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Israel needs David Hartman’s approach to Judaism

David Hartman's philosophy would benefit the religious discourse and attitude of the Jewish State

A little over a year ago I wrote a piece for this blog following the death of Rabbi David Hartman.

I wrote that, though I did not know him personally, through his books and his public lectures that I regularly attended, he had a profound influence on my relationship with Judaism and with Zionism. His rational, intellectually rigorous approach to tradition and to the interpretation of halacha, led me to a place where I could find real meaning in the mitzvot; to feel their authenticity, but to be able to challenge them with authenticity too.

The first anniversary of his death should not be allowed to pass without a reminder of why his message was, and remains, so incredibly important, I would argue, particularly in Israel.

His last book, The God Who Hates Lies, is his most radical. At its heart is the claim that fundamental morality – “doing the right thing” at its most basic – must be allowed to influence the way halacha is interpreted. That when halacha actually hurts people, we need to take a step and ask ourselves if this is the Judaism that we are supposed to be following. In the book he tells the story of a congregant from his days as a communal Rabbi in Montreal, who was unmarried and had waited many years to finally meet the woman he could spend the rest of his life with. Already approaching middle age he met someone, only to find that she was a convert and, as a cohen (of the lineage of the ancient priestly caste) Jewish law forbade the marriage. Rabbi Hartman ultimately decided to go against the rulings of his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the towering figure of 20th Century Orthodoxy, and told his congregant he would officiate at their wedding.

Or as Hartman writes:

“I felt the tragedy of the situation, his personal devastation. It seemed dishonest not to at least ask the question: Is this traditional status indeed irrevocable? Could this really be God’s will?”

That last question is key. Much of the criticism that Hartman attracted from the traditional Orthodox camp was that he was placing human conceptions of morality above the will of the Almighty. Not so, retorted Rabbi Hartman. On the contrary, God was at the very center of his understanding of halacha. If it was supposed to be the framework within which we build a relationship with God, then it has to reflect the will of a God that we can accept. If we know that it is simply wrong to deny a man his chance of wedded bliss because of a tradition which no longer makes sense in contemporary reality, can we really worship and obey a God who enforces such a ruling?

It was Abraham, the man who began the Jewish story, who set the precedent, arguing with God that it would be immoral to destroy all the inhabitants of Sodom if even one innocent man could be found among them.

We do not have to look very far to see just how dramatic a change could be wrought on our Jewish State if David Hartman’s morally driven philosophy of Judaism were to take root.

I think of the tragedy of agunot, women refused a religious divorce by their husbands and so unable to get on with their lives and remarry. I recall Hartman’s withering response to one Rabbi who had remarked that the thought of these suffering women brought him to tears: “I’m not interested in your tears; I’m interested in their tears.” For him it was simple. The halacha was unjustifiable morally and had to change.

And there’s more.

Because we have a number of Rabbis in this country, and a far greater number of their students, who believe that land is more important than the freedom and dignity of other human beings. And they believe that is what Judaism definitively teaches. Not unrelated, we have a Deputy Minister in our government, also a Rabbi, who openly declared that all Jews have “higher souls” than all non-Jews. Meanwhile a leading contender to be Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem is Shmuel Eliyahu, who made the news as Chief Rabbi of Tsfat not for his work as a spiritual leader but for his ‘religious’ ruling that Jews should not rent property to Arabs.

And of course there is the rank and file of the state (ultra-Orthodox-run) Rabbinate, who fit exactly Rabbi Hartman’s definition of fundamentalism:

“Fundamentalism is grounded in ignorance; in the false need for thinking: ‘I’ve got the final word. I don’t have to think anymore…'”

(Anyone not convinced of the petty, authoritarian bigotry of the Rabbinate’s monopoly should take a few minutes to read this personal account of one woman’s attempt to get married in Israel.) 

Most of all, the delegitimization of any Jewish voice that sounds different to the dominant – and domineering – Orthodoxy threatens to further divide Jew from Jew and, most obviously, Israel from American Jewry.

Rabbi Hartman 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:

“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…”

He revered his teacher, “the Rav” of modern Orthodoxy Soloveitchik, but I recall his daughter Tova (herself a leading voice for tolerant, open-minded Orthodoxy), in her incredibly moving eulogy for her father, remarking on her father’s final recommendations for books to read. He had urged her to read, again, works by Conservative rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (because of his “unconditional love for the Jewish people”) and the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (“because he was one of the most honest Jews who lived”).

Rabbi Hartman railed against the racism and chauvinism dressed up as Judaism that he saw too often prevailing in the Israeli religious discourse, but he never counseled the abandonment of religious practice. Rather he would argue, with a fiery, passionate conviction, that the model of the very Rabbis who constructed the halachic system, grants us the authority to apply our God-given sense of right-and-wrong; to reinterpret the text in the light of our moral objections.

Yes, morality is subjective, but there are certain things that we all know to be wrong. When people are hurt, humiliated or treated with less respect because they are a woman, or not-Jewish, or the ‘wrong’ sort of Jew, can it really be the will of God? It would be a fitting tribute to Rabbi David Hartman if Israel’s self-defined religious leaders at least started asking that question.

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.