Friday, June 11, 2010

A True Individualist: On Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel

[Note: I'd love to write a post on the Brisker, but I am unaware of any non-hagiographical sources on him. Anyone who knows of such is invited to post them in the comments – aiwac]

I've mentioned before how Eretz Israel in the first half of the 20th century attracted more than its fair share of brilliant, off-the-wall Orthodox thinkers. Today, we'll take a brief look at one of the oddest of them all: Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1935 until his death in 1946.

To this day, many scholars of religious Zionist thought include him as a member of the RZ philosophical pantheon. Rav Amiel was not just an original thinker, but also a brilliant Talmudist. His 'מידות לחקר ההלכה' was a tour de force attempt to create a complete, unified logical system (based on formal rules and deduction) for understanding the halachic method.

One of the most striking things about Rav Amiel was his fierce intellectual independence all throughout his public career. This was a man who considered himself beholden to no particular position, to the point where he spent many of his drashot attacking…well, everyone. In addition, Rav Amiel was not shy about 'bucking the trend', whether it was criticizing Agudah Rabbis' anti-intellectual attitudes or taking an extreme indivualist line in a Zionist community where collectivism and conformity was the norm.

While many Rabbis (especially post-WWII) are extremely cagey about consulting, let alone quoting, non-Orthodox sources, Rav Amiel had no such compunctions. When he quoted Kant, he called him by name. The same goes for the scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums or outright secular thinkers like Ehad Ha'am.

What's most fascinating about Rav Amiel is that he can't really be pegged – especially as a religious Zionist. Yes, it's true that he was affiliated with Mizrahi for many years. It's also true that he supported the Mizrahi program of giving religious Jews secular education (he established Yishuv, after all) and he believed that Eretz Israel, not Europe, was the place for Jewish spiritual regeneration, contra TiDE people like Dr. Isaac Brueur and Rav Shamshon Refael Hirsch.

Nevertheless, his attitude towards the Zionist program was pretty reserved, and grew more so over time. He had no patience for the attempt to create a secularized Jewish culture, and he saw little to no value in the establishment of a secular state (i.e. one not governed by Torah). Indeed, one gets the impression that he saw little need for a state at all, and preferred some kind of cultural autonomy instead. As opposed to Rav Kook, who saw much value in the works of Secular Zionism, Rav Amiel was barely able to be melamed zechut. The most he was willing to do was praise their building up of the physical infrastructure of the country. He spent about as much time being melamed zechut for Communists and Christians as he did Zionists.

Then there's the matter of his pacifism. Rav Amiel was a life-long principled pacifist. Although he did not rule out individual self-defense (what Orthodox Rabbi could do that?), he made frequent comparisons between war (no matter what kind) and murder. His position on Jewish self-defense was no less strident; although he acknowledged the existence of halachic "war" categories such as "milchemet mitzvah", he insisted that Jews during the Arab Revolt conduct themselves according to the incredibly strict rules of "rodef". He even paraphrased the Rambam along the lines that 'even if there's a one in a thousand chance' that a captive Arab is innocent, he should be spared. Needless to say, he's a darling of the Machon Hartman crowd for this stance, unrealistic though it is in actual warfare.

The sad thing is that today Rav Amiel is barely known outside of left-wing religious academic circles and a few scattered fans. It's a shame, because like most brilliant thinkers – even if one doesn't accept his answers, his questions are still pertinent.

Shabbat Shalom



Anonymous said...

some thoughts:
on the brisker rav, i also know of no source which is not hagiographical. there are canonical stories, which briskers preserve with astounding accuracy, but it is very difficult to really get a composite of the man. this is true also of his position vis-a-vis zionism; hard to believe a sophisticated thinker like r velvele lacked any nuance on the issue. in general he seems to have been a quintessential litvak pessimist, and probably never recovered from the shock and personal loss of the shoah.
a study of his talmudic methodology can be done tho. dry as a bone, sticking to 'what it says' [= vuss shteit] yields very interesting chidushim.

the way you construct your appreciation of r amiel is ahistoric. i dont think you can peg anyone from that time into the boxes we have today. just take the agudah: within this movement you have both r isser zalman meltzer and r elchonon wasserman. the former was practically a rz, the latter practically neturei karta.
i dont think there was a really a formal rz body of rabbis which constituted a school of thought at that time either.
your comparison of r amiel with r sr hirsch? did they flourish in the same time/mileau that they can really be compared?
i think that r amiel is largely ignored today because mercaz harav took over the rz world [see r aharon lichtenstein] and he was not part of that world, and r amiel doesnt really have any talmidim to perpetuate his views.
that the shalem center picks and chooses its rabbinic views to fit its own agenda and gain some traditional/rabbinic legitimacy is intellectually dishonest, and i believe ultimately hurts their cause. see jofa as a model.

aiwac said...


Re: The Brisker Rav:

I'm sorry to hear that. In my opinion, the Brisker's contrribution to the formation of the post-WWII Charedi Israeli world was at least as great as that of the Chazon Ish. He deserves proper biographical treatment.

Alas, I have never heard or read any evidence to suggest that his attitude towards Zionism was anything other than very negative. If you know of evidence to the contrary, please share it and I will be happy to take it into consideration.

Re: Rav Amiel

My point was not to "compare" so much as to show how Rav Amiel insisted on disagreeing with everyone (including Zionists - I mentioned this in detail so you wouldn't suspect that I'm just being a Charedi-basher...).

Also, while it's true that AY had varied positions on Zionism, is this also true re: secular knowledge? I'd be interested to hear from you on this.

BTW, it's not the Shalem Center that props him up, but rather the Shalom Hartman Institute and thei fellow-travellers. I don't recall Shalem ever mentioning him, or taking a pacifist position...

Shavua Tov


Anonymous said...

what was the brisker rav ever not negative about?

sorry, i meant the shalom hartman institute. shalem shalom ve-ein shalem...

ay? who is this? did i miss something?