I am deeply, deeply saddened to hear of the death of my friend, Rabbi Dr. David Hartman. This comes on the heels of the loss of the great Jewish legal scholar, Dr. Menachem Elon. While Dr. Elon and Rabbi Hartman made different contributions to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, for me, as part of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) and Yeshivat Maharat families, they had a common point – their unconditional support for our vision, our programs and our institutions.
Modern Orthodox rabbinic training had for years been in the sole domain of one institution. When Chovevei started, indeed, several years before it started, there was a harsh reactionary pushback. YCT was not always YCT. It actually began as the Meorot Fellowship, a once a week study group on issues confronting Modern Orthodoxy. Once the Jewish world heard about Meorot, it didn’t take long for it to be declared off limits by some rabbis. There were several rabbis and even some students who told me they agreed with the philosophy and would like to be involved, but could not because of this ruling.
And then I was in touch with Dr. Menachem Elon. I came to know Dr. Elon after he dealt with the Women at the Wall issue as an Israeli Supreme Court Justice. He was, after all, a master of mishpat ivri, and hence most suitable to write that decision. In the course of that ruling he contrasted the arguments for women’s prayer groups with the psak of several Roshei Yeshiva who prohibited such services. In the end, Dr. Elon’s decision was extremely favorable to women’s prayer groups. He was a man who was not afraid to speak truth to power.
I, therefore, in those early years, turned to Dr. Elon for advice. His reaction was quick and clear, “if I could be of any help, please let me know.” And he was as he began his annual teaching for the Meorot Fellowship program. He was one of the highlights of the year, giving us the credibility we sorely needed.
In time, I came to know some of Dr. Elon’s children. What struck me is how they had taken different paths in life, and yet, remained close. That does not happen in a vacuum. It comes, I believe, from parental influence. Dr. Elon embodied a tone reflective of the basic philosophy at Chovevei, that Am Yisrael, despite its differences, must learn to love each other like family. And the test of family is not how we love when agreeing, but when disagreeing.
And now, to Duvie. I first met Duvie when trying out as his replacement in his Montreal synagogue in 1971. I had already known that he was a unique man, but when I was walking in I saw a towering figure in sweatpants on a pre-Shabbat jog. It was Rabbi Hartman with his engaging smile and glowing eyes wishing me well. I felt then that our kesher (connection) would be long and strong.
Over the years, I spoke to Duvie about the larger issues facing Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, Religious Zionism, Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodoxy, Open Orthodoxy, and of course, Chovevei and Yeshivat Maharat. The constant in our conversation was Duvie’s passionate spirit as a source of encouragement. “Don’t let them get you down” he’d say, “just look forward. The Chovevei guys are the best – they shine at our Institute.” He inscribed one of his books to me with sentiments I will always cherish – in honor of the students of Chovevei and Yeshivat Maharat who are changing the future of Modern Orthodoxy.
When Duvie first became a rabbi in Montreal and especially after he began the Hartman Institute, he was, in many ways, alone. He brought challenges to the fore that were not previously discussed openly in Orthodox circles. He knew that a Torah Institute whose foundations were faith, integrity and open inquiry would be attractive not only to Jews of other denominations and the unaffiliated, but to the Modern Orthodox world as well. As it evolved he was the subject of intense criticism. But he always stood strong. That was Duvie – he was not afraid to stand up for what was right – and he did that for us the YCT and Yeshivat Maharat community.
When the Rabba and Maharat controversy broke out, Duvie was there as well. Sometimes the criticism during that time was more personal than ideological. Duvie was not only an ideological brother, but a friend who, in this extremely difficult time, was there.
There were times when as President of Chovevei, I thought, why not let it go. The criticism was too piercing, it kept me up at night. The toll on my children and wife was too heavy. But we did not give up because of the incredible support along the way from people like Dr. Elon and Rav Duvie who stood with us.
I know that Dr. Elon and Rabbi Dr. David Hartman’s accomplishments go well beyond Chovevei and Maharat. But I pray that they know that they have touched our lives as well. To them, the Chovevei and Maharat communities – and the tens, even hundreds of thousands of people whom the lights of these communities have inspired and will inspire – are forever grateful.
Avi Weiss is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. He is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.