing religious Zionist movement Meimad after much soul-searching led to a reversal of his political opinions in the 80s. Politician and cabinet minister after the assassination of Rabin – brought in by Prime Minister Peres in an attempt to create a bridge between religious and secular at the very worst moment – in the 90s. More importantly than all of these he was the master pedagogue and spiritual and human role model for the thousands of students who learned with him at Yeshivat Har Etzion which he founded and headed from 1968 until his death in 2010.[1]

Arriving at the Yeshiva in 2004, the year of Rav Amital’s 80th birthday, I was privileged to be one of the last generation of students at Gush to learn from the person as well as the teachings, an experience for which I count myself deeply blessed. Since then my life has not been as momentous as Rav Amital’s. But I have been privileged for the last five years to work in a deeply fulfilling role in downtown Manhattan where I am the OU-JLIC Rabbi at New York University’s Bronfman Center, where the challenges and rewards of the work are directly tied to the nature of those we serve – college students and young professionals. In a neighborhood where great affluence lies alongside severe deprivation and centers of culture next to landmarks of early 20th century Jewish immigration, our role, as the wonderful Limmud slogan puts it, is to help each of our students take the next step on their Jewish journey. In this piece I try to tell the story of my last few months through the prism of Rav Amital’s teachings and their effect upon my work.

The Crying Baby Of Corona

The story at the heart of Rav Amital’s project is that of the crying baby. It is the story that he told to the first handful of students who came to his home in 1968 asking what would be unique about the yet to be born yeshiva. It has been repeated so many times that it has almost become a cliché and the basis for a number of jokes. And yet the story is worth repeating, both for those who have yet to hear it and for those who have heard it many times but stand to gain from being reminded of its message. Here it is:

In a small house in Russia in the late 18th century two Jews are learning Torah, each immersed in his own thoughts. They are R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi – known as the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Lubavitch Hasidism and author of the Tanya – and his grandson Rabbi Menachem Mendel, known after his work the Tzemah Tzedek. In another room a baby begins to cry. The younger man hears nothing and does not move. His mind is deep in the sugya. But the older rebbe leaves his learning to comfort the baby and returns only after the baby has been calmed. Upon reentering the room the Alter Rebbe chastises his grandson: Torah study which drowns out the cry of a baby is not the Torah study that God wants of us.

In Rav Amital’s telling of the story, the institution that he founded was to be a home of deep and serious Talmud Torah. But if it would be deaf to the needs of those on the outside then it would have failed in its mission. This message was symbolized by the famously large windows of the yeshiva – “so that those on the outside can see in and those on the inside can see out.” It would be constantly reflected in the decisions made by the rashei yeshiva and the yeshiva administration – such as in the summer of 2006 when dozens of families evacuated from the north of the country during the 2nd Lebanon War were welcomed into the yeshiva dormitories and grounds where they made their temporary home.

But the impact of the crying baby story was not merely for one-off initiatives. It lay at the core of one of Rav Amital’s most significant contributions – the founding of the Yeshivot Hesder movement. Yeshivot Hesder – through which army service and Torah study are combined within a 5 year program – are today a major part of the Israeli Torah landscape. With the passing of more than 60 years since their founding, it can be hard to understand just how contested their creation was. From both the Hiloni perspective, as well as the agricultural focused Bnei Akiva perspective, the intense multi-year study of Torah was a selfish act which did not contribute to the wider collective. From the Haredi perspective, army service was at best a waste of time for someone who could otherwise be engaged in limmud Torah, and would undoubtedly prevent the development of Torah knowledge and scholarship.

When Rav Amital, at the time a Ra”m (instructor) at Yeshivat HaDarom, first urged the idea of the combination in the late 1950s, it was with a dual purpose – to “cultivate a rabbinic elite within the religious Zionist community” on the one hand, and to be both attentive and involved in the needs of the larger society on the other. Unlike Rav Goldvicht, the founding rosh yeshiva of Kerem B’Yavneh – the first official Hesder yeshiva – who saw the combination as a b-di’eved compromise, Rav Amital saw it as a le-khathilah synthesis. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Amital’s co-rosh yeshiva, would put it in an article on the ideology of Hesder many years later:

The midrash equates the renunciation of g’milut hasadim with blasphemy; and the gemara in Rosh Hashanah states that Abbaye outlived Rabbah because he engaged in both Torah and g’milut hasadim whereas Rabbah had largely confined himself to the former. When, as in contemporary Israel, the greatest single hesed one can perform is helping to defend his fellows’ very lives, the implications for yeshiva education should be obvious.[2]

The coronavirus has given the oft-told story of the crying child new significance. In mid-March this year, the university shut down, students went home and we lost everything that we recognized as our community. Where ten days earlier over a thousand people came together for a communal Havdalah, now there was nothing. No shiurim. No minyanim. No Shabbat meals. And yet despite the shock of the change, it became clear early on that we had an immense resource at our disposal. The majority of our students, alumni, and young professionals were in a low risk health category. Most of them were relatively insulated from the financial fallout. And many of them had lots of time on their hands. By contrast, those who were already vulnerable had become all the more so. Many thousands of people were housebound, unable to shop for food and facing extreme isolation. If ever there was a time for the cry of those in need to penetrate our own consciousness, it was now.

Our community had a strong record of emphasizing hesed and commitment to a wide range of causes, but the need and intensity surpassed anything we had done before. Within a few days a couple of hundred students and young professionals, organized by a Whatsapp group and a Google form, were able to be the foot-soldiers helping aid organizations meet their massive need. They helped The Met Council on Jewish Poverty arrange, stock, and distribute 2 million pounds of food in the weeks before Passover and provided hundreds of volunteers to Dorot who paired them with an older person for weekly calls reducing the dangers of loneliness and isolation.

The most memorable moments came when the most extreme needs were met in the shortest amount of time.

36 hours before Passover, a request came from the NY Board of Rabbis and NY Interfaith Disaster Services to help make the pop-up COVID hospital at the Javits Center kosher for Passover. Thanks to a massive mobilization by our volunteers, the 100 or so Jewish patients had kosher for Passover meals, matzah, grape juice, tallitot, and siddurim ready for use by the time the hag arrived.

Members of the Whatsapp group were generous with their money as well as with their time. Among many instances of aid being given to people in need, the following stands out. A family who had been laid off and been made homeless at the start of the pandemic were paying $2,000 a month to stay in a hotel near the new jobs they had secured. Local rent was only $1,500, but as a family living paycheck to paycheck, the down payment and entrance fees presented an insurmountable barrier to a new home. Towards the end of the Omer, the Whatsapp group’s generosity delivered numerous donations of $18 or $36, allowing the family to sign the contract for a new home in the days before Shavuot. A note from the family we received afterwards read:

I hope in the future I will have the opportunity to help someone who finds themselves in a tough situation. Thank you for your support. You have really given us a chance on life again.

This achievement was no small matter and its significance was not lost upon the individual members of our group. A family had lost a home and thanks to our collective efforts had been able to find another one. I took pride in the fact that the community had not only heard the baby’s cry – it had placed the cry at the center of its consciousness and reoriented itself around its response to the need.

Rav Amital’s influence on these projects extended beyond an emphasis on gemilut hasadim. As a communal leader he emphasized practicality. As an educator he emphasized personal responsibility – students would only own their learning if they saw themselves as responsible for making it happen. The beauty of the organizing we were able to do in the worst weeks of the pandemic lay in exactly those factors. Our projects were successful because they were practical – instead of hours wasted on social media, a well-directed afternoon could meet a great need. Our projects were meaningful not simply for meeting the needs of recipients but because they restored a sense of agency to the volunteers, allowing people to make a practical contribution when surrounded by so much fear and uncertainty.

A Bridge To The Past

One of the prophet Ezekiel’s many visions concerns the appearance of three men whose stories appear elsewhere in Tanakh, all apparently living in very different places and at very different times – Noah, Daniel, and Job. What do they have in common with one another? Rashi comments:

For (each of) these three saw three worlds… a world built, a world destroyed, and a world rebuilt. (Rashi to Ezekiel 14:14)

Rav Amital would frequently speak of himself as sharing the same experience as those in Ezekiel’s vision. He too had seen three worlds: the Jewish world of pre-war Hungary, the Shoah, and the rebirth of Jewish life in the land of Israel. It was of great educational importance for him to transmit what he could of those worlds to his students and to instill a reverence among his young disciples for those of an older generation. In a eulogy for students who had fallen in battle, he related the following:

Zeh sefer toldot adam” – this is the story of man. Each person is a closed book to a certain extent. Sometimes there are a few pages that the parents know, but only when a person arrives at the day of judgement is their sefer ha-zikhronot – the chronicle of their life – opened. Then the memories are revealed to all…

Many years ago, I knew an old man in Rehovot, a Holocaust survivor. He came to me once with tears in his eyes, “get me a tape. I am the only one who remembers the tune of tefillat tal. If I were to die now no one will know the tune…”

Each one of the departed has a unique tune and that tune reverberates within us. So many millions were killed with their sefer zikhronot – only a few remained. We pass on all that we learned from them.

The large majority of Rav Amital’s students were in their late teens or early 20s – many decades younger than him. To spend time with him and to hear his stories and his teachings, was to know that one’s world could not be complete if it was spent only with people of a similar age to oneself. To spend time with people of an older generation was to be given a window to a wider, broader world, to capture gems before they were lost forever – to get a sense of a unique sefer zikhronot, so different to one’s own.

If there is one COVID-era communal innovation that I pray will outlast the pandemic, it is a renewed relationship between Jewish young and elderly. Although rabbis and educators like to frequently emphasise the value of reverence for the older generation, it is a sad truth that much of Jewish communal life is distinctly siloed along a generational divide. Especially in North America, if a person is under 35 it is unlikely that they are interacting regularly with those aged over 75 outside of their own family. The pandemic has changed that. I regularly receive feedback from the many students who have been paired with a Jewish senior describing how the weekly Dorot phone call has enriched their lives. One recently wrote to me, “I look forward to my calls every week, and even though we have never met in person, we have become very close. I don’t have any grandmothers alive, so this is particularly great for me.”

Since Shavuot, we have launched a new project in partnership with the Met Council on Jewish Poverty called “Wisdom Of The Ages.” As day centers for the elderly remain shuttered, students with time on their hands provide online and phone-in classes each day on topics ranging from Yiddish poetry to Sudoku, yoga and classical music to Pirkei Avot. Creating these connections shouldn’t have needed a crisis, but I pray that in the post-pandemic world, meaningful and regular interactions between young and old in the community be taken for granted as a core element of Jewish communal life. The elderly man who Rav Amital met in Rehovot cried out for a tape recorder so that a tune would not be lost from the world. A younger generation responding to the crisis of COVID provides the best form of preservation for those who have seen so much of life.

A Model Of Rabbinic Leadership

Rav Amital’s life and time was unique and so is our own. And yet it seems to me that he exemplified a particular model of rabbinic leadership that is timeless. Innovative as his vision for Hesder may have been, the twin values behind it – of creating genuine Torah scholarship which would be deeply responsive to the needs of society – was ancient. With this in mind I would like to conclude with sketching three brief teachings which highlight the interrelation of these two values. Consideration of their co-dependency provides us with a model of rabbinic leadership, exemplified by Rav Amital in his time, yet relevant to every time.

Two juxtaposed mishnayot in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot describe the ideal character of a Jewish home.

Yose ben Yoezer, a man of Tzreidah, used to say: let your house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.

Yose ben Yohanan, a man of Jerusalem, used to say: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. (Avot 1:4-5)

There is no argument here. Yose ben Yohanan’s teaching complements that of Yose ben Yoezer. A Jewish home, as envisaged by the mishnayot, is both a space for debates between Torah scholars and a place where the poor are welcomed and treated as members of the family.

In Rambam’s Mishneh Torah we find another example. In Hilkhot Yom Tov he describes the mitzvah of Simhat Yom Tov, joy on the festival, as follows:

The children should be given parched grain, nuts, and sweetmeats; the women should be presented with pretty clothes and jewelry according to one’s means; the men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no real rejoicing without the use of meat and wine. While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and any other poor. Anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach. And about such is it stated (Hosea 9:4), “their sacrifices are like the bread of mourners, all who eat it will be contaminated; for their bread is for their own appetites.” Such joy is a disgrace for them, as it is stated (Malakhi 2:3), “I will spread dung on your faces, the dung of your festivals.”

Rambam pulls no punches. The celebration of a festival without the inclusion of those who are bitter of body and soul is not a religious act. It is a desecration. A celebration of the stomach. The passage is impactful enough by itself and given extra strength by the fact that its author is arguably the most revered writer of Halakhah and Jewish thought of all time. Yet even more powerful is that the duty to actually include the poor in one’s festive meals – a greater obligation than simple charity – and the harsh judgement of one who fails to do this has no express source in the Talmud.[3] Rambam’s inclusion of this passage in Mishneh Torah expresses a pedagogic urge on his part – that a life of mitzvot never be divorced from helping those in need.

A less well-known example than the mishnayot in Avot or Rambam, but one equally as important, is that of Rav Hayim of Brisk. The iconic centrality of Rav Hayim in the contemporary yeshiva world is second to none – his Hiddushim Al Ha-Rambam are considered to be the example par excellence of analytical Talmudic insight. Yet yeshiva students would do well to study the other side of Rav Hayim’s personality. Rav Soloveitchik would quote his grandfather’s description of the role of a rabbi as follows:

To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.[4]

And Rav Hayim practiced what he preached. As part of his rabbi’s salary from the community of Brisk he was granted a timber yard, but refused to lock the doors lest the poor of the city were in need of fuel. His home doubled as a kindergarten for the many orphans or foundlings he raised in his home – throughout the year he would arise in the middle of the night to check for babies left on his doorstep[5] – and would apparently be able to begin his nightly learning only once all of the children were fed and put to bed. One of his foremost students, Rav Shlomo Polachek, described him as follows:

The kindness of Rav Hayim’s heart to those around him, his behavior towards his students and to the many who congregated and grew up in his home – these are the attributes which won the hearts of his students and impressed upon them his seal and prepared them to receive the depths of his Torah. Without these qualities it is almost certain that despite his gadlut (greatness), his Torah would not have taken wing and succeeded in spreading to a degree that few gedolei hador have merited prior to him.[6]

A great disservice is done to Rav Hayim if he is remembered only as the founder of the Brisker analytical method. An equally important part of his legacy is the burning desire to fight injustice and to help those in need around him.

Pirkei Avot. Rambam. Rav Hayim. Rav Amital. It should be no hiddush to claim that the Jewish way of life fuses a commitment to limmud Torah with a commitment to the needs of others. It has been that way since time immemorial and should be so in every generation. In the coming years – as rabbis and communities respond to the rupture of COVID – I believe that much of Rav Amital’s message will become ever more relevant. The story of the crying baby urges rabbis to think of not only how they can serve their community, but of how the community can serve the wider societal need.

Rav Amital passed away ten years ago this week. In his life he had refused to be treated as a Hasidic rebbe, always eschewing fanfare, and in his death he was no different. The timing of his passing – the 27th of Tammuz, in the dying days of the yeshiva calendar – appeared calculated to be at a time when the smallest number of students would attend the funeral. He had ordered that strict time limits be imposed upon any eulogy. I was in London at the time and at a small gathering of his students I lamented that there were only 50 people present rather than 500, and that in Israel at the funeral there were 3,000 mourners rather than 300,000. At the time I said that my hope was that just as the influence of Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik had grown greatly in the years since their passing, so too would Rav Amital’s impact only increase in the years after his death.

Ten years after his passing, thousands of his students still hear his Hungarian-accented Hebrew ringing in their ears, singing the song that he loved more than any other:

Ve-taher libeinu, le-ovdekha be-emet

Purify our hearts to serve you in truth.

May his memory be a blessing. 


[1] For fuller treatments of Rav Amital’s life and teachings see Elyashiv Reichner, By Faith Alone – The Story Of Rav Yehuda Amital, trans. Elli Fischer (Jerusalem: Koren, 2011),  and Torah And Humanity In A Time Of Rebirth, by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler and Dr. Yehudah Mirsky. Many important articles and sihot by Rav Amital can be found at www.etzion.org.il/en/seminal-articles-harav-yehuda-amital-ztl.

[2] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, The Ideology Of Hesder, first published in Tradition 19:3 (Fall 1981). Available at https://www.etzion.org.il/en/ideology-hesder.

[3] Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 263.

[4] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (The Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 91.

[5] For the impact of this story upon Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, see https://jewishaction.com/religion/faith/the-source-of-faith-is-faith-itself/.

[6] Quoted in Wozner, Avi Derech Ha-Limmud Ha-Yeshivatit: R’ Hayim Ha-Levi Soloveitchik M-Brisk, in “ha-Gedolim,” (Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute, 2017), 161. In the same piece, n39, the journalist Shmuel Horovitz, who spent time with R Hayim, is quoted as follows: “Yet spending time in Brisk this astonishing character appeared before one in a completely different guise. Not his learning and his genius nor his zealotry are the topic of conversation among the people here. The people of Brisk know their rabbi, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik, from a different angle. His deep morality has profoundly impacted every part of the community here and all are alike in their opinion. Whether old and pious or young and free in their spirit, they will tell you many stories of their rabbi reminiscent of the lamedvavnikim [the 36 hidden saints of each generation – JW]… and even though all agree that he has a great mind, containing within it sharpness and genius, which has gained him much fame – he does not live through his brain but through his heart – and the heart of R. Hayim is full of love for all people, and more than for all people it is given over to love for the most oppressed and miserable of people, to those who sit deep below the level of human happiness.”