Orthodox rabbi, Cabinet official, in U.S. to preach tolerance

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To every audience, Amital preached religious tolerance and tried to demonstrate that Jewish law is not inconsistent with the peace process.

Amital is unequivocal about his view of Judaism's values: The primary value is human life, he said. Next in the hierarchy is Torah, and third comes land.

Amital explained his view in separate meetings with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox religious leaders; New York archbishop Cardinal John O'Connor; hundreds of Jews of all religious persuasions who came to hear him speak at an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan; and students and faculty at Yeshiva University.

Amital told his listeners that "the prime minister asked me to be the minister for inspiration," and that is clearly how this minister without portfolio understands his role.

The rabbi repeatedly said he is not a politician, though his diplomatic finesse belies the disclaimer. By virtue of his "natural calling," he said, he is a teacher of Torah and head of Har Etzion, the West Bank yeshiva he co-founded and the first yeshiva to combine study with military service.

Amital, a Holocaust survivor whose family perished at Auschwitz, said he was asked by Prime Minister Shimon Peres to help heal the wounds Rabin's killing inflicted on Israel and the Jewish people.

He was entreated to try to narrow the bitter ideological and religious differences that threaten to "destroy the whole society."

In the end, it was his "obligation to represent Torah" that compelled him to serve, he said. But the question remains, "I ask myself, am I worthy to represent Torah?" Then, he answered: "I have no choice."

Amital seems eager to paint himself as a maverick, perhaps so he can win credibility as a fair arbiter in the midst of a conflict.

"I don't represent religious Jews be-cause I wasn't sent [to the government] by religious Jews and I suspect that some of the religious people are really unhappy I am there," he said with deliberate understatement and a wry smile.

Yet he does not always agree with the government.

He disagreed with the Israeli government's recent decision to ban Brooklyn Rabbi Abraham Hecht from entering the country because he allegedly poses a danger to the state. Hecht had said Jewish law permits killing Israeli leaders who endanger Jewish lives by trading land for peace.

"I don't think he's dangerous," said Amital, adding that the government action is "a way to turn him into a hero."

Amital said he has no illusions that the Oslo Accords would lead to an ideal peace, but they are a "way to prevent more bloodshed."

Amital also de-scribes his ministerial mandate as one of strengthening Jewish identity inside Israel as well as the re-lationship between Israel and diaspora Jews.

Amital said he was "moved" by how warmly "the secular community" in the United States re-ceived him, leading him to feel that this community believes that "Torah still has a relevant message."

This "gives me strength," he told several hundred Jews who gathered to hear him speak Thursday of last week at Manhattan's Congregation Oheb Zedek.

Earlier that evening, about 250 Jews studied rabbinic texts on debate and tolerance with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis in the synagogue's basement — ironically, the same place where Hecht first announced that it was permissible, according to Jewish law, to assassinate a leader who endangered Jewish lives.

The rabbis who led the Torah study session have participated in regular dialogues and study sessions for the past four years under the aegis of the Jewish Community Center on New York's Upper West Side.

At most of his stops the rabbi was asked about efforts to win legal legitimacy for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism inside Israel.

He listened intently, sometimes to lengthy arguments about civil rights. Then he dismissed the idea, saying that the battle for religious pluralism should not be fought in the political realm but among the people.

"Come to try to convince people to build [Conservative and Reform] synagogues," he said.

He said he supports the Conservative-supported school system in Israel and is against banning Conservative and Reform representatives on local religious councils.

He expressed empathy for those who would like Israel to officially embrace non-Orthodox Judaism as it does Orthodoxy. "I can understand, I can feel your frustration," he said.

Yet he warned his listeners that "you cannot bring the American way" of Judaism to Israel. "You must find the Israeli way. This is your main problem."