How Studying Judaism Helped a Secular Student Recover From Trauma of the Yom Kippur War

That accursed war had stuck its claws deep inside me - even writing poems about memories of the war didn't help. Until I took my friends' advice and went up to Jerusalem to study with Rabbi Prof. David Hartman.

Elisha Porat
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Elisha Porat

In October 1976 I went up to Jerusalem to study Judaism. Friends had recommended that I try to cure my ongoing shell shock, dating from October 1973, by immersing myself in the ancient Hebrew texts. My friend, the writer and thinker Yariv Ben Aharon, suggested that I also study with Rabbi Prof. David Hartman. Yariv had studied not under him, but with him, and they became a student-teacher pair who filled each other with knowledge.

That accursed war had stuck its claws deep inside me. Each of the others in my military unit returned to his home and his work, and they happily resumed their previous lives. I couldn't. The sights and sounds from the burning Golan Heights and the shelled enclave haunted me not only at night, but during the day as well. And even writing poems about memories of the war, to which I became addicted for a short time, didn't help. I walked around my house and the kibbutz like a sleepwalker. Until I took my friends' advice and went up to Jerusalem.

Rabbi Prof. David Hartman. Credit: Lior Mizrahi

The first meeting with David Hartman was moving. Seated opposite me was a man with excellent diagnostic abilities, who within seconds understood who sat before him. He spoke freely in three languages - English, Hebrew and Yiddish - and was surprised that I didn't know a word of our "mamaloshen." He made me a very generous offer, which included financial support for my studies. I found the man very interesting. I felt that he had a strong sense of mission in addition to a genuine passion for teaching. His words about the importance of secularism in Israeli life surprised me. As did his harsh criticism of the religious establishment. We sat in his spacious apartment on Graetz Street, and his wife and children passed through the room several times. He was very proud of them, and his gaze followed them even after they had left. On the spot he gave me a considerable sum of cash, and sent me off to purchase a basic library of Judaism.

That year I studied with him in two classes. One discussed the philosophy of Maimonides and the other dealt with the figure and teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. I was an independent student, far older than his young students. My curriculum was broader. I also audited Talmud classes, the lessons of Dan Pagis on medieval poetry, and those of Rabbi Menachem Froman, a unique poet and peacemaker.

Hartman's lessons soon became famous, and a class that would begin with a small group on the Mount Scopus or Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University would end up in a large auditorium. I had never seen anything like the students who would drag their chairs down the corridors in pursuit of their rabbi. His lectures were magical. His young fans sat under the lecturer's desk and recorded his every word. He had an amazing sense of linguistic maneuvering, and he would roam among his three languages with amazing artistry. The transition from Hebrew to English and the seasoning in Yiddish, all in a strong American accent, was fascinating. I often found myself speaking in this broken language with the young American students with whom I shared my tiny cubicle.

After one or two lessons, he had already identified the outstanding students, or those whom he wanted to single out, and he would suddenly turn to them, speaking very personally, above the heads of the other students. It may not have been democratic, but it was wonderful. I remember the respect he showed for Yoske Ahituv, a talmid hakham (outstanding Torah scholar ) and member of Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. Yoske would regularly come late to class because of the bus schedule. Hartman would stop his lesson, introduce Yoske to his listeners, exchange a few words with him, and include in them respect for the man, his scholarship and his identification with the kibbutz.

Only one thing annoyed me at the time. I remember that suddenly someone would announce, "Gentlemen, minha!" and the skullcap-wearers in the auditorium would gather for the afternoon prayer. It was embarrassing and unpleasant. We, the secular students, didn't join in. I mentioned it to him politely, and I think he accepted my opinion. He knew how to accept the other at his full value.

Jerusalem had turned into the capital of Israeli optimism, which was undergoing rehabilitation after the war. Gush Emunim was starting out, and Shimon Peres, to undermine the policy of Yitzhak Rabin, opened the doors of Samaria to the settlers. The settlement movement suddenly picked up speed. The city was filled with would-be prophets, self-appointed consolers, and all kinds of weirdos and cult leaders. The heavy depression that prevailed in the cities of the coastal plain did not ascend to Jerusalem. Here, semi-messianic visions of reforms and redemptions flourished, and groups of conquerors of the hills of Benjamin gathered there.

Even Rabbi Menachem Froman, the peacemaker, placed the roof of the house where he lived with his wife and two children at the disposal of the conquerors. I once went up to the roof by chance and saw the foam rubber mattresses rolled up and ready, and next to them the sleeping bags. Just like the equipment in the Israel Defense Forces emergency warehouses. About 35 years have passed since then, but I haven't forgotten the defiant, "despite everything" spirit in evidence in the renewed Jewish Quarter, among the cranes and the bulldozers.

My friend, the late Nehemiah Ginzburg, a member of Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, was an admirer of Hartman. He also admired the Orthodox philosopher and teacher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. He begged me to become even closer to Hartman and to listen carefully to his teaching. And that's what I did. I joined his select group of students, an elite hevruta, a Jewish study group, that met at his home on Friday mornings. It was a genuine corrective experience for me, and one could even say purifying and cathartic. Hartman was even more brilliant in the intimate hevruta than in the classroom. He permitted himself a surprising intimacy with his students, and the flattered hevruta responded willingly to his overtures.

There's no question that the man is a great teacher. We studied chapters from the Schechter edition of Avot d'Rabbi Natan with him. He knew he had only a short time to teach before we all went home. And he did so with great charm.

The attractive house was already redolent of Shabbat, and his wife would come by, preoccupied with her preparations. Hartman would stop talking for a moment and send a long and lingering glance in her direction. Afterward he sighed and asked, "What does it say there, 'Three things enlarge a man's spirit,'" and we all completed the proverb with the words "a beautiful wife." He smiled to himself and returned to Avot d'Rabbi Natan. He didn't imagine, and neither did we, that he would suffer a harsh blow of bereavement when his son-in-law, a navigator in the air force, fell in Lebanon.

Once I met him in the street, running. He stopped next to me for a short time and said, why are you surprised, in America all the professors run. It may be the running that strengthens him and, thanks to that, he is celebrating his 80th birthday.

Some time after I returned to the coastal plain, dear Nehemiah summoned me for a consolation visit to Reb David's home. His two brothers, each of them a brilliant lecturer in his field, had passed away one after the other, before their time. We sat in his brother's house in Kiryat Krinitzi in Ramat Gan; visitors came and went, and they probably included people who were close to him and to the family. In spite of that, he found time for us and had a conversation with us, with Nehemiah and me, as though his lesson had ended just yesterday and we were still standing in the corridor of the humanities department. I give him credit for that, too. May the man enjoy a good and long life; there are very many people who owe him thanks for the spiritual wealth they acquired in his company.

Elisha Porat is a poet, writer and journalist. His sixth book of poetry, "Diminution," is scheduled to be published soon.

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