The Jewish world last month lost a master melamed with the passing of Rabbi Dr. David Hartman. I lost a trusted teacher and guide. Fortunate was I for the opportunity to study at his feet and be invited into his inner circle.
I will always look back at the invitation to participate in the Hartman Institute’s first cohort of long-term rabbinic fellows as a high point in my rabbinic career and continuing education. “Reb Duvie” shared of himself and his incredible insights in an unstinting way. There were no holds barred. He was as frank as he was loving and honest to a fault, both intellectually and emotionally. He respected rabbis and was committed through what he created in the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI or the Machon) to providing a safe haven for rabbis of all streams in Judaism to flex their intellectual muscles and stretch their souls.
As he learned early on in his seventeen years as a pulpit rabbi, the rabbinate can be lonely and isolating. He also understood the restrictive nature and traditions of standing institutions. So he created SHI, first for rabbis and then expanding its reach to embrace philosophers and theologians from across the globe. Where other existing frameworks proved limiting and closed to a more expansive approach to Jewish learning, he created his own sphere of influence where he nurtured scholars whom he provided an intellectual home for reflection and research. The Machon became a veritable think tank that nourished the Jewish world.
Reb Duvie loved to engage his students. If you were his talmid, there were no pretenses. He freely shared his joys and his “oys” with us. He was totally transparent. We were treated to his expressions of pain over personal loss and disappointment and his ensuing struggles with faith. We heard and interfaced with his frustration around issues in the Orthodox world that at one time more accurately defined him. As his rabbinic soul mate I became unusually engaged in an ongoing dialogue and debate, one he welcomed and encouraged, in which we negotiated our views of a world we both knew and needed, even if he was not always as hopeful or indulgent as I still believed possible and necessary. Still, he remained loyal to the methodology of the yeshiva world that nurtured and raised him.
In essence he never left the “kotlei bet midrash,” as was evident in the way he taught a sugya in Shas to all rabbis regardless of background or persuasion. He didn’t apologize for the yeshiva bachur manner that never left him. He loved a good niggun and sought to humanize his learning without diminishing its content or rigor.
Rabbi Hartman was widely admired and wildly successful as a pulpit rabbi in North America. But he saw in the nascent Jewish state in the aftermath of the ’67 victory a much-longed-for possibility of a Judaism realized and reflected in everyday life – actualized in all aspects of Israeli civic and political life, in its streets and businesses, its synagogues and study halls, its mundane moments and prosaic points.
Transcendence was not the product of Torah’s ivory tower alone but flowed from a holiness harvested in our everyday activities. The sobering realities of religious polarization and government corruption; the drain of an endless, existential threat; the loss of the country’s best and brightest including his own son-in-law, a celebrated Israeli Air Force pilot, R. Ahrele Katz – all took a personal emotional toll. Yet he remained ever more committed to speak truth to wisdom and to demand more of himself and others.
Israel reborn represented the best laboratory experience of the Jewish people. For David Hartman it was a beckoning backdrop against which to design a dynamic Jewish future.
When necessary – and it was often and not incidental – he moved from defender to critic. Yet it was an innate sense of ahavat Yisrael that animated his being, not in the conventional sense of unconditional positive regard but in a more difficult and demanding way. Most compelling was his recognition that, ultimately, “Torah is the common language of the Jewish people.” He stressed this always and he built the Machon on this cornerstone value. Nowhere else can one see and experience so many people of varied backgrounds together struggling over a common text, in a shared search for meaning even if their personal quests are by no means similar.
Words are woefully inadequate to express Reb Duvie’s influence on my life and my family. Our son Yoni was privileged to study at and graduate from his high school. Our daughters Dorona and Sunni both commented on his boundless intellectual and emotional energy and credited our summers together in and around the Machon as an experience that changed our family and our shared connection to Israel.
What I will miss most are his candor and his caring, which were realized in the liberty he granted me and countless others to explore ideas and issues, inside a text and around an experience or sentiment, in a nurturing environment and from a treasure trove of seminal thinkers.
He was a unique man who led a life of exceptional accomplishments, who built an oasis of learning that is without parallel or peer, yet who remained restless and even tragically unsettled and unfulfilled until the day he died. In this sense he was not alone or unlike so many giants of our faith.
In the words of Chazal, “chaval al d’avdin delo’mishtakhchin” – “woe it is for those who are lost to us and cannot be replaced.”
(Editor’s Note: A shloshim tribute to Rabbi Hartman will be held in Teaneck, New Jersey, on Monday, March 11. For details, see page 35 of this weeks Jewish Press.)
About the Author: Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler is a clinical counselor and bioethicist who has served as a pulpit rabbi, Jewish communal executive, and educator. He is the president of Sayva Associates, an Elder Care Solutions practice.
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