A giant of our generation passed away on Sunday. Rabbi David Hartman was 81 years old.
Rabbi Hartman was the son of a chasidic family, born in Brooklyn, educated in Manhattan and Montreal, who dedicated his heart and mind to demonstrating that Judaism continues to be a vital and vibrant way of life in the modern world. His soul was dedicated to proving that it is possible for us to remain as one people regardless of which path we follow in the pursuit of a Jewish life.
Several scores of Jews here in northern New Jersey this year are benefiting from his efforts in a very direct way, through the IEngage program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute he founded in 1976.
Many more here have benefited in an indirect way – because Rabbi Hartman brought rabbis of all streams to his Jerusalem institute to study together in a way not possible almost anywhere else in the world. He believed to the core of his being that there were truths to be learned from all sides, and that rabbis of all streams can benefit from studying together in fellowship, rather than remaining cloistered within their own ideologies.
He also believed that if Judaism is to thrive in the 21st century, it could only do so if we were united in purpose. Rather than be divided by our differences, Rabbi Hartman argued that we could advance because of them. It was his mission in life to help make that happen.
Drawing from his chasidic roots, Rabbi Hartman also believed that “religious life is a life of affirmation, not a life of denial,” as his former son-in-law, Professor Moshe Harbetal, was quoted as telling The New York Times.
Rabbi Hartman himself told the daily newspaper Yediot Achronot several years ago, “Do you think that people will want to enter a spiritual life made up only of what is forbidden, forbidden, forbidden?”
He was also the inspiration behind a revolutionary innovation in modern Orthodox Jewish life – the so-called Shirah Chadashah Minyan, which his daughter Tova co-founded. Sometimes referred to as “the Hartman minyan,” it boasts a mechitzah that splits the sanctuary into two equal halves, with the bimah accessible from both sides. Women, as well as men, are able to ascend the bimah to receive aliyot, and may even lead those parts of the prayer service that are able to be recited even if a quorum of 10 men is not present.
We will continue to benefit for many years to come from the work that Rabbi Hartman began in 1976, and his son Donniel is surely a worthy successor, as many in northern New Jersey are aware because of his frequent visits here and his stint as the JCC on the Palisades’ scholar in residence years ago. Nevertheless, he will be missed. His passion for his people and their future is his legacy to us all.
In Pirkei Avot, (the Chapters of the Fathers), Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying, “The day is short, the work is great … , and the master of the house is knocking [at the door]. He [also used to] say, It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Rabbi Hartman clearly understood the urgency of Tarfon’s first remark, just as he understood that he himself would never bring it to completion. The work continues, but now it is a task with which we must all engage. We will not finish it, either, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Yehi zichro baruch. May the memory of this hero of Israel be for a blessing. His presence among us surely was.