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Yizkor 5774

"“It’s Complicated” — September 14"

By Rabbi James Gibson
Yom Kippur Yizkor

The next to last book my beloved teacher and Rabbi David Hartman ever wrote is called, The God Who Hates Lies. An Orthodox rabbi, one of the leading lights of last 100 years in Jewish thought, his book is a cri-de-couer against blind traditionalism. He could not conceive of a God who supported what he believed were impossible Jewish beliefs and practices. These include:

Diminishing women’s status in both prayer and married life, especially the holding of women as hostage in marriage through the status called aguna;

Obsessing over kashrut certificates instead of supporting the values that keeping kosher is supposed to teach;

Refusing burial in a Jewish cemetery in Israel to fallen soldiers who have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.

He loved Orthodox Judaism. But its stubborn refusal to adapt to modern conditions and philosophical progress enraged him. I witnessed his outbursts on these and other topics many times in my course of study to become a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

I loved Rabbi David Hartman, a brilliant, learned iconoclast, an smasher of the idols of the rigid right and the loony left, a man unafraid to take on the religious establishment in Israel, despite the blistering criticism and name-calling he received from them. And he was equally unafraid to call out liberal Jews for taking their heritage too lightly.

We, his students, were enormously fond of Reb Dovid. Every slight or attack from the Charedi world, we took as an affront to us. Once someone in my group asked him why he didn’t simply write them all off.  After all, his opponents treated him with utter contempt.

He looked puzzled by the question. “They’re family,” he said bluntly. “In a marriage, you disagree, you fight, you might even call each other names. But in the end you’re married. That’s the kind of relationship that I believe God has with the Jewish people. It is what God wants from all of us Jews. We fight, we fuss. But in the end our fate is the same. Just ask our enemies.  We are married.  And married people don’t write each other off.”

Reb Dovid saw the relationship between God and the Jewish people as one of marriage. He saw our relationship with each other as Jews as a marriage as well.

The painful irony of the marriage metaphor was that Reb Dovid was passionately attached to and alienated from one woman throughout his life, his wife Bobbi.  They married and divorced twice and were not together when he died. The summer that things came apart for him was painful for those of us who loved him so much and who cared for Bobbi as well.

If Reb Dovid’s marriage could fall apart, could the marriage of God and the Jewish people end in divorce as well?  Could Jews who disagreed get divorced from each other’s concern?

And what about us? Although so many of us had wonderful, loving bonds to our parents, our siblings, our partners and our children, not to mention our uncles, aunts, cousins and friends, we also remember relationships that were not as whole, not as tender. What does Yizkor mean to us as we call to mind these more complex relationships?

It is a strange coincidence that the letters that form the root of the Hebrew word, yizkor, or remembering, can be rearranged to form the roots for cruel (kh-z-r – ach-za-ri). Can remembering be a form of cruelty? If so, why in the world would we gather at this sacred moment on this holiest of days?

If you rearrange the same root letters in Hebrew you get the word that means to focus or concentrate (r-kh-z – ri-kuz). We are challenged today at Yizkor to determine our focus, how we will concentrate our memories here and now.

It would be easy to remember only the tender ties. I have regaled you with tales over the years about my mother’s mother, Helen Kestenbaum, whose firm hug and wonderful baking were living proof of her love for us. But I certainly know of other tales in my family, in which my grandmother was less than loving and supportive. And don’t get me started on her brother, my uncle Irv! The question won’t just go away: Does the reality of some of these memories spoil the sweet remembrance we call to mind this Yizkor?

To me, the answer must be no. I have never consumed a perfect peach or banana. They have all had imperfections, some more, some less.  I have rarely regretted eating the fruit, however.

Today, at Yizkor, I embrace my grandmother, all of my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, my friends and colleagues who are now gone.  I embrace their memory, flaws and all.

In the same way, I embrace my teacher, my mentor, my guide, my Rabbi, David Hartman. I embrace Reb Dovid’s memory today for his brilliance and his flaws as well.

I call him to mind at Yizkor precisely because I will never embrace him again, he who spoke tenderly to us congregational rabbis, believing we were on the front lines of the battles for the Jewish soul.

Maybe I am not the only one who has to decide which flowers to cherish and which weeds to ignore this Yizkor. Maybe some of us remember a mother who loved us so much we could not always breathe. Maybe are thinking of a father who cracked the whip of discipline long after it should have been put away. Maybe we remember a friend from whom we were distanced, but for whom we still have a spark of affection in remembrance.  We call them to mind now and embrace them even as we shed our tears. They are so much a part of us that we remember them willingly, flaws and all.

It was very strange studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute this summer without its towering founder in attendance. I missed his passion, his biting tongue, his sparkling eye, the excited words he always spoke in the days before the summer seminar began, “The rabbis are coming! The rabbis are coming!” I missed presenting him with the bottle of single malt whisky we slipped him when we would arrive at the Institute.

I spent tender moments with his children, Rabbi Donniel Hartman and his pioneer feminist daughter, Tova Hartman. Tova was public in her grief, Donniel far more reserved. Bobbi was not there, of course.  But I missed her and found myself grieving for her loss. too.

Yizkor is not supposed to be easy. There is a reason it is a requirement of this day. We call them to mind, our beloveds, our less than beloveds, our friends and family. It is an act of defiance, a denial of death, a refusal to give in to finality, a way to claim power over impermanence.

I hope your memories this Yizkor are sweet. But if they are not all sweet, I hope you do not repress them, either. Why? For some day, others will sit here and call us to mind and admit us again to their hearts. We pray for their mercy and tenderness when they remember us. Today we promise to live lives worthy of that honor.

A wise person once said, “Blessed are the flaws of memory.  Better the flaws of our remembering those we loved than remembering all our loved ones’ flaws!” Without denying reality, may our Yizkor memories embrace our tenderness and our love.

And Reb Dovid, who loved the Jewish people even more than he loved God, who loved Israelis far more than he loved the land of Israel, who loved his family, his students and his friends in his less than perfect way, may he be remembered for his light and love and his gifts to our people.

Light and love outlasting all of their flaws.  All of our flaws as well.  All of our flaws as well.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784