Rebel with a cause

Rabbi David Hartman (1931-2013)

Rabbi David Hartman 521 (photo credit: COURTESY SHALOM HARTMA N INSTITUTE)
Rabbi David Hartman 521
If one word were used to describe Rabbi David Hartman it would be passionate. His explosive energy was apparent in everything he wrote, in the way he spoke, in the way he conducted himself.
He was a fighter, as he himself said, “If you don’t fight for the Torah, you’ll lose it.” And it was not a one-time-only fight, but an ongoing struggle, for the challenges were always there, always to be confronted.
Hartman was familiar with struggles.
In fact, his situation – especially in Israel – invited it. In 1971, when the Hartman family made aliya, he was already the father of five. As a celebrity rabbi, he left behind congregations in Montreal and New York, also leaving behind his teachers, particularly Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University, where the young Hartman had received ordination in 1953.
In the meantime, he had completed his doctorate in philosophy at McGill University, and this at least allowed him to teach in the philosophy department at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. This was fortunate for another reason too: He could not see himself as an Israeli rabbi. The Israeli rabbinate did not appeal to him; it was generally insular, often ultra-Orthodox in its orientation, and far from the intellectual level he had come to expect.
It was no surprise to those who knew him, therefore, that in 1976, he opened his own center – the Shalom Hartman Institute (named after his late father). This was to become his lodestar from which he was able to deliver his Torah-based thoughts, and to which he was able to attract the very best intellects – Jewish and non-Jewish, and Jews of all description, from modern-Orthodox to secular Israelis. There, they could discuss, learn from each other, create a ferment from which was to emerge a renewed Judaism, invigorated by these encounters, and leading to greater involvement in Jewish education and beyond.
Just prior to his passing, in February, a collection of Hartman’s essays “From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self” was published. It is a summary in many ways of Hartman’s thinking over the past 35 years or so. From the earlier essays on the spirituality of halakha, to the later essays (mainly from speeches he had delivered in Israel or abroad), he shows how a person can experience joy in the Torah both in carrying out the mitzvot and in studying the texts in an open, non-prejudiced way.
Hartman’s approach is rooted in halakha – the laws. But this is not as straightforward as it may seem. He searches for the possibility of change and development within halakha.
Moreover, he is convinced that the tradition encompasses change just as it does stability and continuity.
Indeed, in one of his last essays, “Hillel’s Decision,” he finds in the ancient sage a wonderful model of radical change within the laws of the seventh year (shmita).
By introducing the prozbul (a means of subverting the strict laws of shmita), he assured the continuity of loan-giving in the Jewish community. This was to have a powerful effect on the practical economy of the people. Hartman’s view of this decision is summarized in another essay: “Halakhic practice is not an end unto itself... It is the very psychological and moral discipline provided by halakha that enables us to enter into the realm of God consciousness. Put more simply, the entire purpose of halakha is to take one beyond halakha.”
Perhaps this radical view was prompted by the fact that unlike many of his Israeli peers, Hartman served for 17 years as a community rabbi, and this convinced him that living Judaism is rooted in the life of the people in dialogue with the tradition. In an essay on Hillel and Shamai (and it is not difficult to see where his prejudices lay), he writes, “Shamai may have had the truth, but he risked having no people; Hillel may have had the people, but he risked losing Torah.”
He summarized the great disputes of these sages as follows: “The path of halakha is fraught with risks and uncertainties. This, however, is the adventure of living by a Torah that is not in heaven.”
Again and again Hartman goes back to Maimonides, a philosopher and rabbi, as well as a physician, “who showed that Aristotelian ethics can be integrated within halakhic tradition... Maimonides seems to demonstrate that there is a world ‘out there’ – outside the received parameters of received tradition – that is worthy of attention and respect... what an enormous awakening to realize that what we might have thought were exclusively Jewish values are actually valued by any society interested in cultivating a healthy foundation of decency and mutual respect.”
This does not mean that we do not have our own clear identity. “The creation, exodus and Sinai narratives shape our conceptions of who we are and who we can become; first and foremost as human beings (creation), as a distinct people, bound to a God who took us out of Egypt (exodus), and as a spiritualpolitical collective (Sinai)... the question is how we use these narratives.”
The answer that Hartman offers is the covenant – a partnership with God, rather than absolute submission. It is in line with his down-to-earth approach to halakhahalakha is made for man, not the other way round.
As he says, in another essay: “The central motivating principle that has characterized my whole theology is the covenant... For me, the true meaning and purpose of the covenant are that human beings, by entering into the reality and presence of God, access the ability to discover themselves and their abilities.”
Hartman makes use of the stories of the Bible as metaphors for our behavior – even those that happen under very different conditions. The inner reality remains the same. He takes two incidents in the life of Abraham – that of Sodom and that of the akeda (the binding of Isaac) – and turns them into the basis of a theological statement about how we as human beings face inevitable tragedies and moral dilemmas. The akeda, for example, “represents our encounter with the unintelligible – not our willingness to allow that encounter to destroy any possibility for a new future.”
Pointing out that Abraham does not verbally question God’s apparent irrational command, Hartman comments, “That’s the reason why, according to Jewish law, we do not speak when we visit a mourner until the mourner engages us in conversation. “Silence shows a great deal of respect. That’s what I call refined spirituality before the tragic. There is no explanation for unfathomable loss – the loss of a child, of a spouse, of a sibling, the akeda teaches us not to offer one...
Abraham shows us – with his silent resignation at the akeda and with his empowered argument at Sodom – that an authentic relationship with the divine requires different responses at different moments. At the akeda, Abraham responded with silence and self-denial... at Sodom, he responded with heroic self-affirmation, acting in the fullness of his moral conviction.”
This “authentic relationship” is, as was mentioned, the covenant, which, Hartman writes, “truly emerges when the people of Israel turn the written word into an openended creative word.” In its modern form, it is most apparent in the emergence of Zionism, which “marked a profound shift in the evolution of covenantal consciousness... I believe that Zionism extended the covenantal tradition of empowerment by rejecting passivity as the hallmark of religious life.”
Thus, “the great achievement of Zionism was not the founding of the modern state per se, but an introduction into our consciousness of self-determination, an ongoing and everevolving quest.”
This is central to Hartman’s philosophy.
“Rather than hold God responsible for the world we live in, a covenantal perception of history understands that divine selflimitation has presented us with a world waiting to be shaped by human action.”
He was convinced that the revival of Judaism came from within the traditions that are passed down by our families. “In my years as a congregational rabbi in Montreal, and in the years since teaching in Jerusalem, it has become clear to me that the majority of Jews are driven in their religious observance by their associations with home and family...
in their actual lives, people are motivated more by memories and emotions than they are by intellectual reasoning... before we are a nation, we are a family.”
In making this shift, Hartman moves away from his mentor, Maimonides, who, he says “is unable to recognize the forces that actually drive human behavior, he doesn’t really understand the Jewish people.”
Yet for all his intellectual searches, Hartman found that “Judaism is not an intellectual leap of faith, but a solidarity with the unfolding history of a living people...
When Soloveitchik was asked, ‘How do you know there’s a God?’ his answer was, ‘My father told me.’ To me, this is not a glib retort but a serious philosophical response.”
Hartman’s fear was that tradition can become a modern idolatry. “The value of preserving the lived practices of the past must never eclipse the needs of the living community it is meant to nurture and serve.”
His view of the modern rush towards fundamentalism of all religious trends is seen “as a response by people who cannot handle the shift represented by modern consciousness.” Does this mean that he did not value old-time religion? Not at all. “I love the tradition,” he writes in his essay, “Custom and Innovation” – “but I do not bow unconditionally to its authority.”
Among changes that he sought were those of the status of women (one daughter, Tova, began the egalitarian, Orthodox community, Shira Hadasha, of which he thoroughly approved). He returns to the courage that Hillel displayed in making his radical decision about the shmita year, noting, “Hillel’s example that moral and social awareness have a place in Jewish consciousness and legislation and that these are the values that must inform the decisions of our religious leadership.” He realized, too, that rabbis make mistakes, even in their interpretations of scripture. “The Talmudic discussion about the rebellious son demonstrates the misguided attempt on the part of the rabbis to hide behind bizarre exegesis.”
According to Israel Knohl, one o f his students and a researcher in Bible at the Hartman Institute, Hartman’s life was dedicated to truth, courage and the love of Israel. He had no time for lies. He dismissed Yasser Arafat, for example, as someone who could not say that “the Jews have come home… He continued the lie that Jews are in Israel because of the Holocaust, and fed this lie to Islamists.”
Hartman’s “interpretive boldness” is still a bit too much for the rabbinic establishment.
Their army of supporters is bigger. On the contrary, according to his oldest son, Donniel – now the director of the institute – this lack of impact on Israelis is illusory. “He had an enormous impact on Israel,” his son tells The Jerusalem Report.
“[Newly-elected Yesh Atid MK] Ruth Calderon, a secularist, who spoke in the Knesset last month, and gave a lesson in Talmud from the Knesset podium, points to my father as the person who opened the doors to Talmud. There is, in fact, no liberal Jewish institution in Israel that doesn’t have as its leader someone who was not profoundly affected by my father. Melitz, Alma, Elul, Beit Morasha – all of them knew my father’s work very well and applied it in their own way, which is what my father wanted. He was not the head of a party or movement.
“The institute doesn’t exist to receive a press release. My father’s way was that of education, not forcing but persuading. He influenced thousands this way. His impact is growing as people are realizing what his teachings mean.”