Hartman: A passion for truth

When I first heard this morning of the passing of Rabbi Professor David Hartman ז”ל, I thought of a work by Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth. The connection  must seem somewhat ironic. Heschel, scion of a long and distinguished Hasidic dynasty, wrote his book largely on the teachings of another Hasidic master, the fiery and enigmatic, R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Professor Hartman, on the other hand, was raised and bred in the heart of Lithuanian, Misnagdic Judaism. His Jewish education was acquired (with the exception of a sojourn with Habad) at Litvishe bastions such as Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, Lakewood Yeshiva and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he became a disciple of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ”ל.

The irony is, however, only apparent.

David (or Duvi, as many referred to him), was a truly protean thinker. He went through very different stages in his long, rich and productive life. He could be stormy or quietly compassionate; indignant or movingly empathetic. One thing, though, never changed. He was always passionate about the things in which he believed, and he was absolutely uncompromising in his demand for truth, justice, and in his absolute devotion to Judaism (even as his understanding of the latter took different forms at different times).

In that demand for truth, Duvi held everyone to the highest standard, even (or, especially), God Himself. David Hartman truly engaged with, debated with, and struggled with God. At a time when religious thinkers seem to speak of everything but Him, he placed God squarely at the center of the Jewish agenda. I admit, and he knew this very well, that I disagreed vehemently with many of his positions and conclusions. However, for this, I truly admired and appreciated him.

The media will, no doubt, be full of learned, academic appreciations of his thought. That is as it ought  to be. However, Hartman’s passion for truth was not confined to the rarefied realms of philosophic discourse. Together with his wife, he founded schools in North America and Israel, for those for whom there were no appropriate educational frameworks. He took an active interest in advancing younger colleagues and aspiring scholars. And, through the institute that bears his father’s name, he made Jewish Lore and Literacy accessible to a broad cross section of Israeli Jewish society. Indeed, at least two incoming members of the Nineteenth Knesset passed through the portals of the Shalom Hartman Institute. 

Now, after eighty-one years on this earth, Rabbi Dr. David ben Shalom Hartman has entered the World of Truth, and has encountered the Source of all Truth. I wonder how it went.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.