Remembering Rabbi Dr. David Hartman

By Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler

The Jewish world has lost a master ‘melamed’ with the passing of Rabbi Dr. David Hartman. I have lost a trusted teacher and guide. Fortunate was I for the opportunity to study at his feet and be invited into his inner circle. I will always look back at the invitation to participate in the Hartman Institute’s first cohort of long term rabbinic fellows as a high point in my rabbinic career and continuing education. “Reb Duvie” shared of himself and his incredible insights in an unstinting way. There were no holds barred. He was as frank as he was loving; honest to a fault, intellectually and emotionally. He respected rabbis and was committed through what he created in the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI or the Machon) to providing a safe haven for rabbis of all streams in Judaism to flex their intellectual muscles and stretch their souls.

As he learned early on in his own seventeen years as a pulpit rabbi the rabbinate can be lonely and isolating. He also realized the restrictive nature and traditions of standing institutions. Despite his ability to fill his Hebrew University classes with eager students hungry for his humor-filled and energized lectures he remained the perennial outsider. Old world scholars who engaged in intellectual esoterica resented what they saw as his populous pedagogies. He was a philosopher and Maimonidean scholar who was relegated to the Faculty of Education, marginalized on account of his magnetic appeal.

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So he created SHI first for rabbis and later on expanded its reach to embrace philosophers and theologians from across the globe. Where other existing frameworks proved limiting and closed to a more expansive approach to Jewish learning he created “his own sphere of influence” where he nurtured scholars whom he provided with an intellectual berth and home for reflection and research. The Machon became a veritable ‘think tank’ that nourished the Jewish world in Israel and North America through its model programs of enrichment for rabbis, educators and soldiers alike.

Reb Duvie loved to engage his students. If you were his talmid there were no pretenses. He freely shared his joys and his “oys” with us.  He was totally transparent. We were treated to his expressions of pain around personal loss and disappointment and his ensuing struggles with faith. We heard and interfaced with his frustration around issues in the Orthodox world that at one time more accurately defined him.  Here as his Orthodox Rabbinic soul mate  I became unusually engaged in an ongoing dialogue and debate, one that he welcomed and encouraged, in which we negotiated our views of a world we both knew and needed, even if he was not always as hopeful or indulgent as I still believed possible and necessary. Still he remained loyal to the methodology of the Yeshiva world that nurtured and raised him. In essence he never left the “kotlei Beit Midrash” as was evident in the way he taught a sugya in Shas to all rabbis regardless of background or persuasion.  He didn’t apologize for the yeshiva ‘bachur” manner that never left him. He loved a good niggun and sought to humanize his learning without diminishing its content or rigor. Among his key statements that became spiritual portable tools for his talmidim were catch phrases such as “being is in relationship,” and the need for a “reflective Judaism” as well as a proper return to our “interpretive tradition”.

Rabbi David Hartman was widely admired and wildly successful as a pulpit rabbi in North America. But he saw in the nascent Jewish state in the aftermath of the ’67 victory a much longed for possibility of a Judaism realized and reflected in everyday life; actualized in all aspects of Israeli civic and political life; in its streets and businesses; in its mundane moments and prosaic points; in its synagogues and study halls. Transcendence was not the product of Torah’s ivory tower alone but flowed forth from a holiness harvested in our activities of daily life. The sobering realities of religious polarization and government corruption; the drain of an endless, existential threat, the loss of the country’s best and brightest including his own son-in-law, a celebrated Israeli Air Force pilot, R. Ahrele Katz, took a personal emotional toll. Yet he remained ever more committed to speak truth to wisdom, and to demand more of himself and others. Israel reborn represented the best laboratory experience of the Jewish people.  For David Hartman it was a beckoning backdrop against which to design a dynamic Jewish future.

When necessary, and it was often and not incidental, he moved from defender to critic. Yet, it was an innate sense of ahavat Yisrael that animated his being, not in the conventional sense of unconditional positive regard, but in a more difficult and demanding way. It was manifest in his forbearance and ability to privilege true conversation and allow for different views and opinions. Most compelling was his recognition that ultimately, “Torah is the common language of the Jewish people”. He stressed this always and he built the Machon on this cornerstone value. Nowhere else can one see and experience so many people of varied backgrounds together struggling over a common text, in a shared search for meaning even if their personal quests are by no means similar.

Words are woefully inadequate to express Reb Duvie’s influence on my life and my family. Our son Yoni was privileged to study at and graduate from his high school. Our daughters Dorona and Sunni, incredulous at the thought of him gone from this world, both commented on his boundless intellectual and emotional energy and credited our summers together in and around the Machon as an experience that changed our family and our shared connection to Israel. What I will miss most is his candor and his caring, realized in the license and liberty he granted me and countless others to explore ideas and issues inside a text and around an experience or sentiment, in a nurturing environment, and from a treasure trove of seminal thinkers.  He was a unique man who led a life of exceptional accomplishments, who built an oasis of learning that is without parallel or peer, yet who remained restless and even tragically unsettled and unfulfilled until the day he died. In this sense he was not alone or unlike so many giants of our faith.   

In the words of our Chazal, “chaval al d’avdin delo’mishtakhchin,” “woe it is for those who are lost to us and cannot be replaced”.   

Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler is a Musmach of RIETS and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He serves as the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, N.J.