Appreciation: King of no-man’s land

David Hartman personified the theologian who shuns total authority and seeks concert with human beings.

February 11, 2013 01:34
3 minute read.
Rabbi David Hartman

Rabbi David Hartman 370. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Shalom Hartman Institute website )


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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.”

The 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 modes.

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.

There is no such place in all of Israel, and actually also no such place beyond it.

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.

Increasingly, secular-born 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

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