A Tribute to David Hartman
Posted on Feb 11, 2013
The Jewish world, both in Israel and the Diaspora, lost a great teacher, thinker, and institution builder yesterday when Rabbi David Hartman (z”l) passed away in Jerusalem after a long illness. Many of us also lost a good friend. I happened to be in Florida this weekend, and was talking with Rabbi David Steinhardt on Shabbat afternoon about how much David Hartman meant to each of us, how he had touched our souls and inspired our minds. Sunday morning, we consoled one another for his loss. My friend David Ellenson and I did the same a few minutes later, fighting back tears. It was so with many rabbis, lay leaders, intellectuals, and public figures, including many Gentiles. We will miss David Hartman greatly. We already do.
This is not the moment for full-scale evaluation of David Hartman’s legacy. That will come in time. Today, we are still too close to the man and to the shock of his death. But I do want to reflect briefly on why David was, and will always remain, so important to me and to many others.
One factor is the sheer power and force of his mind. David was a brilliant thinker. Ideas flashed through his brain so fast that he did not always have time to process them before sharing them with the rest of us, and we, his students, did not have the time to consider them before straining to keep up with the next insight David presented. He was famous for speaking in two or more languages simultaneously and not finishing sentences in either of them. I first encountered this as a graduate student in the 1970s at Hebrew University, where I had the good fortune to take a course on the halakhic and philosophical issues surrounding the concepts Children of Noah and ger v’toshav (resident alien). It helped me a lot that a Hartman class, though officially conducted in Hebrew, always featured a good measure of English. It helped me even more that I, who had come to Israel both for academic reasons and to deepen my relationship as a Jew with Judaism and with Israel, had a teacher who embodied those commitments. Talmud and Maimonides, for David Hartman, were not subjects in a curriculum, but challenging guides for individual and collective Jewish lives. Never was a teacher more passionate. Few could command the material as David Hartman could—and command his students by means of the material. He made it speak to their hearts and souls as much as to their minds. David took me aside more than once that year for conversation, and then never stopped taking me aside. He did this for countless people. Our devotion to Judaism and Israel are inseparable from our relationship to him.
That is so, in large part, because of David Hartman’s message. Just look at the titles of several works in English, so expressive of the man and what he stood for. In 1978, he published Joy and Responsibility: Israel, Modernity and the Renewal of Judaism. Every single article in that collection both teaches and preaches. The learning is marshaled to the cause of moving the reader to accept the challenge of making Judaism come alive in a sovereign State of Israel and a Diaspora where almost every door is opened before Jews. He envisioned halakhah not as a set of dos and don’ts, but as the “ground for creating a shared spiritual language.” He warned of the tensions between “Sinai and Messianism,” a matter of great urgency, given the rise of Gush Emunim. He wrote about and personified “The Joy of the Torah.” The closest thing to a Hartman magnum opus is perhaps A Living Covenant (1985), which bore the Hartmanian subtitle The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism. Once again, Hartman exposited halakhah in a fresh, dynamic way, drawing upon his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, but applying his methods—and applying them to Israel—in ways that the Rav had not done. The book is deep, honest, piercing. It wrestles as much as it asserts. That is all the more true in two more recent collections: A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices Within Judaism (1999; the title says it all, I think) and The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition (2011), as direct and powerful a dose of Hartman as one could hope for.
I conclude with a final aspect of the gift that was David Hartman, one I will try to capture with two reminiscences. The first is Hartman on stage before thousands at a General Assembly of the Federations in the 1980s or early ’90s. He stood far away, on a dais, yet touched people as much during the lecture as he did before and after when he moved through the crowd and literally put his hands on hundreds of shoulders. The glasses came off and on, the talk was punctuated with laughter and—it seemed—tears. I felt like the man on stage was talking to me personally and, from the faces all around me, I inferred that others too felt this way. How David Hartman did this again and again I do not know. I saw him reach people even more directly in smaller rooms of 50 or 100: same effect, same remarkable ability to move people and get their minds working at the very same moment.
And this was the David Hartman that we got to know one on one, and to whom I last spoke in his living room this past November: the man who not only loved the Jewish People in general, wished so much for it, was so frustrated at what it could achieve but failed to achieve, but who also loved individual members of the Jewish People (and many others too). David always wanted the most from the people he befriended—demanded it by urging them on—and gave us the charge to give all we could to the task, lest we fail those who count on us and fail ourselves. I was not privy to the medical details of David Hartman’s illnesses in his final years (though I did hear enough to get me worrying about his survival), but I do know that he was a man who just did not hold back. He threw everything he had into the projects he built in Israel (often in the face of concerted opposition from Orthodox authorities), just as he threw himself into every class, every speech, every conversation. He was larger than life because he poured all of his substantial gifts—his nefesh, his life force—into being David Hartman.
May his family and all who mourn him find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, on both of which he has left a substantial mark. May all of us who care about the life of the Jewish People, and the vitality of Torah, strive to do our best for those causes, and so not let David down.