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.
Is there anything more vertigo-inducing than realizing you are never going to hear a certain voice again? Hartman had a big, impatient Brooklyn voice, one that never lost its Yiddish accent or the speech patterns of the Beit Midrash. When I would read over what we’d written out loud to him, if I paused too long after a paragraph he’d jump in: “Aright! Let’s go.”
But like many great personalities, Hartman could be mercurial and insensitive, not always a model of menschiness. Only once did I experience firsthand the signs of the flaring temper about which I had heard rumors. He was frustrated by my inability to understand his explanation of a Talmudic passage. His pitch and volume increased every time he tried to re-explain it, until finally he exploded. “What are you, an idiot?” he demanded to know.
In that explosion I felt I could see David, the young yeshiva-boy, being yelled at by his rebbe and applying himself even harder to grasp the teaching at hand. In a strange way I experienced it as a sign of our increasing closeness. So, I just matter-of-factly asked him, “What are you screaming about?” In response, he paused, thought about it for a beat, smiled, and said: “That’s a very good question.” Which was the best compliment a person could ever receive from David Hartman.
There is something very unnerving about going over the notes of a man who will never return to peruse them. Notes are inherently optimistic, premised on an eventual ordering and completion. In their patterns and recurring themes, they also leave a strong imprint of personality.
Looking at the notes I took from our time working together, I find myself struck by how miscast Hartman was as a Jewish rebel. Don’t misunderstand: He relished the role, partly because it proved the stupidity of his detractors. His Orthodox critics never understood that his criticism and creative reinterpretations of the tradition were not offered out of religious spite, or a desire to lead their adherents astray, but to protect Judaism and the Jewish people from them—from Orthodoxy’s corrupting distortions of the tradition, from their claims to exclusive authenticity. He knew the Orthodox leadership’s perpetual constrictions, prohibitions, and negative pronouncements left precious little room for modern Jews to find or create a meaningful Judaism for themselves. In that sense, he saw the Orthodox establishment as robbing the majority of the world’s Jews of access to their birthright.
“I’m fighting a war,” he told me, “on the monopoly of certain people on truth, on the understanding of what Judaism is.”
Ultimately, his war was over whether “authority”—whose obsessive focus among the Orthodox, particularly haredi fundamentalists he saw as a function of anxiety rather than piety—would be allowed to become the dominant Jewish religious category of the modern era. He felt tortured by the fact that the tradition had become the jurisdiction of fundamentalists, on whom it was mostly lost. He favored a more open-ended approach to religious life in which Jewish practice is treated as an open-ended field of experimentation. “I don’t want order!” I can remember him shouting. “I want vibrancy, passion, people to have a stake in it, lay claim to it, feel it’s theirs, it doesn’t belong to anybody else. There’s plenty of order in a graveyard.”
Still, he did not primarily see himself as a warrior. Throughout my notes, and my memories, he is far more likely to refer to himself as a storyteller, a protective family member. “I often tell people, I bracket the truth question: I’m just going to tell you the story as it comes. Study is a way of telling the story, this is the autobiography of the Jewish people, through the medium of its forms of life. Is it true? I have no idea. I can just tell you that Jews heard the story, and interpreted it in a certain way, to make it their story. The interpretive process was never interested in fact. It was: Can this story tell me something about my life?” Then, more softly, he concluded, “That’s what I mean when I call himself a storyteller.”
“I am a family Jew,” I often heard him say, and this proclamation is repeated throughout my notes over the three years I worked with him. “Unfortunately, my family is disintegrating. … I am a lover who is trying to preserve some remnants of his love.”
Hartman often contrasted his thinking to that of Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose focus on the individual in confrontation with God was in some ways the mirror image of Hartman’s call for collective dignity. “I’m different [from Heschel]: I start with my father singing a niggun, at the Shabbes table, where the family can fight and love, in a living, vibrant place. I want to see my father’s excitement at getting a beautiful esrog. I want to see him feeling dignified even though he was poor, Friday night when my mother served him fish: the head of the fish, to make him feel he was the head of the family. Shabbes turned a poor man into a dignified man who could sing,” he said in one of our sessions.
“The tragedy is that the self-appointed carriers of the music, in between the fish and the soup courses of Shabbes dinner, are carrying stones to throw at passing cars, to build up an appetite for the chicken. And on the way, they are arguing about the halakhic implications of the size of the stones.”
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