Tributes are pouring in from many quarters and segments of the Jewish and non-Jewish world about Rabbi David Hartman who passed away earlier this week. I had the privilege of being selected to participate in the first contingent of an intensive three year program of studies for 30 rabbis from across the US and across the ideological perspective.
We met in Israel for one month each summer for three years, for a week in February and a three hour weekly study session when we were in our home communities. The program was typical Hartman in that it reflected some of the best of his thinking. First of all, it was text based. We read, studied and grappled with the meaning of traditional sources from the Bible, rabbinic literature and medieval writings. We also studied the writings of modern Jewish and Zionist thinkers. The second aspect was that we were exposed, like the collection of rabbis in the group, to a broad potpourri of different ideas and approaches that were placed in conflict with each other. Finally, it was significant that the seminars emanated from Israel. It was the encapsulation of the prophetic vision, “For out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of The Lord from Jerusalem.”
The first time I heard David speak was to a small group at the JCC in Baltimore. He was simultaneously brilliant, provocative, animated, inspiring, and entertaining. One particularly memorable lecture in our program was late one afternoon about the philosophy of Moses Maimonides. After a fascinating exposition on his understanding of the Rambam, as he ruminated about some of the contradictions in his work, David closed his fist and proclaimed with profound joy, “I’ve got you. I finally have figured you out!” It was almost as if we had witnessed that exciting “Aha moment” experienced by a scientist making a great discovery or breakthrough.
When David invited me to be a part of the program, he told me he was looking for rabbis like me who were serious about Judaism and who were grappling with the ideas of our tradition. I recall that he told me that he had done his best thinking and formulated much of his outlook and perspective about Judaism when he was a congregational rabbi in Canada, and encouraged me to continue to do so while serving my congregation.
From him and the outstanding collection of teachers in the program I learned much Torah and even more, a way to study Torah. Among other things I came to understand that Talmudic arguments and disputes between rabbis were not just picayune or trivial, but often reflect profound philosophical differences in approach.
But the most important thing I learned from Rabbi Hartman was something that has stayed with me and has affected me as a rabbi and in my personal life as well. It was amazingly simple. He said that he made Aliyah to Israel for one simple reason: because he listened to his sermons. This message has stayed with me ever since and has influenced how I write my sermons and more importantly, how I try to live my life.
May his memory be for a blessing.
Also published on Medium.