Remembering Rabbi David Hartman of Jerusalem

February 19, 2013

Remembering Rabbi David Hartman of Jerusalem

David Hartman was one of the most creative Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. A student of Rav Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, Hartman served as an orthodox rabbi in Canada before making aliyah to Jerusalem where he created the Shalom Hartman Institute and managed to attract some of the most creative young scholars and thinkers to his venture. There he defined the task of creating a Halakhah and an approach to Judaism for “the third Commonwealth” of Jewish history. Hartman was a brilliant thinker whose re-interpretation of the thinking of Judaism’s most respected (by some, reviled by others, par for the course) Medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides was at once startlingly relevant to modern theological concerns and profoundly challenging to some of the small-minded in the orthodox world.

I had the honor and wonderful opportunity to study for a year at the Hartman Institute, and Rabbi Hartman then invited me to come back as a visiting scholar for another year, an offer I unfortunately had to decline because of my role as executive director of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health. So I was delighted when David accepted my invitation to be a founding member of the Editorial Board of Tikkun magazine, a position he held for several years thereafter. David also gave covert support to the founding of our Beyt Midrash Le’Shalom which Nan Fink and I helped create in Jerusalem and which provided courses on the theological, Biblical and Talmudic foundations for a pro-peace, pro-social justice perspective in Israel, at which some of the scholars who taught at the Hartman Institute shared their wisdom in a more explicitly pro-peace framework.
At David’s invitation, I participated for several years in an annual “Philosophers Conference” that took place at the Hartman Institute each summer. There again, as in seminars during the year I studied at the “Machon,” I was deeply impressed with Hartman’s innovative “chidushim” (new insights) that quickly reframed the ancient texts to address contemporary issues in theology, social theory, and philosophy. Several of the participants in that seminar joined Hartman in writing for Tikkun (including Moshe Halbertal, Tzvi Marx, and Michael Walzer).
 We at Tikkun join thousands of others in the Jewish world who mourn the loss of this innovator and outstanding teacher. May his memory always be for a blessing–Z”L zichrono lee’vracha.

Rabbi Michael Lerner

I invited members of the Tikkun community to share their memories and reflections upon the message and works of Rabbi David Hartman, z”l  (1931-2013). Here is some of what I solicited or received:

REMEMBERING RABBI DAVID HARTMAN, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem

The Hesped (talk at the funeral) given by Rabbi Hartman’s daughter Tova, now a renowned scholar of Judaism and leader of a women’s-friendly orthodox minyan in Jerusalem. She is speaking directly to the body of Rabbi Hartman:

HESPED by Tova Hartman

When I was nine, you and Mommy were in a hotel, and a fire broke out. You were staying in a room up on the second floor, and you tied sheets together and lowered Mommy down to the ground. And then you jumped. Luckily there was snow to cushion the fall, but you still broke some vertebrae in your back. I was so worried about you I couldn’t stop crying. I was so upset, that people started to worry about me, thinking it was strange: how could a little girl love her father so much?

So much of what I have done in my life has been an outgrowth of that love, channeled through a constant learning and relearning, and re-reading and relearning, of the things you taught me. They have been a main frame of reference, touchstones for my inner conversation. An early, very literal example of this is from when we first came on aliyah, and I was in high school, we learned about sacrifices in the temple. And my teacher said we hold like the Ramba”n, not the Ramba”m…well, as far as I knew, you and Maimonides were one, and so I felt as if he had personally slapped me in the face.

On your 80th birthday, I spoke right here in this room about another way of interpreting one of your favorite Talmudic passages, and I spoke as well about one of your most unique and essential traits—which often elicited puzzlement or frustration from people who didn’t know you. It is expressed in the expression from the Talmud bekol yom yehiu be’eynav ka-hadashim. That youthful, almost naïve way in which every day, every moment, was totally new in your eyes.

This was you as a rabbi, as a thinker, as a person. Every year when we got to parshat vayikra in shul, you would get angry: it was not only unintelligible, it was offensive! Every year when we got to the akedah, you would announce that we now have to grapple with the concept of Sacrificial Man. But God forbid we should ever skip over it! You didn’t trust the impulse to excise things from the tradition. They were there to grapple with, and there was no cynicism in this grappling. You were never indifferent or apathetic. It was totally real to you, and totally new every time you opened your eyes to a text, to an idea, and indeed to another human being.

There were many disparate parts of you: and that, ultimately, is who you were. The anger and the love, the attraction and repulsion, frustration, admiration, adoration, the optimism and despair—your passions, and passionate contradictions, didn’t cancel each other out, but nor did they ever reconcile. Your thoughts and feelings were cyclical, were simultaneous; you continued to question and re-question your own assumptions until your last days.

* * *

As a teacher and rabbi, in New York, Montreal, and Israel, there were three things that made you prouder than anything else. One, when you were able to enable Orthodox yeshiva students to remain frum. Normally, if yeshiva students had crises of faith, it was like a freefall down a bottomless pit, and they would just drop Judaism altogether. When you were able to help them reconcile modern concepts and sensibilities with traditional categories and commitments, to interpret a sugya in a way that was both intellectually honest and true to the source, and help the yeshiva bucher to find a way to live with a little more tension and uncertainty than perhaps he was used to, but ultimately to remain inside the fold—that made you so happy. What made you even more happy, in those early years, was the ability to mekarev people to halakhic observance: you’d come home glowing about how you helped this couple, or this family, to kosher their kitchen. You loved to tell about how before you came to Montreal there were no sukkos, and of all the sukkos the people in the community helped each other to build, and by the time you left it was one of the sukka capitals of the world.

And finally, those who perhaps did not alter their practice, but came to understand that Judaism was something to be taken seriously, something compelling. These people were drawn to your driving passion to make sense out of things that didn’t make sense to them or you. And you provided these people a model of a religious leader, indeed a religious authority, who was brutally honest, who was at times exasperated or even infuriated with the tradition or the rabbis or God, or all of the above…but who was tenacious. Who never exited. You wore a talis and tefillin to the end, every morning. Some mornings I would visit and find you draped in your talis and tefillin, reading the New Testament, trying to figure out what did they know, what did they critique.

You loved quoting the Gemara about how the Anshei Knesset Hagedola reinterpreted prayer so that we can pray and feel we aren’t betraying our own integrity. God wants us to be honest, and we can’t say something that doesn’t make sense. But we can give it new meaning.

You gave these gifts to the Jewish people in your unconditional love for them. I’ve chosen to take these gifts for myself; I wanted to join that conversation. You convinced me that there was reason to re-read. That the system, flawed as it may be, also possesses the seeds of its own self-correction. That you just don’t give up on your tradition, you just don’t give up on your people. You just don’t give up.

* * *

This past summer was the last time you recommended books to me. In each different period of my life you would give me a pile of books, and tell me to read them. And I would read them, and think about why you would have wanted me to read these theologians or philosophers or psychologists, why you thought they were important, why they were claiming you in this moment. Just that you thought they were important was enough of a reason for me to read them; but still, I was curious. And you never told me.

But this summer you gave me two people to reread—I wondered why them again, and then you told me the reasons. It wasn’t because they were necessarily the most brilliant thinkers who ever lived, or even because they illuminated some core truth of Judaism. It was Heschel—because he had an unconditional love for the Jewish people. And Mordekhai Kaplan—because he was one of the most honest Jews who lived.

These were your philosophical pillars. These were you hermeneutic principles. These were your essential qualities. This is to a very large extent who you were.

* * *

The machon is named after my zeyde. My zeyde was from Jerusalem, and he was very poor. You grew up with poverty, and throughout the rest of your life remembered it—in your thought, and in the way he you were with people. You were absolutely makpid on the dignity of the people who worked for you, who were dependent upon you for their livelihood.

* * *

In your hesped for Arele, my brother in law who was killed in the Lebanon war, you said that you didn’t need to have a philosophical conversation about the existence of God, to know there was a God. Because when you stood next to Arele while he prayed, there was no room for doubt. I remember as a young child, when you were a rabbi, you were the ba’al tefila for ne’ila—I remember the anticipation of that final, climactic moment, when you would chant, Hashem hu ha-Elokim! seven times—this moment is imprinted on my soul—I remember the gulp, knowing that God was in the shul, that my abba believed in that God, and it was true. Everybody who was there knew it was true. And I believed that truth, and that truth has nurtured me and directed me until this day. It is because of that, because of you, that I have always tried to take prayer so seriously.

Something most people don’t know is how central singing and davening were to your life. When you were in Lakewood with Shlomo Carlebach, you always would tell the story that Shlomo would play piano at night, and even Aharon Kutler would be moved. And the way they new he was moved, was that he would tap his finger ever so slightly on the table. And the magic of Shlomo, that he could move anyone, and how your tefila was transformed by him.

In your first shul, Anshei Emmes, you would say, you would teach and Shlomo would sing.

My zeyde’s name was Shalom, and the thing that gave him the most nakhes, the place he felt the most dignified and free, was when he davened as a professional hazan for the Yamim Nora’im. He would take out ads in the local Jewish press: Come Hear Sam Hartman and His Choir! Of course, who was his choir? Khatzkele, Avrohom, and You! You would sometimes talk about seeing the look on your father’s face in those moments – so few and far between – when he seemed unburdened, no longer defined by the trials life had placed before him. Naming this institute after him was in part, I think, your way of imbuing those rare moments with the permanence and weight of Jerusalem stone.

You fought your whole life against the concept of tehiyat ha-metim, and the world to come, and so I hope you will permit me, for a moment, to be a heretic—and to hope that there is some world, some reality, in which you are with your father and your brothers, with Sam Hartman and his Choir, and you’re singing now again.

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I was very sad to hear news of the Rabbi David Hartman’s passing away.  My husband, Itzhak Magal, did an interview with him for Israel TV in the 1970′s when he spoke about his vision to build and create an institute of learning on this land he pointed to, for a wide range of rabbis and lay people to study together. His vision was fulfilled. I was honored to study at the Hartman Institute among rabbinic colleagues in 2008. His vision touched thousands of people.

Rabbi Alicia Magal

Sedona, Arizona

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If you sat in the front row as he taught, you were liable to get smothered or even spat upon. I sat in the front row as a young college student. Professor David Hartman riveted my attention. He was the first person I ever met who actively lived ideas; lost sleep over them. It was 1972, his first year as a teacher at Hebrew University. His presentations were dramatic as he paced in the revelry of analyzing medieval or contemporary Jewish philosophers. When I last studied with Rabbi Hartman in 2010, he was in his mid-eighties and now a much-quoted philosopher. He shuffled to the podium and took a seat. His energy was still strong. His passion had remained. There was an edge of honesty that bordered on crassness as he described his parents or his own teachers. He still wrestled with ideas, pursuing a description of Judaism that was alive, responsive, and rational.

Rabbi Hartman delighted in describing his basketball talent as a young man on the Brooklyn courts. His love of sports morphed in his late teens into a passion for Talmud. He studied with Rabbi Joseph Solveitchik at Yeshiva University, becoming one of his star pupils. Solveitchik, known to his students as the Rav, encouraged David to work on a doctorate in philosophy at Fordham University.

“But I may go astray in such a permissive place,” the young scholar worried.

“Planes crash,” the Rav said, “but we take them to get where we need to go.”

David Hartman, who lived in Israel for over forty years, had seen political activists in Israel justify political intransigence and even violence by a messianic obsession. Fearful of dreams gone awry, Professor Hartman neutralized the Messianic focus in Judaism. Instead of waiting for God to deliver the people into a new day of harmony, Hartman placed that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of people. Our challenge as Jews, he taught, was to live up to a covenant with God, a covenant that was alive and evolving. A better world would not come about by Divine intervention, but by elevating human consciousness and moral responsibility. Regarding the Messiah, Hartman was far more a rationalist than Maimonides, the philosopher to whom he was most dedicated. For Hartman, the primary challenge for Jews today was to craft a moral society in Israel and to engage the texts and rituals of Judaism with honesty and the vitality of soul. His passion for Torah and ideas and the empowerment to converse with the sages as an equal across generations will endure for us who were his students.

Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz

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It was 1966. I was a student at the Jesuit St. Louis University trying to decide whether to enter the priesthood or convert to Judaism.  I had been raised Catholic, felt a deep respect for the faith of my Irish forefathers, but at the same time was profoundly drawn to Judaism, its endurance and faithfulness over millennia and, during that decade of such social upheaval, its commitment to social justice.  Even as a young boy in Catholic schools a question that disturbed me was: if the Church is the new Israel, then what of the old Israel? What is the role of Jews today and what is their purpose in God’s plan? My dissatisfaction with the responses from the Church served as the catalyst in leading me into the Covenant of Israel, and, eventually, my encounter with Rabbi Hartman.

I had been studying with Rabbi Burrows who was acquainted with David’s brother, also a rabbi, who had a congregation in St. Louis. David also had two or three brothers who were rabbis and I always thought if his family had been Irish Catholic, such a scenario, all sons in the clergy, would have been any Irish mother’s heart’s delight.  But I remember he grew up in Brownsville, one of the largest Jewish concentrations in New York and was a lover of basketball as well as the Talmud.

After my second year at SLU, I transferred to McGill in Montreal.  Since Rabbi Burrows knew David Hartman was rabbi at a congregation there, he referred me to him, so that I might continue my studies and undergo the conversion in a community where I would be living.  After a few meetings and listening to my story and what it was that motivated me to take such a life transforming step, he agreed to witness my conversion.  I had already been shomer Shabbat and observing kashrut but continued to study with him and attend services every Shabbat and festival at the “Bailey shul” where I was first exposed to his thought provoking drashas. Learning with him was pure pleasure.  It was always textual but also contextual.  He provoked, and kept asking questions, enticing us to search the text ever deeper, not to be content with the pat answers that we all had at the ready in our pockets. He challenged us to confront our comfort zones.  I had never been exposed to this kind of learning. Here was a man, anchored in the tradition, faithful to that tradition, but who always tried to point out the forest from the trees.  I remember him saying: “learning Shulchan Aruch is like swimming in a bathtub. Learning Talmud is like swimming in the ocean.”  Or: “There are some people who are so kosher they won’t eat in their own homes.”  Many in the orthodox community found such attitudes scandalous and undermining the authority of halacha, but that was never his intent, nor did it have that effect on his students or congregants.  They were committed to him simply because he turned them on to learning and connected them to the richness and depth of Jewish tradition.

I remember the sederim that he would conduct.  I have never experienced anything like them. They went until two in the morning, after passing the hours in discussion, questions and song. At the conclusion with L’shanah habah b’Yerushalayim, Mrs. White, who had helped prepare and serve, came out of the kitchen, we grabbed her hand bringing her into the family circle and danced and danced around the table. I was deeply grateful to him and his wife, Bobbie, when at my graduation, they invited my parents to Shabbat lunch and did everything to make them feel comfortable in surroundings that were not familiar to them.

But above all else, David Hartman gave me a priceless gift. He taught me the holiness of learning; that it was learning of the text which kept us connected as a people, regardless of where we stood on the spectrum of observance. He wanted to share that richness and wealth with all who came to learn, Christians and Muslims as well as Jews.  From him I learned that appreciating the particularity of the Jewish People is not synonymous with tribalism, and that observance is not to be confused with the multiplicity of chumras.  As I saw what he called “insane” becoming more and more codified by the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and the Diaspora I become deeply discouraged.  But every time I reached that low point I called forth memories from the years he was my teacher and was comforted by the knowledge that he still is and that remains a saving grace. May his family be comforted among the mourners in Zion and may his memory be a blessing for all who had the privilege of learning with and from him.

Yaakov Sullivan

New York, NY

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From Rabbi Michael Lerner: David Hartman was one of the most creative Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. A student of Rav Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, Hartman served as an orthodox rabbi in Canada before making aliyah to Jerusalem where he created the Shalom Hartman Institute and managed to attract some of the most creative young scholars and thinkers to his venture. There he defined the task of creating a Halakhah and an approach to Judaism for “the third Commonwealth” of Jewish history. Hartman was a brilliant thinker whose re-interpretation of the thinking of Judaism’s most respected (by some, reviled by others, par for the course) Medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides was at once startlingly relevant to modern theological concerns and profoundly challenging to some of the small-minded in the orthodox world.

I had the honor and wonderful opportunity to study for a year at the Hartman Institute, and Rabbi Hartman then invited me to come back as a visiting scholar for another year, an offer I unfortunately had to decline because of my role as executive director of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health. So I was delighted when David accepted my invitation to be a founding member of the Editorial Board of Tikkun magazine, a position he held for several years thereafter. David also gave covert support to the founding of our Beyt Midrash Le’Shalom which Nan Fink and I helped create in Jerusalem and which provided courses on the theological, Biblical and Talmudic foundations for a pro-peace, pro-social justice perspective in Israel, at which some of the scholars who taught at the Hartman Institute shared their wisdom in a more explicitly pro-peace framework.
 At David’s invitation, I participated for several years in an annual “Philosophers Conference” that took place at the Hartman Institute each summer. There again, as in seminars during the year I studied at the “Machon,” I was deeply impressed with Hartman’s innovative “chidushim” (new insights) that quickly reframed the ancient texts to address contemporary issues in theology, social theory, and philosophy. Several of the participants in that seminar joined Hartman in writing for Tikkun (including Moshe Halbertal, Tzvi Marx, and Michael Walzer).
 We at Tikkun join thousands of others in the Jewish world who mourn the loss of this innovator and outstanding teacher. May his memory always be for a blessing–Z”L zichrono lee’vracha.

 

 
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