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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.

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Rabbi David Hartman, 2006. (Courtesy Shalom Hartman Institute)

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.

If Hartman was a good yeshiva boy until he started to read, I was one until I became a rabbi.

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.

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,’ Hartman told me, ‘on the monopoly of certain people on truth, on the understanding of what Judaism is.’

“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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At the age of 10 I was already an atheist having lost my parents in the Shoa. In the Jewish orphanage I became a believer again even studying the Talmud. So now that I am of course again in possession of the 10 year old wisdom I still have a warm feeling for Judaism. The appeal of the haredim as a teen has worn out long ago. I regard them as a new Judaism that has little to do with the warm Judaism of my teens. The Torah’s Miriam dancing and chanting to praise God is anathema to Haredim. The advise to shave the head of a enemy prisoner woman before marrying her if still in love then is replaced by married women having to shave their head, not to sing in presence of men let alone dance. Their black uniform in the heat and sun of Israel is mind bugling! The Bible story how volunteered for a military expedition were tested by drinking water is replaced by not serving because their Torah study while Rabbi’s of Talmudic time all had day jobs. Parasites all!

    Laila Rasheed says:

    Hi Poupic,

    Parasites are very interesting creatures!

    Richard Dawkins has a few good articles on these critters.

    Not wanting to sound anti-Jew, but Parasites & Jews have a lot in common.

    Why did the Good Lord create these critters?

    Now that would make a good book:

    Why Did The Good Lord Create Jews & Parasites?

      Reptilian2012 says:

      Hi Ms. Rasheed,

      Monkeys are very interesting creatures!

      Not wanting to sound anti-Arab, but those dim-witted hairy bastards sure have a lot in common with their tree-climbing cousins.

        Laila Rasheed says:

        Arabs, those dim-witted hairy bastards sure have a lot in common with their tree-climbing cousins the JEWS!

      Better question: why did the good Lord create racist, bigoted small-minded people like you who would condemn millions of people based on their religious beliefs?
      My Arab and Muslim friends would be very ashamed of you…

        Laila Rasheed says:

        YOU HAVE MOHAMMEDAN FRIENDS?

        MOHAMMED HATED JEWS!

        HE HAD 900 BEHEADED IN ONE DAY!

          Pathetic troll is pathetic.

          Laila Rasheed says:

          Hi Loonywatch Johnson

          Jewish settlers vandalize Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem

          (Al-Akhbar)

          Suspected Jewish settlers damaged 30 graves and scrawled anti-Arab graffiti on the headstones in an ancient Muslim cemetery in west Jerusalem, Israeli police and witnesses said on Thursday.

          “The words ‘price tag’ and Stars of David were scrawled on around a dozen tombs in the Muslim cemetery in Mamilla in central Jerusalem,” a police spokeswoman told AFP, saying an inquiry had been opened.

          An AFP correspondent at the scene said the vandals had also written “Mohammad is dead” and “Maale Rehavam” on the tombs some of which date back to the 12th century.

          Maale Rehavam is an illegal outpost in the southern West Bank where Israeli police removed six caravans a day earlier.

          The move sparked angry protests by settlers and their supporters in and around Jerusalem.

          The Al-Aqsa Foundation, a Jerusalem-based religious and archeological preservation group, said wine glasses were found in the area and 30 graves were damaged.

          In a statement, the foundation held Israeli Israeli authorities responsible for the attack and urged Islamic countries to intervene to end attacks on Muslim and Christian sites in the holy city.

          Price tag is a euphemism for hate crimes carried out by Israeli extremists which generally target Palestinians or Arabs and their property.

          There have been several attacks on Mamilla graveyard, known in Arabic as Ma’man Allah cemetery, which dates from the 12th century and is the resting place of several Sufi saints.

          Descendants of those interred in the west Jerusalem cemetery say it also houses the remains of soldiers and officials of legendary Muslim ruler Saladin.

          How is this story relevant to our discussion? You can’t hate a group of people (in this case: Jews) just because they did something bad. If you do that, you’ll end hating every single group of people.

          Laila Rasheed says:

          MOHAMMEDANISM: THE CULT OF DEATH

          VIOLENT JIHAD & ISLAM GO TOGETHER

          THERE CAN NEVER BE PEACE WITH MUSLIMS!

          THEY HATE ALL NON MUSLIMS.

          IT’S THEIR RELIGIOUS OBLIGATION!

          For reference, some verses in the QUR’AN that contain the word, or form of the word “JIHAD”: 3:136,142; 4:95,97; 5:35,54,59; 8:72,74,75; 9:16,19,20,24,41,44, 73,74,81-82, 86,87,88; 16:110-111; 22:77-78; 25:52; 29:5,6,7,8,69; 31:14-15; 47: 31,33; 49:15; 60:1; 61:11; 66:9.

          You sound so full of hate- i pity you. If you just stopped quoting texts out of context you’ld sound a little wiser. you miss the point in the Quran that says “to you be your religion and to me mine”. Ignorance is dangerous! To also let you know that the age of the Prophet Muhammed, pbuh, wife Ayeshas age is not accurate and many argue that based on her age when she passed on and history according to certain major events: she would have been at least 14/15 yrs old when she married- which was a common age at that time.

          Laila Rasheed says:

          THIS IS ISLAM

          Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: that while he was sitting with Allah’s Apostle he said, “O Allah’s Apostle! We get female captives (JEWISH?) as our share of booty, and we are interested in their prices, what is your opinion about coitus interruptus(RAPE WITHOUT PREGNANCY)?” The Prophet said, “Do you really do that? It is better for you not to PULL OUT. No soul that which Allah has destined to exist, but will surely come into existence.”

          Sahih Bukhari 3:34:432

          EVER HEARD OF MOHAMMED’S JEWISH WIFE SAFIYYA BINT HUYAYY?
          i guess he didn’t hate Jews that much if he married one :P

Rabbi Hartman was critical out of knowledge and love, as a wise parent may be with a child. He articulated where Orthodoxy was losing sight of the big picture.
We shall not see his like again.
Yehi zichro baruch!

David Hartman was an amazing Rabbi. I definitely do feel my Birthright has been stolen by the Haredim. The Haredim and even the National Religious have said terrible things and told big lies about Conservative and Reformed Judaism. It’s a shame when the National associations of both Reformed and Conservative are just mapping out or strategy to combat them that David Hartman the single most influential Rabbi in our fight to take back what is ours is dead. But we need to keep his spirit alive by doing battle with those who would throw us out of the house altogether.

    oaklandj says:

    Minor correction: Reform Judaism, not Reformed. But I agree with your sentiments.

I’ve read numerous tributes to Rabbi Hartman (Z’L’) in recent days and this one is definitely worth reading, keeping, quoting and sharing. Thank you Rav Buckholtz.

Charlie– thank you for this insightful and honest piece– i started to cry by the last paragraph– we lost a great connector of worlds!!

Joe Cashtan says:

I like how when you spoke about how David Hartman used to yell at you, that was a remnant of his Orthodox past. As if this bastion of modernity was perfect, and if there were any flaws, it must be because his terrible Orthodox Rabbi who is utterly undeserving of being judged favorably, must have verbally abused him. Nice touch.

    Laila Rasheed says:

    Charlie Buckholtz was lucky, usually Orthodox sexually abuse young Jewish children!

This was a terrific article. Thank you.
Rabbi David Hartman was a brave and wonderful person, and the article did him just credit.

cipher says:

Excellent article, Charlie. My sincerest condolences on the loss of your friend, teacher and collaborator. He was one of the few lights left in Orthodoxy, arguably the only one with a viable, cogent vision of a liberal, inclusive, truly Modern Orthodoxy.

arktikwolf says:

Menschliness? =mentshlikhkayt=.
Thanks for your informative article.

Laila Rasheed says:

Jesus of Nazareth was an amazing Rabbi, who Jews to this day, condemn his soul to Hell.

David Hartman, in a small way, attempted to show Talmudic Jews that they had thrown the baby out with the water.

Some Jews say: Reform Judaism is not Judaism, but I say, Talmudic Judaism is not Torah Judaism.

Whatever the Jews were to bring to mankind, it was NOT Talmudic Judaism.

John 5:39
Jesus said to the Pharisees:

39 You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.

    Who’s condemning Jesus’ soul to hell? This sure doesn’t ring a bell.
    Anyway, the Talmud isn’t really hard-and-fast, black-and-white like that. It’s basically the collection of a whole bunch of opinions of over a thousand rabbis, many of whom completely disagreed with each other, and often a final consensus about who is right and who is wrong could not be reached. Which is why despite certain customs that are treated as indisputable in the Haredi community (which is a minority within Judaism!!!), in general there is a lot of space for disagreement, questioning and having one’s own opinion within Judaism as a whole.

      Laila Rasheed says:

      BURIED IN HELL

      The book Zohar, III, (282), tells us that Jesus died like a beast and was
      buried in that “dirt heap…where they throw the dead bodies of dogs and
      asses, and where the sons of Esau [the Christians] and of Ismael [the Turks], also Jesus and Mahommed, uncircumcized and unclean like dead dogs, are buried.”

      The Talmud is Judaism’s holiest book (actually a collection of books). Its authority takes precedence over the Old Testament in Judaism. Evidence of this may be found in the Talmud itself, Erubin 21b (Soncino edition):

      “My son, be more careful in the observance of the words of the Scribes than in the words of the Torah (Old Testament).”

      Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby, in “Judaism on Trial,” quotes Rabbi Yehiel ben Joseph:

      “Further, without the Talmud, we would not be able to understand passages in the Bible … God has handed this authority to the sages and tradition is a necessity as well as scripture. The Sages also made enactments of their own … anyone who does not study the Talmud cannot understand Scripture.”

arktikwolf says:

Yo, Laila Rasheed: The wild hair up your @$$ can be removed with minor surgery , you know. Maybe it would help diminish your vicious, offensive attacks. BTW – You couldn’t get through a single day without the benefits of the many inventions of the people you vilify. While Some anti-Semitism can be mitigated through education, others — only by psychotherapy. STFU and stop insulting people with whom you have a stronger connection than you seem to realize. Salaam aleykum.

    I doubt that troll is Arab, Muslim (I’ve never heard one say “Mohammedan”) or even female.

      arktikwolf says:

      I think you are right. Who would sign their real name to such vile cr@p?
      And, your insight regarding the use of “Mohammedan” is spot on. “Laila
      Rasheed” is a cowardly, hate-filled fake. Geez, lookit the time; I have to go down to the basement and control the media.

        Laila Rasheed says:

        AIN’T GONNA FOLLOW NO CHILD MOLESTER

        They try to tell me my religion is wrong

        They try to tell me to follow Islam

        They said their prophet was a righteous dude

        But I found out none of their words were true

        I read the Quran and I read the hadith

        And the sickness of Muhammad was apparent to me

        He justified perversion in the name of Allah

        When he married a girl too young for a bra

        II

        She was playing with dolls when the prophet came

        Her childhood was stolen in Allah’s name

        Aisha was nine when he took her to bed

        Don’t tell me that fool’s not sick in the head

        Ain’t gonna follow no child molester, sex offender, prophet
        pretender.

        Ain’t gonna follow no child molester,

        Islam is not for me.

        Islam is not for me.

        III

        The sickness of the Islamic mind

        Has caused the Mullahs to be blind

        To justify their prophet they would justify sin

        So the sins of the prophet are repeated again

        All over the world in Islamic states

        9 year old girls suffer cruel fate

        Sold into marriage to twisted men

        And Aisha’s sad story is repeated again

        IV

        Ain’t gonna follow no child molester, sex offender, prophet
        pretender.

        Ain’t gonna follow no child molester,

        Islam is not for me.

        Islam is not for me.

        Do you care about women all over the world?

        Do you care about those little girls?

        Then stand up and fight for human rights

        Speak out against the laws of Islam

      Laila Rasheed says:

      Violent Jihad is permitted in Islam. It was commanded by, and praised by Muhammad as being one of the greatest forms of true Islamic spirituality. Further, some of the final direction from Muhammad was that it (Jihad) is to continue until all people are subjected to Islamic rule. Aggression toward non-Muslims is allowed, but prior to attacking, the Muslims are to offer them a choice: 1- Become Muslim; 2- do not become Muslim but pay the extortion (jizya) tax; 3- defend yourselves unto death.

      ·THE REASON WHY ISLAM HAS SUICIDE BOMBERS

      The Qur’an says Jihad receives the highest reward and is the surest way to paradise if the “fighter” dies: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead … they live … in the presence of their Lord” (Qur’an 3:169). “… To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah … soon shall we [God] give him a reward” (Qur’an 4:74).

      ISLAM EXPOSED

      From Sahih Muslim,Book 1, Hadis #0033, and Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 8, Hadis #387, comes a telling insight on the true meaning and scope of Jihad:

      Muhammad said, “I have been ordered to fight against people until they say that “there is no god but Allah”, that “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”, they pray, and pay religious taxes. If they do that, their lives and property are safe.”

desertvoice says:

I have some appreciation for Rabbi Hartman. But he still appears to have missed the fact, that only Jesus is the whole Word of God, who was from the beginning! That is the most sacred Christian belief! The Word became Man, so that man, contaminated within himself by the knowledge of evil he ate in the apple, could return to the fullness of his humanity, as it was before the Fall! It was in that that the true love of
God for Adam and Eve has been revealed. God had no choice but to send the only
Son, the Word through which everything was made that was made, to restore us by
giving us the perfect human Body and Blood of His only Son, to eat! We now have
access to the body and blood of Adam and Eve, before the eating of the apple –
a perfect Human Body “made in the Image and Likeness of God”! Only
the Jews have not recognized the Word that became Man in the Torah, as the true
and only Word of God! That is why the Scripture says: “He came to his own,
but they did not recognize Him”! The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are One
God! The Spirit is now able to explain all truth!

May God Bless his good work. Honesty is an amazing virtue in that it makes practicing the rest of the virtues much earier. Plus, you don’t need to have a good memory!

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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.