I was saddened to read of the death this past Sunday of Rabbi David Hartman. He was an extraordinary Jewish thinker and educator. Over the past week in many of the Jewish and some secular publications, people have written of their experiences studying with Rabbi Hartman and I’d like to add my voice to the mix.
During the 1995-1996 academic year I studied in Jerusalem as part of my rabbinic training. We took classes at what was then called Machon Schechter and many of us also took advantage of other extraordinary teachers of Torah who were based in Jerusalem. It was an embarrassment of riches – evenings spent with Avivah Zornberg, Shabbat morning with Jacob Milgrom, Shabbat afternoon with Ed Greenstein, and a few precious meetings with David Hartman.
The Shalom Hartman Institute building was under construction just down the block from where I was living on Ha Gedud Ha Ivri, but Rabbi Hartman was teaching out of a gorgeous old building in Rehavia, a short walk away. Our class had the privilege of a private session with him after the death of one of our classmates in a terror attack. He taught us ostensibly about Pesah, since it was the month between Purim and Pesah; but as others have mentioned, when you studied with David Hartman, you got his whole philosophy filtered through the lens of the particular Torah he was teaching.
His Torah for me was very much a Torah of comfort for grief, of love for the Jewish people and the land of Israel, of relevance to modern Jews, and of intellect and obligation. Hartman focused on the Passover story and he spoke of the difficulty in celebrating freedom when one’s existence is uncertain and there is worry that a bus will blow up. But he urged us to think about the story that we tell about who we are – avadim hayeenu We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. The torah does not say that we were enslaved because of our sins. There is no theological motive for suffering he assured us.
A few nights later at a public lecture on Pesah and the modern State of Israel, Hartman taught of looking forward. The halakhah (Jewish law) teaches that Jews are not permitted to go back to Egypt. The reason he said is that as Jews we are defined by God and Torah not by Pharaoh. If we let ourselves be defined by terror and victimization we will never become the God intoxicated people that the Pesah Seder seeks to create and it will be impossible to fall in love with what Moses dreamed the Jews could be.
Faith, he said, is believing that a slave can become a person of God – something holy, something transformed.
Yehi zichrono livrakha. May his memory be for a blessing.