Calling Upon God In Truth – Rav Amital on the High Holidays

Calling Upon God In Truth – Rav Amital on the High Holidays


When God Is Near, Maggid Books’ newly released anthology of High Holiday sermons by Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l, is an important step in making the teachings of R. Amital accessible to the English speaking public. The sermons are masterful glimpses into the thought of one of the leaders of Religious Zionism in the 20th Century. They contain the unique blend of erudition, intellectual sharpness, and emotional sensitive that characterizes all of R. Amital’s torah. The book is divided into several sections, with each containing sermons on a specific topic: Seliḥot, Rosh HaShanah, Shabbat Shuvah, Akedat Yitzchak,  Yom Kippur, and Ne’ilah; each with it’s own themes and focuses. The section on Ne’ilah, for example, focuses on the opening of not just the gates of heaven but also, and more importantly, the gates of the heart. When God Is Near is a treasure trove of ideas and inspirations for the holidays.

Appreciating the book requires appreciating the book’s format; Rather than being a book, it’s a collection, and it collects not essays but derashot, sermons. This has several important ramifications. Though the derashot are overall short, with the largest around 9 pages in length, they cannot be raced through. Each one traverses a number of biblical and rabbinic texts and explains the text through innovative homiletics, typical of the classic rabbinic sermon. Further, the sermons do not attempt to discuss a single topic or fully convey a single idea, attempting instead to inspire the reader, to evoke an emotional response from the audience. Consequently they are short, and the texts of a given sermon are often only loosely related. The meaning of the texts lies not in their explanation, but in their internalization, as the reader thinks over the explanations and ponders them at length after reading them. However, the somewhat meandering feel of each sermon can leave the reader feeling like they don’t have a solid grasp of R. Amital’s derashot and his approach to the holidays. In service of this, When God Is Near has a phenomenal afterword, by R. Amital’s son-in-law Rav Yehuda Gilad, discussing many, though not all, of the philosophical and educational themes in the sermons.

The themes discussed in the sermons are representative of R. Amital’s unique approach to religious life. There is a strong emphasis on humanity, on the moral sensitivity that makes us human, even when it seems to run against the grain of piety. For R. Amital, piety that ignores morality is cruelty. One section of the book features discussions of Akedat Yitzchak, “the Binding of Isaac”, with a focus on the struggle that must have been going on within both Avraham and Yitzchak, a struggle often manifest in the religious life of all Jews. However, R. Amital does not suggest letting the struggle consume a person, but rather suggests a certain simplicity, not despite complexity but in light of it, in our approach to faith. Without ignoring the problems we struggle with, we can embrace God and faith wholeheartedly. This simple faith cannot, however, come at the expense of those around us. The religious man is a man of the community, not in addition to, but as part of, being a man of God.

What I found most compelling, however, is a feature which is not discussed in the afterward, namely, R. Amital’s creativity in reading and interpreting rabbinic sources. Many of the sermons, particularly those in the section on Seliḥot, focus on the tension between the life of an individual and their existence as a member of a community. In this context, R. Amital discusses, in several sermons, a midrash from masekhet Rosh Hashanah (17b).

And ‘the Lord passed by before him and proclaimed…’ R. Yohanan said: Were it not written in the text, it would be impossible for us to say! This verse teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself like a leader of a congregation (sheliaḥ tsibur) and showed Moses the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sin, let them carry out this service before Me, and I will forgive them.

The gemara here describes God telling Moshe that in order to be forgiven, the Jewish people ought to recite God’s thirteen attributes of mercy, originating from Shemot 34:5-7. These attributes are the subject of another famous rabbinic midrash.

Just as He is called ‘merciful,’ so should you be merciful; just as He is called ‘gracious,’ so should you be gracious … just as He is called ‘righteous,’ so should you be righteous … just as He is called ‘pious,’ so should you be pious. (Sifri, Devarim 11:22; also Shabbat 133b)

This rabbinic text asserts an obligation of Imitatio Dei, imitating God, in connection to God’s attributes of mercy. R. Amital’s sermons quote this midrash (though, notably, the book does not give a textual source), and then take it one step further, extending the obligation of Imitatio Dei past the biblical text and into the previous midrash, requiring a person to metaphorically “wrap themselves like an agent of the congregation (sheliaḥ tsibur),” to suppress their ego and take upon themselves the responsibility of working on behalf of the community. On the High Holidays, argues R. Amital, we thus stand before God as individuals, confronted with our personal actions and responsibilities, and as agents of the community, seeking its betterment and conscious of how our actions affect it.

Rav Hershel Schachter, the International Bet Din for Agunot, and the Politics of Rabbinic Authority

Rav Hershel Schachter, the International Bet Din for Agunot, and the Politics of Rabbinic Authority

Rav Hershel Schachter  (henceforth RHS) recently published a somewhat controversial letter, co-signed by several other rabbinic luminaries, regarding an international beit din (henceforth IBD) that has been attempting to resolve cases of agunot. The letter attacked the bet dins rulings quite strongly. In the first paragraph, RHS made it quite clear that he regarded the writings of the IBD as mistaken from beginning to end.It is clear that the IBDs rulings have fallen far short of RHShalakhic standards, though RHS provides no actual halakhic argumentation. This, however, is not what has made the letter controversial.

The letter has been controversial due to the nature of paragraphs following the first one. These paragraphs make it clear that regardless of the halakhic problems with the IBDs rulings, RHS sees a more fundamental problem with their project. Resolving cases of agunot involves highly sensitive socio-halakhic issues, and as such RHS says that they must be dealt with only by the greatest of authorities. Thus not only is the IBD ruling poorly, theyre not even qualified to rule at all.

This approach has caused many to term RHSletter political,which has itself caused pushback from people who insist that RHS is above petty power-plays. However, I would argue that politicalis in fact the correct term for the article, but that this should not be understood as a petty power-play[1]. Rather, it is likely an attempt to take what RHS sees as the best route, perhaps the only route, to resolving issues of agunot.

The first step necessary to understanding this is to realize that politicsessentially refers to issues of power and authority in a society. The most common manifestation of this is governance, but it has others. The second step is to understand the deep importance of politics to halakhah and the Jewish tradition. We will demonstrate this by examining two mishnayot from masekhet Rosh HaShanah.

The mishnayot at the end of the second perek of Rosh HaShanah discuss the sighting of the new moon and the establishing of the calendar, a matter of critical importance.

It once happened that two [witnesses] came and testified: We saw it in the morning [of the twenty-ninth] in the east, and in the evening [of the thirtieth] in the west. Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri: [Its impossible for them to have seen the new moon in the morning, since the new moon is only visible in the west at evening, thus] they are false witnesses. However, when they came to Yavneh, Rabban Gamliel [who knew through astronomical calculations that the new moon should have been visible on the evening of the thirtieth] accepted their testimony. On another occasion two witnesses came and testified: We saw it in its expected time [on the night preceding the thirtieth] but on the night of its intercalation [the thirty-first] it was not seen, and Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony. Said Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas: They are false witnesses. How can they testify that a woman has given birth when on the next day her belly is still [swollen appearing to be] between her teeth? Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: I approve of your words. Rabban Gamliel sent him [Rabbi Yehoshua] a message: I decree upon you that you come to me with your staff and money on the day which according to you will be Yom Kippur. (Rosh HaShanah 2:8-9)

These mishnayot feature disagreements on matters of halakhah but no halakhic argumentation. They depict rabbis, who undoubtedly thought their opinions were halakhically correct while their oppositionswere not, making authoritative statements without explanation. This culminates in Rabban Gamliels command to Rabbi Yehoshua to come before him on the day that R. Yehoshua considered to be Yom Kippur, in violation of the sanctity of the day. The mishnayot then present two attempts to explain to R. Yehoshua why he should be ok with listening to Rabban Gamliel.

Rabbi Akivah went [to Rabbi Yehoshua] and found him in great distress [that he was ordered to violate the day that was Yom Kippur according to his calculation], he said to him, I can bring you proof that whatever Rabban Gamliel has done is valid for it says: The following are God’s appointed holy days that you will designate in their appointed times(Leviticus 23:4), whether they are designated in their proper time, or not at their proper time, I have no holy days save these.

Akivah presents a religious argument. God has stated that the dates of the holidays are not a matter of objective fact but of the decision of the Jews, and so R. Yehoshua is not violating any objective sanctity when going along with the official decision. While this is a good argument, R. Yehoshua appears to be unmoved, indicating that this does not get to the heart of his issue.

He [Rabbi Yehoshua] came to Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas who said to him: If we question the ruling of the Bet Din of Rabban Gamliel we must question the ruling of every Bet Din from the times of Moshe up to the present day as it says: And Moshe ascended with Aharon Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel(Exodus 24:9). Why weren’t the names of the elders specified? To show that every group of three [sages], that form a Bet Din, is considered as the Bet Din of Moshe and Aharon [and that if one came to contest a verdict of a Bet Din saying, is this Bet Din authoritative as the Bet Din of Moshe and Aharon? We must say, that they are as prominent as those whose names were not mentioned.] He [Rabbi Yehoshua] took his staff and his money and went to Yavneh to Rabban Gamliel on the day of Yom Kippur according to his calculation. Rabban Gamliel rose and kissed him on his head and said to him: Come in peace my master and my disciple, my master in wisdom and my disciple because you have accepted my words.

Dosa Ben Harkinas presents a political argument. There are certain religious, halakhic, issues that are essentially political issues. The calendar is chief among these[2]. The dates of the holidays are a significant element in the unity and identity of the nation, and as such their establishment must be done by an authority of such political power so as to be unchallenged throughout the nation, as Moshe and aharon were unchallenged. This political arguments rings true in R. Yehoshuas ears and he submits to Rabban Gamliel.

RHS letter is strikingly reminiscent of these mishnayot. Though it is clear that he disagrees with the halakhic rulings of the IBD, he is more concerned for the political problems of the issue of agunot. If a woman is considered by some people to still be married and by some to have been freed, then some people will consider her able to remarry and some will not, and some will consider any children from a remarriage to be mamzerim and some will not. RHS therefore argues that no one but an unquestionable, across-the-board accepted author should be deciding issues of agunot. That way there will never be any question about these womens status. Just as Rabban Gamliel stated that R. Yehoshua had to submit to his authority regarding the calendar, RHS stated that the IBD has to submit to a greater halakhic authority regarding agunot (Notably, RHS at no point in the letter suggests that he himself is qualified to be the central authority on resolving cases of agunot).

All of that said, the fact that its so easy to draw analogy between a case from two thousand years ago to modern politics is telling. There are significant differences between todays society and that described in the Mishnah, and these differences might indicate that a different approach is necessary.

First off, people dont take to authority the same way. Autonomy and independence are hallmarks of our era. This doesnt mean that people wont accept authority, but they are much more reticent to accept it without justification. If RHSletter included his halakhic argumentation for his rejection of the IBD’s rulings, or even just his reasoning for his statement that only a universal authority can rule on agunot, people would have been a lot more likely to accept the letter.

Second, we havent had a central rabbinic authority for most of the last two millennia. We have had great rabbinic figures, but as time goes on they have been increasingly fewer and farther between. The argument that the resolution of agunot issues ought to be left to a central authority presupposes the existence of, or at least the potential for, a central authority that could ultimately prove to be untenable.

Finally, the importance of agunot issues cuts both ways. It can be a reason to be stringent, to make sure that everyone accepts every resolution. But that could lead to agunot being held hostage to potentially non-required stringencies. The need for universal acceptance requires either universal authority of a single standard or just universal acceptance of many standards. Which will ultimately be the proper direction is not for me to say.

UPDATE: Important and insightful points in the comments.

[1] This is not to say that no one has impugned RHSmotives in a more explicit manner. People have done so, and for these people I can provide no excuse or justification.

[2] See I Kings 12:26-33, and Abarbanel on verses 32-33.

Parashat Ha’azinu – Divine Providence and Human Responsibilty – Redux

כִּי לֹא דָבָר רֵק הוּא מִכֶּם כִּי הוּא חַיֵּיכֶם

Parashat Ha’azinu consists of one chapter of the Torah, Devarim 32, which is itself taken up almost entirely by a song (32:1-43). This song is often referred to as Shirat Haazinu or as the Song of Moshe. The composition and teaching of this song is one of the last things Moshe does before he dies, an event made obvious by the way the song is followed immediately by the command for Moshe to ascend Har Nevo where he will be buried (32:48-52). The song is about the cycle of sin and destruction that reigns throughout Bnei Yisrael’s time in the land of Israel. There is no mention of Exile, nor of Repentance followed by Redemption from Exile[1]; there is simply the conquest of Bnei Yisrael and the comeuppance of the would-be conquerors. This comeuppance is not due to Bnei Yisrael deserving it, but rather a way of protecting ‘א’s Name, that the conquering nation should not think it was responsible for the conquest, instead of ‘א. This section of the song makes statements regarding Divine Providence, which are often troubling to the modern ear. However, careful reading of the song and its context shows that these statements are less about Divine Providence, and more about the imperative nature of taking responsibility.

The Song of Moshe is often compared with the covenant depicted in Devarim 27-30. As stated above, the key difference is that in Shirat Ha’azinu there is no mention of repentance as a cause for redemption. Instead, redemption is depicted as a way of protecting ‘א’s Name (32:26-30).

I would have said, “Let Me wipe them out,

let Me make their name cease among men.”

Had I not feared the foes provocation,

lest their enemies dissemble,

lest they say, “Our had prevailed,

and not the Lord has wrought all this.”

For a nation lost in counsel are they,

there is no understanding among them.

Were they wise they would give mind to this,

understand their latter days:

O how could one chase a thousand,

or two put then thousand to flight,

had not their Rock handed them over,

had the Lord not given them up?


The future redemption of Bnei Yisrael is not depicted here as an act of merit, or even as an act of love, rather it is necessary in order to keep the conquering nation from viewing itself as controlling history, when in fact it is ‘א who directs history’s course. This is a typical prophetic point of view, and is something that reappears throughout the Tanakh (as does the idea of Salvation for the Sake of Heaven[2]). ‘א is the God of History, and therefore historical occurrences, especially those involving Bnei Yisrael, are products of direct Divine Providence. However, while this idea was the basis of many a prophetic attempt to inspire Bnei Yisrael to do teshuvah, it can be very problematic in the eyes of the modern reader.

Jewish Thought in the second half of the 20th century and beyond must bear a weight greater than that of any generation that came before it. Many of the explanations regarding the nature of Divine Justice and Providence that have been given throughout Jewish History are no longer workable, and many of those that are need to be reconfigured and rephrased in order for a modern audience to find them compelling. Attempts to justify evil, and the mindless slaughter of innocents as occurred in the 1940’s in particular, have been found to be morally problematic. An action is justified by saying that, while it might otherwise be wrong, it is right because of certain abnormal circumstances. The problem with this idea is that it can be summarized as “X was the right thing to do because of Y,” which can be flipped around and formulated as “If Y, then X is the right thing to do.” The idea that there is any set of circumstances under which a person would endorse, or even condone, genocide is about as immoral a thought pattern as can be imagined[3]. Many modern Jews therefore try to avoid explaining or justifying historical occurrences, as the implications of doing so can be monstrous.

One could argue from the fact that Shirat Haazinu is meant to be “put in the mouths” (31:19) of Bnei Yisrael, that Jews are supposed to attribute tragedies to the Hand of God, as the song does, and this would not be entirely incorrect. To do so, however, would be to miss the point of the song. The song is put in the mouths of Bnei Yisrael, not in order to teach them that ‘א is the Lord of History, though it conveys that idea as well, but in order that it can serve as ‘א’s “witness against the people of Israel” (Ibid). The song is meant to serve as warning to them that violating the covenant that they forged with ‘א will bring suffering upon them, and that ‘א will save them, but through no merit of their own. The song thus puts the responsibility for the suffering of Bnei Yisrael not on ‘א, but squarely on the shoulders of Bnei Yisrael themselves. The song is meant to teach the generations of Israel that live in the land, long after the miracles of the desert, that the proper way to respond to crisis and calamity is by taking responsibility, not shirking it.

This is reinforced by the contrast between Bnei Yisrael and the conquering enemy as depicted in the song. While Bnei Yisrael are depicted as neglecting ‘א and straying after idols, the possibility that they have misattributed an action of ‘א is never raised. The cardinal sin of the enemy, however, is just that, and it is so great that it warrants their destruction and the redemption of Israel. So while the song makes it clear that the success of the enemy really is the work of ‘א (32:26-30), it isn’t necessarily important for Bnei Yisrael to know that, only the enemy. What Bnei Yisrael are meant to take away from the song is that their conquest by the enemy is a direct result of their abandoning and despising ‘א (32:15). The responsibility is being placed totally on Bnei Yisrael.

More than anything else, the Tanakh depicts ‘א’s Providence not as minimizing Human Initiative, but as making it imperative. ‘א guarantees major consequences, good and bad, as a response to the actions of Bnei Yisrael. Therefore, ‘א’s guiding history is not meant to be seen as taking power out of mankind’s hands, but as obligating them to be responsible in the use of said power. A perfect biblical example of such responsibility is found at the very end of Sefer Bereishit, where Yosef asks his brothers, “Am I in place of God?” (Bereishit 50:19)[4]. Yosef goes on to explain that ‘א, not the brothers’ misdeeds, led him to that particular point in history, and therefore it is incumbent upon him to respond to ‘א’s guidance with responsibility. Attempting to explain ‘א’s role in the great events and tragedies of our era diverts attention from what we should really be focusing on. When considering tragedy, it is incumbent upon us not to ask why ‘א did what He did, but to ask what we could have done. Our response needs to be not “Why did this happen?” but “What can we do now?”

Much of the Rosh HaShanah liturgy is dedicated to affirming the Kingship of ‘א, specifically in terms of the historical process. “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day there shall be one Lord with one name” (Zekhariah 14:9) We stand in prayer and declare that ‘א is King. In doing so, we declare that, as His subjects, we are responsible for our actions. We take it upon ourselves to not shirk our responsibility when confronted by anything that might occur over the next year of our lives. Accepting Judgment on Rosh HaShanah doesn’t mean just that anything that occurs to us in the next year should be thought of as a consequence of our actions, but also that we have taken it upon ourselves to be responsible in the face of anything that comes our way.

[1] For more on this, and the song’s relevance to our lives, see this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] I have written at some length about this here.

[3] This isn’t to say that everyone who tries to justify the tragedies of the 20th century would condone or endorse such things a priori, most probably don’t think about the fact that such is the implication of their words.

[4] I have written more about this verse, and the general interplay of Divine Providence and Human Responsibility, here.