Growing up, David Hartman was not a good student. Born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to poor immigrants from Jerusalem, his teachers often told him he would never amount to anything. He was accepted to Yeshiva University because of his skills in basketball, not academics.
Yet he became one of the most important Jewish voices of his generation. Rabbi Hartman, who died this week at the age of 81, was a rabbi’s rabbi and philosopher’s philosopher. More Socrates than Plato, he was a fiery personality whose thirst for authenticity and love of a good question was never quenched.
He wrote award-winning books, but above all David Hartman was a teacher. Through the Shalom Hartman Institute, named for his father, he raised a generation of game-changing students — academics, educators and rabbis; philosophers, theologians and lay leaders — who have re-shaped modern Jewish discourse. My father, Noam Zion, was one of his earliest students in Jerusalem, and I had the privilege of growing up in the community he inspired. I first opened a Talmud in his beit midrash and studied with him over the last two decades.
Here are a few of the things I learned there.
A class with Dovid, as he was called, often began with him opening a book and removing his kipa. It was an absent-minded move, but one that represented his commitment to unhindered free thought and his irreverence towards authority. One of his favorite Talmudic passages asks how Daniel and Jeremiah dared to change something that Moses has prescribed. “The rabbis, since they knew God to be real, could not lie about him,” retorts the Talmud (Yoma 69). Indeed, as the title of his last book says, Rabbi Hartman’s God is a “God Who Hates Lies.” Often misunderstood by his critics is the fact that Rabbi Hartman’s demand for honesty in religious discourse stemmed from his deep loyalty to Jewish tradition and love of the Jewish people. To avoid a question would be an insult to the deep reality of God; apologetics were an affront to the truths of the Jewish community.
Seeking a place where God and Judaism’s reality were truly tested, Rabbi Hartman moved from the comfort of Montreal, where he led a large and successful synagogue, to Israel in 1971. There he found himself stuck between a secular Zionist establishment and a zealous, Gush Emunim form of Religious Zionism. Both were messianic in nature, seeking to erase difference in the name of melting-pot unity. But Rabbi Hartman sought to conserve differences as a path to truth. His Zionism demanded a return to the Talmud, where a passionate pluralism and a constant reinterpretation of Judaism could lead to a vibrant society. This pluralistic vision is today inspiring hundreds of rabbis, educators and community leaders in North America, from across denominational divides, and has spawned a renaissance of Israeli-Jewish identity in Zion.
Like many of his students, my Sinai is a mountain that Rabbi Hartman built, even when I chose a different path. My vision for Zion is inspired by his idea of what a vibrant Jewish community could look like. When I last saw him in Jerusalem a few months ago, he kept asking me, “But are you still learning, really learning?” I’d like to believe I am.
Rabbi Hartman would often portray the tension between two of our most basic stories about God and Man: The God who commanded Abraham to silently offer up his son at the Akedah and the God who sought out Abraham’s questioning of the morality of destroying Sodom.
Rabbi Hartman’s teacher, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, championed the Akedah, demanding that human will and modern morality be bound up on the altar of Divine authority. Rabbi Hartman believed in the God of Sodom, who invites Abraham and his offspring to constantly challenge him. At Sodom, Abraham accuses God of hypocrisy: “Will the Judge of the entire land not do justice?” (Genesis 18).
Rabbi Hartman treated his beloved teacher with this respect, repeatedly challenging Rabbi Soloveitchik in his writings; this was also what he expected of his students: argue, challenge, question — that is the most respectful and loving act one can offer our tradition.
Rabbi Hartman the teacher constantly taught us to demand more: from people, from texts, from God. In Hebrew “to demand” means lidrosh, similar to the term “midrash.” In his presence, the Beit Midrash became more than a house of study. It was a “house of demanding.” Rabbi Hartman sought to bridge the various parts of the Jewish community by placing the beit midrash, the house of learning, at the center of the Jewish experience. While many sought to spread a big tent over Clal Yisrael by lowering the bar of agreement to the lowest common denominator, Rabbi Hartman sought to raise the bar of disagreement, a disagreement made possible only because if was fueled by a deep love for the Jewish people. Where others placed the synagogue, the secular Jewish state or the federation at the center, Rabbi Hartman championed the beit midrash as the place where Jews should meet.
At the center of the Hartman Institute campus in Jerusalem stands a spacious and sun-filled beit midrash. Any day of the week it will fill up with rambunctious high school students, American rabbis, secular Israeli teachers, IDF officers, theologians and philosophers from around the world. They enter to learn, argue and grow. While Dovid’s voice will no longer ring through that room as it once did, his challenge to create a Jewish community with a beit midrash at its center will continue to ring in the ears of his students for generations to come.
Rabbi Mishael Zion studied and taught at the Hartman Institute and is the co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships. He is the author, together with his father, Noam Zion, of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices,” the sequel to Noam Zion’s bestselling “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah,” popularly known as “The Hartman Haggadah.” Zion blogs at Text and the City.