iENGAGE: There was once a man: The power of ideas

My father loved to learn and loved to teach, because he believed that ideas matter, and what we need as a Jewish people is a constant flow of new thinking.

February 28, 2013 22:28
Rabbi David Hartman.

Rabbi David Hartman 370. (photo credit: Shalom Hartman Institute)


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Death is the most final of experiences. As the signs announcing my father’s death declared, “There was once a man, and he is no longer.” No consolation can change the starkness of this reality. Death is an end, an end of one life. Its finality alters reality and creates a permanent void in the world and in the lives of the mourners.

“He is no longer,” however, does not exhaust the experience of death. When someone dies, the process of mourning does not dwell solely on the sense of loss, but also on the reality of, “There was once a man.” It is not motivated merely by a search for consolation or an attempt to move back from the abyss of death. The uncertainty, finality and frailty of human life, the fact that we do not live forever, induce us at the moment of death to reflect on the meaning of life. As a life comes to an end, our thoughts naturally go to what constitutes a life worth living. Precisely because life comes to an end, we need to think about what constitutes a life worth living.

An answer to this question is embedded in the experience of death itself. A life worth living is a life which in death creates a void. It is to walk in the world and to leave a mark, to leave those you meet changed and the world around you altered because of your presence. “There was once a man” – to be here in the world, in the life of people, to touch them, to teach them, to inspire them, to change them, to improve them. That is to live a good life.

While we all share in the sameness of our deaths, the way we live our lives, the way we make our mark and generate a void is infinitely varied. Our challenge and responsibility as human beings is to allow and make room for tremendous diversity when answering the question of what constitutes a good life and one worth living. While history is sometimes the arbiter, the best judgment is that which is left to the heart of the mourner.

As I sat shiva (the seven-day mourning period) and met and heard from thousands of people upon whom my father had left a mark, and as I read the hundreds of eulogies, editorials, testimonies and personal words of comfort sent to me and my family from people in Israel and around the world whom he had touched, I felt the depth of the words, “There was a man,” a man who lived a good life, a life worth living.

No life can be summarized, nor should it be. At the most, one can at different times shine a light on one dimension that circumstances make more prominent at that moment. As I see the many faces and hear the myriad of words that encompassed the period of my father’s shiva, what comes to my mind over and again is – there was a man who believed in the power of ideas.

My father’s books and teachings are filled with many and diverse ideas that enabled, empowered and shaped modern Jewish thought and life. His multiple students will invariably teach and expand and even argue about their particular content and significance.

Today, as the words, “He changed my life,” which were repeated to me over and over again, echo in my ears, I feel that the quality and essence of his life transcends any particular answer that he gave or philosophical treatise that he penned.

To believe in the power of ideas is to believe that reality is not to be accepted as it is nor idealized because it is the most that one can expect.

It is to believe that life and the human experience can constantly change and be enriched if we dare to open our minds to new possibilities.

It is to believe in the inherent potential embedded in humanity if our minds would but dare to abandon the comforting but stultifying hold of the status quo and make room for a new idea to move us to ever-new heights.

There are many ways to make a mark. Ideas seem the most ethereal, but when they take root, their impact changes history. In our world, where impact is often measured by page views, Tweets and “Likes,” and success ascribed solely to measurable and quantifiable metrics, there was a man who believed in the power of ideas, where quality always trumped quantity, and where depth and significance were the primary criteria of assessment.

There was a man, my father, who loved to learn and loved to teach, because he believed that ideas matter, and what we need as a Jewish people is a constant flow of new thinking. Greatness was not measured by whom you taught but by what you said. He believed that people could reach higher, and Judaism reach deeper if we would put forth compelling and honest ideas. He believed that instead of speaking down to people, or to where they were at, the responsibility of a teacher was to expand their horizons and move them to new heights.

There was a man, my father, who believed that the key to Jewish continuity was content. That neither fear nor coercion were worthy contributors to a strong Jewish identity. While Auschwitz was to be remembered and mourned, it was not the entry point to Judaism. That entry point is Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, where the idea is put forth that Zion will be redeemed through justice; Jerusalem, where the idea of, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” has special significance and challenges; Jerusalem, where the reality of Jewish independence is both a catalyst for new thinking and its testing ground; Jerusalem, where the idea of one God meets the reality of multiple faiths and human difference.

There was a man who planted ideas, and while he is no longer, his ideas have taken root and challenge us to think, question, and find a higher meaning and standard for our lives.

The writer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and director of the institute’s iENGAGE Project –

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