Rabbi David Hartman’s Torah of Pluralism



Two thousand years ago, a rabbi recalled the breadth and depth of what his teacher had given him. Yohanan ben Zakkai remembered his teacher Hillel saying: If all the heavens were parchments and all the trees quills and all the seas were ink, it would still be impossible to write down even a part of what I learned from my teacher. (Sofrim 16:6)

I am no Yochanan ben Zakkai, but these words express how I feel about Rabbi David Hartman.

I would not be a rabbi if I had not studied with Rabbi David Hartman, the founder and spiritual leader of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute.

Back in 1975, not long after David brought his family on Aliyah, I walked into a class he was teaching at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The course was entitled “Spinoza, Maimonides, and Halevi.” Learning with him was nothing short of exhilarating. He stripped away all of the superficialities of Jewish life and thought with his single-minded focus on finding truth. Learning with David was as if someone turned on the lights in a dark room. He shattered forever my narrow conception of traditional Judaism.

I would leave his class on Mt. Scopus and wander through Mea Shearim wondering if there were other Orthodox Jews who shared his worldview. Inspired by Rabbi Hartman, I even spent part of that year living on an Orthodox kibbutz searching for the living Jewish community about which he taught. But my time on the kibbutz was filled with disillusionment. I soon discovered what all of us learned: That my teacher was a singular force; that there were no others like him. His brand of Judaism was fearless, always evolving, brutally honest, defying all labels and yet profoundly authentic.

I told David that he was the reason I decided to become a Reform rabbi. Many Orthodox rabbis would consider this a failure, but not David.

David Hartman was born in 1931 and raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. He was a local legend on the basketball court—he had a deadly two-handed set shot. Playing in a semi-pro league in the 1940s, David outscored the great Celtics legend Bob Cousy: Hartman 24, Cousy 18.

He studied with Rabbi Soloveichik at Yeshiva University and received his rabbinical ordination in 1953. Professor Hartman went on to study philosophy at Fordham and McGill University where he received his Ph.D. For years he was the beloved rabbi of a large congregation in Montreal before making aliyah in 1971 with his wife Bobby and five children. His books include: Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism, Conflicting Visions: Spiritual Possibilities of Modern Israel and A Heart of Many Rooms, to name just a few.

Rabbi Hartman blessed me and my classmates at our graduation from an intensive three-year course of study at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and gave us the new title of Senior Rabbinic Fellows of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This title is one that I will cherish for the rest of my days. It was as if Rabbi Hartman had ordained us for a new kind of rabbinate, one that is fully cognizant of Judaism’s “heart of many rooms.”

I’m proud that in 2004, at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi David Ellenson bestowed an honorary doctorate upon Rabbi Hartman. We wanted him to know, then and always, how much we could not imagine our Reform Jewish world without him.

This fall, as scholar-in-residence at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations, I taught Torah that I learned from Rabbi Hartman, a Torah that is desperately needed in the fractured Jewish communities where we live, especially in Israel. I pleaded in his name that our Jewish communities must expand the circle of our concern to include both the Jews with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree. This was David’s Torah of pluralism, which he taught with passion and persuasiveness.

In his Beit Midrash, his iconic Jerusalem school, you can hear the echoes of his students of all denominations respectfully debating our ancient and modern texts. David helped us discover that we are not all the same. Our sustenance—and strength—as a people must come from being a Jewish community that values many authentic paths to Jewish commitment and multiple ways to love Israel.

David taught us to question traditional beliefs, so I’m not convinced he believed in a Yeshivah shel Ma’alah, a heavenly academy. I’d like to imagine, however, that there is such a place in this vast and mysterious universe, and it looks a lot like the Beit Midrash of the Shalom Hartman Institute. There aren’t just “frum” scholars debating law and philosophy but rather there are secular, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Reform men and women, probing the depths of our tradition with no one presuming to have the automatic “upper hand.” Convincing arguments and imaginative thinking ruled supreme in this heavenly academy with our Rabbi Hartman pushing everyone to dig deeper and deeper.

Rabbi Hartman’s disciples are spread out all over God’s earth planting new seeds of respect, tolerance and hope in the hearts and minds of new generations of students. He was the consummate public intellectual that we need so desperately in our world today, to heal the divisions inside Israel and between and among Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

Ashreinu, how blessed were we to call him our rabbi and teacher but as the Talmud (Sanhedrin 111a) teaches “chaval al de’avdin vela mishtakchin—Woe unto us, for he cannot be replaced.” May we have even a fraction of his insight and backbone as we help shape a more compelling Judaism for the next generations.

Mourners gathered in Jerusalem this week to pay tribute to Rabbi David Hartman.

Mourners gathered in Jerusalem this week to pay tribute to Rabbi David Hartman.

This piece is based on a eulogy Rabbi Jacobs delivered at Rabbi Hartman’s funeral on February 11, 2013. It was published as an op-ed in Haaretz.com.

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

About Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the URJ. See his full bio and other writings on the URJ website.

3 Responses to “Rabbi David Hartman’s Torah of Pluralism”

  1. avatar
    Henry & Olga Butler Reply February 15, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    A wonderful tribute to a great teacher whose appeal to all
    segments of the Jewish Community was overwhelming. Rabbi Jacobs (whom we recently had the pleasure of hearing in Seattle-Temple Beth Am) likewise exerts his efforts to reach across the
    dividing lines.

  2. avatar

    Dear Rick –

    I am so sorry for your loss — I know very well how much Rabbi Hartman meant to you. Your words were beautiful.

    We lost my niece’s husband on Tuesday at 55 so we know what you are feeling.

    Ann and Ray

  3. avatar

    I will always treasure his memory.

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