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