The Audacity of Faith
By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital
by Elyashiv Reichner, translated by Elli Fischer
Maggid/Koren Publishers, 377 pp., $29.95
On May 27, 2005, some fifteen hundred of Rabbi Yehuda Amital's disciples and admirers gathered in Israel's International Convention Center to celebrate their teacher's 80th birthday. Looking around at his former students, now leading rabbis, academics, activists, journalists, and soldiers, Amital, the rosh yeshiva (dean) of Yeshivat Har Etzion, was overcome by the thought of his passage from a Nazi labor camp to such a gathering, and spontaneously recited the she-hecheyanu blessing, praising God "who has granted us life and sustained us and permitted us to reach this time." Later in the day, a short film was screened in which Mordechai Breuer, doyen of Orthodox Bible scholars, was interviewed about his friend of 60 years. "Such powerful faith and powerful intellect, I never understood how they didn't clash, but with him, they didn't. I don't understand it even to this day."
By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, Elyashiv Reichner's newly (and fluently) translated biography, is an attempt to understand an extraordinary man and his long, arduous path from a simple Jewish life in prewar Hungary to a unique and controversial place in Israelireligious and political life. It is essential reading not only for understanding Amital's own story and the history of Religious Zionism but also for its portrait of a religious virtuoso who combined deep faithfulness with great daring.
Amital was born Yehuda Klein in 1924, in the Transylvanian city of Grosswardein (Oradea), home to Hasidim, acculturated and assimilated Jews, Jewish-Hungarian nationalists, and a large concentration of Hungary's Religious Zionists. After rudimentary schooling, he spent his childhood and adolescence in yeshiva, under the tutelage of Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Levi, who had studied in the great study halls of Lithuania and brought their methods of conceptual analysis back to his native Hungary. At an early age, Amital discovered and was electrified by the writings of Abraham Isaac Kook, whose mix of passionate religious experience, Jewish nationalism, messianic fervor, and ethical universalism would set the terms for his later engagements.