And Let Them Make a Sanctuary: Remembering Rabbi David Hartman

Feb 12, 2013 by

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This week we have buried a giant of Judaism.  Rabbi David Hartman, z”l, died on Rosh Chodesh Adar and was buried in Jerusalem.  Rabbi Hartman was my teacher and the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute where I have been privileged to study over the last number of years.  Rabbi Hartman was a firebrand! An Orthodox rabbi who was anything but orthodox in his thought and deeds.  He challenged your mind and the status quo. He was passionate about learning and critical thinking.  He was demanding of his students and often said provocative things to rile up the conversation. He demanded excellence. He was a force to be reckoned with.

Rabbi Hartman had made aliyah to Israel in 1971 with his wife and five children.  He had been a pulpit rabbi in Montreal and the Bronx.  He had attended Yeshiva University, been ordained a rabbi and had a Ph.D. in philosophy.  He was a prolific writer including works of philosophy and theology such as his book about his teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik; Hartman’s own theology in “A Living Covenant” and two important works about the great philosopher and legalist, Maimonides.  His latest books,  The God Who Hate Lies, and From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self show his own increasing impatience with the Orthodox status quo and its increasing hostility to change and innovation that Hartman found among the rabbis of the Talmud!

Perhaps some of Rabbi’s Hartman’s greatest gifts were his daring in creating an Institute that helped rabbis of all denominations become better rabbis, educators become better educators and creating a space for scholars to explore their learning by writing and research. Studying at his feet a Reform Rabbi like me was able to encounter an Orthodox colleague and share a page of Talmud together while he challenged us to think critically of our past and prepare for a Jewish future.  The Shalom Hartman Institute is a special kind of sanctuary. It is a place of true learning and encounter with God and our tradition.

David Hartman loved rabbis.  He loved rabbis of all sorts.  But he had no time for rabbinic pomposities. Instead he tried to make Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon as well as Rambam engage in a dialogue with each of his students.  As a Reform rabbi I always was amazed that Rabbi Hartman eventually adopted a position long held by our movement-whether it was his growing appreciation for the contributions of women to the tradition or his demand that all Jews matter and the chief rabbinate of Israel had it completely wrong to exclude Reform and Conservative Jews.  Hartman was ortho-prax but Reform in his outlook as Judaism lived in the 21st century.

He was an ardent Zionist who loved Israel and understood that it like all nations are a work in progress.  He conveyed that to us his students whether we were Jewish or of other faiths.  Remarkably, Hartman encouraged not only intra-faith dialogue but interfaith dialogue in the land of Israel.  Perhaps more common in North America but a rarity in Israel.

Philosophers and teachers are not usually institution builders.  But Rabbi David Hartman did so and his son Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman leads and builds the imagesinstitution his father began.  The Shalom Hartman Institute is a special place of Jewish learning and life that has changed my rabbinate but more importantly changed me as a Jew. My learning there has deepened my own faith in these troubling times. It has made me a more ardent Zionist, even with Israel’s challenges, successes and failures. My studies at the Machon has deepened my love for the experiment we call the Jewish Democratic State of Israel and allowed me the opportunity to see it in its fullness.  My studies at the Machon have widened my circle of rabbinic colleagues and challenged me to think more openly about the  idea that the Jewish people has always had many different kind of Jews.  There are many voices and many paths through and to Torah.  This is a message of my teacher Rabbi Hartman and the influence that he has had on so many. He built a unique kind of sanctuary, a place where regardless of denominational ties, we could be in concert with one another.

This week’s Torah portion is T’rumah in the book of Exodus.  It describes the instructions for building the Tabernacle in the desert. God instructs Moses to tell the children of Israel to bring their gifts forward so they can build a sanctuary for God.  The Torah portion outlines the many kind of gifts, gold and silver, yarn and fabrics that are the materials that will make up the Tent that will be the place of Divine dwelling.  The sacrifices will be eventually be made there. The ark of the covenant which will be fashioned from all of the materials donated will hold the recently given Ten Commandments. And it is this exact space between the cherubim that God’s presence will dwell and speak to Moses, Aaron and the Children of Israel.

This Tent of Meeting is in some ways like the Machon that Rabbi David Hartman built.  It is a place to encounter God and our tradition. It is a place made up of the many gifts of its scholars and teachers and students.  It is a place to have an encounter with the Divine Holy One through our texts and our colleagues and Eretz Yisrael.  The Shalom Hartman Institute has become truly an Ohel Mo’ed-a Tent of Meeting, a place to meet with teachers, Talmud and Torah and theology and a place where the disciples of Rabbi David Hartman gather to engage with each other.  I am proud to be one of those students who is a disciple of Hartman- never satisfied with the status quo, ready to challenge any kind of orthodoxy, even my own. May Rabbi David Hartman’s memory and teachings continue to inspire us and may his work continue to be a blessing to us and to our world.

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