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Tribute to my teacher
It was 1966. I was a student at the Jesuit St. Louis University trying to decide whether to enter the priesthood or convert to Judaism. I had been raised Catholic, felt a deep respect for the faith of my Irish forefathers, but at the same time was profoundly drawn to Judaism, its endurance and faithfulness over millennia and, during that decade of such social upheaval, its commitment to social justice. Even as a young boy in Catholic schools a question that disturbed me was: if the Church is the new Israel, then what of the old Israel? What is the role of Jews today and what is their purpose in God’s plan? My dissatisfaction with the responses from the Church served as the catalyst in leading me into the Covenant of Israel, and, eventually, my encounter with Rabbi Hartman. I had been studying with Rabbi Burrows who was acquainted with David’s brother, also a rabbi, who had a congregation in St. Louis. David also had two or three brother who were rabbis and I always thought if his family had been Irish Catholic, such a scenario, all sons in the clergy, would have been any Irish mother’s heart’s delight. But I remember he grew up in Brownsville, one of the largest Jewish concentrations in New York and was a lover of basketball as well as the Talmud. After my second year at SLU, I transferred to McGill in Montreal. Since Rabbi Burrows knew David Hartman was rabbi at a congregation there, he referred me to him, so that I might continue my studies and undergo the conversion in a community where I would be living. After a few meetings and listening to my story and what it was that motivated me to take such a life transforming step, he agreed to witness my conversion. I had already been shomer Shabbat and observing kashrut but continued to study with him and attend services every Shabbat and festival at the “Bailey shul” where I was first exposed to his thought provoking drashas on the parasha. Learning with him was pure pleasure. It was always textual but also contextual. He provoked, and kept asking questions, enticing us to search the text ever deeper, not to be content with the pat answers that we all had at the ready in our pockets. .He challenged us to confront our comfort zones. I had never been exposed to this kind of learning. Here was a man, anchored in the tradition, faithful to that tradition, but who always tried to point out the forest from the trees. I remember him saying: “learning Shulchan Aruch is like swimming in a bathtub. Learning Talmud is like learning in the ocean.” Or: “There are some people who are so kosher they won’t eat in their own homes.” Many in the orthodox community found such attitudes scandalous and undermining the authority of halacha, but that was never his intent, nor did it have that effect on his students or congregants. They were committed to him simply because he turned them on to learning and connected them to the richness and depth of Jewish tradition. I remember the sederim that he would conduct. I have never experienced anything like them. They went until two in the morning, after passing the hours in discussion, questions and song. At the conclusion with L’shanah habah b’Yerushalayim, Mrs. White, who had help prepare and serve came out of the kitchen, we grabbed her hand bringing her into the family circle and danced and danced around the table. I was deeply grateful to him and his wife, Bobbie, when at my graduation, they invited my parents to Shabbat lunch and did everything to make them feel comfortable in surroundings that were not familiar to them. But above all else, David Hartman gave me a priceless gift. He taught me the holiness of learning; that it was learning of the text which kept us connected as a people, regardless of where we stood on the spectrum of observance. He wanted to share that richness and wealth with all who came to learn, Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. From him I learned that appreciating the particularity of the Jewish People is not synonymous with tribalism, and that observance is not to be confused with the multiplicity of chumras. As I saw what he called “insane” becoming more and more codified by the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and the Diaspora I become deeply discouraged. But every time I reached that low point I called forth memories from the years he was my teacher and was comforted by the knowledge that he still is and that remains a saving grace. May his memory be a blessing for all who had the privilege of learning with and from him.
Yaakov Sullivan, USA, 11/02/2013 23:02:00
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