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Teach Like God

Given my experience at the Hartman Institute, my relationships with its leadership, and my great esteem for the values the Institute carries, I was both surprised and horrified to read about a controversy involving it this past week. 
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January 17, 2022
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For ten summers I studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem (SHI). I gathered with rabbis from around North America representing the diversity of the Jewish People: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox leaders including members of the LGBTQ+ community. Our teachers—among them the institute’s founder, Rabbi David Hartman of blessed memory—challenged us and inspired us to think creatively and critically about our tradition and its texts. One of the Institute’s most inspiring and unique programs is the Muslim Leadership Initiative, which brings together members of the North American Muslim and Jewish communities for study and dialogue about the complex religious, political, and socioeconomic issues facing people in Israel and Palestine.

Given my experience at the Hartman Institute, my relationships with its leadership, and my great esteem for the values the Institute carries, I was both surprised and horrified to read about a controversy involving it this past week. 

The North American offices of the SHI reached out to Big Duck, a Brooklyn-based marketing and branding firm that focuses on helping nonprofits. According to a statement released by the SHI leadership, the Big Duck team immediately began asking them about the Institute’s position on BDS and its operations in Israel. Based on the Institute’s responses, Big Duck declined to work with them.

The Institute decided to make the incident public, writing in their statement: “Big Duck’s claims to not apply litmus tests nor to adhere to a BDS policy as a company are belied by their application of a litmus test here, and by their allowing those employees who support BDS to exercise a veto over business decisions on the basis of that commitment. We believe that if and when companies decide to refuse business of North American Jewish organizations because they have a relationship with Israel, those organizations should be accountable to that reputation publicly and transparently.”

It is deeply concerning to me that apparently in part because of concerns raised by some Big Duck employees about working with a Zionist entity (notwithstanding the thoughtful, reflective, and inclusive way the Institute understands and expresses its commitment to the national aspirations of the Jewish People), an organization so objectively worthy of respect has been effectively “canceled” by a U.S.-based corporation simply because it is Zionist.

Demonization of this sort is antisemitism pure and simple and should be called out as such.

Most insidiously, over time such occurrences become normalized. What is shocking soon becomes expected and even accepted.

Incidents like this should concern us as American Jews for many reasons. Most insidiously, over time such occurrences become normalized. What is shocking soon becomes expected and even accepted.

Rabbi David Hartman of blessed memory once taught me an important lesson that can help us navigate this moment. In a lecture he gave in Jerusalem in May of 2012 about a year before he died, he spoke about what he considered to be one of the central lessons of our Torah. I was living in Israel with my family at that time and I was privileged to hear the lecture in person. At one point, Rabbi Hartman asked why God didn’t simply choose to create humanity in a way that would “hard-wire” the behavior God wanted from us into our very DNA. Why not create us to be wise, compassionate, just and moral creatures?

Our job is to find worthy teachers who can guide us so that we might become students who attain discernment and moral refinement.

Rabbi Hartman answered by quoting Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed”: “If it were part of God’s will to change [at God’s desire] the nature of any person, the mission of the prophets and the giving of the Law would have been altogether superfluous” (Part III, chapter 32). Rabbi Hartman suggested that the very purpose of Torah, the teachings of the prophets, and the wisdom of the sages is to empower us to become moral beings who will, throughout our lives, pursue wisdom, compassion and justice. This is part of the way that God ennobles us and elevates us by allowing us to choose the good rather than by programming us simply to be good. Our job is to find worthy teachers who can guide us so that we might become students who attain discernment and moral refinement.

The type of litmus test that Big Duck seems to have applied to the Hartman Institute is the antithesis of the type of inquiry and reflection that Maimonides suggests and that Rabbi David Hartman embodied.

As difficult as it can be, our response to incidents like these—beyond calling out actions like Big Duck’s as antisemitic when, forgive me, they look like antisemitism and quack like antisemitism—is to roll up our sleeves and patiently and even lovingly teach. Instead of ignoring, dismissing or canceling those who might simply be ignorant of the history of the Zionist movement and our People’s ancient connection to the land, we should remain in dialogue with them so that we might, in time, help them to attain greater discernment and wisdom.

I’m not so naïve as to believe that our efforts will always be met with success, but I have found that sometimes they are. If we see educating others—Jews and non-Jews alike—about what Zionism means and what it means to us as part of our collective and personal mission, we just might, over time, move the needle.

Rabbi Hartman saw this as a deeply spiritual task. God’s central role, argued Rabbi Hartman, is as a teacher. The function of revelation as he put it is “to educate you slowly so that you will change and grow.”

Our tradition imagines that God created us in God’s own image. One implication is that part of our very purpose then is to, like God, be teachers of truth, understanding, compassion and justice. It can be wearisome, certainly, and there are times when we might be tempted to just throw our hands up in disgust and walk away, but that would be a mistake. Instead—slowly, patiently, bit by bit—let us become more educated about our own history, texts, traditions and national aspirations so that we might, in time, educate others as well.

Rabbi Hartman argued that these efforts are part of God’s deepest desire for humanity. As he put it that evening in Jerusalem, God’s prayer is that “you should be a mensch—and the only way you’re going to do that is through your own efforts.”

I would suggest we take his teaching one step further: It’s not enough for us to be mensches; we have to commit ourselves to helping others—even those with whom we might find ourselves in conflict—become mensches as well.

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