The Jewish people lost a philosopher, a teacher and force of nature on Feb. 10 when Rabbi David Hartman passed away at the age of 81.
Rabbi Hartman’s influence can be felt far and wide, through his books, the Shalom Hartman Institute, which he founded 30 years ago in his father’s name, and through his pithy quotes to the media regarding Israel, the peace process and the right way of Judaism.
The New York Times’ obituary included a quote from philosophy professor and former Hartman son-in-law Moshe Halbertal describing Hartman’s views as “counter-religious” in that he believed that “religious life is a life of affirmation, not a life of denial.” Halbertal explained that as Hartman saw it, “if human life is not denied by the force of revelation, but it’s actually a participant in revelation, then human life has to come to its full fledge, with its moral convictions, with its encounter with the world.”
Gil Troy eulogized in the Jerusalem Post, “[Hartman’s] zeal embraced life in all its messiness, revealing his love of the ongoing Jewish tradition rooted in the Bible and Talmud, consecrated in the shtetl, now alive at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and many other venues of Jewish disputation, wherein we confront the text, each other, ourselves and our God.”
Troy was one of many scholars, thinkers, religious authorities, business leaders and students who got to know Hartman as a teacher at the machon — as the Hartman Institute was known. Troy describes the machon as a place devoted to “developing a text-based Jewish values conversation committed to a dynamic welcoming Judaism that makes Israel the best country it can be. The standards are high, the aspirations great, but the energy is infectious and the accomplishments are impressive.”
I too had the opportunity to know Rabbi Hartman as a leader and teacher, but it was on a much smaller scale when I was much smaller. You see, I am a graduate of the elementary school Hartman founded in Montreal in 1968 called Akiva School, and to this day, it remains one of the most positive and positively Jewish learning experiences of my life. (As an adult, I was also a tenant in the same building as the Hartmans in Jerusalem’s German Colony and it was my pleasure to share their Shabbat table.)
Akiva is a kindergarten through sixth-grade elementary school where children learn three languages, English, Hebrew and French, throughout. Some of the pedagogic choices were wonderful, such as not distributing report cards so that for the students, going to school was learning for learning’s sake and not based on test scores or grades.
Other choices were perhaps more questionable, such as providing third-graders with a course on the Holocaust. Though my mother tells me that it was my favorite class, and I loved the French-Canadian woman who taught me, as a parent myself now, I am convinced there are many, many more important Jewish concepts and episodes in history that day school students should learn before ever touching on the European churban.
As one of the parents in the first Akiva school class described it to me, Hartman really was a force of nature. For example, when I inquired as to what initially attracted this couple to the Akiva vision, the husband replied, “It was him,” meaning Hartman himself.
Hartman was a pulpit rabbi at an Orthodox congregation in Montreal and he saw a need for a new school with a commitment to serious Jewish study along with a focus on bringing people of different levels of Jewish observance, from different parts of the city, together under a new educational model.
It is hard to underestimate how strong a personality Hartman would have had to be to succeed in establishing Akiva given the fact that, at that time, 70 percent of Jewish kids in Montreal got a Jewish education and there were multiple, long-established offerings across the religious spectrum already in existence. And yet, Hartman managed to convince a whole group of different Jews to come together for the sake of their kids’ education.
Hartman didn’t choose to stay in Montreal to fulfill his vision for the school. Instead, he moved to Israel a year or so after Akiva’s founding, and ended up establishing the machon in Jerusalem in 1976. According to most of the eulogies, Hartman’s choices were all positive in the sense that the Hartman Institute and Hartman himself have both had an amazing influence on Jews and non-Jews alike. But for the families left behind in Montreal, and especially after Hartman opted, at a public meeting in his honor, back in Montreal a few years after his aliya, to berate the assembled with his opinion that no Jewish institution outside of Israel could be of serious value, his legacy is mixed.
Baruch dayan ha’emet.
(Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based political columnist. Follow her on Twitter@abbyschachter.)