Obituary

02.21.13

In A Very Deep Way: Remembering Rabbi David Hartman

I first encountered David Hartman, Rabbi Hartman, when I was fourteen and he about thirty. The year was 1962, and I had just dropped out of the Talmud Torah high school, following my nose from the Weavers, Montreal Canadiens, and forbidden parts of the Ruby Foo's menu (well, other forbidden parts, too), to the public, that is, "Protestant" high school in Cote Saint Luc—the deceptively named, almost monolithically Jewish suburb then growing in Montreal's West End. Things at home were grim—my mother was falling apart after a bitter divorce. I was too lonely to want "freedom" but not to imagine doing what I pleased on the weekends. Giving up Orthodox prohibitions on Saturdays was an easy call.

Besides, Jean LeSage's Quiet Revolution was winning in Quebec, and JFK's tip toward "civil rights" was winning on CBS-News, so orthodoxy of any kind seemed a strange thing to admit wanting. Hartman's new Orthodox shul, Tiferet Beth David Jerusalem—an amalgamated name as long as an Outremont law firm—was being built on the train tracks on Baily Road, just a five minute walk from my house; it seemed an odd intruder in a bourgeois neighborhood where the standard dream for any teen was the right body, bachelor's degree, and bank account.

The first time I saw Hartman was in somebody's crowded basement, the shul's improvised, temporary home. I remember, dimly, the warmth and enthusiasm of his davening, which impressed me but also put me off a little. The first davening I had done at Talmud Torah was in kindergarten: The principal, a stolid, limping Englishman, came in and announced, "Buzzing like bees, let's hear it please," and every child around me started literally to make buzzing sounds, going through the motions without even pretending to understand any prayer. I don't think I ever really stopped just going through the motions, even as the words of Hebrew liturgy took partial shape in my mind. I figured that putting in time without complaint, proving you had the patience to go through the motions, hour after dull hour, was the real replacement for temple sacrifice. Anyway, it was what brought a measure of admiration from "good" Jews. By fourteen, I figured I had been good enough.

The Torah was another matter, however. Half my day at Talmud Torah had been devoted to “general studies” and the other half to Hebrew studies, beginning in the second grade with readings from Bereshit, the Book of Genesis. While the ABCs conjured scrubbed little boys watching girls play with kittens, the aleph bet conjured families torn up by arbitrary fathers, jealous mothers, and rival brothers, all devoted to enigmatic things like "birthright," or stirred by the promise of mysterious power. I knew immediately where to locate my benighted family and growing restlessness. Lech lecha, indeed. (I touched on this in The Hebrew Republic.) Hebrew stories seemed absolute and talking about them seemed a kind of responsibility. When my maternal grandmother had died in 1957, I was at camp; I dreamt of Sarah being bundled into Ma’arat HaMachpela, and felt Torah images so vividly, and disturbingly, that I awoke, ran from my bed, and threw up. Besides, my father was a Zionist, which I took to mean an avid Jew with modernity thrown in; and my summer camp had been Massad, where even balls and strikes were called in Hebrew.

So it was inevitable, I suppose, that I should find myself in Hartman's gravitational pull someday. I finally came back in early 1966, when the brother of my high-school sweetheart (later, my first wife and eternal friend), Susan Avishai, was Bar Mitzvah at the Hartman shul. Susan's salesman father was among the shul's founders, but rancor grew between him and Hartman at the time of the Bar Mitzvah, since "the Rabbi" refused to come to lunch without his whole family, and Susan's father, who could not afford to allow the children of his close friends to come (and anyway thought all rabbis spongers), felt this was an unacceptable imposition. I did a little Kantian reckoning and inwardly came down on Hartman's side. At the event, I heard Hartman give a sermon for the first time and remember thinking that I liked what I was seeing and hearing more than what was good for me.

The first thing I noticed was that there was no cantor at the Hartman shul, no musical performance to get in the way of congregational participation, which (on the surface at least) Hartman seemed so eager to encourage. He led the prayers, or kids did, and people sang loudly and almost in sync, a kind of liturgical jazz; toddlers ran around laughing, or crying for comfort, which Hartman often supplied himself. I recall little of what Hartman actually said that day, only that the subject was the parsha—the weekly Torah portion—and not (as in the stately Conservative synagogue where was Bar Mitzvah) something that seemed meant for, but would never be published in, some op-ed page. And what Hartman said about the parsha was obviously intended to make us feel the Torah as vividly as I had that night my grandmother died.

He wasn't solemn about it, I hasten to add, but he was serious in a way that seemed worthy of public debate, the way teachers in the public realm were, and in the same kind of language: skeptical, logical, bringing evidence—only this time from Talmudic "sources" I had either never heard of or had dismissed as hopelessly out of date. In fact, Hartman seemed the only rabbi I knew who could pass the test I often imposed silently: what would a non-Jew who happened into this place think—not a hypothetical question, since non-Jews often came to Bar Mitzvahs, but something that meant more to me, since I had myself put Jewish life on a kind of probation. And then came, of all things, questions from congregants, which Hartman answered eagerly, and which the rabbis at Conservative synagogues would not invite even in private.

I also remember the stagecraft of Hartman's passionate speaking, which I got to know well and which seemed unselfconscious but—even then, I half-suspected—could not be completely uncontrived: the tallis falling off his shoulders as he strained for a point, which he folded back over his neck, time and again, like a starlet stroking away her bangs; the glasses coming off and on, on and off—off to convince us, on to read further from the parsha—the spittle drying white on his lips, which he seemed not to notice, and which I took to be the real proof of his sincerity. There was the frequently repeated phrase, "in a very deep way," which usually came at a climactic moment and with a closing of eyes and shaking of head, and so pointed, I thought, to depths yet to come.

All of this anticipated four years at McGill where, both as his congregant and periodic student, I came to assume Hartman was the only rabbinic personality in Montreal who spoke about halachic laws and sacred texts in ways that seemed worthy of educated people. Rumor had it that he was pals with the political theorist Charles Taylor and the philosopher Harry Bracken, neither of them Jews, but standard bearers for liberalism and even the Catholic progressivism that was swirling around Montreal intellectuals, including Pierre Trudeau. I was still somewhat reserved at first: My mother died during the fall of my freshman year, and the shiva, which seemed a kind of loving charade, left me far from the precincts of any synagogue.

But during the following summer, when the Six Day War broke out, I was living with my father and impulsively volunteered to fly to Israel and do farm work, winding up on a moshav; when I returned to McGill in the fall, I attached myself to circles of friends, especially around Hillel House, who seemed to appreciate what Hebrew milk, cowshit and air had stirred up in me. Almost all of them by then had become Hartman's acolytes, and I began to come regularly to his shul on Shabbat. Then I became the president of McGill Hillel, and Hartman, who had begun teaching "Jewish philosophy"—really, a course on Maimonides—in the philosophy department, allowed all interested students to crowd into his class and audit his lectures. I was one; I was pretty much hooked.

This is not the place to try to rehearse all of what I learned from him and learned not to learn from him. I will say right out that he was one of those teachers who made you feel the near erotic pleasure of thinking something through and so made life itself feel a possibly infinite pleasure. I remember the psychological subtlety, the fallibility, he ascribed to forefathers like Jacob and mothers like Rivka, the texts not nearly so sacred as the privilege of interpreting them. I remember how God emerged from his sermons as "round" a character as Copperfield, moving from innocence to adolescence, then to self-limiting adulthood; or as a kind of fascinated natural scientist in the classical mold, creating a world, and then mankind vaguely in His image, watching and learning as the (not altogether successful) experiment unfolded.

I remember Hartman describing two ways of commemorating the New Year: Rosh Hashanah, which celebrated the creation of the universe, and Passover, which celebrated the creation of the Jewish people, hence, "history." I remember him echoing Abraham Joshua Heschel (whom he once brought to the congregation), saying that Shabbat was the "sanctification of time" itself; and then I might see him dribbling a basketball with his son and daughters on his driveway, his knitted kippah bouncing up and down, as Shabbat faded away at dusk, a fond play that felt to me more sanctified than any wine.

I remember Hartman, finally, loving the Maimonidean idea from the Shmoneh Perakim that the Ten Commandments would eventually have been promulgated without Sinai—so much did they appeal to Reason—but that it was rather the most irrational laws of Torah, like Kashrut, that called attention to God's presence. Then again, irrational limitations were not entirely irrational, because—again, Maimonides following Aristotle—performing the laws trained, and thus restrained, the appetites, which got in the way of an ethical pursuit of the mean; thus "halachic community" (his favorite postulate, perhaps) could be a covenantal "partner." I remember Hartman speaking with what he obviously considered daring about Maimonides's principle that a God that rewards and punishes was a "noble myth" necessary for (Maimonides's words, not his) "women, children, and fools"; that one does not keep the tradition if one does not see its intrinsic value. But also that Aristotle could never prove the "eternity of the universe," so Maimonides was justified to assume that a tradition engendered by revelation was not itself irrational.

As I said, hooked. But not entirely so. To some extent, my reservations were a matter of style. Hartman clearly wanted acolytes and showered attention, affection, and extravagant praise on students who were all in. I wanted all of these things from mentors, and hungered for signs of respect from him, but I was not the acolyte type: starting with my father, I had noticed the feet of clay; the teachers I admired most made more space for a skepticism that did not just seem a foil for their genius—teachers who searched without purporting to have discovered a map. I also noticed a rhetorical style that did not wear well after a while, a reliance on straw-men simplifications, Herbert Marcuse's presumed view of "tolerance" on the one hand, John Stuart Mill's presumed view on the other, so that Hartman (as the embodiment of "halachic community") could emerge as the unexpected, indispensable synthesis. (Oh, and you didn't win attention, affection, or praise by challenging him on the details.)

Yet resistance ran deeper still. The very phrase Jewish philosophy seemed to me, "in a very deep way," something of a contradiction in terms. Did not philosophy in the true sense assume the rejection of received authority and fated loyalty while Judaism presupposed both? Okay, you could not prove the eternity of the universe. But does the impossibility of proving the irrationality of what halacha aims to celebrate, namely, a creator, an unmoved mover, justify accepting the raft of halachic prohibitions as an imperative? Perhaps you might find in a particular ritual or commandment a way of expressing your sense of awe. But halacha was not a spiritual supermarket for Hartman; if everyone was just picking and choosing at will, then the manifold, perverse and idiosyncratic wills of individuals mattered, and “halachic community” would have no center.

Which brings me to the ways Hartman generally tried to make "halachic community" seem wonderful—and centripetal. Time and again, Hartman would approach a Torah precept, or a Talmudic statement, and show how these anticipated a great, worldly philosopher. Man made in God's image? Kant. A slave who, even after you free him, chooses to get his ear punched and remain a slave? Eric Fromm. The Jubilee Year? Marx, sort of. God in Baba Metziah, unimpressed by His own miracles, and ceding authority to the winner of rabbinic debate? Mill and liberalism. The implication Hartman wished us to draw from all of this mining of halachic tradition—that is, for the "modern" ideas it anticipated—was that Torah in the broad sense contained virtually everything worth knowing—"Turn and turn in it, for everything is in it"—so that "halachic community" was thus urgently to be preserved. Jews didn't live to spite anti-Semites. We lived to preserve a great civilization.

I always loved this side of his pitch, but what I never understood—and Hartman could never really explain—was, if what justified preserving halachic life was the philosophy it anticipated, why not just study the philosophy? If you needed the courses in Western philosophers to appreciate the Shabbat, why the Shabbat? Does Bereshit give us what Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals gives us, at least on this idea that matter matters? Sure, Jewish civilization was more than just a disquisition on human dignity: there was, apart from the synagogue, a history, a body of literature and law, a music, an aesthetic sensibility, a communitarian tradition, a story. It was sad to imagine this being lost and, after what happened in Europe, not that hard to imagine; Hartman invited us to think that losing Judaism would be a blow as many-sided as a son losing a father—not just the transmitted ideas, but the scent, the flesh, the hums, the smiles. But at McGill I was feeling the press of many fathers, especially Victorian ones, with nothing to do with Judaism; I felt this ambivalence pretty much every minute in Hartman's shul, that I was a kind of spy, hiding my doublethink.

And so I often felt Hartman spoke of "halachic community" in the more or less pretentious way Marx spoke about "the proletariat," as an idealized community whose practical, daily actions, whose praxis—tragic in the case of the proles, deliberate in the case of Jews—is what gave the world its promise of moral perfectibility. Except that, without the back-shadowing philosophy, and without Hartman to bring this into relief, the Orthodox Jews I knew, in my family and beyond, were, let us say, not morally perfect, particularly smart, or blessed with taste. Which meant—and you got the sense he knew it—that you needed leaders to speak in the name of  "halachic community," that is, him. Criticism of other rabbinic leaders in Montreal was not unknown in Hartman's synagogue. Now and then, you got the feeling that Hartman's logic, and the passion (and pathos) of his bearing, put his congregants dangerously close to a cult. Some were prepared to write enormous checks, without which the institute he was planning for Jerusalem, his new base, would have been unimaginable.   

I suppose I would not have been quite so bold in my doubts had I not experienced the Israeli moshav and its cultural Zionism before taking Hartman's hook. What I saw and felt in Israel in 1967 kept me from swallowing it. I found what he had to say about preserving Jewish civilization in all of its nuances and colors hard to resist. But wasn't that the real purpose of Israel, which would provide its children the tools to turn all the materials of this civilization into their own poetry? Why organize around Orthodox law, why "halachic community," if you could have a Jewish national home?  Yehuda Amichai was no less grounded in those materials than Hartman, but his sense of freedom in those materials seemed more natural, less forced. For that matter, so was Saul Bellow's. 

It seemed to me that "Jewish" was what Jews did, and I wrote something to this effect in McGill Hillel's newsletter. Hartman invited me to lunch at his home, the only time he had ever done so, and sort of ambushed me, picking my little essay apart, insisting (as I tried to keep my lip from sweating too obviously) that without halacha Jews would, in effect, disappear. I was implicitly justifying this. I was not convinced, but I left shaken, feeling that my impulse to treachery had been discovered, which required me to think things through more clearly—a kind of gift, in retrospect. Still, I never felt the same way about him again. After my father died, he came to the shiva on the fifth or sixth day and walked in with an ironic, pained, "How ya doing kid?" We exchanged what he seemed to think were knowing looks. I discovered only many years later that he had had a brother who committed suicide, so perhaps the looks were really more knowing than they seemed to me at the time. But no questions were asked and none were answered. He famously hated being that kind of rabbi.

Another thing. Hartman's determination to remain in the orbit of Orthodoxy meant that, as he prepared to move to Israel, he found himself initially drawn to the young radicals of the National Religious Party—Zvulun Hammer, Haim Druckman, Hanan Porat; the founders of Gush Emunim—whom he eventually tried to loosen up, but whose settlement project at first fascinated him. I remember well the last sermon he gave before leaving for Jerusalem in 1971, in which he lamented mere Israeliness and valorized once again "halachic community" as an unwillingness to find oneself comfortable in the here and now. Halachic Jews, he said, put themselves deliberately in a state of "perpetual exile," by which he meant alienation, discomfort, restlessness. But then he added something like: "That is why some young Israelis steeped in halacha are rebelling against their parents and starting new settlements in the territories: they want to remain in exile." I admired the rhetorical flourish, but even then thought this a dangerous, preposterous thing to say. It was not, thank God, an opinion he stuck to as the years went by. Still, at his 80th birthday celebration last year, as many rightist settlers came and spoke in tribute as liberal theologians. Somebody said that “only Hartman” could bring such different people into the same room. I'm not sure this should have been considered a compliment.

I moved to Jerusalem in 1972, and one of the first people I called on was Hartman. We spoke, and I pledged to stay in touch, but did not, really, and he did not mind. I had not come to Israel for "halachic community," but rather to render it redundant. Once I started writing about the place, I sent him things I published but was never surprised not to get a reaction. That's wasn't the way things had worked between us. I was no longer a student of his. Yet I remained a student of him, obviously enough, and not only because "halachic community" as political ideal has resonances in Israeli political culture that continue to be dangerous. The thing is, I've never tired of trying to understand how a man who was so committed to liberal principles, made so many friends in interfaith dialogue, and put down the Jewish Orthodox hierarchy in Israel so riotously, could remain so attached to it.

Perhaps there is an answer of sorts in the idea he came back to again and again, that halacha is, ideally, a training of the appetites, which were famously a place of struggle for him. Hartman was a man whose senses did not sleep, and he didn't make much of a secret of this. I am not the person to say more about his personal life; his extraordinary daughter Tova, in her heartrending eulogy (you can read it here), hinted at all we need to know. Let's just say that, when he spoke of human appetites needing ways of being reined in, this was not simply a hypothetical matter for him.

In a way, then, it is possible to be dogmatically devoted to "halachic community," to idealize and valorize it, simply to be able to imagine a world better than the one you fear you would have created out of mere people: people left to their own devices, people like yourself. Arthur Koestler, I once argued, had this kind of devotion to divine moral limits. His conception of the absolute, he thought, could be yanked in to save people from themselves. Anyway, Koestler was no doubt happy to leave readers wondering if any writer could be trusted. Hartman was, I suspect, happy to leave us wondering this about rabbis.