July 2015: A Rabbinic Revival in Jerusalem

The last time I was in Jerusalem was 2008.  Before then I was in Jerusalem at least every other year.  The place I hang out when I am in Jerusalem is the Shalom Hartman Institute in the neighborhood of Talbiyeh.    What I did for 10 days was study under the rubric of the Hartman’s Rabbinic Torah Study Institute, an annual gathering of over 150 rabbis from all over the world.    Rabbi David Hartman, Alav Hashalom, was the founder of the Institute.     in 1974 while I was on my junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem from UC Berkeley, I took his Jewish Philosophy class.  His passionate and incisive lectures on Jewish thought and philosophy was the most memorable experience of that year.    A Hartman opened up the world of Maimonides to a twenty year old and moved me to choose the rabbinate.   He imparted the vitality of Jewish tradition showing how Maimonides, in particular, was not only relevant to our times, but was required study to understand religion and human thought.    Hartman also had the unique ability to bring the legacy of Jewish thought to bear on the reality of a modern Israel and of Judaism in the post Holocaust world.

I returned to study with Rabbi Hartman as a young rabbi in the mid-80s at his newly established institute on Rachel Imeinu in the German Colony.  I was drawn back to the Institute year after year to study with him and the assemblage of great scholars who gathered around him.   The Institute grew and grew and now inhabits a beautiful and bustling campus in Talbiyeh in Jerusalem.    It was a joy for me to return to the Institute and resume my studies there after all too long an absence.

Rabbi Hartman and the Institute opened to me a way of learning and thinking that has had a decisive impact on my life.  Hartman had the unique ability to convey the debates of past ages and to show how the conversation continues in our own time.    Judah Halevy and Moses Maimonides continued to argue in his classroom and at his institute. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai brought their ancient disputations in those halls.  These debates also foreshadowed new Mahlokot-debates emerging in  Israeli society and in the Diaspora.  David Hartman engaged in them fearlessly and enabled us to enter them and be transformed.

This summer our topic was Tzedek Umishpat, justice and righteousness.  These are two central ideas in Jewish religion and culture.  But the long history of their presence in Jewish literature requires looking at how these two concepts appear across Jewish thought and history.    Scholars delved into the use of these concepts within the Bible, in the Talmud and Midrash, in the Medieval philosophical and mystical traditions, and through the eyes of modern Israeli poets and writers.  These studies were not limited to the study hall, but were augmented by trips around the country that enabled us to see how social issues were being played out in Israeli society.

One thing is guaranteed at the Hartman Institute.  There is no whitewashing. There is no political correctness. There is disagreement; sometimes it is sharp.  There is no Jewish idea or figure who is left free of scrutiny or critical reflection.  The Institute models Jewish public discourse and overcomes the shouting match that wounds so much of contemporary Jewish communal life in the Diaspora and in Israel.   The Institute’s focus on fostering civil conversation and listening on Israel and other difficult topics was particularly timely in the wake of the emerging controversy over the Comprehensive Agreement with Iran.  All this was in the background while we plunged into the texts.

I will drop a few names of the scholars we studied with in the hope that you will seek out their writings or watch their presentations at the Hartman website.  Ruth Calderon, Melila Hellner, Micah Goodman, Yehuda Kurtzer, Moshe Halbertal, Israel Knoll, Rachel Korazin, and Donniel Hartman gave compelling presentations on the meaning of justice and righteousness in Judaism, often with strikingly critical and counter intuitive insights about how these concepts were understood at different times in our history.

One recurring theme of many of the lectures was the observation about the easy corruptibility of religious institutions and practices.   Worship of God falls into magic.  Ritual meticulousness supersedes ethical awareness.   The term tzedek umishpat, justice and righteousness, is deeply influenced by the prophetic critique of the misuse of Jewish power and religion.  This corruptibility is on vivid display in 1 Samuel, chapters 1-4 which describes the ascent of Samuel the Prophet and the decline of the priestly leadership in Shiloh.   Centuries later Jeremiah the Prophet, will go back to these incidents during the time of Samuel to describe how powerful religious institutions such as the Temple in Jerusalem slide into corruption and endanger the whole community.    One role of the concepts of tzedek umishpat is to help Jewish generations see failures of continuity and the demands of renewal and regeneration of Jewish culture and religion.

One insight I gained was that the role of the Rabbi is not so much to be an advocate for religion, but to carefully observe and point out when beloved religious traditions and practices lose connection to their original foundational meanings.    A rabbi functions as a sentry for his or her generation to preserve the centrality of justice and righteousness at the heart of the Torah.

It is now 40 years since I studied with David Hartman in Jerusalem.  In my adult life I have had the privilege of witnessing the momentous debates about the meaning of the establishment of the 3rd Jewish commonwealth.  Someone this summer made an apt observation about the historical significance of the gathering of rabbis and scholars at the Institute.

After the Second  Temple was destroyed in 70CE Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai gathered the surviving rabbis in the village of Yavneh to grapple with the meaning of Judaism without Jerusalem.   After the Six Day War in 1967 a scholar by the name of Rabbi David Hartman gathered rabbis  to grapple with the meaning of Judaism with Jerusalem.

The excitement and intensity of being at the Hartman Institute is to grasp this historical continuity of three thousand years  and to understand and confront the challenges of our own generation.  It has been a great privilege to participate in this endeavor and be a witness to history.

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