Sunday, February 10, 2013

Remembering Rabbi David Hartman z"l (1931-2013)

When a sage dies – all are considered his relatives. All tear, all remove their shoes, all eulogize, and all partake of the meal of comfort, even in the public square
. (Tosefta Moed Katan 2:17)

מורי ורבי Rabbi David Hartman z”l passed away this morning in Jerusalem.
David was a teacher and rabbi to many, spawning new thinking across denominations, from North America to Israel, from secular Israelis to American Modern orthodox synagogues, from Reform Temples to Jewish Day Schools. He was a Rabbis’ rabbi, a philosophers’ philosopher, and undoubtedly an acquired taste. He was a critic rather than a constructer, a fiery personality whose thirst was never quenched. But above all he was a teacher – constantly teaching us to demand more: from people, from texts, from God. Indeed, in Hebrew –“to demand” means lidroshלדרוש, like “midrash”. In his presence, the Beit Midrash became a “house of demanding”. Arguably his most important act was working to bridge the various parts of the Jewish community by placing the Beit Midrash, the house of learning, at the center of the Jewish experience. Where others placed the synagogue, the secular Jewish state, the federation or – most often – whatever the lowest common denominator that could bring Jews together – at the center, Hartman championed learning as the place where Jews can meet… not in order to agree, but in order to argue! Arguing is the first sign that we care about eachother. Critique, loving critique, was the highest compliment. And oh, did he critique…
I had the privilege of growing up in the “Hartman community”, although we never called it that, because each of his students was encouraged to carve out their own community. It was a community where you were never examined for what you did or did not do, but rather how seriously you took the endeavor of Judaism. My father, Noam, was one of his earliest students in Jerusalem in the 1970’s and has worked at the Hartman Institute his whole life. The Judaism in our home was a constant extrapolation of his teachings. As a teenager at the Hartman Highschool, I satirized him on stage at our graduation, spewing Maimonidean gibberish - I remember him cracking up despite himself. As an adult I got to read Rambam and Fromm and McIntyre with him. My Sinai is a mountain that he built, even when I am choosing a different path. When I last saw him in Jerusalem a few months ago, he bugged me “But are you still learning, really learning?” I’d like to believe I am.
Tomorrow morning his funeral will take place in Jerusalem. I happen to be in Jerusalem, and hope to perform the hesed shel emet – the act of true compassion – of accompanying him on his last path. It is too early to summarize or eulogize, but a teaching from the Talmud which I first opened in his Beit Midrash is fitting.
The Talmud debates the appropriate response for the loss of a teacher is. It is a sticky situation: he is not your relative, yet the Talmud says that “Anyone who teaches a person even one letter, it is considered as if they gave birth to that person.” The Tosefta (quoted above) describes that “When a sage dies – all are considered his relatives. All tear for him, all eulogize him…” The Talmud continues to debate this tension:
Our Rabbis Taught: And these are tears that are never mended: One who tears for his father, for his mother, for his teacher who taught him Torah, for the leader of the community… for a Torah that is burnt, for the cities of Judah, for Jerusalem.
It then asks where we learn that one tears for his father, mother and Rabbi who taught him Torah? It then quotes from the story of the Prophet Elijah’s death as he was walking with his student, Elisha:
“As they kept walking and talking, a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared and separated one from the other; and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Elisha saw it, and he cried out: “Oh, father, father! Israel’s chariots and horsemen!” When he could no longer see him, he grasped his garments and rent them in two.” (Kings 2, 2:11-12)
Says the Talmud:
“Father! Father” – this refers to tearing for his father and mother.
“Israel’s chariots and horsemen” – this is his teacher who taught him Torah.
(Bavli Moed Katan 26a)
 רכב ישראל ופרשיו!
May the Hartman family find consolation. May the tears in our society, which David Hartman pointed out so well, be mended soon. May we all see in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, city of learning, city of Peace, soon. May his life be bound up in the bind of the living.

To learn more of David Hartman life and teachings, read his Wiki, hear him speak on PBS, or read his recent book “The God who Hates Lies”.