(This post is a reprint from the March 18, 2013 Shavuon)
This week, we mark the shloshim – 30 days – since the death of Rabbi David Hartman z”l. I took courses with Rabbi Hartman at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he led a number of seminars at the fellowship program in which I participated, called Amitai Yerushalayim, around the time he was developing his Shalom Hartman Institute just down the block from our program’s offices.
Rabbi Hartman was an American-born Jewish philosopher who promoted a liberal brand of Orthodoxy and created a study center that expressed his commitment to pluralism by bringing together leaders from all strains of Judaism. He was born in Brooklyn, one of six children in a poor Hasidic family. Rabbi Hartman was ordained by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most important Orthodox thinker of the 20th century (and the founder of the Maimonides School in Brookline), and received a doctorate of philosophy from McGill University in Montreal. He was a pulpit rabbi in the Bronx and Montreal before moving to Israel in 1971 as part of a generation of Zionists inspired by the Israeli victory in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.
A charismatic teacher and prolific author, Rabbi Hartman encouraged students to question tradition and urged people of different backgrounds and ideologies to pore over Jewish texts together. Last week, I had the opportunity, as part of a lecture series at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, to hear a talk from Dr. Ari Ackerman (a visiting scholar at Brandeis) on the legacy of Rabbi Hartman. I’d like to use this space today to share some of Rabbi Hartman’s contributions to the discussion of Jewish education and to apply some of that thinking to our own preparations for the sederim we will lead a week from tonight.
Although the greatest focus of Hartman’s attention in his writing, specifically on education, might have been directed towards Orthodoxy, and in particular, its dominion over religious education in Israel, Rabbi Hartman had a great deal to say about Jewish education for all children.
In one of his most persuasive essays, found in his 1999 book, Heart of Many Rooms, Rabbi Hartman writes, “… The first principle of Jewish education is that when you learn Torah you become part of the interpretive community. The interpretive community is not an independent notion added on to the core idea of Jewish religiosity, but is constitutive of what we mean by Torah. How then do you convince people that being Jewish is being part of an interpretive discussion? How do you introduce the idea that Judaism is not only a religion in ordinary sense – a faith system, a body of beliefs and practices – but also (and, today, most importantly) an ongoing discussion of a committed interpretive community?
“… When you bridge … biblical revelation with Midrashic and Halakhic texts ofTalmudic Judaism, you place the Word of God within the context of a human discussion aimed at appropriating and internalizing the Biblical Word into the life of a community.”
The big ideas of Judaism and progressive education come full circle and meet us at our tables a week from tonight. We are obliged to experience the Exodus from Egypt personally, k’eelu hu, as if we ourselves were liberated, and to construct our dinners so as to enable everyone around the table so that they too share the experience and draw closer to the community, as Rabbi Hartman encouraged.
For each of us, it will be the same and for each of us, it will be different. There is no single approach that will achieve our goals (although Rabbi Bardack’s video on our website is a great help). What we hope for is the same for everyseder; to enlist our children so they too will continue to grow in their identity as members in this interpretive community. Knowing our children as we do, each of us has to work to find the tools to listen, to learn and to teach. It is no modest enterprise. Our sederim are unique, intimate, sacred and they make memories for our family members. May each of us be strengthened in our work in preparing for the seder, and may they each be sources of joy, love and import.
He goes on to say, “… Torah, therefore, has to be reclaimed by the community. Jewish education must empower students to feel part of the interpretive community that constitutes Torah. The empowerment of people to take part in the discussion, to feel intellectually free to become engaged and argue with the tradition, must take precedence over issues of authority and obedience if Jewish education is to renew the discussion hat has defined Judaism for the past two thousand years. The paradoxical dialectic of this system is to create the students who are at once totally claimed and totally free.”
Dr. Ackerman focused on Rabbi Hartman’s commitment to opening up a process so that everyone and anyone can participate, and that this should constitute a shift in our focus as Jewish educators. We are not preparing to create “authoritative” interpreters of text. Rather, we seek to help grow membership in the interpretive community, echoing the words of the progressive educational philosopher John Dewey that, “Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself.” Our work with children should represent the processes and the goals we hope to achieve. Thus, if we want children to choose to be members of an interpretive community, we must treat them as such. In this way, we can model what it means to be “… totally claimed and totally free.”