Rabbi David Hartman died on Sunday. As it teaches in Lamentations 5:16, the crown of our head has fallen. Today, the world seems poorer and the heavens richer.
I was blessed in life to have learned from Rabbi Hartman on many occasions and in varied settings; through his books and sitting at his feet. He shaped my rabbinate and made me proud of the Jew I am today.
To sum up his life in a series of sentences or paragraphs would do an injustice to the impact he made on the modern Jewish world. However, for the sake of this tribute, I would narrow down his greatest professional achievements in three categories: empowering rabbis and leaders, creating organic connections with our tradition and God, and making room for everyone in the conversation about our history and our shared future.
The greatest gift I have received in my rabbinate has been the opportunity to participate in the Rabbinic Leadership Institute at the Hartman Center – the brainchild of David Hartman. Rabbi Hartman knew firsthand how lonely the rabbinate could be. He also knew intuitively the deep need for collegiality and for having forums where rabbis can ask tough questions and find support. Through his vision, he established a program for rabbis to learn that they are not alone and provided an arena to ask tough questions and study for study’s sake. The Rabbinic Training Seminar – this four-year program, coupled with the summer intensive program – is a forum where thousands of rabbis and educators have been enriched, emboldened, empowered, and reminded of the blessings of colleagues.
David Hartman has taught countless ancient texts to rabbis around the world, but one lesson seemed to transcend each manuscript: Be courageous. Hartman taught in word and modeled in deed that the greatest gift a rabbi possesses is the power to foster change. He was energized to see the elasticity of our tradition as it was stretched by a brave soul who could challenge our ancestors, not discard them; wrestle with them, not submit to them.
Through the stories, teachings, and anecdotes that color the life of David Hartman, the blessing he gave me that I appreciate most is the gift of infusing – or shall I say infecting – me with courage. Rabbi Hartman’s most recent book, “The God Who Hates Lies,” was a tour de force about how leaders in the community need to be as compelled by the spirit of the law as they are by the letter of the law.
Rabbi Hartman reminded all of us that the greatest leaders and heroes in the world are not the people that sit quietly in the pews. Rather, they are the people who step up to the podium and ask why or how or for what? They are the people who wake up after dreams and try to actualize them. They are the spiritual advisers who reflect on the human being asking the question, not just the question at hand. They are the people who are unapologetic in their hopes.
David Hartman despised a prefabricated theology. He loved creativity and individualism. He believed that our voices should be part of the dialogue with our ancestors. We should not be spectators recounting a great discussion. The first tool he gave everyone in his class was a hammer to smash down and deconstruct any canned understandings in our relationship with God, Torah, and peoplehood. Once the wholesale thoughts were broken down, Reb David wanted each of his students to build up their own theology and relationship to God organically.
He distanced himself from imitation and encouraged individuality. The beauty in this process was witnessing Reb David learning from his students. He would ask them about their thoughts on God, Torah, Israel, and peoplehood. He would beam from ear to ear hearing his pupils answers, like a thirdâ€“grade teacher admiring her students’ art projects, seeing the individual beauty in every representation of the craft. Each stroke and color was unique to the student and an expression of their own structure that was built organically. That brought David pride – and it made the foundation of their Judaism much stronger.
If someone asked Rabbi Hartman a question in class, seeking some erudite interpretation of a text, often they would be disappointed. He would rarely give a straight answer. Instead he would say, “That is an excellent question. You should go home and think of an answer to that question. Think about it for a very long time.” David Hartman demonstrated that most of the time our questions are far more important than our answers. Searching mattered more than finding; his answer was no more valuable than any one of his students’.
What better model could any teacher leave his pupils?
My first face-to-face encounter with Rabbi Hartman was in 1997. I was a rabbinical student studying in Israel. He was hosting a class on the revelation of God at Sinai at his newly dedicated institute in the heart of Jerusalem. Hartman referred to God many times during this talk, calling God “He.” Then Hartman stopped himself and said, “When I say ‘He,’ referring to God, I equally mean ‘She.’ And if I say ‘She,’ I mean ‘He.’ He, She – She, He – all I know is I still love my mother!”
The room erupted in laughter. By joking, Hartman was sharing the deepest side of himself; his commitment to making everyone feel included in the dialogue. David Hartman believed that not only were the texts speaking to him but that he was speaking to them as well. He never saw the Mishnah or Talmud or Maimonides as history, to be read and admired as if it were art in a museum. Hartman believed that these texts demanded the incorporation of our modern voice, much as a dancer needs a partner to work in rhythmic stride, step after step after step.
David Hartman would dance with anyone willing to be his partner, metaphorically speaking. That is why today the Hartman Institute hosts forums for Christian theologians, Muslim clerics, and charedi Jews as well as special IDF officer training. It is one of the only addresses in the Jewish world that makes Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, postdenominational and Reconstructionist Jews all feel at home.
To see the beit midrash brimming with men and women of all ages and orientations, from varied backgrounds, coming together in study feels like a small taste of what the World to Come must offer. That is the fruit that David Hartman planted. We reap from it today. It is sweet.
In memorializing Rabbi David Hartman, many people remarked that our world has become darker since his candle has been extinguished. I would respond, no! Adaraba! How much brighter our world is today for the candles David Hartman lit that burn within us; in the wicks of our courage, in the flame of our unique and personal connection to our tradition and God and the brightness that is hearing the many voices in our texts – ours and theirs – voices of yesterday and today.
May our candles shine bright in his memory for eternity.