iENGAGE: On the passing of Rabbi David Hartman

His infectious vitality, his enthusiasm and charm, dispelled any awkwardness before it could arise.

Rabbi David Hartman 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Shalom Hartman Institute website )
Rabbi David Hartman 370
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Shalom Hartman Institute website )
Like many others, I remember my first conversation with Rabbi David Hartman. It took place in the beit midrash at the Shalom Hartman Institute, as David introduced us, his students, to parts of his book, A Living Covenant From Sinai to Zion. I was an undergraduate at the time, studying philosophy at the Hebrew University, with special interest in the writings of Immanuel Kant.
I was fascinated by Kant’s dichotomies between reason and the senses, between autonomy and heteronomy, and between morality and self-interest. Kant’s analysis of morality as a set of categorical, unconditional imperatives was especially striking; I took it to be one of the deepest insights about the nature of our ethical life. I was aware of other philosophical theories, too: the English Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, the American Pragmatism of John Dewey and David Pierce, etc. These all paled in comparison to Kantian philosophy.
There was a special place in my world for our own Kantian philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Leibowitz offered a philosophy of Halacha that was firmly rooted in the conceptual framework set out by Kant.
The duality of freedom and subordination, the rejection of scientific proofs of the existence of God, and of human freedom, were all ideas that Leibowitz borrowed from Kant and integrated into his religious philosophy.
Kant praises human autonomy and self-legislation and finds no moral value in the pursuit of happiness.
Leibowitz follows Kant in devaluing human happiness.
Yet, for Leibowitz, (true) religion treats human autonomy as another form of idolatry. Religious value can be found in worship of God, or, more precisely, in slavery to God.
David couldn’t stand fancy words; we can understand only simple formulations, in everyday language. “How do these concepts: freedom, subordination, idolatry relate to our own lives, to our daily experiences, to our moral feelings?” I remember him asking with intolerance.
After all, he argues, friendship and love make us happy, and they have moral value if anything does.
The idea that in seeking friendship or love we are subordinated to our hedonic nature because we pursue happiness seemed weird to him. Anyway – he was raising his voice – how can a person be subordinated to his own nature? What does that mean? He was equally skeptical of Kant’s (and his follower, Leibowitz’s) approach to metaphysics and theology.
The question of whether God exists or not – a meaningless question, for Kant – misses the point. God has a presence in the life of the community – this is the presence we must strive to understand. This presence is the only thing that really matters; and God’s presence was never doubted within a religious community.
Perhaps this is what made David one of the most interesting, challenging and original Jewish thinkers of our time. He wasn’t yet another expert on Kant or on Maimonides. He had lively conversations with these thinkers, forcing them to be part of his life, and of ours.
His investigation had a liberating effect, making it possible for him to protest against injustices wherever he finds them: in the State of Israel, in the thought of Maimonides, in rabbinic texts, and in the Bible. While Leibowitz regards the Binding of Isaac as the ultimate manifestation of faith because it goes beyond morality, yet at the same time he denounces, in the name of morality, the State of Israel for the injustices it is responsible for. David states: sacrificing sons is a moral wrong – Binding of Isaac is morally unacceptable – and so is unnecessary war, which involves such sacrifices.
David’s criticism was so courageous because it was simple and straightforward.
I recall myself searching for words to answer David’s questions, feeling that repeating the usual formulations would sound as if I was merely reciting them. Yet, to my surprise, I was not intimidated by him and did not feel ill at ease in his presence. David was a wonderful teacher. He didn’t try to embarrass people he spoke to, or outshine them in debate. He wanted to converse with them, go along with them, and understand them. His infectious vitality, his enthusiasm and charm, dispelled any awkwardness before it could arise.
My conversations with David lasted over many years – when he was in his prime, and when he grew weaker, when he was seeking new challenges, and when he was in the grip of an exciting creative process, when he was angry, and when he was proud. These conversations were a constant source of interest, pleasure and intellectual challenge. May his memory be a blessing.Yitzhak Benbaji is a Senior Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute.