Editor’s Note: Rabbi Yehuda Amital was born in Romania in 1924. The Nazis sent 19-year-old Yehuda to a labor camp and the rest of his family to Auschwitz, where they were all killed. Liberated by the Soviet Army in late 1944, Yehuda made aliyah to Israel, where he studied at the Hebron Yeshiva, receiving semicha from Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, whose granddaughter he married.
Having served with the Haganah and later the Israel Defense Forces, Rabbi Amital was instrumental in the formation of the hesder yeshivot, which combine military service with Torah study. The founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion and the Meimad Party, Rabbi Amital died in 2010 at the age of 85.
With October 6 marking the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, the following account of Rabbi Amital’s activities during and following that period is both timely and inspiring.
During the Yom Kippur War and its immediate aftermath, Rav Amital would travel from base to base, visiting his students. His frequent visits brought him into close contact with senior IDF commanders, and soon after the war he was asked by the upper command echelons of the IDF to be the rabbinic liaison between the army and the hesder yeshivot. The military even allowed him unfettered entry, in uniform, into IDF camps.
In the context of this role, Rav Amital often met with General Staff officers, especially the heads of the Manpower Directorate, whose role included responsibility for the military service of hesder students. Rav Amital developed warm relationships with nearly all of them.
After the Yom Kippur War, the IDF viewed hesder students as a significant pool from which to replenish the battalions depleted by the war. The many hesder students who took part in combat made a very positive impression on the chain of command, and the army began pressuring them to extend their military service and to become commanders and officers, an option that until then had not been available to hesder students. The military brass agreed to open an officers’ course, shorter than the regular officers’ course, especially for hesder students.
Rav Amital was instrumental in creating the special course for yeshiva boys. During his military service, R. Yehoshua Ben-Meir, founder and rosh yeshiva of the Shvut Yisrael hesder yeshiva in Efrat, got to know the commander of the IDF Armored Corps, General Moshe “Musa” Peled. Rav Ben-Meir described how Peled was angry with him for introducing him first to rabbis who opposed opening the officers’ course for hesder students and not immediately to Rav Amital, whom he discovered to be “an amazing Jew.”
Over the years, Peled and Rav Amital developed a deep and meaningful relationship. In December 1978, the day before completing his task as commander of the Armored Corps, he wrote to Rav Amital: “I received a lot of help from you – more than you can imagine: spirit, faith, tenacity, friendship, and love of the people and the land…”
Brigadier General (Res.) Maxie Ben-Ner served as the head of the Manpower Planning Division of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate. He recalls that Rav Amital did more than coordinate the yeshiva students’ officers’ course with the army; he obtained consent for the creation of the course from other roshei yeshiva:
“We convened the roshei yeshiva to discuss the issue. Defense Minister Shimon Peres participated as well. At the beginning of the discussion, Peres asked me to present the issue, but I asked Rav Amital to do it. He said, ‘We met with the Manpower Planning Division, listened to their needs, deliberated, and decided that we could not remain apathetic and that we must step up. We express our consent for the expansion of this course and for enabling our students to become officers and commanders.’ At the time, the course was defined as a temporary measure due to extenuating circumstances, but it took root and continues to this day.”
Among the first officers to come out of Rav Amital’s Yeshivat Har Etzion were General Gershon Hacohen, the son of Rav Amital’s friend Yedaya Hacohen; his brother, Rav Re’em Hacohen, who went on to head the hesder yeshiva in Otniel; and Rav Yuval Cherlow, who would head the hesder yeshiva in Petach Tikva.
Rabbis Cherlow and Hacohen both belonged to the eighth class of the yeshiva, which began its studies during the 1974-75 academic year – the year after the Yom Kippur War. The following class produced more officers than any other: half of the students in the class served as officers.
Col. (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, later commander of an armored division in the reserves, belonged to that ninth class, and he describes the strong sense of mission Rav Amital imparted to those students who became officers. “He inculcated within us the notion that joining the army leadership was the order of the day. His main reason was the army’s need for officers after the crisis of the Yom Kippur War, but he also spoke about the great privilege of serving in the military after the Holocaust.”
* * * * * Rav Amital’s positive attitude toward military service found expression in other ways as well. Ben-Ner tells how Rav Amital made an astonishing proposal to him in the mid-1970s: he wished to establish emergency weapons storage units near the yeshiva, to be available to the students in case of emergency. The units were not built because the yeshiva did not have enough manpower to justify it, but the proposal demonstrates the importance that Rav Amital ascribed to his students’ military service.
At the rabbinic liaison between the yeshivot and the military, the yeshiva boys’ fitness was more important to Rav Amital than their terms of service. Ben-Ner recounts that Rav Amital would occasionally complain that the soldiers did not get sufficient mechanical or ammunition training.
“When Rav Amital would express concern about the soldiers’ battle-worthiness,” Ben-Ner said, “the commanders would just melt and immediately make the necessary changes.”
Rav Cherlow recalls how surprised he was as a soldier by Rav Amital’s reaction to his students’ complaints about the workload they carried in the army:
“We barely slept. It was a very cold winter, and they worked us to exhaustion because there was a fear of war. Rav Amital came and we thought, great, here’s someone we can complain to. We started telling him about the difficulty, but he said, ‘Excellent!’ We were quite confused. He then explained his views to us. He said, ‘I’m very happy to hear that the guys in the army are working hard, and for two reasons – so that they’re really fit, and so that they’re too busy to get involved in nonsense.”
The importance Rav Amital ascribed to military training occasionally impacted his halachic rulings. Nissan Zisken, a student from the yeshiva’s early years, recalls that about a year and a half after the Yom Kippur War, a state of high alert was declared, and he and his friends were required to train on Shabbat.
“They told us that the decision to train had already cleared all the necessary hurdles, so we trained. But as a tank driver, I tried to do some things in a backhanded manner to mitigate the degree of Shabbat violation involved. A week later I met Rav Amital and told him how I trained on Shabbat. He said to me, ‘There was no need for you to act that way. One cannot train for battle backhandedly.’ ”
One of Rav Amital’s qualities that helped his soldier-students during their military service was his ability to decide halachic questions without hesitation. Rav Ya’akov Medan tells of one such incident:
“In August 1970, a month before the events of Black September, we were designated as the unit on alert for the Airborne Nahal battalion in which we served. One Friday they informed us, about two hours before Shabbat, that they were taking us for training. They expected me to issue a ruling about training on Shabbat, and I had no idea what to do…. I went to the war room, even though I was just a private, and resolutely told the woman in charge there that I must call Rav Amital urgently. She was alarmed and immediately let me call. Rabbanit Amital answered the phone and told me that the rabbi could not come to the phone just then. I gathered that he was taking a shower for Shabbat. I told her that I had to speak with him, and he was out of the shower in a second. He listened to me and said right away, ‘Don’t worry. It’s a mitzvah.’ At that moment, a great burden was lifted off my heart.”
Despite his concern and sympathy for security and military needs, Rav Amital knew how to be stubborn and not compromise on principles he deemed important. When one of the heads of the Manpower Division asked him if female soldiers could instruct the yeshiva student- soldiers as part of their professional training, he completely rejected the idea. The senior officer tried to persuade Rav Amital, saying, telling him, “We’ll get halachic permission.”
Rav Amital responded that it was not a question of halachic license but of educational values. “I do not want female instructors for our soldiers.” The officer gave in, and the issue was dropped.
* * * * * In his visits to IDF bases in the context of his job as rabbinic liaison, Rav Amital did not view himself as a spiritual supervisor in charge of resolving halachic issues, but as a rabbi coming to boost his students’ morale. Menashe Goldblatt was a company commander in the Armored Corps Five-Hundredth Brigade, in which yeshiva students served, during the 1970s. Goldblatt, a religious man though not a yeshiva student, described a significant difference between Rav Amital’s visits and the visits of rabbis from the military rabbinate:
“When Rav Amital would meet with his students, there was more warmth than when a father meets his sons. He would embrace the students, speak with them, pull one of them aside and speak with him privately, and then do the same for another. He would gather them together, teach them a shiur, and speak about the importance of military service. I witnessed a special bond between him and his students; it was quite exceptional.
“I also witnessed visits by the military rabbinate. The rabbis would come and make sure that the silverware was kosher, that there were enough prayer books, and that the synagogue had everything it needed. There was a huge difference between those rabbis of technicalities and Rav Amital…. Everybody noticed the difference. Rav Amital was a rabbi to his students. I think that with regard to kashrut he trusted that they would manage. He didn’t come all the way to the base to solve halachic problems. He came to speak with his students and to be with them.”
Rav Amital’s frequent visits to his soldier-students were an emotional experience for him no less than for his students. Years later, in a letter he sent to his students in the army, he described those visits as a spiritual experience:
“The encounter of a rabbi and rosh yeshiva with his students in uniform, somewhere out there in a camp or in the field, in the Israel Defense Forces, is always especially exciting for me. Something that rabbis throughout the ages never got the opportunity to do, I, despite my unworthiness, have been privileged by the grace of God to do. God, Who oversees history, gave us the task, among others, of belonging to a generation in which the beating of the wings of a unique history, guided by Divine Providence, can be heard even in the most routine of events.”
Rav Amital’s role as rabbinic liaison demanded his intervention in incidents that were personally difficult. Such an incident occurred in 1978 when a student from the hesder yeshiva in Yamit took his own life during a course in the Armor School.
At first, suspicion was raised that the suicide was caused by abuse the soldier suffered at the hands of his commander. Rav Amital immediately traveled to the Armor School to investigate the incident. When details of the incident were leaked to the media, he even granted a wide-ranging interview on the subject to the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. In the interview he expressed shock at the soldier’s suicide and reservations about hazing of soldiers, but refrained from blaming the army before the final conclusions of the investigation were submitted. In that same interview he was asked why he did not insist that hesder units have only religious commanders. He answered: “We have no interest in creating a closed ghetto for religious soldiers only…our soldiers, the yeshiva students, must get used to living together with non-religious soldiers and serving under the command of non-religious officers.”
Rav Amital advocated dispersing yeshiva students throughout the units in which they served, since he wanted them to interact with other soldiers. But he had another reason to prefer their broader distribution: after the yeshiva’s terrible loss of eight students in the Yom Kippur War, Rav Amital thought it was worth it to break up the yeshiva students into different companies and not create separate companies. That way, during wartime, an entire company of yeshiva students could not be hit.
Other roshei yeshiva preferred to concentrate their students in homogeneous companies. Their main reason was educational – to reinforce the shared religious steadfastness of all yeshiva students in the army. There was a technical reason as well – so that rabbis could meet with as many of their students as possible during their visits to the base.
Ultimately, the students were not dispersed through the various companies, and Rav Amital’s fears came true during the First Lebanon War when many yeshiva students who served together were injured at the battle of Sultan Yacoub. Only after the war did the gradual dispersal of yeshiva students begin.
Adapted from “By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital” by Eliyashiv Reichner, translated by Elli Fischer (Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers (www.korenpub.com).Eliyashiv Reichner
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