When Criticism Grows from Love
The daughter of an evangelical pastor finds comfort in the questions of an Orthodox rabbi — and his ability to change his mind on women's issues because of his relationship with his daughter.
“I see my identity as deeply tied to a family. I'm very deeply Jewish. My mannerisms, whatever it may be, I mean, I was brought up with Jewish music, my father, the institute is called after him. He was very poor, but he celebrated the Shabbat with joy. So I have deep memories, Jewishly. So I have never had the desire to leave. I had the desire that it should be better, so my criticism grows from love. It's like I was once told, don't be critical as your mother-in-law who enjoys to find out things that are lacking in you [laughs], but be critical out of compassion, out of real love for what you think the people could be.”
I really relate to these words from Rabbi David Hartman. As the daughter of a pastor, raised in an evangelical Christian home, I've found it hard to reconcile my faith with Christianity writ large.
Homophobia and sexism are two issues that I argued against in my father’s church. At times, those disagreements cut so deeply that they caused not only strain in my relationship with my father, but made me doubt my belief in God and Christianity. How could the God that I was raised to believe in, a God of love and mercy, not believe in the equality of all human beings, regardless of sexual preference and gender? It became the question that I spent most of my 20s trying to answer.
"Tova once said to me, Abba, the problem with women in Judaism is not a woman's problem. It's your problem. It's the Judaism that you want to be committed to.' Now do you want to be committed to a Judaism in which the woman is not a person? She could be a great surgeon during the week in Hadassah, she comes to the shul, she's not part of the minyan, she's not part of the quorum. I remember a rabbi calling me, says, 'David, what should I do? I come to the shul in the morning and some people have to say Kaddish, which requires a quorum of 10 men. I only get nine and I get seven women.' When Orthodoxy denies the personhood, it commits spiritual suicide. It is blind to the human condition, to the dignity of human beings. I can't see a Judaism that flourishes and consider the woman in a second-rate, very limited legal powers, etc.”
I first heard Krista’s conversation with Rabbi Hartman via podcast. It was my day off, and I was walking around D.C. aimlessly, listening to the show as I went along. Rabbi Hartman’s voice — that raspy, old Bronx accent — grabbed me. As the conversation unfolded, this religious man bowled me over. This deep, wise thinker spoke so poetically about his faith but, more importantly, about his relationship with his daughter Tova.
When I heard this story, I stopped walking and sat down on the nearest bench. I couldn’t believe that a man as religious and as learned as Rabbi Hartman changed his mind on an issue as important as a woman’s role in Judaism. And that change happened because of his relationship with his daughter. I started crying, on a park bench, right there in the middle of Dupont Circle.
Later that week, I burned a copy of that podcast onto a CD and mailed it to my father. I don’t know if he ever listened to it. I know he got it. He told me the package had arrived, but when I asked him if he’d heard it he said he hadn’t had a chance to yet. And I never brought it up again. For me, sending him Rabbi Hartman’s words was enough. He spoke for me. He said everything that needed to be said.
Rabbi Hartman wasn’t perfect. As you hear throughout his conversation with Krista, he wrestles deeply with his anger towards Palestinians and with his frustration with his Jewish faith and people. That wrestling is what brings me comfort. The fact that he continually wanted to change, wanted to adapt, wanted to learn — that is what I take away from him. I find myself often returning to his final words from this interview:
“I don't know what God is, the being of God, but I know it's a shattering experience. It opens you to the world. It takes you out of your narcissistic ego trip and says, look, see the other. Show strength through compassion, through love, not through violence. And to be reminded each day of those achievements. Not simple, but I'm still hoping. I'm still hoping. It's not easy to be a religious man. On my gravestone it’s going to be written: 'David Hartman who wanted to be a good Jew.' He wanted to.”