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David Hartman and a morally driven Judaism

Remembering the man who said 'If you lose your autonomous moral feeling, you lose your divine image.’

I stood Monday morning with hundreds of other mourners, squeezed into the Beit Midrash of the Shalom Hartman Institute – with another couple of hundred or so overflowing outside – to hear moving, heartfelt eulogies delivered by Rabbi David Hartman’s children, students and friends.

I did not know Rabbi Hartman personally. I spoke to him on maybe three or four occasions, each time briefly and with little more than pleasantries exchanged. But I believe his visionary approach to Judaism and to Zionism to be of profound importance. It also happens to have had a major impact on me personally.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that his book, A Living Covenant, which argues for the authenticity of innovation and dynamism within halacha (Jewish law), helped me to come to terms with traditional Judaism when I might otherwise have rejected it. His rationalist, intellectually honest approach to Judaism enabled me to embark on a religious journey, which I remain committed to several years later despite – or perhaps because of – the likelihood that I will never complete it. For him, authentic halacha, in the spirit of the Talmudic rabbis who developed it, is a living thing. It must be continually engaged with, through the prism of the reality that we live in, not be fossilized as an unchanging set of written rules, as he said years ago in a videotaped interview:

There’s the eternal voice that comes out of Sinai but it’s heard very differently in every different generation… Fundamentalism is grounded in ignorance; in the false need for thinking: ‘I’ve got the final word. I don’t have to think anymore…’

Most powerfully for me, he articulated an approach to halacha which placed one’s personal moral compass at the center of interpreting the law. This is from an interview published on his 80th birthday:

I met with soldiers in hesder yeshivot. You should have heard the kind of questions they asked me: ‘If I see an Arab who is wounded, his life is being threatened, am I allowed to call an ambulance to save him, or there is no such thing as the sanctity of gentile life?’

My philosophical outlook has always been: ‘What do you think? What do you feel is the right thing to do?’

They said, ‘We don’t know what the Halacha says. We need to hear from you what the Halacha is.’… I said to them: ‘Halacha is in your gut, the moral guidance you feel from inside. If you lose your autonomous moral feeling, you lose your divine image.’ That was a huge revelation for them. I said, ‘How do you imagine your God? Does he want the Arab to die, or does he respect life? Which God do you want to live with?

Rabbi Hartman was an Orthodox Jew; a student of the towering figure of 20th century modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. And yet he argues in his A Heart Of Many Rooms, that pluralism in Jewish practice and approach was not merely legitimate, but endorsed by the tradition; that the Talmud records not just the final decision of the rabbis but all the argumentation beforehand, all the competing views.
He writes in the book:

If your tradition is based on learning, interpretation, and disagreements among scholars, rather than the absolute word of prophetic revelation, you cannot escape the haunting uncertainty of knowing that alternative ways are religiously viable and authentic… In the rabbinic tradition, no school of thought exhausts the wisdom and intention of God.

He was inspired by classic Jewish thinkers – Maimonides above all. He revered his teacher Soloveitchik. But he also loved Conservative rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, (I recall a lecture where he referred to him as “the greatest of them all”) and hugely admired Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, even though he did not share Kaplan’s radical departure from traditional theology.

After making aliya, I attended many lectures that Rabbi Hartman was still giving at the Shalom Hartman Institute, into his late 70s and early 80s. I only now appreciate what a privilege it was for me to learn at the feet of such a giant. I remember how he would take on and unashamedly expose what he saw as moral flaws in the tradition – the plight of agunot, the disempowerment of women, attitudes towards non-Jews. But he never counseled despair, or the abandonment of religious practice. Instead he would argue, with passion and with unshakeable conviction, that these flaws could be corrected, not by casting the halachic system aside, but by asserting the right granted us by the system itself to reinterpret the text in the light of our moral objections.

He spoke frequently and powerfully against the twin manifestations of Jewish fundamentalism that he saw growing in power and influence in Israel: a Charedi world that essentially rejects modernity and its values; and a national religious camp dominated by the settler movement, which places the value of the Land over all other religious and ethical considerations.

In recent years there have been too many examples of these extremist strains in Israel; from women being forced to sit at the back of buses, to right-wing Rabbis inciting violence against non-Jews, to the State-sanctioned Rabbinate routinely discriminating and speaking hatefully against non-Orthodox Jews.

For me, Rabbi Hartman’s teachings are the antidote to these toxic trends.

He made aliya with his family, not because he thought the messiah was on his way, but because he believed that the return of the Jewish people to sovereignty was our opportunity to fulfill our mandate: to create a moral and just society.

The existence of the State of Israel prevents Judaism from being defined exclusively as a culture of learning and prayer… Jews in Israel are given the opportunity to bring economic, social and political issues into the center of their religious consciousness. The moral quality of the army, social and economic disparities and deprivations, the exercise of power moderated by moral sensitivity – all these are realms that may engage halachic responsibility

Rabbi David Hartman is gone and the Jewish world is poorer for his passing. But his vision lives on in the work of his Institute and the many thousands inspired by his teaching. That can be a blessing for us all.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.