Rabbi David Hartman, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 81, represented an approach to Judaism that in 1971 – the year he arrived in Israel – was on the cutting edge not just in Israeli society, but in Western culture in general. Emphasizing individuality and searching out personal paths to God, while rejecting the need for spiritual intermediaries, religious authorities or institutions, Hartman’s thought was very much a product of, and an influence on, the post-modern era.

In an interview with Yediot Aharonot to mark his 80th birthday, Hartman lamented the dichotomy between the religious and the secular that was a fixture of the State of Israel in its first decades under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion and which to a large extent continued to be the legacy of Israeli society for years after Ben-Gurion left politics.

Hartman dedicated most of his life to doing away with that dichotomy.

Under Mapai’s rule, the Jewish religion and its institutions were relegated to the strictly Orthodox while the real revolution unfolded in the political and social spheres, rather than the spiritual one. For the vast majority of secular Israelis, traditional Judaism was irrelevant to their lives. They came into contact with it as it was represented by reactionary and bureaucratic Orthodox institutions only when they married, divorced or were buried. Not much was expected of religion or of those who represented it. And due to its irrelevance, religious authority – carefully restricted to singular, albeit profound, events – was not questioned much.

This artificial compartmentalization of Judaism helped lead to a religious extremism completely detached from reality and made Judaism irrelevant for the vast majority of secular Israelis. But in recent decades, in part thanks to Hartman but also as a result of a larger sea change that has taken place in Western culture’s approach to spirituality, Israeli society was ready to hear Hartman’s message.

For it was only in recent decades that Israelis were receptive to the idea that they could express their religiosity outside formal institutional frameworks and were not obligated to accept a centralized authority or set rituals and rules. Today Jews – and members of other faiths as well – increasingly create sacredness and construct meaning in spontaneous, innovative and intensely personal ways. This message, which Hartman also advocated, would have been missed in Mapai-era Israel, which, like other Western societies, was still preoccupied with all-embracing ideologies and concepts such as communism, fascism and the melting pot. In the postmodern era, however, Hartman’s message was increasingly resonant with meaning for Israelis.

The Shalom Hartman Institute – where Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis of both genders can collaborate and cross-fertilize – embodies the post-modernist, post-denominational era in which we live. It is reflected in phenomena such as Shira Hadasha, a synagogue that Hartman supported that defines itself as Orthodox while striving for gender equality, including women leading prayers and reading from the Torah.

Outside Hartman’s direct influence, we are witness to profound changes in religious practice, despite the haredi monopoly over state-funded religious services. Increasing numbers of secular and religious Israelis, refusing to defer to ultra-Orthodox authority, are insisting on “customizing” their own marriage ceremonies, from the use of TV personalities as officiators and the reciting of modern Israeli poetry under the huppa to the incorporating of symbolism from the destruction of Jewish settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria.

Not all of these reflections of our post-modern era were to Hartman’s liking. The increasing public support for the Women of the Wall, ten of whom were arrested yesterday for the “crime” of praying at the Kotel, most likely was.

However, judging from the same Yediot Aharonot interview mentioned above, the phenomenon of “hilltop youths,” who, not unlike the Shira Hadasha congregation, have broken away from institutionalized rabbinic authority and have adopted a more individualistic approach to religion without intermediaries, was definitely not.

Gauging Hartman’s influence on Israeli society is difficult.

Undoubtedly, he and the scholars who have found in the Shalom Hartman Institute an intellectual breeding ground have had a major impact in many ways.

It is safe to say, however, that as much as Hartman was a catalyst for spiritual change in Israeli society, he and his thought process are a reflection of a post-modern era characterized by new, innovative and more egalitarian forms of religious expression. Hartman was lucky to see his efforts bear fruit and witness this spiritual change unfold before his eyes. May his memory be a blessing.

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