Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa is in Israel for 10 days, studying at the esteemed Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. While there, he’s blogging about his trip and what he’s learning.
Thursday: Here Comes the Son
I have no idea where Plato and Socrates engaged in their famous dialogues and ruminations, but if they were around today, I’m guessing they would love the physical space on a hill at The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Like most construction around here, the exterior is built of Jerusalem stone. But at Hartman, the creamy stones seem to envelop you. There is no dramatic architectural touch that distracts you from the silence of the stones. Instead, you enter into this large open courtyard, and you feel space, lots of space, almost nothingness.
I entered that space on Thursday morning to begin my one-week study retreat at the Institute. I was joined by Jews from around the world, brought together by a shared desire to expand our Jewish horizons.
Our first class was with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the Institute and son of the founder, Rabbi David Hartman.
The class was titled, “Returning to Basics: The ABC’s of Jewish Ethics.”
Hartman Institute classes are not for people with a short attention span. They take an idea and dive deeply into the texts. In this first class, I felt like I was at a baseball game—stretches of slow, scholarly build punctuated by short bursts of intensity, such as:
“Moral failing is not the failure to see good and bad, but failure to see the other face.”
“When Hillel says, ‘What is hateful to you don’t do unto others’, he is telling you that you already know the deepest and most important knowledge you will need to live an ethical life: How you like to be treated.”
“Jewish ethics are not exclusive to Judaism. Beware of anything that claims to be unique.”
“Jewish ethics connect us to universal truths, and the best way for Jews to get there is to understand our own story.”
“Hillel did not say ‘love others as you love yourself’. That’s too complicated. And it’s not true.”
“It’s not evident that Hillel’s statement of ethics should be the ‘whole Torah’. What about God?”
“In religions, God usually comes first. He takes up a lot of space.”
“Most religious traditions will put a primacy on ethics, yet end up undermining it because of God.”
“Religion should reinforce the good, not determine the good.”
In between these verbal missiles, Hartman took us through a slew of sources, from Levinas and Kant to the Prophets, the Talmud, Maimonides, Nachmanides, Rashi, Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy.
This was not a sermon. It was a class, interrupted by moments of passion—a passion that sought to empower us.
“We are not empty vessels, just waiting to be filled”, the rabbi told us.
“God has placed us at the center of His universe, and He is telling us: ‘I want to be important, but I don’t know how to tell you that I’m not that important.’”
The rabbi warned that “we can be so busy pursuing greatness that we achieve mediocrity.”
Ultimately, our religious practices should “help us squeeze every inch out of our ethical potential. Jewish holidays are speed bumps that reconnect us to that which we already know.”
Hartman was taking a mushy message—do good and be good—and teaching it with an intellectual and emotional edge, one that valued human dignity and the innate Godliness of each individual.
So, after years of hearing so much about the Hartman Institute, I had finally attended my first class. It was a lot to mull over. Luckily, when you leave a Hartman class, you get to walk out onto “Plato’s Courtyard” (my phrase), where there are plenty of opportunities to sit on Jerusalem stones and mull over the teachings with students and teachers.
Maybe they should have everyone wear white robes and sandals. That would really get us in the mood to ponder the big ideas of life and Judaism, and apply them to real life—which is what the Institute aspires to do.
There was a lot more learning in the afternoon, and more debate and dialogue. After a few hectic days of “Israeliness”, my trip to Israel was taking on a more cerebral bent.
An amazing bottle of local Kosher red picked by my friend Yossi Klein Halevy at dinner Thursday night was a welcome way to end my first study day. After dinner, as we walked around late at night, I noticed that there were hundreds of people on the streets, and no one seemed to want to leave.
I couldn’t help thinking: “Forget what’s on the news. They have a lot more fun here than we do in America.”
Friday: Father Speaks
If I had come to Israel just for the two hours I spent on Friday morning listening to Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Institute, it would have been worth the trip.
The class was called “Shabbat as a Transcending Moment”.
It was full of great content, but there was more.
There was him.
The rabbi is now in his 80s, and he looks a little frail when he walks. He wears a contraption around his back to help him stand. We were all in our seats when he walked into the Beit Midrash and took his place at the teaching table.
Immediately, he jumped into the defining human condition:
“The human condition is defined by the multiple communities we live in—social, religious, business, cultural, etc.”
“You define yourself in relation to the community you’re in.”
“In Judaism, to be is to be in relationships.”
“The ideal of not needing people—of being independent—as expressed by Descartes, is not the Jewish ideal.”
“Our fulfillment of being is relationships.”
After a few minutes, the rabbi caught himself and said: “Excuse me, but I just realized that I forgot to say ‘welcome’. Oh boy, what a faux pas.”
That should give you an idea of our two hours with David Hartman—deep philosophy interrupted by offbeat digressions.
One minute he delved into chapter 20 of Exodus to explain that the Shabbat prohibition against “melacha” is a lot deeper that a prohibition against work.
“It’s about not creating a new reality, where you assert yourself as a creator”, he said. “God is saying: ‘Do not usurp my role on Shabbat. You are because I am.’”
And just when you expected him to build on this point, he reminisced about his childhood in Montreal, when he would fail in his Jewish classes.
“Mrs. Hartman, you have two other very smart boys. You can’t win them all”, his teacher would tell his mother.
“It’s not that Jewish studies were boring to me”, he explained. “Boring would mean that I thought there was a possibility that they could be interesting.”
We cracked up. This was his stage, his place, and he could do as he wished. No one minded, either, because you got a sense that he was really enjoying himself. It’s no small feat to have so much fun when you’re in your 80s.
Then he brought us back to the main subject: “The first motif of Shabbat is to celebrate God’s creation. Shabbat reminds us that something other than you made the world possible. That’s why we don’t create on Shabbat.”
The second motif of Shabbat, he explained, is to celebrate “God as liberator”.
“If God has liberated us, it means that everyone is free. Our servants are free. They are like us. Human beings are not objects, tools or private property. They are as free as you are.”
Something in the word “free” must have ignited something in him, because he took off on another of his jazz sessions:
“Judaism is an open marketplace. You are free to think. Tradition is not enough.”
“I am a Jew deeply committed to the tradition, but Judaism has to speak to me, not to my grandfather.”
“If Judaism has to wear payos in order to survive, it’s a nebah Judaism.”
“I love Maimonides. I’ve written books about him. But I reject his political philosophy. His time was not my time. He doesn’t have to be me, and I don’t have to be him.”
“You are members of a faith that was developed and interpreted by human beings, influenced by history and culture. Traditional Judaism can never be read literally.”
“The Talmud takes the biblical passage of killing for desecrating the Shabbat and says: ‘A court that kills one person in 70 years is a murderous court.’”
Now he was on a roll. His improv took him towards the obsession in the religious world for symbols instead of meaning.
“It’s not about the plane flying on Shabbat, it’s about the pilot who’s flying, or the person who’s driving.”
“Why do they go to movies on Shabbat? The real question is: How can you fill their lives with meaning? We worry about symbols, not meaning.”
“I often tell rabbis: Don’t give sermons to people who aren’t there—who are on the golf course or at the beach. Speak to me, to my needs, look at me as a person, feed me, I’m hungry, my soul is dying.”
“Imagine if there were demonstrations on the streets where people would hold up signs that said: “Feed us, our souls are dying.”
From this high note, he brought us down to look at despair.
“How do you deal with the feeling that life stinks? When you’re disappointed by people, and you feel loneliness and bitterness?”
He didn’t discount modern methods like therapy— he’s ok with whatever works, he said. (Although he did add that “what I learned in 20 years of analysis is that I can’t change my mother.”)
But as an alternative to modern methods, he came back to Shabbat, and introduced its third motif: The eternal covenant that God has made with the Jewish people.
Shabbat is “another living structure” that represents “our ongoing relationship with God.”
Shabbat helps us cope with despair and bitterness by giving us another “reality of meaning to enter.”
“I am not defined only by my week.”
He recalled how his father—who struggled as a linen salesman to eke out a living—was often depressed during the week. But when Shabbat arrived and he came to the Friday night table, “he wasn’t Shalom the peddler, he was Shalom Hartman!”
“You need alternate structures to understand who you are”, the rabbi said.
“On Shabbat, you talk a different language.”
And just like a day earlier when his son spoke of ethics, the ideal of personal freedom was never too far away.
“On Shabbat you free yourself. Whatever you can do to create this world of meaning is wonderful. Taste it and find your way. Let the tradition be a guide, not an imposition of authority.”
“Shabbat is not just about what you don’t do. It’s about what you become, by a new frame of reference.”
So these were the three motifs that made Shabbat a transcending moment: I am God your Creator, I am God your liberator, and I am your God forever.
But here was the kicker: by creating and liberating us, and being there forever, God gives us the strength to do our own creating and liberating.
It was as if the rabbi was saying to each of us: We are both Jewish, we both love our tradition, but I am not you and you are not me.
Being created in God’s image means that you are not an empty vessel. You are filled with Godliness.
Your tradition should guide you, but it should not suffocate you.