This is a transcript of Donniel Hartman’s remarks at the 2013 URJ convention after accepting the movement’s Rabbi Alexander Schindler Award on behalf his father, Rabbi Prof. David Hartman.
By DONNIEL HARTMAN
Very often we only remember to say thank you, we only appreciate, we only really respect people sometimes after they die. But your love and respect and kindness to my father was something that he felt in his lifetime. He felt it, he counted on it, and he was nurtured by it. And as his son, and on behalf of my family, I thank you for that. For in many ways, even though tonight he’s getting the award and he’s not here, he felt that award for decades.
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My father was an Orthodox Jew whose love of God compelled him on a journey to search and to build a Judaism of honesty. God didn’t diminish his sense of self; God obligated him and pushed him to stand tall as God’s covenantal partner and to ask, “How do I create a Judaism of excellence? How do I create a Judaism that makes sense? How do I create a Judaism of depth? How do I create an honest Judaism?” For he believed that only such a Judaism would continue and be deserving of continuity in our open marketplace of ideas, the marketplace that my father so loved to live in.
Today, in the few places that it happens, when an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform rabbi sit on a stage together, they’ll be challenged and asked, “Please each one of you, say what it is that you respect most about the other.” Invariably, when asked to speak what they feel most respectful and most important about the Reform Movement, people will very often say it is your commitment to tikkun olam and to social justice. Those of you who knew my father know that he never spoke about tikkun olam. That’s not what he loved in you. What he loved in you was the kindred spirit to search for a Judaism of honesty, to build the Judaism of excellence.
A Judaism of honesty and excellence doesn’t just obligate us to look at our tradition, and to question, and to doubt, and to change that which needs to be changed. Very often the greatest challenge that we face to build that Judaism of excellence, to be honest, is not to simply try to correct a tradition that is 3,000 years old. Very often it is also to correct ourselves, to correct our own presuppositions, our own truths, our own givens. The most common leap of faith that people make is not a leap of faith in the name of God – if only it was so! It’s more often than not the leap of faith that we make in which we continue to walk in the path that we’re familiar with, that’s comfortable, that keeps our givens and presuppositions precisely in the same place.
What my father most respected about you and the Reform rabbis who were his hevrutas was your courage to question your own presuppositions. Over the last decades, your movement has not just simply been asking itself where it wants to go, but it also has been looking carefully and asking, where have we come from? Loyal to the last two centuries but also questioning, and saying, what must we change? What must be a new approach to Torah and mitzvah? What did we, as a movement, possibly get wrong? And it was precisely rabbis engaged in that question who found in my father a kindred spirit. And it is precisely in those rabbis that my father found a kindred spirit.
To be willing to criticize yourself is the beginning of building a new path of honesty, and my father loved that. He loved it and respected it in this movement. But there’s something else that moved him deeply.
My father was a Zionist. He didn’t just make aliyah. He loved living in Israel, and he loved Israel. For him, to be a Jew started with his commitment to the Jewish people. It started with a covenant of destiny, to be connected to a people. Torah came second. And for him, Israel was the canvas on which this people was going to write its new Torah, was going to shape a society built on Jewish values and Jewish ideas. For him Israel was not simply a place where Jews lived, it was the heart of what it meant to be a modern Jew. He looked at the Reform Movement and at Reform Jews, and he was amazed, because the truth is you should have walked away from Israel a long time ago. How much insult, how much alienation, how much lack of respect should a person take before they say, “Enough! What do I need it for?”
In a Jewish world where love for Israel is all too often dependent on having to agree with it, and if I don’t agree with it completely or it doesn’t live up exactly to what I want it to be, well then I can’t love it, I want Israel – and my father coined this term – I want Israel to be my nachas machine. And if it’s not my nachas machine, I’m not interested, goodbye. Or for others, love for Israel means agreeing with it, and therefore I need to agree with it by definition, or love for Israel is measured by the size of the flag that I wave. What he loved about you is that your love for Israel is measured in the fact that you’re willing to fight for it.
My father said in the ‘70s, Israel is too important to leave up to Israelis. And he saw you as people who were willing to fight to build a different Israel, who were not willing to walk away, even though in truth you should have. People who said, I don’t care what you do, the one thing you’re never going to do is to get me to leave you. I’m going to fight for you, and I’m going to love you enough to fight with you, to build a different type of Israel. My father believed that the meaning of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people was to create a place where all Jews could feel at home, where all Jews could be respected. Not simply a place where all Jews would be drafted into the army, not a place where all Jews are allowed to die, but a place where all Jews could live and breathe and be respected. He dreamed of such an Israel. And he loved you for fighting to create such an Israel.
Thank you very, very much for this beautiful honor that you’ve bestowed upon my father. Thank you for the kindness, for the respect, for the Torah that you came to him to learn. Thank you for walking with him. He loved being with you, and he was inspired by you. Thank you very much.