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He Loved His Students Like Few Teachers Do

He welcomed our questions. He invited disagreement. He encouraged debate. It was as if he believed he could only learn more if we asked more
Rabbi Moskowitz is at the rabbi of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor in Oyster Bay, NY. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is a devoted Jewish teacher, sharing with us his love of the Bible and Jewish philosophy.  He has taught in the internationally acclaimed Florence Melton Adult Mini School, UJA Connections, and the Institute for Adult Jewish Studies.  Rabbi Moskowitz is deeply committed to Israel and travels there every

On Sunday my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, died. It was he who founded Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute where I study every summer. In the room where I have spent countless hours studying our sacred texts and debating with my colleagues, his body lay shrouded in a tallit at Monday’s funeral service. 

On Sunday we also welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar, the month in which the holiday of Purim is celebrated. We are told that when Adar begins, joy begins. On this day my joy is of course diminished. Nonetheless my heart continues to rejoice for the years I was blessed to spend with my teacher. I am grateful for his teachings.

Rabbi Hartman was eulogized by many, including Israel Knohl, a renowned scholar of the Hebrew Bible. He reminded us that David lived by three alefs. Emet. Ometz. Ahavah. Truth. Courage. Love. 

It was these qualities more than any others that made him my rabbi. He loved his students like few teachers do. He welcomed our questions. He invited disagreement. He encouraged debate. It was as if he believed he could only learn more if we asked more. The love for us was unconditional. It was not dependent on agreement. It was not tied to like-mindedness. It was divorced from our praise and accolades. He simply loved students.

He was also courageous. Years ago he dreamed of a place where rabbis of all denominations, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal, would come to study. He imagined it would be a place not of ideology but about love of Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people. It would be a place that could deepen our commitments and challenge us to think in new ways. Come to Jerusalem to learn more Torah, he envisioned. And I discovered, be prepared to be shaken by new revelations.

He was most of all unafraid of truth. He studied everything. He did not just pour over the Talmud and the texts of our tradition, but any wisdom. He, for example, insisted we read Erich Fromm. He discussed with us Aristotle. Although deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, he modeled a learning that could be garnered from all sources. It was a remarkable example. Here was an Orthodox rabbi, a graduate of Yeshiva University, who taught us that the spiritual pursuit is to run after truth. At times it was filled with anger and even curses. Often it was tinged with the Yiddish of his youth. Nonetheless, no matter how it emerged we were admonished to never turn away from it or deny it.

On Shabbat we will read of the mishkan, the tabernacle that the Israelites constructed in the wilderness. As they wandered through the midbar this mishkan offered them strength and courage. It was this tabernacle that assured the Israelites that God was present in their midst. During the summer it was as if God peered through the windows of Rabbi Hartman’s Institute. There it was possible to glimpse the divine, to behold God shimmering from our debates. Every summer our Torah was renewed. 

It leapt from the walls, amidst shouts and screams, smiles and laughs, from within the pages of our sacred texts and between colleagues of every Jewish denomination, but most of all from the loving hand of my teacher extended to my cheek for a question worth pondering. With David the challenge was welcomed. Jewish life is imperfect. It must be reinvigorated. We must not be afraid. I must summon courage. I always left Jerusalem with more questions than when I arrived. There were now more uncertainties. Still it was comforting that the greatest of my teachers appeared even more uncertain. His lesson was instead to embrace the uncertainty.

Some thirty years ago Rabbi David Hartman dreamed of the place that many of us now call our spiritual home. Yet he died unsatisfied. Despite the countless rabbis who call him their rabbi, there was always a restlessness in his soul that at times could be disquieting. He was never content. Jewish life, the world, is imperfect and only we can repair it. There was a rage over the imperfections in the Jewish present, but also an unrivaled faith that we, and we alone, can mend them.

He continued to believe that the perfecting and completing was within our grasp. That was the vision that he re-ignited within my soul and that he re-instilled in my heart each and every summer. For that inspiration, for the innumerable teachings, I will always be grateful. 

Yitgadal, vayitkadash…My joy is restored.

Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and was a member of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative  2007-2010.

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