The Rabbi Who Hated Lies
David Hartman, my late study partner, wanted to be a great rabbi. He ended up in a war for Judaism’s future.
When he was a yeshiva boy growing up in a poor Hasidic family in the Orthodox enclave of Brownsville, Brooklyn, David Hartman’s consuming spiritual objective was to limit, to the greatest extent possible, the amount of time he spent on anything other than Torah study. His singular dream was to someday join the company of the rabbis he so revered as one of his generation’s leading interpreters of the sacred Jewish canon.
But fate—a deterministic concept at which Hartman, a Maimonides scholar who rose to become one of his generation’s greatest Jewish philosophers, would certainly have scoffed—had other things in mind. His powerful drive to take a role of intellectual leadership among his people remained, but it was channeled into areas like Zionism, pluralism, and ecumenism that were at best foreign concepts, and at worst four-letter words, within the environment of his upbringing. Ultimately, he would go on to smash the idols of his youth while remaining both deeply affectionate—and perpetually enraged—toward ultra-Orthodoxy.
“I was a good yeshiva boy,” he often said, “until I started to read.”
Hartman, who died Sunday morning after a long illness at age 81, came to be regarded as one of the preeminent rabbis and theologians of our time. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, he moved to Israel and built a world-renowned institute named for his father that would teach the value of religious pluralism to thousands, bringing rabbis, priests, and imams (and perhaps more impressively, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis) into dialogue with one another. Almost single-handedly, he cleared out a space for a new type of Jewish conversation—one in which the greatest philosophical minds grappled with our traditions—and in the process created a new range of possibilities for how to be Jewish. As he inspired multiple generations of Jewish leaders with the combination of his scholarship and fiercely independent thinking, he perhaps unsurprisingly garnered the condemnation of the Orthodox establishment, who accused him of rebellion and heresy.
In the past few days, Hartman has been remembered for his dynamic classes, his embrace of religious pluralism, his Maimonidean openness, and his vision of Zionism as creating the possibility for a cultural and moral renaissance in the context of a sovereign Jewish state. But I will remember Hartman—whom I had the privilege of working with closely for the last three years of his life—as the person who gave me, a lost yeshiva boy from a very different world than the one he came from, the tools to build a rich, dignified Jewish identity for myself.
When I came to work with Hartman three and a half years ago, he was approaching 80 and in the process of transitioning out of a hands-on leadership role as president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, the research and teaching institute he founded in 1976. The institute, with its centrally located Jerusalem campus and its reputation for confronting the intersection between tradition and modernity, was a fixture in the city. I had known it by sight, and reputation, for years. But for most of those years, I myself had been a good Orthodox yeshiva student, and the institute was too liberal for me. So, I’d kept my distance.
Hartman was still delivering his weekly lecture series to a packed house, but he was in the midst of turning over the institutional torch to his son. And after a five-decade-long career in which he had published eight books, he still had a few more things he urgently wanted to get down in print.
I was also in the midst of a professional transition. I had recently stepped down as the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in the East Village. More existentially, though, I had stepped down from being an Orthodox Jew. After eight years spent immersed in the day-night Torah study routine of the yeshiva—a time during which I accepted a high degree of social and intellectual insularity in trade for the possibility of sustained, intensive focus on spiritual growth—I’d gone out into the world of institutional Orthodoxy and found that it bore little resemblance to the Judaism that had nurtured me and that I’d been ordained to teach and share. If Hartman was a good yeshiva boy until he started to read, I was one until I became a rabbi.
For the first time in nearly two decades, I was searching—not only for a new career, but for a new language to describe what it was about Orthodoxy that had ultimately disappointed me and for the right concepts and categories to help me understand the possibilities for what kind of Jew I wanted to be. Through a professional connection, I was approached about working with David as his editor, which would also involve moving to Jerusalem and being his hevruta, or study partner. The job description was that Hartman would bring out books—whether the Talmud, Maimonides, Eric Fromm, or William James—we’d read passages together, and he’d talk out his ideas. I would listen, ask questions, challenge him, and offer alternative ways of formulating things.
“I hope you’ll come, and come quickly,” he said over the phone in 2009, urging me to accept the job with his signature combination of charm, impatience, and Jewish guilt. “We’ve got a lot of important work to do together, and I’m not sure how long I have left.”
Three or four days a week I would go over to his apartment on Miriam the Prophetess Street, and we would sit in his office and read and discuss. I would take notes on my laptop, and sometimes, when he got on a roll, I would transcribe what he said more or less verbatim, sometimes for hours on end.
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