Loved ones lay Rabbi David Hartman to rest

At funeral, Shalom Hartman Institute founder is remembered as a man who was "not just a teacher, but a pillar."

Rabbi Hartman funeral (photo credit: Rachel Marder)
Rabbi Hartman funeral
(photo credit: Rachel Marder)
Philosopher Rabbi David Hartman reviled the phrase “Kacha zeh” (“That’s how it is”), Rabbi Donniel Hartman said Monday during his father’s funeral. He didn’t believe in reality limiting his ability to better Israel and the Jewish people.
For many, Hartman, who passed away at the age of 81 on Sunday, is remembered for the indelible mark he made on the Jewish world as a pillar of liberal Orthodoxy and champion of pluralism.
But for his children, who spoke tearfully about their father at his Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, he is remembered simply as abba (“father”).
Tova Hartman vividly described the power of her father’s chanting – and screaming – of the closing prayer on Yom Kippur when she was a child, and how much he cherished prayer and spirituality, especially singing with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. She recalled how frightened she was at age nine when her father injured himself climbing out the window of a hotel that had caught on fire.
The institute’s beit midrash (hall of Torah study) swelled with those who came to pay tribute to the founder of the institution that became a beacon of pluralism in a religiously divided city and Jewish world.
Donniel Hartman, who took over from his father as the president of the Hartman Institute, said he suffered from diabetes and congestive heart disease, and his death came after long-term illness.
Following the service, Hartman was buried at Har Hamenuhot in Jerusalem.
Remembered as an open-minded scholar who grappled with tradition for answers to the challenges of modernity, three of his five children and three of his students spoke about his approach to Torah, which placed man and lovingkindness at the center. US Ambassador Daniel Shapiro, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor attended the service.
Tova Hartman, a leading Orthodox feminist and scholar and one of the founders of the Shira Hadasha synagogue in Jerusalem, spoke emotionally about the pride her father felt in bringing people closer to Judaism – from yeshiva students on the verge of leaving religious life to his neighbors in Montreal whom he inspired to build succot.
The last books he recommended to his daughter to read were by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan; Heschel, because he represented unconditional love for the Jewish people, and Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, because he represented honesty.
These intrinsic values defined her father, Tova Hartman said, adding that he and Maimonides, the medieval rationalist Torah scholar, were one and the same in her mind.
As a testament to his multidenominational approach, students of David Hartman from different movements of Judaism spoke at the funeral about his power and passion as a teacher and the generation of Jewish leaders he inspired.
Elliott Yagod, who was a close friend and student of Hartman's for 51 years, said his teacher’s ability to engage his students was the result of his personal dynamics, his humor and his psychological understanding of people and human interactions.
“But to a large extent it was also due to his ability to articulate dramatically… the concrete implications, philosophic and legal concepts, the narratives of the Jewish tradition,” said Yagod, calling himself a lifelong student of Hartman.
“He communicated his excitement with the ideas of the texts he taught and his students often discovered a new appreciation for the parts of their own lives previously unknown to them.
They discovered new meaning in their identities as Jews and as reflective human beings.”
Yagod summarized Hartman’s philosophy on Judaism and Jewish education as deeply rational, independent and advocating a universal human identity, while also possessing an abiding belief in Zionism.
“He always preferred analysis and clarification of opposing views over authoritative pronouncements of what is right and what is required. In contrast to a religious outlook that is obsessed with authority, he believed in a viability of a religious sensibility informed by sincere and well-reasoned discussion,” he said. “Second, his national communal identity did not compete with or exclude his universal human identity.”
In Hartman’s words, Yagod quoted, “the God of Sinai and the God of creation are one and the same.” Or in his more provocative voice, “there is no more a Jewish morality than there is a Jewish science.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke about the first class he took with Hartman at Hebrew University in 1975 – a course on philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Maimonides and Judah Halevy – that was actually about basketball.
“A class with David was a fast break,” he said, to light laughter. “There were passes that went back and forth, blocked shots, ideas that just didn’t take flight. But the point was to strip everything away that was false, everything that was pretend and get to the inner part of what was real.
“I can tell you that sitting in David’s class was as if someone had turned on the lights in a previously dark room.”
The experience inspired him to become a rabbi, and he later studied under Hartman in a three-year program at the institute. He said his beloved teacher taught him to love and quarrel with every text he met.
Jacobs emphasized the distance between Hartman’s respect for diversity and the prevalent Orthodox Judaism that does not embrace pluralism.
“I discovered what many of us in the beit midrash today know: that there were no others like him. His brand of Judaism was fearless, always evolving and changing. It was brutally honest. It was alive and it defied every single label and yet at all times it was authentic. A more inspiring and challenging teacher you could not find.”
Hartman believed “our sustenance as a people must come from being a Jewish community that values many authentic paths to Jewish commitment,” he said. “You are the reason that so many of us not only live in the world of Torah but carry your teaching and try with all of our hearts to build upon it.
“May we have even a fraction of Rabbi Hartman’s insight and backbone as we help shape a more compelling Judaism for the next generations and may the Holy One continue to bless this remarkably brilliant, amazing family that is proud to call David not just their teacher but their pillar.”
Born in 1931 into an ultra-Orthodox, impoverished family in Brooklyn, New York, Hartman studied at the Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey and later under Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a principle figure in the history of modern Orthodoxy, who ordained him as a rabbi at Yeshiva University in New York.
In 1960, Hartman founded a Montreal synagogue and became the community’s first rabbi. He immigrated to Israel in 1971 with his wife and children and lectured on Jewish thought at the Hebrew University for over 20 years. He published dozens of books throughout his career including two about Maimonides, one on Soloveitchik and two about his own spiritual path.
Hartman established the landmark institute bearing his father’s name in 1976. It has educated multitudes of rabbis and teachers from Israel and the Diaspora, and over 1,000 IDF officers, and has sponsored Hartman junior high and high schools and a think tank.
Hartman is survived by five children, 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
He is also survived by his former wife, Barbara.