And when his rabbi dies, the student tears his clothes

As I have thought, in profound sadness, about my teacher and rabbi David Hartman this week, I have reflected on the remarkable ability he had to reach out and connect in such intense ways to so many of us. No one else in the Jewish world commanded such universal respect and devotion from so many quarters. No rabbi other than David Hartman embraced so many different types of Jews or served as such an active presence in each of our lives than David did. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that there are always reasons for friendship. This is surely true and in the case of David Hartman, there are countless reasons for the friendship, admiration, and love he evoked.

In the case of Rabbi Hartman, his unqualified love for and devotion to the people, land, nation, and religion of Israel and his insistence that each of these elements were vital components of an authentic Jewish life were palpable and absolute. David Hartman’s passion and his thoughts ignited the pages of his writings on these and other topics. The effervescence of his personality in the classroom, in the study hall, around a dining room table, and in the privacy of his office or home allowed for – demanded – human encounter and meeting. His struggles and his trials and his willingness to share them with his audience and his readers challenged our minds and touched our hearts.

David Hartman entered our souls because he did not hesitate to reveal his own torments, values, and beliefs and we saw and felt – not despite but because of his complexities – that he embraced and loved us as concrete individuals and persons as much as he loved the Jewish people, the Jewish tradition, and humanity. No wonder he made Judaism a compelling option for thousands and thousands – Jew and Gentile, rabbi and layperson, disciplinary scholars and broad based intellectuals. He was expansive, inclusive, and humane, and Nature could surely stand up and say to all the world of David Hartman, as Shakespeare’s Antony did of Caesar, “Here was a man!”

In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes of the respect that marks the relationship and the feelings that bind the student to his rabbi, and he instructs the student on the actions he must take and the emotions he will suffer upon the death of his rav. In his Hilchot Talmud Torah, the Rambam writes, “There is no greater honor you possess and can display than the honor you possess and display for your rabbi, and there is no reverence that you can possess and display than the reverence you possess and display towards your rabbi. As our Sages have said, ‘The respect and awe you display towards your rabbi is identical to that which you must display towards Heaven.’” No wonder Maimonides therefore observes, “U’khe’she-yamut rabo, kore’a kol b’gadav ‘ad she-hu m’ga’leh et libo… – And when his rabbi dies, the student tears his clothes until he reveals his heart, and the tear remains forever.”

This is how I now feel upon the death of my rabbi. No rabbi commanded greater respect and awe than mori v’rabi David Hartman. His warmth, his passion, his appetite for life, his noise, his wisdom, his knowledge, his sense of humor, his absolute and complete candor cannot be replaced in my life. I will miss the warmth of his smile and his hug.

In II Samuel, Chapter 1, we read that when David learned of the death of Saul and Jonathan, he said, “Your glory, O Israel, lies dead on your heights. How the mighty have fallen. They were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions.” And when, two chapters later, David learned of the death of Abner, he proclaimed to his soldiers and all of Israel, “You well know that a prince, a great man in Israel, has died this day.”

David Hartman was “stronger than a lion” in life. He was a prince in Israel and the heavens blaze forth his death. The hearts of thousands are torn, and they will remain so. We will not see his like again anytime soon. And yet we give thanks even at this moment of pain for the legacy that is his and for the privilege we had to know him.

The rabbis, commenting upon Song of Songs 7:10, ‘doveiv siftei y’shanim – moving gently the lips of those who are asleep,” interpret this to mean, “Even when one is dead, dovevot siftotav min-hakever – his lips speak from the place of his eternal rest.” Through his writings and his speeches, his institutions and the memories of encounters I and so many others had with him, Rabbi Hartman will continue to provide us with instruction and guidance. Y’hi zichro baruch – his memory will continue to constitute a blessing. May the Hartman family find comfort along with all who now mourn in Zion and Jerusalem.

About the Author
Dr. David Ellenson is President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.