Having contrasted between two schools of Jewish thought, the medieval one which
said God can take no human form, and an earlier one that said God could possess
“an emotional interior,” David Hartman took sides. The earlier school, he
explained, allowed him “to cite God’s shift from being a figure of complete and
total authority to a figure who works in concert with human beings.”
philosophical debate notwithstanding, Hartman himself personified the theologian
who shuns total authority and seeks concert with human beings. In the Israel of
1971, where he arrived after having already been an established rabbi in Canada,
this theology was a novelty.
In a society firmly divided between
observance and secularism, with very little sprawling – let alone flourishing –
between them, Hartman was a relentless builder of pathways, bridges and tunnels
between both ends of this no man’s land.
A disciple of modern Orthodox
sage Joseph B.Soloveitchik who lent religious meaning to Israel’s
establishment, and an admirer of Conservative thinker Abraham J. Heschel and his
quest for “a passionate engagement with God,” Hartman was difficult to classify
within the established denominations of Judaism.
Cynics questioned his
claim to Orthodoxy, but in fact his challenge to Orthodoxy was neither Reform’s
nor Conservatism’s to Judaism. If anything, it was reminiscent of early
Protestantism’s to Catholicism, as Hartman’s celebration of a Jew’s “covenantal”
relationship to God encouraged seeking personal paths to divinity, rather than
intermediaries, whether of religion’s charismatic or intellectual
Unwilling to accept the religious dichotomies on which Israel was
founded, particularly the implicit assumption that Judaism was the exclusive
business of the observant, Hartman suspended bridges between observant and
secular Israelis, between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, and between Jews and
non-Jews, in addition to upholding the bridge on which he was born and raised,
the one that hangs between Jerusalem and Babel.
That is why in the
institute which he founded and his son Donniel now heads, one can see scholars
from varied faiths poring jointly over a chapter in Psalms and a verse in
Isaiah, and rabbis of different denominations matter-offactly discussing a page
in the Talmud or a clause in Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, while on
another corner of campus IDF colonels explore with professors of Jewish thought
the boundaries of battlefield morality, and several rooms away from them other
scholars are writing textbooks on Judaism for secular schools.
no such place in all of Israel, and actually also no such place beyond
Even so, the Israel that David Hartman leaves today is closer to his
spirit than the one where he landed 42 years ago.
Today’s Israel is one
where secularists in Tel Aviv flock to all-night Judaic studies on Shavuot,
while in Jerusalem, Orthodox women increasingly assume liturgical roles that
once were exclusive to males.
Today’s Israel is one where the secular son
of a famous secularist crusader arrives for his own stint in politics flanked by
two rabbis, one modern Orthodox and the other ultra-Orthodox, while the leader
of an Orthodox party publicly shakes women’s hands and makes no secret of having
once abandoned observance for several years.
Israelis seek paths to their heritage while religious-born ones seek critical
religion, just like Israelis raised on overly Talmudic Judaism seek its more
emotional versions, and vice versa.
Surely it is early to judge the
extent to which this Zeitgeist of experimentation, exploration, tolerance and
cross fertilization is David Hartman’s inspiration. There can be no arguing,
however, that it is molded in his image.
The writer is a fellow at the
Shalom Hartman Institute.www.MiddleIsrael.com