Every year, for more than 30 years, hundreds – and now tens of thousands – of academics, rabbis, lay leaders, Christian and Muslim scholars, Israeli educators, high school students and IDF officers came to sit at his feet at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Through them, millions of people have been influenced and challenged by his mind and his redemptive vision for religious pluralism, the State of Israel, and the Jewish People.
It was nearly 25 years ago when I first studied Talmud with David Hartman at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He picked up a piece of Talmud, held it to his nose, and screamed at us: "Can’t you smell it?? Can’t you smell the inconsistencies and ambivalences of the sages about women??" And then he would slam the big book of Talmud down on the table and read and reread the same lines over and over again. Exhausted, he would then call on a student to read it another ten times, until he thought we began to hear the cacophony of the voices of the sages arguing over the centuries, understanding the logic and illogic of their arguments, and the interpretive task at hand.
It took another 10 years of study, rabbinic ordination, and numerous courses with other Hartman scholars of Talmud and philosophy before I moved to Israel and dared to enter into his Beit Midrash – study hall – at the Hartman Institute. The rules of engagement demanded a total willingness to lear, struggle, critique, love, and think seriously about every text and every aspect of human existence. He hated it when we agreed with him. If we couldn’t challenge him he couldn’t respect us. His Beit Midrash was a culture of constant debate, mutual respect, searing critique and big embraces. Yeshayahu Leibowtiz, the brilliant scholar and iconoclast, and Krister Stendahl, the radical Christian Harvard Divinity School dean, were there too, not only in text but in person. David taught and argued with all of them in the same impatient, demanding, loving way. Being in his Beit Midrash was all-consuming, terrifying, and wildly inspiring all at the same time.
He was an indefatigable warrior for the State of Israel and its significance for the Jewish people and the world and demanded that it live up to the ethical standards set out for it both by the revelation of Sinai and the crematoria of Auschwitz. He was a warrior for the status of women in traditional Judaism, he was a warrior demanding higher standards of knowledge and Zionist and spiritual commitment from liberal rabbis, he built an institution with the highest standards of intellectual excellence. He invested in and believed in people and their capacity to rise to their potential. He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, except how he would be judged by God and by history.
He screamed and laughed and cried – sometimes simultaneously in the middle of a lecture, or a meeting, or even just in a daily encounter about the news or a new book. He would walk into my office nearly every day to argue about something. When missiles were falling on Israel and suicide terrorists were blowing up buses and cafes in the neighborhood, more than once he walked in and screamed at me, "Why do they hate us so much?" Or in quieter times he would walk in and pick up some recent work of theology lying on my desk and say, "Why can’t they do theology more seriously?!" But he also listened carefully as I offered a tentative response. and then, disgusted or quieted by whatever answers I gave, he would shoot off another litany of questions – this time asking after my husband and children by name, how our little Reform shul was doing, and why wasn’t I writing more academic stuff and how was I feeling. Being with, studying with and working for David Hartman was a unique experience of being simultaneously constantly challenged, rebuked, and loved. Nothing could have been more inspiring.
While most of us – his hundreds of thousands of students – may have failed to fulfill his demands, we may yet fulfill the dreams that he inspired in us. And in this way, his Torah and the loving power of his embrace will continue to pour forth from Jerusalem.
This article originally appeared in The Times of Israel.