People who encountered Rabbi David Hartman often came away with a seminal experience that touched them for life.
Forty years ago, I met Rabbi Hartman at his new home, shortly after his aliyah to Jerusalem when I worked at Hillel in Jerusalem. The purpose of the meeting was to ask him if he would speak on Holocaust Remembrance Day. His answer was that he was too new in Israel to give talks. He then turned the conversation to a personal one, and asked what I was doing to deepen my knowledge of Jewish texts, so that I would be able to cite Jewish sources when I worked for places like Hillel.
That conversation catapulted me to learn with Rabbi Hartman and other teachers at the Pardes Institute, which was launched only a few months later, when Rabbi Hartman as one of the first teachers at Pardes.
Rabbi Hartman encouraged each student to pick a subject, learn it well, and come back to him with questions that we might have about the texts in question.
With Rabbi Hartman’s encouragement, I chose to focus on the Jewish view of the status of Non Jews in the land of Israel, because the status of the Palestinian Arabs was just beginning to emerge as an issue that Israel would have to cope with.
Rabbi Hartman shared the sources concerning the “Ger Toshav,” the “stranger in the land.” He was a demanding teacher, asking that every source be checked, to make sure that his student would know that the rights of the non Jew in the land of Israel are protected no less than 36 times – so long as the Ger Toshav recognizes the sovereignty of the Jewish entity in the land of Israel
Rabbi Hartman also encouraged the continuation of the dialogue with Palestinian Arabs that I was involved with as a student of the late Rabbi Jack Cohen, my supervisor at Hillel in Jerusalem.
Back then, I told Rabbi Hartman that the subject of Ger Toshav and Arab human rights was not a popular subject. His response was one that he must have given to many of his students, which was that “popularity is not important. Integrity is.”
And from then on, a personal dialogue with Arabs in Israel began, influenced by the challenge of Rav Hartman to see the issue non-Jews in the land of Israel as a great challenge to the people of Israel as they returned to the land of Israel.
That year, however, when a few of us ran a model seder and invited Palestinian Arabs to learn the Haggadah with us, it was instructive to hear from them that they did not like to be called “ger toshav,” since they frankly said that they saw all of Palestine as their land.
Rabbi Hartman was consistent on matters of observance, challenging every one of his students to consider a life based on Jewish law, in whatever manner the person could see as appropriate.
Rabbi Hartman would often say that no matter how unconventional your ideas are, if you want to pass on an idea to your children, a framework of personal observance would provide the framework from which to start: to keep Shabbat, Kashrut, holidays, and to study sources, always to study.
What gave Rabbi Hartman great personal joy was to see his students pursue a career in the real world, where he or she would make a contribution as knowledgeable Jews.
Staying in touch with Rabbi Hartman over the years, I shared with Rabbi Hartman many of my news stories about encounters and interviews which focused on what Palestinian Arabs proclaimed in Arabic language, in their own media and in their own schools – messages that did not contain a word of peace. I confided in Rabbi Hartman that covering the PLO’s message in Arabic was not a popular thing to do, to which he responded, as he did forty years ago. “Popularity is not important. Integrity is”.
Like so many others who mourn his passing, I miss Rabbi Hartman, a giant of integrity, who demanded total devotion to inquiry from anyone who was his student.