Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
15 February 2013 • Parshat T'rumah
David and Ruth
The Jewish world lost a giant this past Sunday, when Rabbi David Hartman died at the age of 81, after a long illness.
He was best known for Shalom Hartman Institute (named for his father), which he founded in 1976 in Jerusalem. There he brought together Jews, Christians, Muslims -- and also (as one commenter said, maybe more impressively!) Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Rabbis for study and dialogue together!
Hartman grew up in a poor Hasidic family in Brooklyn, and he spent all the time he could immersed in Torah. He once said, “I was a good yeshiva boy until I started to read.” He developed a kind of love-hate relationship with ultra-Orthodox Judaism. He was a fierce critic, but his criticism came from being a fierce defender. For him, the two were inseparable.
In his theology, Hartman was fiercely pluralistic. “I’m fighting a war on the monopoly of certain people on truth, on the understanding of what Judaism is.” He pitted himself against Orthodoxy’s excessive fixation on authority, which he thought came from anxiety, not piety. He wanted to reclaim tradition, and to re-inject it with a spirit of open-ended experimentation. He said: “I don’t want order! 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.”
Family was at the center of Hartman's Jewish orientation; he was not focused on the individual Jew as much as the Jewish family unit, and the Jewish People. He saw the Shabbat table as metaphor: in his childhood, his father’s niggun (wordless melody) would set the tone, and they sit around the table, a family who fights and loves and lives together with vibrancy. He also spoke of the dignity of the Shabbat meal, even for a poor family:
“Shabbes turned a poor man into a dignified man who could sing... 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.”
Hartman was a storyteller and teacher, by nature. He once wrote:
“I realized then that my task was not to proselytize, but to counter indifference by cultivating an awareness of Jewish tradition as a theological and cultural option that commands attention, that cannot easily be dismissed. My years in the rabbinate taught me pedagogical empathy: a teacher must begin at the place of the students, listen before speaking, hear and share in the deep estrangement of Jews from their tradition - to enter that estrangement and to try to understand the roots of modern Jewish alienation” ("From Defender to Critic," xii).
In a speech called “Extremism trumping rationality in Modern world" Hartman said:
I joke that the only reason the mashiach has not come is that he wouldn’t have a kosher place to eat in. Wherever he would go there would be a group of Jews who would say that the place itself does not meet the highest standards of kashrut. Who would want to come into a world where you would starve to death?
He was deeply worried that we’ve given up on the rational capacity of human beings to build a decent life. This presents a profound challenge to the future of the Jewish people.
All that said about Hartman's critique of Orthodoxy... as one of his students Yossi Klein Halevi put it, “Even as he challenged Orthodox Judaism to broaden, he challenged liberal Judaism to deepen.”
If we are to accept his fierce critique of Orthodox Judaism as too anxious about authority, too passionless and too exclusive, then we must acknowledge his critique of us as well. If we are to be authentic dialogue partners in shaping the Jewish future, then we must engage seriously with the ideas and behaviors of Judaism. If we assign ourselves, consciously or not, the role of casual observer, then that’s what we’ll be, and the future of Judaism will be guided by the extremists whom Hartman spent his career criticizing, even as he respected the depth of their engagement with Jewish tradition.
* * *
Hartman's legacy is alive and well today, and continues to inspire Jews of all kinds. One example of his influence appeared before the Knesset this week as a new member of the Yesh Atid (There is a future) party, which shocked the pundits by winning 19 seats in its first election. Her name is Ruth Calderon. Years ago, she founded a "secular yeshiva" in Tel Aviv -- think about that phrase for a moment. Last week she took the opportunity of her inaugural Knesset address to teach a little Talmud.
Rabbi Rechumei was constantly before Rava in Mechoza. He would habitually come home every Yom Kippur eve. One day the topic drew him in. His wife anticipated him: “Here he comes. Here he comes.” He didn’t come. She became upset. She shed a tear from her eye. He was sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him, and he died. (Ketubot 62b)
Calderon drew from this text a lesson for the modern state of Israel. It’s an allegory for the secular and religious Israelis -- the wife on the home-front, the great Torah Sage on the roof -- both of whom believe they are taking care of the home, both of whom feel that they bear a burden alone that the other is unwilling or unable to bear.
In her words:
Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work while others sit on the roof and study Torah; sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition, Torah, and our culture while we go to the beach and have a blast. Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution...
Calderon goes on to thank her mentor, Rabbi David Hartman -- with his courageous commitment to an inclusive Judaism -- for opening his beit midrash to her, thereby opening the rich world of rabbinic debate which has made her a more committed Jew and a better Israeli.
And, as if scripted, during her teaching of the passage of gemara, a Shas MK (Sephardic Orthodox party), Yitzhak Vaknin, interrupted her -- not, as you might expect, to silence or harangue her -- but in support. “I think the idea she is saying is wonderful...” he said. And Calderon’s reply: “I am happy about this participation in words of Torah.”
As one of the online commenters said, “I don't understand how Moshiach did not come at this very moment. Beautiful.”
Near the end of her remarks, Calderon included this hope for the future:
I aspire to bring about a situation in which Torah study is the heritage of all Israel, in which the Torah is accessible to all who wish to study it, in which all young citizens of Israel take part in Torah study as well as military and civil service. Together we will build this home and avoid disappointment.
Through a new commitment to pluralism, Israel might avoid the tragic outcome of the Talmud story, where the roof caves in, all that’s left are ruin, death and grief. Instead, if we all embrace Rabbi Hartman’s legacy, and Ruth Calderon’s vision of a diverse but unified future, then our homeland -- the State of Israel -- will be stronger for it. And we Jews worldwide might become a more powerful force for good and truth, for lovingkindness, and for the greatest blessing, Shalom.
In MK Calderon’s final words of prayer for entering the Knesset (written by Chaim Hames), we conclude:
May it be Your will, Lord our God, God of our fathers and mothers, that I leave this house as I entered it – at peace with myself and with others.