Some words of memory in anticipation of An Evening of Memory:
I suppose at first glance, Rabbi David Hartman seemed like most other rabbis. His was a frum family (his father from the Old City in Jerusalem, his mother from Safat’s Old City) which migrated to Brooklyn in the twenties; all three of his brothers were rabbis as well, (one of them, Hatzkel, was my grandparents’ rabbi in St. Louis in the fifties, markedly influencing my father for a period). And his rabbinic pedigree was as normative as it got for Orthodox Rabbis in those days: from Brooklyn to Lakewood to Upper Manhattan, David Hartman learned in the right places and from the best. He taught Torah, he led a congregation or two, he loved Israel and he loved the Jewish People. The normative rabbinic fare it would seem.
For Hartman’s reach was deeper and wider than perhaps any rabbi of our time. His sense of urgency to hone the intellect and penetrate the soul — most especially of the rabbis he loved — was relentless. His desire to learn from diverse sources — Dewy, James, Rambam, Soloveitchik, the Talmud (always the Talmud) — was unquenchable. David was a master teacher, a wonderful and colourful communicator of ideas, an animator for change (but never for its own sake).
This driven, restless man could never have remained “orthodox” of any kind, and neither could any of his serious students. He changed lives and made them more interesting. He challenged boundaries and broke them, or — as often as not –strengthened them. He ceremoniously paraded his contradictions. For instance, unlike his intellectual hero, Mordechai Kaplan, he favoured the tradition, not modernity, with veto power; yet, unlike his Rebbe, Joseph Soloveitchik, he eventually jettisoned normative Orthodoxy. This unorthodox Orthodox Rabbi put on Tefillin every morning until the end — all the while, arguing with the Talmud, with Soloveitchik, with visitors of all sorts. You had a heartbeat and Hartman wanted to argue, engage, teach and sometimes harangue. You had a mind, and he would make you think differently, usually better. He demanded and his students responded.
I first came upon David Hartman in the late seventies through his books. In 1991, I encountered Hartman in person at his institute in Jerusalem. Whether up close in the years since or at a remove through his writings, Rabbi Hartman’s voice — his Torah, his teaching, his passions — bellowed with urgency and overflowed with ideas. You couldn’t ignore Hartman even if you wanted to; he wouldn’t let you and he wouldn’t let up. And, as for his way of thinking, once it got a hold of you — well, there was no going back. He grabbed you, he shook you, he changed you. We, his students, loved him even when we didn’t.
Which brings me back to the word “encounter”. As Buber taught, to encounter someone is to have found a teacher, and thereby to have gained knowledge beyond measure; indeed, to truly encounter someone is to be changed by them. Rabbi David Hartman was such a person for me, as well as for many others. I count myself fortunate — and different from how and who I would have been, as a rabbi in particular, without encountering this singular kind of rabbi.