David Hartman remembered: A voice that was freed – and now is silence
Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before he made a monumental contribution to Jewish life and a significant contribution to Jewish thought.
Best known for his pioneering work as founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is a innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both Rabbinic and lay. It all its program, and especially within teacher training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition and its many texts to students often alienated from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone David Hartman must be revered.
Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted to most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.
For most of his career he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the preeminent of Jewish 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history; Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until… until he could no longer defend it.
As he approached 80 and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice that accepted some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of no-Jews whom he encountered and knew well and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious world view. Unlike Haredi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world, unlike Modern Orthodoxy that seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith, and unlike Conservative Judaism did not make history paramount and push the halakhic world view to the side. A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.
He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements yet deeply regret his untimely passing for there was much that he left unsaid, one he was free to speak out.
Hartman’s personal journey is significant, a product of Brownsville, Brooklyn when it was the second largest Jewish community in New York and also in the United States, he began his studies in the Haredi world, learning in Lakewood, New Jersey, which was then a small but growing Yeshiva. He then moved to Yeshiva University when he encountered the Rav and his marvelous example of religious studies and secular thought. The Rav was immersed in the world of Jewish texts, at home in the spiritual struggle with the religious experience that gave rise to these texts and their understanding of God, religious law and humanity and he was masterfully knowledgeable of the major philosophical traditions – classical and modern – that underscored religious thought.
It was he who advised Hartman to study philosophy with the Jesuits at Fordham University and thus to encounter classical philosophy, Roman Catholic theology – and secular thought – through the eyes of believing Catholics who engaged these text and their own faith. He went to Israel in the euphoria of the post 1967 excitement and could not quite fit in to Israeli institution. Religious institutions were narrow, the secular university was often equally parochial in a rather different way. A believing Zionist, he founded his own institution that gave voice to the issues on the top of his agenda and became a meeting place for secular Jews wanting to encounter Jewish texts and for religious scholars willing and able to engage secular thought.
In his last two books, Hartman has come clean. As he approached 80 and in failing health, with his achievements there is little reason to hold back. He spoke in his own voice and in his own name, struggling to make sense of the world in which he lived. He was emotionally bound to the world of his youth, the Orthodoxy that reared him to a love of Torah and a passion for halakhah and yet he was a denizen of two worlds not one. He has engaged and accepted the categories of modernity, its engagement with ideas of equality, empowerment and engagement and its moral understanding of freedom. Unlike contemporary his master, the Rav, who was fortified and insulated in his encounter with modernity by an unchanging halakhah that was a historical and who could thus encounter modernity and its value system believing in the unchanging categories that established the framework of the world he encountered and unlike some in contemporary Orthodoxy who reject the modern world in its entirely and build a religious tradition that is oppositional and unlike some in contemporary so called modern Orthodoxy who want to live in a bifurcated world, a modernity untouched by their religious faith and a religious tradition untainted by modernity, Hartman was seeking a synthetic religious life; not a patchwork of dissident notions but an integrated religious tradition, embracing halakah and also engaging and being influenced by modernitry.
He knew and readily admits in the introduction to his work that others might then call him a Conservative Jew, but that was not who he was or where he wanted to go even though he wrestles with the poetic neo-Orthodoxy of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the religious sociology of Mordecai Kaplan, Yet the more he wrestles with these contemporary issues, the more he takes seriously the need to change in response, the more his situation resembles the religious circumstances of those who gave rise to Conservative Judaism passionately loving the tradition, yet finding that the more they engaged the modern ethos the greater the tension with their faith of origin and their own sense that halakhah could actually accommodate modernity without an openness to change and a willingness to change.
Others will have to carry out that task. They could not do better than to use Hartman as their guide.