The week-long winter seminar of 27 participants in the third cycle of the Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative program was characterized by intensive study, both in the form of havrutot (peer-based learning) and lectures by leading Hartman scholars and external lecturers.
Indeed, from the start, the group’s energy and enthusiasm was palpable in the air at the Institute. The hope and expectation is for these rabbis to transport this energy back to their communities in North America, and infuse them in turn with similar inspiration.
The week focused on the theme, "Foundations of the Ethical: Holidays and the Development of Moral Character." Sessions explored Jewish holidays and holy days – Purim, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shabbat, Pesach, Tisha B’Av – through the lens of ethical and moral values.
Between learning and friendship
The topic of holidays is pertinent to the role of these pulpit rabbis, whose congregations gather together on holy days in search of inspiration, community and enrichment.
Variety was not lacking in the sessions, which were supplemented by timely explorations of shmitta, New Age culture, Israeli ethics and Israeli writing. The Israel connection is particularly important for strengthening North American communities’ bonds to the Jewish state.
In addition to the textual learning, considered key to strengthening the rabbis’ communal Jewish leadership, the rabbis also conducted lively and enriching roundtable discussions on their rabbinates.
As brilliant as the learning was, the rabbis emphasized the centrality of peer interaction in the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative program. This is remarkable, not only because they are separated geographically (hailing from nine U.S. states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces), but also ideologically.
The Hartman Institute’s pluralistic spirit promotes mutual respect and learning among the group’s Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis. The rabbis were so content in each other’s company, in fact, the administrators had a difficult time getting them to stop catching up and to attend the discussion group that followed their dinner on the program’s first night.
Rabbinic loneliness, leadership
Rabbi Bill Berk, director of the Institute’s Center for Rabbinic Enrichment, has often spoken about the rabbi’s solitude, and the resulting importance of addressing their needs for peer enrichment.
"This group came together in a way that was stunningly, magnificently, surprisingly close," Berk said. "Already there is a tremendous group, and they are going to try to stay close."
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, in his lecture on Tisha B’Av, addressed another aspect of rabbinic loneliness. Using the famous story of the disagreement between Kamzta and Bar Kamtza
and the incident of baseless hatred that spurred the Second Temple’s destruction, Rabbi Hartman emphasized the centrality of rabbinic leadership. Bemoaning the lack of such leadership in the Second Temple period, Rabbi Hartman drove home the message that rabbis need to lead their communities, rather than be led by them.
The ability to provide such leadership requires spiritual strength and constant growth, which is what Rabbinic Leadership Initiative aims to provide.
The just-concluded seminar is hardly the end of the rabbis’ time together with the Hartman Institute. Long-distance classes begin in a few weeks, with study of modern Israeli literature with Institute fellow Rani Jaeger and lectures by Moshe Halbertal on Talmudic ethics of speech, torts and the moral status of the non-Jew.
In addition, Hartman Institute is planning to help the rabbis stay connected through online means and to help them maintain their community in a virtual way until they return for their month-long summer residency beginning June 30.