Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, the Rationalist Rebbe who with King David’s passion, Maimonides’ wisdom and Ben-Gurion’s institution-building skill, devoted his life to cultivating an expansive Judaism, an idealistic Zionism, and a functional Israel, died today in his beloved city of Jerusalem. Born in Brooklyn in 1931, educated at Yeshiva University and Fordham University, he began making his mark in Montreal in the 1960s. There, as a congregational rabbi, a McGill University professor, and a founder of the Akiva school, he honed his trademark abilities as a populist philosopher in the best sense of both words – speaking to the student within all of us, making illuminating Jewish and Western ideas relevant to generations of devotees. In 1971, inspired by the Six Day War, and, he quipped, guilty of taking his own sermons too seriously, he moved to Israel, with his extraordinary wife Bobbi and their children. Believing that “Israel offers Jews an unprecedented opportunity to regenerate the primary roots of Judaism,” this American thinker became an Israeli builder, founding the Shalom Hartman Institute think tank, named after his father, and establishing Hartman junior high schools and high schools, now teaching hundreds of boys and girls annually his humanistic, ethical, approach to tradition and modernity.
Like so many others, I first encountered Rabbi Hartman via the New York Times. He was the Thomas Friedman Professor of Jewish Thought, the Mideast’s quotemaster general, feeding pithy insights to the Times’ Israel correspondent in the 1980s and 1990s. Hartman addressed profound issues colorfully, memorably. He could mock Israel’s polarized discussion about religion by saying that ''''For years Israelis treated religion as if there were only two options -- Club Med or the ghetto,'''' as secular Israelis now sought “more spiritual content.” Analyzing the post-Oslo peace impasse, he dismissed the Right’s belief “that military strength guarantees survival,” yet said the Left faltered because “the longer [Oslo] went on the less people felt that Arafat and the Arabs were really ready to accept Israelis as a people who had come home.” And he captured one of modern Jewry’s and Zionism’s central conundrums, asking, provocatively: “Is persecution and the ghetto necessary for survival, or can we live in freedom?''''
Intrigued by such resonant soundbites, many of us devoured his books. We learned about his model Jewish philosopher who synthesized Jewish and secular thought inMaimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest
(1976). We studied the implications of his ironic insight that “Secular Zionism has created the social and political conditions for the entire Jewish people to renew its ancient covenant at Sinai,” in A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism
(1998). We toured today’s diverse Jewish world, learning that Judaism does not begin with “a leap of faith” but “a leap of identification with a people and a history” in A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices Within Judaism
(1999). We broke through those Club Med- Ghetto stereotypes with Israelis and the Jewish Tradition (2000
). And we learned how to have a humane, flexible Halakhah while deliberating about what God wants from us inThe God Who Hates Lies (2011
Having long appreciated Rabbi Hartman as a thinker and an activist from afar, only in Jerusalem did I understand his greatness as a master teacher and mentor to thousands whose minds were stretched and souls ennobled by personal contact with him in the classrooms, conferences, roundtables, hallways, and public lectures of “the Machon,” the Hartman Institute.
Hartman was -- and his Institute still is – a people magnet, attracting extraordinary individuals to learn together, to experience what Martin Buber called meaningful, person-centered, value-rich “I-thou” encounters, mediated through Jewish texts. At the magnificent Jerusalem campus of “the Machon” he founded, and which his son Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman now heads so ably, you can stumble any day across a mix of IDF officers and Christian theologians, secular Israeli Bible teachers and Ivy League philosophers, government ministers and eager students, successful entrepreneurs and best-selling authors, absorbing what I think of as the “Hartman Torah,” developing a text-based Jewish values conversation committed to a dynamic welcoming Judaism that makes Israel the best country it can be. The standards are high, the aspirations great, but the energy is infectious and the accomplishments are impressive.
At one of his last major public appearances, his eightieth birthday celebration at the Machon, Hartman, characteristically provocative, declared himself angry with God and his career a failure because he had dodged the Holocaust’s devastating theological implications. These words devastated one high school teacher. She asked him, her beloved “rebbe,” how he could reject the Almighty, who warmed up her life so fully. By the time my son returned from Hartman High that day, the student rumor mill reported that the great David had not just abandoned God, but Judaism itself.
Those of us lucky enough to know him better understood that, even as his body was failing him, our Rationalist Rebbe was starting a new intellectual chapter – and assigning his final homework assignment. Like Jacob, Rabbi Hartman was wrestling with God– his anger proving his belief, reflecting his intense, complex, continuing relationship with his Creator. He was still boldly tackling the big questions.
His zeal embraced life in all its messiness, revealing his love of the ongoing Jewish tradition rooted in the Bible and Talmud, consecrated in the shtetl, now alive at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and many other venues of Jewish disputation, wherein we confront the text, each other, ourselves, and our God. May the memory and teaching of David ben Shalom, that man with so much heart whose heart ultimately failed him, continue to confound and fulfill us, making us think, helping us grow, and compelling us to act wisely and justly.