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.

‘Red Emma’ Doc Lacks Activist’s Fire

“The Hebrew Anarchist Comes to Town” a 1893 New York Timesarticle alarmingly proclaimed. To other reporters, she was “Red Emma, Queen ofthe Anarchists.”

Readers of the time knew exactly how to decipher thejournalistic shorthand. It stood for Emma Goldman, one of those remarkableJewish immigrants from the old Russian empire at the turn of the last century,who left their imprint on America in so many different fields.

The life of this flamboyant woman, political activist,philosopher, editor, proto-feminist and war resister will be documented in PBS'”American Experience: Emma Goldman.”

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1869 and then moving with herfamily to East Prussia and on to St. Petersburg, Goldman showed her rebelliousspirit at an early age. She argued with her teachers, and when her father, agovernment theater manager, tried to force his daughter into an arrangedmarriage at age 15, Emma refused.

The following year, Emma and her half-sister left for America,where two years of working in a clothing factory in Rochester, N.Y., gave herample firsthand experience in the life of the working class.

She attended meetings of German socialists, and after movingto New York in 1889, began a lifelong sexual and political relationship withRussian anarchist Alexander Berkman.

Goldman, herself, became a fiery crusader for anarchism,free speech, the rights of working people and equality for women, as she andBerkman crisscrossed the country, speaking in crowded lecture halls.

She scandalized the country less for her radical politicalviews than for her assertion that a woman had the right to choose her ownlovers and control her body through birth control. Advocacy of birth controlwas illegal and earned her the second of three prison terms. The first was forinciting a riot in New York and the last for urging American conscripts not tofight in World War I.

In photos, Goldman comes across as a rather stern figure, apince-nez invariably clamped on her nose. But she was no dour theoretician. Shewas funny and something of a romantic, as attested by numerous love affairs.

Once upbraided by a fellow anarchist for frivolouslyenjoying a dance, she recalled, “I insisted that our cause could not expect meto behave as a nun.” That saying took on a new and misquoted life in the 1960son political buttons proclaiming, “If I can’t dance, I won’t be part of yourrevolution.”

However, she could also resort to violence or, as she putit, “propaganda by deed,” when she believed the cause demanded it. She plottedwith Berkman to assassinate a factory boss during the Homestead steel strike of1892. The attempt failed, observes Israeli historian Oz Frankel, becauseBerkman was “a bit of a klutz.”

For approximately 12 years, Goldman expounded her theoriesand thoughts in her magazine, “Mother Earth.” Finally, in 1919, when thegovernment despaired of shutting her up, Goldman was deported. Instrumental wasa rising young J. Edgar Hoover, who described his nemesis as “the mostdangerous woman in America.”

Noting her departure, a journalist wrote, “With Emma leavingand Prohibition coming in, this will be a dull country.”

She and Berkman arrived in Russia, ready to embrace therevolution that was to liberate the working man and realize their hopes.Goldman even managed a one-on-one interview with Lenin, who berated her for herbourgeois insistence on free speech in the Soviet Union.

Thoroughly disillusioned, she left in 1921 and spent much ofthe rest of her life writing and lecturing against the “reactionary andcounter-revolutionary” terror of Stalin and the Soviet regime.

Her constant wish in exile to return to the United Stateswas fulfilled in 1940, when, after her death in Canada, she was buried in a Chicagocemetery.

The 90-minute PBS documentary, produced, directed andwritten by Mel Bucklin, makes for a fine historical introduction for those whoknow little about Goldman and her era. However, the necessarily static photosand profusion of talking heads make it hard to catch the spirit and flavor ofthe extraordinary, fearless and lively woman.

Viewers whose appetites have been whetted may wish torevisit the Warren Beatty film, “Reds,” in which Goldman is one of thecharacters, or, even better, re-read “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow, who is one ofthe commentators in the documentary.

Another participant is playwright Tony Kushner, though themost telling insights come from British historian Barry Pateman.

Plans call for a worldwide theatrical release of “EmmaGoldman.”

“American Experience: Emma Goldman”airs on KCET on Monday,April 12, at 9 p.m.  

A Life to the Mind

What you notice in almost every shot is the hair: abundant, snow-white, carefully coiffed.

It’s an apt metaphor for Jacques Derrida’s mind, which is prolific with ideas, yet well-ordered and consistent in its probity and depth. In a new documentary, filmmakers Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick make arresting cinema from the mind, memories and habits of a man whose life has been devoted to thought.

Derrida, a Jew born in Algeria in 1930, is identified with deconstructionism, a system of thought that challenges established assumptions about the knowledge of what is true and real. But the 85-minute film is far from a static parade of talking heads. Exposition of Derrida’s ideas comes mostly through voice-over readings from his books that accompany shots of the philosopher walking from one place to another or scenes of a gritty, industrial Paris rushing past a moving car.

In her interviews with Derrida, Ziering Kofman makes him a partner in breaking through the common conception of a philosopher’s life, as Derrida describes it: "He was born, he thought, and he died." We meet Derrida’s wife of 45 years, Marguerite, a psychoanalyst, and find out how they met; we see the Pampers kept handy for visits from their baby granddaughter; we watch Derrida fix himself a snack; we meet his brother and hear both sad and amusing anecdotes of other relatives.

Derrida was 10 in 1940, when Algeria, as part of Vichy France, came under German occupation. Algeria’s Jews were neither deported to the camps nor massacred at home, but they were subject to the Nuremberg Laws. Derrida and his siblings were expelled from school with all the other Jewish children, and suddenly his former classmates were calling him a dirty Jew.

Derrida’s wartime experiences resonated with Ziering Kofman, a graduate of Beverly Hills High School and student of Derrida’s at Yale who grew up the child of a Holocaust survivor. Ziering Kofman’s German-born father, Sigfried "Sigi" Ziering, who died two years ago, survived the Riga ghetto and several concentration camps as a teenager. In the United States, he earned multiple degrees in science and went into business. A 1973 investment in a biotech firm eventually made him the head of a multinational corporation.

One of the founders and a major financial supporter of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Ziering was also a

leading contributor to Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. He provided some of the funding for Ziering Kofman’s film, which is dedicated to his memory.

Ziering Kofman hopes the film will help people understand deconstructionism, which, in its refusal to embrace absolutes, is often attacked as condoning moral relativism. Derrida’s work "is fiercely ethical — it’s all about creating an ethical structure," she said.

"I wondered what Shakespeare and Plato were like, what their lives were like," she said. "I thought, there really should be some record of Derrida."