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Remembering Rabbi David Hartman

Sometimes it takes some time after a great person’s death to realize the impact that they made. As it is now one year since the passing of Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, I would like to reflect on his legacy, a legacy that is often overlooked in the Orthodox world, but has had a tremendous impact on the broader Jewish world and in my personal religious journey.

For those unfamiliar with his biography, Rabbi Dr. Hartman has his roots in the Yeshivish world, attending the Lakewood Yeshiva before coming to YU to study under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who ordained him as a rabbi. After pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy and serving as a rabbi in Montreal, he moved to Israel in 1971, where he opened the Shalom Hartman Institute (named after his late father), a pluralistic Jewish research and educational institution in Jerusalem. Throughout his lifespan, he published dozens of books and articles on topics including Maimonides (his academic area of expertise); Rabbi Soloveitchik, whom he revered as his teacher; his own Jewish philosophy; politics, and his personal religious journey. Countless rabbis and Jewish leaders of all denominations, leaders in their fields, have passed through Shalom Hartman Institute, including Rabbi Asher Lopatin (President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah), Rabbi Rick Jacobs (President of the Union of Reform Judaism), prominent Jewish philosopher Moshe Halbertal, author Yossi Klein HaLevi, and Donniel Hartman, Hartman’s son.

Hartman was a rationalist, like Maimonides, his primary academic area of interest. For Hartman, religion and theology had to be logical and pragmatic. Hartman, known for being quite candid and charismatic, was sharply critical of the eschewal of rationalism he witnessed in the Orthodox community, particularly by the Hasidim and students of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the late Israeli mystic whose philosophy dominates the Israeli Orthodox community. In these lines, Hartman did not adopt a theologically fundamentalist view on history, arguing that the State of Israel is not “the sprouting of our redemption.” We are not prophets, and thus have no right to decide when we see G-d in history. He applied an ancient debate between Maimonides and Judah HaLevi over G-d’s involvement in history to contemporary politics. Israel, Hartman argued, has to live in the real, pragmatic world, and not be tied down to Messianic predictions. Though these sentiments raise eyebrows in the Orthodox world (especially in Israel), the broader Jewish/Israeli society has found tremendous solace in the rational philosophy and politics of Hartman.

Other key components to Hartman’s philosophy are pluralism and universalism. For Hartman, there is no one, objectively correct interpretation of Torah. In his writings, particularly A Heart of Many Rooms, he used a myriad of Rabbinic and Biblical sources to articulate his view that Judaism is and always has been tolerant of multiple perspectives. At Mount Sinai, G-d proclaimed, “I am your G-d”—(elokecha), in the singular—not “elokechem,” in the plural. Each person standing there received a different perspective. Taking this to its most radical extreme, Hartman did not believe in Halacha as an authoritarian, coercive system. Each person, argued Hartman, has the right to understand and observe the Torah in a way that he or she sees fit. Each person should live the life that is best for him or her.

He was harshly critical of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “leap of faith” theology, epitomized by Abraham’s blind acceptance of G-d’s decree to kill Isaac. This term’s becoming common parlance in the Orthodox community profoundly perturbed Hartman, as he thought that Avraham’s surrender of his morality is not something to which we should aspire.

Instead, Hartman advocated for a Creation-Sinai theology. For Hartman, the G-d that created the World is the same G-d that gave the Jewish People the Torah. In this sense, every single person, Jewish or not, is thus involved in G-d’s mission. According to Hartman, to claim that any one path of life contains the entire truth is to deny the G-d of Creation. “Jewish people are not ontologically any different than anyone else in the world,” claimed Hartman.

In Hartman’s philosophy, the Torah is, at its core, G-d’s ethical message to the Jewish People. Abraham’s greatest moment was not the Akeidah, but rather his pleading with G-d to save the sinners of Sodom. G-d chose Abraham because of Abraham’s keen ethical sense.

It is because he revered the Halachik system so much that Hartman sought to maintain its integrity in a Modern world. Throughout the ages, the rabbis have reformed Halacha to respond to their historical circumstances. The prophets, Tanaim, Amoraim, Geonim, and Rishonim all interpreted the Torah in novel ways. Why, Hartman agued, were people living in the 21st Century not entitled to do the same? Torah is not a dead scroll that we read and memorize, but a “living covenant” (the title of his magnum opus philosophical work) that Man is charged with constantly renewing. That being said, he was also adamant on the fact that Halacha is the best way to sense the presence of G-d in our everyday lives, the goal of ritual in Hartman’s theology.

It should not be understated that for all of Hartman’s critique of the contemporary Orthodox world, he was also very critical of the secular Jewish world. He thought that the secular Zionists were making a tremendous mistake in trying to create a Jewish society completely bereft of Torah values. By taking a more expansive view on Torah, Hartman made Torah accessible to more people. Thus, in Hartman’s world, removing oneself from Torah is a total renouncement of the Jewish community and its historical consciousness.

It is thus no surprise that Hartman was an individualist. Though he remained observant of mainstream Halacha throughout his life (as far as we know), much of his philosophy went against the accepted opinions in the contemporary Orthodox world. His experience with the irrational, monolithic Orthodox world he was raised in (from his perspective) left him disillusioned with Orthodoxy and unafraid to break with common conception. He did not believe in the Messiah as a literal figure rather as a striving for a better world, admittedly against the opinion of Maimonides. We’re always waiting for the Messiah, but he never actually comes. As I mentioned, he did not view Halacha as an authoritarian system, not because he didn’t care about Halacha but rather because he saw the Halacha as eternally living.

His response to conflicts between morality and Halacha—such as the command to destroy the women and children of Amalek or gender segregation in Tefillah—was to favor morality over Halacha (in the tradition of Abraham, who questioned G-d’s morality with Sodom). He did not ask “what is Orthodox” but rather “what is right.” It is thus also not surprising that his students have become known for unabashedly standing up for what they believe is right, such as his daughter Tova, founder of Shira Chadasha, the first partnership (egalitarian within Halacha) minyan.

Unfortunately, some in the Orthodox world have disowned Hartman. I think they may be making a mistake.

In my personal Jewish-identity journey, I have found much inspiration in Hartman. Hartman taught me (through his works, not personally) that Torah is not ossified and ancient, but rather alive and vibrant. In elementary school, I used to think that I was born a few hundred years too late to participate in the Halachik process. The most I can ever hope for is to memorize the work other people have done and summarize it in a book. This conception stuck with me until college, when I found Hartman. Hartman taught me that my peers and I still have the opportunity to become part of Torah.

As a child I used to fear that when I arrived in Heaven that if, by chance, Orthodox Judaism was not the correct path in life, I would be condemned to Hell. Hartman taught me that there is no one objectively correct path, and that my job is simply to better the world and serve G-d, whatever that may entail. Most of all, I used to not fully understand why the Torah is relevant in a Modern day. Why should an enlightened person take an irrational “leap of faith?” Why would I want to kill my son? Hartman taught me that the same man (Abraham) who tried to kill his son also risked his life to plead to G-d on the behalf of Sodomites.

As much inspiration as I took from Hartman, I also differ from him on a few aspects. I do not think it is tenable that Halacha be totally privy to societal whims.  However, studying Hartman has given me a deep appreciation for my Judaism that I had not received previously.

This is why I find it a shame that I never heard of Hartman until a friend in YU introduced me to him. I think Orthodoxy would gain much from bringing him back to the Beit Midrash. Even if you as an Orthodox Jew find Hartman’s views totally incompatible with your philosophy, that’s fine. At the very least, he will challenge your conceptions and make you gain a deeper appreciation of your own beliefs. In fact, Hartman would probably want you to be bold enough to disagree with him.

Though one can challenge Hartman’s views, one certainly cannot question his impact. The Conservative, Reform, “Post-Denominational,” and some liberal Orthodox communities have embraced Hartman. Many tenants of liberal Orthodoxy and Post-Denominational Judaism (a new phenomenon) are almost direct outgrowths of Hartman’s philosophy. Hartman’s legacy has certainly brought countless more Jews towards Torah than away from it. I think the wider Orthodox world would benefit tremendously from studying the complexity that is Rabbi David Hartman.