Thursday, July 3 – Torah from the Rebbe

Around here, Thursday is the last work day of the week. Hard to believe that the first week of my studies came to a close today. Another brilliant day (I think I have written that every day this week! Interesting rut to “be stuck in” – having many hours of brilliant learning every day.

The morning session, “Rambam: Memory and Narrative,” was taught by David Hartman. Being a student of David Hartman, I am gaining insight in what it means to be a Rebbe with Chasidim.

Don’t misunderstand me, David Hartman, the man and the Torah he teaches, is a great intellectual rationalist. He is a student of the Rambam and the great 20th century Orthodox Rabbi Soloveitchik. So to call him a Rebbe, at first blush, is like when I talk about that little Syrian shul – sounds strange to the air.

But in many respects David Hartman is a Rebbe.

The easiest part of it to see is in the disciples who have been attracted to sit at his feet (not literally). There is an amazing assortment of serious Rabbis – thinkers and practitioners – who attend the two week rabbinic seminar every year. Many of these significant and successful Rabbis have been doing so for 10 years, some for twenty years, and a few for more than twenty years – every summer.

So, empirically, one can look at the Chasidim (disciples) who have gathered around him and label him a Rebbe. But this would be confusing the effect for the cause.

I may not know which came first the chicken or the egg, but I know you can’t put the cart before the horse.

David Hartman is not a Rebbe because of the Chasidim around him. He has Chasidim around him because he is a Rebbe.

Every word out of his mouth is a word of living Torah. Every word of Torah is a chidush – something new added to the teaching of Torah in this world through his beautiful Neshamah (soul/breath of life). He is a gift to these generations, and to hear him speak is to see it and hear it instantly.

The first time I heard him speak was in March of 1990. Over the past eighteen years, David Hartman has taken his gloves off (as if they were ever really on) and he says exactly what he thinks. Those with thin skin can be offended, but those whose ears steal his words directly from the air are enriched and given wisdom from this fount of insight and meaning.

He is also a mean of deep love – for the Jewish people and those who serve them.

It almost doesn’t matter what David Hartman teaches, it becomes a teaching with depth and significance. I imagine that if I listened to him read a recipe, I would learn a lot more than how to bake a chicken.

He also speaks with total freedom, with very little (if any) inhibition. He digresses and teaches with the same brilliance as when he is on topic. I could sit at his feet and enjoy his teaching, his insights and analysis and even his irreverence and be much wiser because of it.

Each summer I also keep a list of “Hartmanism” – outrageous, outlandish and deep things that come out of his mouth and demand to be recorded.

For example, “God cannot act in history because Jews are so busy saying so many words. God can’t interfere, He is too busy. Nebuch it takes a lot of time to listen to all those words.” Or, “I’m not cynical. I’m just bored, and I allow myself to share my boredom with you.”

So the texts that we studied explored how the RaMBaM (Maimonides) tells the history of the world in general and history in particular. Hartman’s reading of this is radical.

According to the selected texts we studied, RaMBaM posits a world that in its creation was monotheistic – how could it be anything else? Over time, people had the lousy idea to celebrate the Creator and give thanks by honoring the creation. Over time this led to the worship of the creation rather than the Creator. Paganism was a learned system of belief, as we fell away from the true monotheism.

God’s covenant with Abraham was an attempt to restore true monotheism, not motivated by God, but by the insights and awareness that Abraham came to on his own. This monotheism was highly intellectual, not predicated on commandments of worship.

Again, over time, the descendants of Abraham failed to maintain this intellectual understanding of God, and again fell into paganism.

The second time God made a Covenant with us, it wasn’t an intellectual understanding, like the Covenant with Abraham, it is a Covenant predicated on mitzvot and worship. This time around, God gave to us a structure, allowing us to remain faithful in our monotheism through our observance of mitzvot.

Incredible reading and perhaps we will have the opportunity to study some of the texts together.

In the midst of the learning session, in between our private chevruta time when we prepare the texts and the lecture, we had small breakout groups called chavurot.

This year, the Institute made the decision to keep our group of 27 separate from the larger group of Rabbis who pay for the privilege to study there. So with a group of about a half dozen of my colleagues from the Rabbinic Leadership Institute III (RLI) we sat around talking about the life, liberty and the pursuit of the Rabbinate – collectively, and to each of us particularly.

Rabbis are in interesting group. As a general rule, we live in a world without much collegial support. Often Rabbis in the same city have constrained relationships due to imagined competition or other nonsense (though this doesn’t tend to be true in San Diego thankfully). Plus, Rabbis in general do not work in environments where it is appropriate or safe to complain or to share one’s burdens. It is also often the case that a Rabbi has a significant sense of self (i.e. ego). Finally, Rabbis tend to be very busy. This leads to a certain amount of loneliness and even isolation professionally.

The group of Rabbis with whom I share RLI have created a community free from these issues (though we are quite busy) and have formed a wonderful, collegial group (support group?) in which it is safe and appropriate to share various burdens and tsurris that we can’t share in other spaces.

Two observations: first, there are very successful Rabbis who are unhappy in the Rabbinate. Success and satisfaction do not correlate well together. Second, I am very lucky to be the Rabbi of Ohr Shalom and to love our shul, our community and my job as much as I do. It is a blessing to get to be the Rabbi of this wonderful shul, to get to have my family live within this loving community and to raise our children together with such a warm, nurturing group of committed, serious Jews.

It is also very interesting to hear the headaches (sometimes nightmares) and heartaches of other people’s communities. Please God, may we be blessed to avoid these kinds of troubles for many years to come!

But I digress. Could this be a David Hartman influence?

After lunch, we had another ninety minutes of the Idra Rabba. How is it possible that time could pass so quickly and that there is only one more day left in this series?

After this shiur, the RLI group had one more session together for the day. Over the course of our three years together, we each get one opportunity to teach the larger group.

Today, Rabbi Jonah Layman, a Conservative Rabbi from back east, taught a session about making synagogues accessible to people with disabilities and limitations – physical and mental.

Jonah has a developmentally challenged brother, and he spoke movingly about how that has played a role in childhood, his adult life and in his Rabbinate. He also educated about a number of wonderful programs nationwide aimed at making the synagogue a more inviting and inclusive environment for developmentally disabled children and adults.

He taught beautifully, and caused me to think about how we as such a loving, nurturing community can work to be more inclusive of those with different challenges.

After leaving the Institute, I met up with Jen and the kids and we headed over to Burger Bar, a fancy burger and sandwich joint, for dinner with Menashe, Donna and Ayala East, and Yariv, Risa, Jonah, Evan and Maya Kohn who just arrived to Israel – a good dinner, a large loud group, and a wonderful burger and onion rings!

Visiting Israel is wonderful for my soul, but not so healthy for my body. It expands my mind and my body!

The late night program included a trip to a night club and restaurant in Tel Aviv where all of the performers, waiters and chefs are challenged in some way. I think the first are blind, the second are deaf and the third I don’t know.

I understand it was a wonderful experience. I didn’t go.

Part of the personal learning of the summer is the power and importance of reflective choices at all times. An important part of being Jewish is sublimated the “I” with the “We.”

I am not an “I”, I am a “We”, and that “We” is always contextualized. It is sometimes the “We” of my marriage, sometimes of Jen and the kids, sometimes of our shared Ohr Shalom community, sometimes the larger Jewish community and sometimes the universal collective of God’s creation.

So the “We” makes very different choices than the “I”. These are not sacrifices, these are choices. The ability to choose wisely and to use that ability to actually do so afford us the possibility of meaning and holy lives.

Whereas the “I” would have loved this unique experience in Tel Aviv, the “We” was very happy to come home, read stories, brush teeth, and celebrate God’s creation by saying prayers and tucking my kinder in to sleep.

“God cause us to lie down in peace and raise us up, Ruler, to life . . . protect us from all scary things . . . guard our comings and our goings . . . spread over us the Sukkah of your peace.”

Have a good night.

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