Monday, July 6, 2009

Crisis and Uncertainty

Today I began two weeks of intensive study at the Shalom Hartman Center's Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar.

The Center was created by David Hartman, a modern Orthodox rabbi, teacher, and philosopher, in 1971. Their mission is to bring together Jews from across movements and streams, and they have enjoyed a great deal of success in this sacred task. This year, there are 97 rabbis and cantors studying in the summer session, which deals with Jewish responses to crises, old and new.

Shalom Hartman has a gorgeous campus in Rehavia, an old and established neighborhood near where I am living; it's about a seven minute ride on my bike. It is a pleasure to study there.

Today, we met one another, heard a few introductory talks on the subject, and attended electives of our choice. Tomorrow morning we begin hevruta study, working on traditional texts around Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, whose response to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70--resiliently shifting the focus of Jewish practice from sacrifice to study and prayer-- essentially saved the Jewish people.

The highlight today was Rabbi Hartman's evening talk. He is a genuinely wise elder statesman, and an iconoclast who is observantly Orthodox but has real respect for the contributions of the other, liberal movements in Judaism. He is cantankerous, brilliant, brutally honest, funny, charming and, above all, heimish.

His focus was on how we understand our past and future. He noted that most traditional Jews preach a kind of messianism that features God assuring the Jewish people a happy ending to our trials in history. Hartman rejects this view, suggesting, instead, that there are no promises that all will work out well. He sees history as contingent, as unpredictable, and suggests that in the end, it is in our hand's rather than God's. I am going to end with a quote from his shiur (learning session) and let all of my readers here ponder and, if you like, respond to his words:

I do not believe in the inevitability of the Jews remaining a Torah people. The notion that we are protected, that God assures our future must be thrown out the window because it creates passivity and does not challenge us to change!

I believe in God. . . but I don’t trust Him. And He doesn’t want me to trust Him. He wants me to take responsibility for the world.

If, as some say, everything is certain, if we know that God will make everything turn out right in the end, if history is necessary rather than contingent, life has no adventure. I believe that to live is to participate in a great adventure. Never exhaust or ignore the potential of now. Seek the possibilities of the world you live in. That is living. Believe in your own ability to grow. If you do that, life is possible.

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