February 21, 2020

The God who Hates Lies: David Hartman’s Confrontation with a Rethinking of Jewish Tradition

David Hartman with Charlie Buckholtz, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2011)

Two adolescent encounters with two important teachers shaped the person I have become and formed the core of my scholarly and personal values. One was with David Hartman, then a young rabbi. I had just given what I thought was an imaginative d’var Torah at a Yeshiva University Young Leadership Seminar. Self-impressed with my seeming erudition, I quoted original sources, Biblical and Rabbinic—even Maimonides commentary on the prohibitions of an Israelite King acquiring too many horses or marrying too many wives. Hartman approached me and asked: “Do you believe what you said and did you say what you believed? Or did you merely want to appear impressive and not rile up your audience?” I internalized his question and have asked it again and again whenever I speak and whenever I write.

I kept thinking of this encounter as I read his newest book, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition.

A bit of biography: Hartman is best known for founding the Shalom Hartman Institute, a meeting ground for secular and religious Israelis of many stripes and a place where rabbis of all denominations from the Diaspora (many from the United States) study classic texts together—where the sacred text becomes the bond that bridges great denominational divides. The Hartman Institute is the Red Heifer of the modern Jewish world, a mediating institution where the sacred and secular enrich each other intellectually and Jewishly. Its offerings are wide and its institutional writings significant.

The pure, those who prefer the shelters of their intellectual ghettos, are contaminated, albeit but for a while, while the impure encounter the sacred and are touched by it, sometimes for a lifetime.

Hartman was a product of the Haredi community. He studied in Lakewood and came to Yeshiva University where he met his mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who combined unquestioned Talmudic brilliance with Western philosophical mastery. He created a system that insulated his religious life and observance from his encounter with Western civilization and its values. He wrote:

“When Halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand. He orientates himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles… His approach begins with an ideal world and concludes with a real one.”

Hartman became the Rav’s protégée and, until now, his fierce defender.

Ordained by Yeshiva University, he was advised by the Rav to go to the Jesuits, to New York’s Fordham University for his doctoral training in Philosophy. For 18 years he was a successful, charismatic and influential rabbi in Montreal.  He went to Israel in the post-1967 exuberance, hoping to bring the insights of his Judaism to bear on the great questions facing Israeli society, which could no longer operate within the four cubits of Halakha but had to confront all the issues facing a modern state.  Today, his Shalom Hartman Institute may be one of the last and most creative bastions of a religious Zionism that is not Messianic.

Ironically, Hartman preferred to be seen as a religious thinker, not as an institution builder. Yet like Martin Buber before him, he was best appreciated abroad, not in Israel. His scholarship was too relevant, too engaged with the here and now (and perhaps too popular for the academics) and his concerns too religious for the bulk of secular Israelis. Yiddish is his favorite, his warmest and most expressive tongue. His English is tinged with Yiddish and his Hebrew is infused with English.

Now fourscore years of age, Hartman has written a powerful and painful book. It marks an important break with his great teacher and mentor on a point central to both student and disciple—the history and Halakha. Soloveitchik could encounter history because his philosophy of Halakha insulated him from history and Hartman wants Halakha, especially in Israel, to engage every aspect of history from welfare to warfare, from economics to ecology.

This work may also be an even deeper severing of ties with the Orthodoxy that has emerged in this generation. A generation ago, Hartman’s attempt at synthesis and dialogue, his confrontation with the modern world and Orthodox sensibilities would have made him a hero of modern Orthodoxy. A generation ago, he also could have shifted to Conservative Judaism, whose central motif then was the struggle between tradition and change, creating a Halakha responsive to history, but the distance is too great today. After this latest work, he will find himself in no man’s land, confined to a community of fellow seekers who dwell in two worlds, the world of Torah and Halakha and the modern world with all its challenges. His institutional role should allow him to create Jews who are fervent, but not fanatical, proud and pious, and also pluralistic. For both “types,” the study of sacred text is absolutely central.

For Hartman, three issues force the confrontation with the Orthodoxy of his youth and, painfully, with the person who had been his model of coexistence between the Halakhic and the modern.

The first issue is the treatment of women within Halakha, including the inability (inability is too soft a word, more accurately we should describe it as ‘the adamant refusal’) of the Orthodox Rabbinate, especially in Israel, to solve the problem of Agunah, the woman whose recalcitrant husband’s refusal to give her a divorce leaves her unable to initiate a divorce and chains her to a future without marriage. This is but one manifestation of his discomfort with the entire treatment of women in Halakha.

Another is that Jewish women can be Supreme Court Justices in the United States, other countries and in Israel; they can serve as Prime Ministers, but their signatures cannot validate a religious document. Their status is often reduced to that of a minor; women are even compared to possessions.

One more manifestation of this treatment is that women do not participate as equals in the religious life of the community. To change that, Hartman’s daughter, Tova, founded Shirah Hadashah [A New Song], the Jerusalem congregation that provides women with as many opportunities to participate in the service as a creative understanding of Halakha permits. This might seem whimsical to those who come from equalitarian communities and observe the Mechitzah being drawn closed or opened at various points in the service and those non-binding segments of the service that women can lead. The “moving” Mechitzah makes the congregation unacceptable to many Orthodox Jews. Conversely, not removing the Mechitzah makes it unacceptable and/or strange to egalitarian Jews for whom this debate was settled a long time ago.

In one sense, the Mechitzah compromise seems artificial rather than organic, timid rather than bold. And yet, it may provide Hartman and the Jews who feel as he does with a place to daven with the people they speak with, and a place to speak with the people with whom they can daven.

The second issue is the question of the non-Jew. As a rabbi, Hartman once faced the question of whether a Cohen could marry a woman who converted for love of Judaism and was an active and religious Jew. Did her previous status as a non-Jew make her a zona and Biblically prohibited to a descendant of the priestly line?  Hartman studied with the Jesuits and recognized non-Jews who are intellectually sophisticated and devoutly religious. You cannot simply categorize them as “goyim.”

This is the merely tip of the iceberg that Halakhic Judaism must confront when dealing with issues of democracy and a society that aspires to justice. Up until now, accommodation to the state was based on utilitarian purposes—avoiding what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all against all.” There is no theology or Halakha to guide Halakhic Judaism in the acceptance of democracy. They understand the rule of law. They do not understand the state is a mediator of justice.

The third issue is the self-inflicted incapacity of the Orthodox Rabbinate to come to terms with the modern state of Israel—in the prayers recited and in the treatment of new generations. On Tisha B’av, we still speak of Jerusalem as abandoned and uninhabited, lying in ruins. The lack of sensitivity in the all-important category of membership in the nation is illustrated most profoundly by a soldier who dies for his country and is not eligible to be buried with his comrades because his maternal Jewish origins were doubtful.

The agony of this book is how Hartman wrestles with the tension between the God he believes in, the tradition that nourished him and to which he has profound loyalty and love, and the encounters with reality that force him to challenge that tradition—and even break from his mentor and master.

The details are important, but his struggle is all the more significant. He is looking for a way of living with integrity and confronting the reality of the world he encounters.

At his age, he has fulfilled the challenge he posed to me. He now may be liberated by age, stature and status to say what he believes and believe what he says. The results are most impressive. The seal of the Holy One is truth and those who worship must worship the Holy One in truth. Perhaps that is why the deepest of all lies are those we tell ourselves.