Israel has lost a teacher

Some years ago, a group of journalists visiting Israel under the auspices of the American Jewish Press Association, dropped in on Rabbi David Hartman at the institute he founded in the name of his father, Shalom Hartman, in the peaceful and lovely German Colony neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

The institute, founded in 1976, was already deeply entrenched in the Jewish world as a rare academy of study, learning, the respectful exchange of ideas and an overarching commitment to mankind’s betterment.

It warmly welcomed the flint and spark of heartfelt debate even as it welcomed the many inquisitive, seeking debaters who came to its elegant premises from all over the world.

The visiting group consisted of 20 reporters and editors from North America, all but one, American.

Not surprisingly, there was a wide disparity among us in our respective levels of knowledge about Judaism, Jewish history, Israel and Israeli history. But we shared in common the “mission” of our work, namely, trying to inform and perhaps even to educate the wide range of humanity that comprised our readership.

It was this mission that Rabbi Hartman seized upon and emphasized when he spoke to us. We were “filters,” he said, through which the news of Israel was visible and understandable to our readers. As a result, he emphasized, our responsibility was one of truth, if not always clarity. He urged us to be honest, courageous, principled and as well-informed as possible.

He sat at the front of the room, clearly suffering from pain in his back, answering our many questions. Not all questions sparkled with insight. Nevertheless, Rabbi Hartman responded politely, patiently, courteously, wholeheartedly.

History had invested all of us, he suggested, with the task of building an authentically Jewish society in Israel and fostering the development and growth of authentically Jewish individuals, based upon faith and tradition, in a country that disqualified no one for his or her differences.

The end of our meeting with Rabbi Hartman was genuinely sad for most of us. We wished we could prolong our visit, even by a few minutes. But that was impossible given his physical discomfort. 

All of us in the group knew we had been uniquely privileged to sit with and talk to a very special individual. It was quickly evident that Rabbi Hartman was a scholar, theologian, philosopher and essayist. But, first and foremost, he was a teacher.

And a doer.

Inspired by the events of 1967 and by his abiding belief that human beings must act on earth to bring about God’s heavenly will for His creations, Rabbi Hartman moved his family from Montreal to Jerusalem in 1971 to join in the paradigmatic Jewish aspiration of building Zion and perfecting the world.

That was the last time I saw Rabbi David Hartman.

The news last Sunday of his death brought an abrupt, lingering jolt of sorrow and grief, even though his ill health was widely known.

In 1999, Rabbi Hartman wrote A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism. The book took its title from a talmudic teaching: “So make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel.” It was dedicated to the pre-eminence of inclusion, empathy, understanding and tolerance within the Jewish People as a paramount value of life.

In the preface of the book, Rabbi Hartman made plain his hope for life in Israel: “In spite of the growth of militant fanaticism, I still cherish the conviction that a committed halachic Jew need not feel threatened by different understandings and interpretations of normative Judaism. A Heart of Many Rooms expresses my continuing belief in the possibility and necessity of building educational bridges between different sectors of the population in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. If we fail to build these bridges, we are in danger of splitting Israeli society and of creating sectarian forms of Judaism in the Diaspora.”

Israel has lost a teacher. Many have lost a teacher and a friend. Rabbi Hartman’s family, of course, lost much more. May God comfort his family as He must also comfort Clal Yisrael.

Rabbi Hartman’s memory will surely be for blessing – strength, inspiration, courage and dedication to a life of ethics, justice and lovingkindness.