Reflections on David Hartman

He taught us to think for ourselves, and not to be afraid of anyone, but to honor our own existential truth

By YAKIR ENGLANDER
 
Today, David Hartman passed away. David (“Duvid” with the Hassidic accent) was one of our time’s most important Jewish philosophers, a beloved rabbi, an esteemed theologian and, most essentially, a thinker. I had the z’chut (the great privilege) to learn once a week for three years with Duvid. He taught me, and my dear friends of the Beit Midrash (like a yeshiva) at the Hartman Institute. Already in his mid-seventies, he was not physically strong, but showed a powerful excitement – almost like a child discovering a new toy – for thinking and learning with us.
 
Duvid dedicated most of his career to rethinking the work of Maimonides. But when we told him, ‘Duvid, we are tired of Maimonides’ – he would set aside that great luminary, and turn to studying what we wanted to learn. Sometimes we would tell him: ‘Duvid, the Torah Teaching that you wrote 10 years ago is already in our bones, but it is not relevant anymore for today, for our new existential problems.’ And he would answer: ‘So, let’s think together and let’s create a new Torah Teaching that will be relevant for your generation.’
 
Duvid was an amazing human being. For me he was as close to Socrates as anyone I know. Always eager to think and question and grapple with ideas. He could shout at you when he believed you were going astray in your thinking – but with so much love. He wanted us to think. He taught us to think for ourselves, and not to be afraid of anyone, but to honor our own existential truth.
 
On his 80th birthday Duvid gave a lecture (one of his last) at the Hartman Institute, among his friends – who were like his family. He said that he dedicated 80 years to understanding ‘Where was God during the Holocaust?’ Then he said: “I asked that question, because I couldn’t deal with the real question, which is: ‘Where were human beings during the Holocaust?’ Now that I’m 80 years old, I finally have the courage to ask the real question.” For this, he was attacked and shouted at by most of the scholars in his institute – but this was his truth. And he loved it that they didn’t agree with him, since this was their truth.
 
I loved Duvid. I loved him like a Rebbe, but not like an almost-angelic Hassidic Rebbe. I loved my Rebbe Duvid because he was totally human; his failings made me love him all the more. He was my light in the Western Jewish World, the only one who could understand my love and my yearning for the deep Hassidic life, for the serious life, and for the spiritual revolution.
 
He came to listen whenever I played the violin at our Beit Midrash. He would sit with us, eating kuggel, even though he was not allowed to. He knew, as I did, that it is not just food, but a form of sacred nourishment. We knew that each bite filled us, paradoxically, both with love for our past and with the courage we needed to continue our rebellion against it.
 
I loved Duvid. I can still feel his hugs, and his kisses on my face. He knew the Hassidic dynasty from which I came, so he called me: ‘My Viznitzer.’ When he called me that, I felt that my Viznitzer Rebbe was embracing me with love.
 
Duvid, who will struggle for us now? Who will tell us that it is a good thing to rebel, on the condition that you are deeply in love with the tradition you rebel against?  I make you a promise today, on the day we mourn your passing. I promise that I, as your talmid (your Torah student), will continue this struggle, this journey. I am afraid, but your face and voice will always be with me, and you will be my guardian angel.
 
This year I lost two of my teachers, both from Hartman Institute: you, Duvid, and Yoske Achituv. You were so different, and you were so close to each other. Yoske was a man of chesed (grace) and you, Duvid, were a man of emet (truth). The Jewish world is not the same now that both of you are gone. And we, your students, must now carry on your Torah Teaching. You planted the seeds in us; I pray to Heaven that you will be proud of the fruits.
 
I love you, Duvid. I feel envious of God who can now enjoy being next to you. I’m sure you and your Rabbi – Rabbi Soloveitchik – are both studying with God today, and I’m sure you are studying the Torah of Duvid Hartman. I envy God, but I pity Him too, knowing that you are probably shouting at Him right now about the way He is thinking, and that God is feeling the fear of your critique – the critique of absolute love.
 
You, Duvid, always struggle with God. You are a rebel: you will not allow things to go on in heaven the way they always have. You will be very busy. But, Duvid, I also pray, that you will have some moments for yourself. And, in those moments, I hope that you will look down on us, your talmidim, your students, in your Beit Midrash. Come and be with us, and I promise to play for you, on my violin, the sacred niggunim you loved so much.
 
Shalom, my Rebbe.  Shalom, my Jewish Socrates. Shalom, my Beloved Rebel. Rest in Peace.

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