Rav Ovadia and Rabbi Hartman – not as different as you might think

Two rabbis died in the past year: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi David Hartman. At first glance they would appear to be polar opposites. Rav Ovadia was a Sephardi from Baghdad, Rabbi Hartman was an Ashkenazi from Brooklyn. And more significantly, Rav Ovadia was a Haredi leader and authority, whereas Rabbi Hartman was a champion of liberal Orthodoxy.

But these differences, as real as they are, belie a shared view of Judaism that may be the greatest legacy of each.

Rabbi Benny Lau, who wrote a biography of Rav Ovadia a few years ago, wrote a powerful status on Facebook this week, where he eulogized the rabbi. The status was translated to English and published here on the Israel Democracy Institute website.

After describing a meeting where Rav Ovadia solved a complicated halachic quandary and prevented a family from suffering the curse of mamzerut, he movingly describes the rabbi quoting the following midrash:

“There came out… one whose mother was an Israelite – elsewhere it is written: So I returned and saw all the oppressed (Kohelet 4:1) Daniel the Tailor interpreted this verse as referring to mamzerim: “And lo, the tears of the oppressed – the fathers of these have sinned, but of what concern is it to these unfortunates [i.e., why should they be punished]? The father of this child participated in a forbidden union, but how has the child sinned, and what concern is it of his? And they had no comforter, but their oppressors had power – [this is] the Great Sanhedrin of Israel, which comes upon them with the power of the Torah and drives them away, because [it is written in the Torah that] no mamzer shall enter the congregation of the Lord. And they had no comforter – the Holy One blessed be He, says: It is upon me to comfort them.” (Vayikra Rabbah 32:8)

When I read this, it immediately seemed familiar. And that was because I had read it once before – in Rabbi Hartman’s last book, The God Who Hates Lies. It comes in a section where Hartman is challenging the Akedah approach to halacha (which I discussed here on Times of Israel). There are those say that allegiance to halacha means giving up your own personal morality. But Hartman, quoting the above midrash says no, we must continue to listen to our inner voice. As Hartman writes:

According to the midrash, God Himself endorses Daniel’s stinging critique of the moral apathy of the Rabbinic leadership, thus presenting a complex theological picture in which God is bound by the human interpretations of Torah law – even though God knows the law is immoral. (page 64).

But this challenge does not cause Hartman to give up on halacha. In fact, he shows commitment to it, when it is motivated by that personal morality:

There is a natural impulse about what is decent and just. We should allow that impulse to surface within our religious system, rather than burying it or dismissing it. In this way, a God-intoxicated halakha fully emancipates the natural religious yearning that may feel nurtured by the halakhic system, yet suppressed and constricted by the moral conflicts that arise with in it. (page 60).

So while they had major differences in the way they believed halacha should ultimately be applied, they both were aware that halacha was the ideal tool to solve the problems of Jews and Judaism.

This should not be taken for granted for either of them. Unlike Hartman, many of his close followers and students do not feel obliged by halacha. They must feel that a strong moral conscience and ethical drive is sufficient in life, and perhaps don’t believe that halacha has the capacity to contribute. This was not the way of Rabbi Hartman. Instead of perhaps becoming a successful Conservative rabbi in a community in North America, he dove head first into the stage of Jewish peoplehood – the Jewish State. He taught for years that a moral halacha has a role in shaping the destiny of our people.

And for me, perhaps more amazing, is the respect and honor that Rav Ovadia obtained. (His funeral, the most widely attended in Israel’s history, is just a small sample of that respect). The Sephardic Jewry that he led was, and is, infused with a fascination with mysticism, and promises of miraculous salvation. Many Sephardic rabbis were known for promises of blessing and redemption. But Rav Ovadia’s power was not in gimmicks, but in the power of halacha – a power that is in the hands of man, not in heaven. And Rav Ovadia did not hide this – one of his main efforts in his halachic work was to remove the influence of kabbala and mysticism from Sephardic halacha.

So both rabbis showed great faith in halacha – which meant faith in both God as the giver of the Torah, and man as the caretaker and interpreter of this gift. At this point it is too soon to say whether their followers will have the courage to continue in their path. For the sake of the Jewish people, I certainly hope so.

About the Author
David Curwin is a lifelong lover of language (although not a professional linguist). He has been writing the blog Balashon, about the history of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connections with English, since 2006.
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