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The Rabbi Wore Battle Fatigues

Rabbi Yehuda Amital

Rabbi Yehuda Amital

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.

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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.

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