Rabbi David Hartman: A Transformative Force and a Unique Legacy

This undated photograph provided by the Shalom Hartman Institute shows rabbi David Hartman, one of the world's leading Jewish
This undated photograph provided by the Shalom Hartman Institute shows rabbi David Hartman, one of the world's leading Jewish philosophers who promoted both Jewish pluralism and interfaith dialogue. The Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by the rabbi more than 30 years ago, said Hartman died Sunday Feb. 10, 2013, after a long illness. (AP Photo/Hartman Institute)

Yesterday, we lost a gadol (a great leader). The world was blessed for more than 80 years (1931-2013) with the presence of a hero of Torah, a progressive force for good, a religious pluralist, and an astounding teacher of ethics and spirituality. Rabbi David Hartman was my teacher and the rebbe of thousands around the world. His reach extended from secular Israelis to religious Israelis, from Reform through Orthodox, from the young to the elderly, from the homeland to the diaspora. He was a rabbi's rabbi, a philosopher for philosophers, and a teacher for teachers.

David Hartman was born to a Haredi family in Brooklyn, N.Y., and studied in several Haredi yeshivas. However, he soon became dissatisfied with these yeshivas: "My decision to leave Lakewood for Yeshiva University was motivated largely by dissatisfaction with the intellectual insularity I had come to associate with the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world" ("The God Who Hates Lies," 19). He was later ordained as a rabbi at Yeshiva University in New York. He then earned a master's degree in philosophy from a Roman Catholic institution, Fordham University, and taught for years in the United States and Canada.

rabbi david hartmanTwo existential threats to Israel played a pivotal role in Rabbi Hartman's life. The Six Day War of 1967 motivated him to later move with his family (make aliyah) to Israel in 1971, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War spurred him to found the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in 1976. For more than 20 years, he was Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he also was a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, he served as an adviser to Israel's education minister from 1977-1984, and provided advice to several prime ministers.

While his credentials were impressive, his ideas were superior. He was the founder of the Orthodox renewal movement, which combined traditional religious law (halakha) with liberal views and a pluralistic approach to the study of Judaism. His chief areas of concern included the lack of resolution on agunot issues, the conversion crisis, Zionist land-fundamentalists and women's issues in Jewish law. At his Institute, he could finally realize his aspirations:

I founded an institution to house this unfolding endeavor. It was at the Shalom Hartman Institute that I was able to find and collect people with great minds and great honesty, uninterested in hiding in a verbal, metaphysical religion disconnected from their daily experience of life. There I have been provided with the moral nourishment of a living dialogue with people who have intellectual courage and respect for alternative ways of life and thinking. Many seem to find it a refuge of intellectual freedom; no one is attacked or criticized for thinking in new ways. The institute became my spiritual home, in which I met fellow truth seekers who were able to live with uncertainty and doubt ("The God Who Hates Lies," 23).

Throughout, he stressed that religion should not stress what is "forbidden," but rather "loving kindness." He was rewarded with the loyalty of many students, as he noted in a 2011 interview: "A lot of young people come to me and say, 'If not for you, I wouldn't be religious.'"

When I was learning in yeshiva in Efrat, I would go up in the evenings to the Hartman Institute to learn directly from Rav Hartman. I always left touched and perhaps even startled by his intensity and how much passion he brought to his Torah explanations, Jewish legal analysis, and critique of society. It was all wrapped in one. He could move from Rabbi Akiva to Ben-Gurion to Simone de Beauvoir seamlessly. He encouraged us to push for more and better from ourselves, from our learning, and from society. I recall how he inspired me to continue on to rabbinical school. He believed rabbis have a crucial role to play. He wrote:

I soon realized that the main religious issue facing Judaism in the modern world was not the authority of halakha. The role of the rabbi in America today is not to be an authority figure or a judge. What are missing are not answers but questions! The rabbi has to instill a desire to ask questions, to be bothered by Judaism, to feel that Judaism is important enough to want to ask about it ("A Heart with Many Rooms," 213).

He was not a pseudo-Zionist who yells out slogans and stats he did not understand; rather, he was the most authentic type of Zionist: a dreamer. He believed that Zionism was about cultivating a constant longing for a better Jewish democratic state and a holier and more just world. He inspired his students to dream. He wrote in Israelis and the Jewish Tradition that we should move away from the spiritually dangerous approach of interconnecting the modern state of Israel with messianism and should ground this new national relationship in Torah and ethical responsibility:

Today we have an opportunity to reestablish the normative moment of Sinai, rather than the Exodus story, as the primary framework for evaluating the significance of Jewish history. To be religiously significant, a historical event does not have to be situated between the moment of the Exodus and the coming of the Messiah. It can be significant by encouraging us to discover new depths in the foundational moment of Israel's election as a covenantal people. I respond religiously to the establishment of the state of Israel from a Sinai-covenantal model for the following reasons. In reestablishing the Jewish nation in its ancient homeland, Jews have taken responsibility for all aspects of social life. The divine call to become a holy nation committed to implementing the letter and spirit of the Torah must influence our economic, political, and religious institutions. Through the establishment of the state of Israel, we are called upon to demonstrate the moral and spiritual power of the Torah to respond to the challenges of daily life.

He further elaborated that one should not succumb to the lure of ultra-nationalism in "A Living Covenant":

I give preference to the midrashim that imply that the covenant was made in the desert to teach the community that Judaism as a way of life was not exclusively a function of political sovereignty. We were born as a people within the desert in order to understand that the land must always be perceived as an instrumental and never as an absolute value. The memory that the covenant was made in the desert prevents us from falling victim to the idolatry of state power.

Having sovereignty and dwelling in the state of Israel is not an end in itself. Rav Hartman taught: "The prophets taught us that the state has only instrumental value for the purpose of embodying the convenantal demands of Judaism" ("A Heart of Many Rooms," 264). In Rabbi Hartman's last work, he fleshes out more of his dream for the Jewish state.

I affirm Martin Buber's deep assessment that the kibbutz was an experiment that did not fail. The aspiration to build an egalitarian society with an emphasis on social justice, with a health system in which no human being would be deprived of decent care, with schooling, through the university level, that is affordable for the majority, in contrast to the astronomical cost of an equivalent combined Jewish and general education in the diaspora--these achievements are inspiring to many Jews who relate to its mission as being 'a light of nations" (Isaiah 42:6). In a very deep and significant way, Israel is the public face of the Jewish people. If the world seeks to understand who the Jews are, they point to the Jewish state as in some way mediating for them a profounder understanding of the Jewish soul ("The God Who Hates Lies," 180-181).

Most influenced intellectually by Maimonides and his teacher Rav Soloveitchik, he grounded Jewish ethics in the religious philosophy of imitation dei.

When Maimonides describes morality as an imitation of God's actions, he is describing a morality which has its roots ­in an intellectual understanding of God. The ground of this morality is neither specific rules nor principles but, rather, the actions of God as they are manifest in nature. The key difference between the morality of the multitude and the morality of the religious philosopher is that the former is rule-dominated and based in the juridical au­thority of God, the latter, an imitation of the God of Crea­tion. Knowledge of God based on the study of nature reveals loving kindness, righteousness, and judgment as constant features of being. The constancy of God's hesed, reflected in being, guides the religious philosopher to act with hesed toward men even though they have no claim on him.

Rav Hartman believed that reason and ethics (not simple faith and obedience) were the essence of Jewish living. He explained beautifully the Midrash Sifra that it is a principle of faith in the Jewish tradition that G-d liberated the Jews in an exodus from Egypt (yetziat mitzrayim). However, the rabbis go on to explain that the obligation is not primarily a requirement of belief but of action. The one who truly believes in the miraculous exodus is honest in weights and measures. The one who acts ethically in business has embraced the deepest meaning of this theological value. The truth is not a historical fact merely to be noted, but is rather a value that must transform our character.

He taught, and modeled, that we must cultivate the emotional intelligence and ethical sensitivity to respond to the true needs of the other.

Tzedakah involves empathy--listening and sharing in the pain of the person in need irrespective of one's ability to solve or ameliorate the problematic condition at hand. Tzedakah is not only measured by concrete, efficacious action but also by the subjective response of empathy when action is impossible. Tzedakah not only involves [the mitzvah of] Give to him readily ("naton titten" - Deut. 15:10), but also the one, Do not harden your heart (Deut. 15:7). The subjective component of the norm, of tzedakah, is expressed in the empathy and openness of one's heart to the person in need irrespective of the feasibility of effective action.

Empathy, however, did not imply an intellectual laxity, or acquiescence to whatever one was taught. Rav Hartman believed that students of Torah should feel empowered to ask hard questions and challenge authority.

The empowerment of people to take part in the discussion, to feel intellectually free to become engaged and argue with the tradition, must take precedence over issues of authority and obedience if Jewish education is to renew the discussion that has defined Judaism for the past two thousand years. The paradoxical dialectic of this system is to create the student who is at once totally claimed and totally free ("A Heart of Many Rooms," 122).

He was firm in his absolute commitment to halakha and believed that we should observe Jewish law with joy.

Serious Christian thinkers are perplexed by the notion of joy in Halakha. ... Halakha appears to mitigate against the experience of joy. The expression "yoke of the commandments" frequently used in halakhic writings conveys the idea that mitzvot (commandments) are a heavy weight pressing hard upon a person. This attitude of "phari­saic legalism" with its submissive obedience to the letter of the law hardly seems conducive to joy, an experience normally associated with feelings of ease and spontaneity.

Yet to Rabbi Hartman, halakha was innovative, not static:

What we need to learn from the past is not so much how previous generations solved particular problems, or the particular forms of their halakhic frameworks, but rather the underlying spirit and teleology that infuses Halakha. It is not only to legal norms that we owe our allegiance, but also to the values and the human character that these attempt to realize ("A Heart of Many Rooms," 243).

While one should embrace an intellectually critical Judaism, Rav Hartman taught that it should never be devoid of passion. He wrote in "Morality and the Passionate Love for God" in "Torah and Philosophic Quest" (91):

To describe the goal of the individual excellence in Maimonides' thought as 'intellectual virtue' is to miss the passionate love characterizing the religious philosopher's relationship to the object of his knowl­edge. To Maimonides, the importance of philosophy is that it enables one to become a passionate lover of God. The intoxicated lover of God represents the philosopher who strives to eliminate any distraction from the joy of intellectual love of God. In Maimonides' description of the lover's yearning for solitude one can sense the terrible emptiness the lover feels upon being separated from his beloved. Mostly this is achieved in solitude and isolation. Hence every excellent man stays frequently in solitude and does not meet anyone unless it is necessary.

Because he has set his passionate desire upon Me, therefore I will rescue him; I will set him on high because he has known My name (Psalm 91:14). You know the differ­ence between the terms 'one who loves [ohev]' and 'one who loves passionately [hoshek]'; an excess of love [mahabbah], so that no thought remains - that is directed toward a thing other than the beloved, is passionate love [ishq] (Guide, III 51).

Rav Hartman was a prophetic figure ahead of his time who felt the conflicting emotions of one deeply wrestling with society but also transcending it. He wrote of the prophet.

The aspiring prophet must transcend this egocentric dependency on society, so that his assumption of political leadership will not be grounded in the longing for power. The disdain for the community, then, is the condition of the prophet during his ascent, i.e., when he is struggling to transcend the political leader's dependency on the community. ... Disdain for the community characterized the prophet during his ascent; in exact contrast, love for the community becomes his characteristic quality during his descent.

His Torah was grounded in pluralism. It was a social and pragmatic pluralism (a deep respect and even reverence for the other) but also an epistemic pluralism (embracing the multiplicity and complexity of Divine and human truth).

The radical particularization of history eliminates the need for faith communities to regard one another as rivals. Competition between faith traditions arises when universality is ascribed to particular historical revelations. When revelation is understood as the concretization of the universal, then 'whose truth is the truth?' becomes the paramount religious question, and pluralism becomes a vacuous religious ideal. If, however, revelation can be separated from the chain of universality, and if a community of faith can regain an appreciation of the particularity of the divine-human encounter, then pluralism can become a meaningful part of biblical faith experiences," ("A Heart of Many Rooms," 165).

In 2009, Rabbi Hartman delivered a short lecture, "The Rise of Extremism and the Decline of Reason," in which he strongly condemned the increasing tendency of extremists within the Orthodox community who equated "the more extreme, the more right wing" with being a "holy Jew." In lamenting the decline of reason, he noted: "The less intelligible things are these days, the more attractive they have become." Finally, he warned of the dismal future if this trend continued: "The deepest challenge to Judaism is that we have given up on the belief in the rational capacity of human beings to build a decent life. We've given up on reason, the greatest treasure that human beings have."

Today, there are many who engage in polemics, who vilify anyone with a contrary opinion. Rabbi Hartman, with his openness and pluralism, offers a welcome contrast. While he was a committed Zionist who had answered the call of Israel when it was threatened, he favored diplomacy with the Palestinians, and also anonymously helped support educational courses that supported peace and social justice in Israel.

On a personal level, Rabbi Hartman taught me to have a profound respect for my students and congregants. He had a unique ability to identify the problem of religious relevance in the modern world, and an equally effective solution, as these two excerpts illustrate:

Like many rabbis, I noted in most of my congregants--indeed, in most of the Jewish at large--a deep estrangement from the religious framework of the Torah. Jewish tradition was not deemed worthy of serious attention; it was not, in William James's words, a live option. I realized then that my task was not to proselytize, but to counter indifference by cultivating an awareness of Jewish tradition as a theological and cultural option that commands attention, that cannot easily be dismissed. My years in the rabbinate taught me pedagogical empathy: a teacher must begin at the place of the students, listen before speaking, hear and share in the deep estrangement of Jews from their tradition - to enter that estrangement and to try to understand the roots of modern Jewish alienation ("From Defender to Critic," xii).

Rav Hartman did not make it easier for us. Rather he raised the bar that we must constantly be choosing and re-choosing our way of life.

My own variation on the synthesis of tradition and modernity is not a philosophy meant to serve as the platform for a new movement or institution, but a process of living experience among individuals and communities that chose to adopt its angle of vision. It is a process that demands constant introspection and renewal and cannot be branded or co-opted by any formal or official frame of reference. It stands separate from all expressions of institutionalized Judaism, because it never knows what new forces it will absorb as it moves into the future," ("From Defender to Critic," xviii-xix).

Rabbi Hartman was recognized internationally for his work. He received honorary doctorates from Yale University and the Hebrew Union College, and awards such as the Guardian of Jerusalem Prize (2001), the Samuel Rothberg Prize for Jewish Education (from the Hebrew University, 2004), and the Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance (2012).

Rabbi Hartman is well represented in print and on video. The Shalom Hartman Institute has published many of his books. On video, there are several lengthy radio interviews featuring Rabbi Hartman, YouTube has nearly 40 videos featuring Rabbi Hartman, along with many more from the Hartman Institute and from his children, Dr. Tova Hartman and Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman. Among the provocative titles are "Why Judaism Survived;" videos on religion after the Holocaust; a video of the lectures and discussions for his 80th birthday tribute; and a significant lecture (quoted above), "The Rise of Extremism and the Decline of Reason."

Rav Hartman will be missed. He has left children, grandchildren, students, books, an institution, and a legacy that will live on for many generations to come. May we honor the Rebbe's memory through our increased commitment to making the Torah relevant as a rigorous force for love, kindness, and peace.