Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rabbi David Hartman Z"L - I Popped In

I say I popped in because it can hardly be called a shiva call - I was only there 10 minutes. You don't go to a shiva for 10 minutes. This is how it usually works:

You go in. You take a moment to assess the mood. If the family are drowning in grief and the mood is sombre you proceed in comfort and commiseration mode. If the family are cheering themselves up with amusing stories and anecdotes about the deceased you smile and add your stories to the collection. If there are a number of mourners they are often spread around the room to be able to talk to their own visitors. You join the circle of chairs around your friend, say a few nice words on entering the group and then go with the flow of conversation. It's not that hard despite the potential awkwardness of the situation. You stay for at least half an hour but not more than an hour unless it's an extremely close friend in which case you might stay all day.

Yesterday's shiva was a bit different. Three of the mourners live in my neighbourhood, I taught some of their children many years ago, I've been to their homes and we chat when we meet in the street. That's enough to warrant a shiva call. However, I also wanted to go because their late father was Rabbi David Hartman. A modern Jewish philosopher (The modern Jewish philosopher) and the most inspiring speaker I've ever had the honour of hearing in person. For me, the most inspiring figure in the modern Jewish world.

Rabbi David Hartman Z"L
In an age when religious fundamentalism is commandeering Jewish life and taking it out of the comfort zone of many many Jews who also want to live in the real world, David Hartman fought to get it back for us.  His friend, colleague and study partner Charlie Buckholtz wrote this description in The Rabbi Who hated Lies, an article in The Tablet:

"His Orthodox critics never understood that his criticism and creative reinterpretations of the tradition were not offered out of religious spite, or a desire to lead their adherents astray, but to protect Judaism and the Jewish people from them—from Orthodoxy’s corrupting distortions of the tradition, from their claims to exclusive authenticity. He knew the Orthodox leadership’s perpetual constrictions, prohibitions, and negative pronouncements left precious little room for modern Jews to find or create a meaningful Judaism for themselves. In that sense, he saw the Orthodox establishment as robbing the majority of the world’s Jews of access to their birthright.
‘I’m fighting a war,’ Hartman told me, ‘on the monopoly of certain people on truth, on the understanding of what Judaism is.’
“I’m fighting a war,” he told me, “on the monopoly of certain people on truth, on the understanding of what Judaism is.”
Ultimately, his war was over whether “authority”—whose obsessive focus among the Orthodox, particularly haredi fundamentalists he saw as a function of anxiety rather than piety—would be allowed to become the dominant Jewish religious category of the modern era. He felt tortured by the fact that the tradition had become the jurisdiction of fundamentalists, on whom it was mostly lost. He favored a more open-ended approach to religious life in which Jewish practice is treated as an open-ended field of experimentation. “I don’t want order!” I can remember him shouting. “I want vibrancy, passion, people to have a stake in it, lay claim to it, feel it’s theirs, it doesn’t belong to anybody else. There’s plenty of order in a graveyard.”"

I've long had similar thoughts that I've ranted in a very ineffectual manner to a few like-minded friends. I don't have what it takes to change the [Jewish] world or even make any waves. For that you need an intellectual powerhouse like David Hartman Z"L. I wanted, maybe even needed, to pay my respects.

I went to the shiva and it was packed. Each of the mourners I know had a circle of 10, 15, 20 people around them and they were deep in conversation. I went round to each one and, interrupting as one does, said how much I admired their father. I found a chair and sat for a couple of minutes but I wasn't really helping any so I decided to leave. I went to the son, Donniel, first...
"I'm going to go. There are so many people here and I don't really know what to do with myself."
Donniel answered with a chuckle, "yes I see that."
"Mumble mumble mumble Yerushalayim" (It's something you say in Hebrew meaning: May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem - I know the words but I can never get my tongue around it so I just mumble.)

I went and mumbled again to two of the sisters, interrupting them again. On my way out I mumbled to Mrs Hartman who doesn't know me from Adam but I thought it the polite thing to do. I probably should have mumbled to the other sister and brother who I don't know but I didn't - sorry about that.

Not my most successful shiva visit but I'm glad I went. The Jewish world lost a great man this week and I, a lapsed worshiper who doesn't study or learn religious stuff and who is very flexible with the rules, I feel the loss.


  1. Diane and Conor in Cary, NCFebruary 14, 2013 at 6:32 PM

    M.S.M - Thank you for your post about Rabbi Hartman and the Orthodox. I guess here in the States, being so spread out in the an overwhelming majority of everyone else but us Jews; we forget what a symbolic strangle hold the fundamentalist viewpoints can have. However, we do have that here with the extreme Christian fundamentalists and typically, most Americans are cowed into not voicing an opinion (or they really don't care either way) So it is always interesting to hear about the haredi, in your backyard. And sadly, us Jews have those that are so disdainful of being open-minded. It always amazes me that this adherence to a strict authoritarian rule in any religious belief and the willingness to imose it on others attracts so many humans on the planet.On a lighter note, I think your Aunty had a good tactic that I will have to remember at a shiva!! Coat and hat and tea! How cute and funny!

    1. It's so strange how tolerance is often the first thing to go in matters of religion - it should be the opposite.

  2. Diane and Conor in Cary, NCFebruary 14, 2013 at 6:34 PM

    P.S. Sorry about my deplorable typos, no excuse here, and I am a former ESL teacher too! I need to hire my own personal editor before I write again ;)

    1. Don't worry, tolerance for typos was never in question :).

  3. He sounds very, very inspirational man and a lone voice that was truly needed to maintain balance.

    1. Absolutely. Luckily some other brave voices have joined the movement and things are changing even now.

  4. He does indeed sound like he was an inspirational and very interesting man. Don't think too much about the rules and what you should perhaps have done, the fact is that you went, which I am sure was very much appreciated.

    1. You're right Emma, and there were so many people there I couldn't have made any difference if I'd stayed longer.