Many people condescendingly viewed David Hartman as more of a public intellectual than as a leader. He left North American Jewry, and an Orthodox pulpit in Montreal, and in some profound ways institutional Orthodoxy, to go with his family on aliyah to Israel in the early 1970′s. He built a non-denominational, or pluralistic, educational institution in Israel that worked there and in the Jewish Diaspora, and through his writing and teaching and speaking he reached a different audience than he would have if he had remained inside of the security of Orthodoxy. From the beginning he insisted that Zionism, Judaism, and western philosophical notions like democracy must continue to fertilize one another in the miracle that constitutes the modern return of Jews to their land. That became a big part of his “Torah” and it became a large part of my Torah, and I know many others too.
Some dismissed him as marginal because he lacked a firm place in the conventional understanding of the Jewish spectrum: Too Orthodox to be liberal, too liberal to be Orthodox; too Zionist for post-Zionists, too dovish for an increasingly hawkish Israeli middle. But in essential ways he modeled a certain kind of leadership that we seldom see, not just denominationally, but more deeply.
A friend told me that at a tribute held last year in honor of Hartman, after the many words of praise and respect came his way, he stood up and said in his characteristically idiosyncratic way that he felt that he was full of you know what, a failure, because he’d never dealt adequately in his work with the Holocaust, which meant he hadn’t dealt with much of anything at all. This anecdote tells us a lot about the man.
First, he took responsibility for what he accomplished, and for what he failed to accomplish. That requires taking freedom seriously, and being honest about the choices we make with our freedom.
Second, we avoid talking about our mistakes, almost at all costs. When we’re young at the beginning of our studies or in our careers we think progressing means getting everything right so we’ll advance and we’ll impress our elders; when we’re old too many others grovel before us and encourage our worst tendencies to think that the emperor wears clothes. Somewhere we lose sight of not just the reality of our fallibility but also the actual importance of it.
To me the anecdote shows Hartman never forgot the truth at the center of learning, and of leadership: leaders must always learn, and learning always involves seeking the strangeness of new ideas, new readings, new views, even if they challenge and shatter long-held beliefs of ours. One must remain perpetually open. However much Hartman disputed Martin Buber’s views on Judaism, on this he understood that the ethical dimension of learning involves the I always remaining present to the Thou of another person, their voice, their view, their Torah.
I cannot begin to fathom how much work it took to build an institution, one that reaches so many. Institutions trap many, especially their leaders. Their duties bind them; myths and cult of personalities tend to creep in. Hartman knew these truths. He fought them. Many of us became his followers and are different people for it. Sounds like leadership to me.