A brilliant thinker, he let others debate whether he remained in the Orthodox fold.
“Would you like to win a Pulitzer Prize?” Rabbi David Hartman asked me one day, a number of years ago.
I said sure, and wondered why he asked.
“Well, if you really want to win a Pulitzer, you should come to Israel and spend time with me,” he said without a trace of irony. “It worked for Tom Friedman and for David Shipler,” two former New York Times bureau chiefs in Jerusalem who met often with him during their stays and whose subsequent books on the Mideast won the prize, “and it’ll work for you.”
I thanked him for the offer, realizing he was serious. Maybe I should have taken him up on it.
While I have never spent more than a few weeks at a time in Israel, I always tried to make it my business to visit with Rabbi Hartman whenever I was in Jerusalem. Not because it might bring me professional glory but because those conversations with him always brought me new perspectives and fresh ways of thinking about a wide range of issues, from the Mideast crisis to the Israel-diaspora relationship, to what it meant to have a modern Jewish state, to how one applies traditional Jewish law and ethics to one’s own life.
David Hartman, who died at 81 in Jerusalem this week after a long illness, was one of the most vibrant, fascinating and complicated Jewish personalities I have ever met.
Born in 1931, Hartman grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he attended several Orthodox yeshivas; as a youngster he was better known for his basketball prowess than his Talmudic talents. But throughout his life he continually expanded his ideas and horizons, from yeshiva bochur to popular Montreal pulpit rabbi, to giving it up to take on the challenge of living in the Jewish state (he and his family made aliyah in 1971), to founding the Shalom Hartman Institute (in his father’s memory) as a means of exploring how Israeli society could better fulfill its mandate to be a light unto the nations, starting at home.
I will leave it to others more qualified to assess David Hartman’s scholarly legacy. But over the more than 25 years I knew him, I saw, time and again, how his combination of keen mind, passionate commitment and charismatic personality made a profound impact on the lives of so many different kinds of Jews.
I have met dozens of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis who will attest to the influence Hartman’s summer program — bringing rabbis of all denominations together to study at the institute in Jerusalem — had on their own lives and careers.
Just last month Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the new president of the Reform movement, told an audience how his exposure to David Hartman in Israel was “as if someone turned on the light for me and tore apart my preconceptions of Jewish tradition.”
A former student of Yeshiva University’s rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Hartman let others debate whether he was still within the Orthodox fold or if his lifelong struggle with squaring Jewish law and tradition with modern thought had led him across the halachic line.
He would scoff at critics, and double down on his writings, from the works of Maimonides to the imperative of Jewish pluralism and tolerance and a more enlightened Israeli society.
He was a brilliant and creative thinker, stand-up-comic funny, sometimes a bit frenzied and always passionate, emotional and authentic. He was a master teacher and dynamic lecturer, with no lack of ego. But there was an air of melancholy about him, as if he knew full well that his profound scholarship on Jewish philosophy, law and ethics, and his deep dedication to bridging religious divides among faiths and within Judaism, were ahead of their time, not to be fully appreciated in his lifetime.
He was right.
True, he was honored with numerous prizes and awards for his writings and his teaching. But it is the scholarship and engagement in Jewish identity, in Israel and in the diaspora, taken on by the institute he founded, and which his son Donniel now heads, that will be his most lasting legacy.
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who met Rabbi Hartman in 1959, when they were both teaching at Yeshiva University, told me this week that they became “instant soul mates,” Talmud study partners and lifelong friends as they sought, each in his own way, to move Orthodox Judaism toward a positive relationship with modernity, stressing moral values and human dignity.
They were marginalized by an Orthodox establishment that was moving further to the right. But Rabbi Greenberg is hopeful in the long term. He believes the “haredization” of Orthodoxy has “gone as far as it can go” in terms of “self-interest and exploitation,” and that there will be a revival of Modern Orthodoxy at some point, at which time Hartman’s teachings will be seen as central.
Rabbi David Hartman loved all Jews, but he sometimes seemed to have patience for few of them.
When journalists would ask him questions about Jewish views on a given subject — ones that required a more detailed response than he had time for at the moment — he would sometimes respond, “read my book,” usually referring to “A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism,” his major work envisioning a halacha, or Jewish law, that was not frozen at Sinai but continuing a path that can be deepened and made more compassionate today.
Knowing that his book was a complex read, he might add, “just read Chapter 4,” and a moment later, with a wince, “well, at least read page 89.”
The book he wrote that resonated most with me was “A Heart Of Many Rooms,” whose subtitle summarized the substance of its various essays: “Celebrating the Many Voices Within Judaism.”
In it Rabbi Hartman wrote of his “refusal to give up” his quest of “building educational bridges” within Jewish life, and noted: “What the tradition asks of Jews is that in each generation they renew the covenantal moment of Sinai.”
It will be that much harder to do so without his insights, but the challenge remains for us all.
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