David Hartman’s Legacy To Jewish Life, Religious Thought
Tue, 03/05/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Yitz Greenberg
Yitz Greenberg

Says the Talmud: the righteous (tzadikim) loom even larger after death than in their lifetimes. This must prove that David Hartman was a tzaddik (he would scoff at any attempt to apply this label to him).

Still, within the shloshim (the 30-day mourning period), his stature as a towering religious figure in our time is being widely acknowledged — even in circles that resisted or diminished his teaching.

David Hartman was confident that the Jewish tradition had such depth and texture that it could sustain exposure to contemporary culture and grow in the process. Thus, higher education (including its critical historical methods) and pluralism and democratic methods would bring out the best in the Torah and should be integrated into it. His theology gave authority to humans to interpret and incorporate these insights into the heritage. The traditionalists who opposed him claimed that the tradition was sacred and untouchable. Therefore they resisted modernity as the enemy that would erode faith on contact. Harman insisted that arguments about values and multiple ways of exploration would make the heritage more vibrant. This upgraded tradition would return the favor by checking bad trends and upholding needed limits in modernity.

Hartman exemplified this synthesis in his own life. He grew up in a chasidic home and studied Torah in the pre-modern intense atmosphere of Yeshivat Chaim Berlin. He left Yeshiva University to learn in the emerging haredi Lakewood (N.J.) Yeshiva before returning to YU to study with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

Soloveitchik encouraged his decision to get a Ph.D. at Fordham University with a great teacher in moral philosophy. With his brilliant mind and vibrant religious soul, Hartman, as did his rebbe, Soloveitchik, plumbed new depths in the tradition by using a wider variety of methods and models absorbed at Fordham. Then he turned his passion for learning into electrifying teaching. He became a magnet for seeking students and, later, for lay people who wanted to deepen their Jewish identity and renew Jewish life.

Hartman made another of his signal contributions in this area. He proclaimed that unfiltered encounter with classic Jewish texts would revitalize Jewish communal life. He enriched the “secular” Jewish communal institutions’ lay leaders. He taught rabbis of all denominations to seek out a richer religious life, one that would meet the test of humane democratic values while deepening them as well. Jewry would become one people through a common beit midrash in which all would study the classic texts; all would argue and interpret in diverse ways; all would listen, learn and honor each other.

Since Jewry lacked a common House of Study, institution building became yet another one of Hartman’s contributions. He created the Shalom Hartman Institute (named after his father) to explore the depth of Jewish thought. In his spirit, the scholars would also apply their Torah to actual communal and societal Jewish life. At a time when haredi approaches were coming to the fore in religious life in Israel, he opened an alternative place for pluralist dialogue between religious and secular thinkers.

The students and fellows of that institute are key players in every area where people seek to shape a new Israeli culture that is deeply Jewish, truly universal and morally responsible. These people are the bridge builders between secular culture and Jewish religion as they are between secular and religious Jews.

The SHI went on to offer classes for lay leadership and for rabbis of all denominations so that the Hartman spirit could strengthen diaspora life, and attach North American Jewry and Israel more profoundly to each other. 

In all his work, he insisted that religion must meet the test of reality. The challenge was to use the Jewish return to history and to political power as a moment to build a just society. Israel should be a place of respect for minorities, inhabited by a people seeking to live in peace with its neighbors and fighting a moral battle when it had to defend its life. Religion was not an abstraction or a legal code but life itself. He urged all movements and all thinkers — including himself — to accept these limits and make room for other and opposing views.

Hartman restored covenant as the key mechanism of Jewish religion in which Jewry matured to take on more responsibility. He focused on human competence to make a better life and a more just world — in partnership with God. This partnership was worthy to serve as a model for all religions. It expressed itself in modern achievements such as improving living conditions, democracy, and a more equitable society for all.

As a larger than life but very human person, David Hartman embodied all the human limitations. He acknowledged them and tried to live life even more deeply. As he grew older, he kept up the intensity of his teaching but he became more frustrated with the status quo. In his last two books, he lashed out at the slow pace of halachic moral renewal. He was disappointed that some Orthodox Jews used his criticisms of halacha to delegitimize his teachings. He dealt with them — as he had with those who all along tried to silence him — by building more platforms and programs to disseminate inclusive Torah. He always enjoyed and faithfully practiced one mitzvah “Do not fear [be intimidated by] any man” (Deut. 1:17). In failing health, as in his prime, he embraced Israel and the Jewish people with undying affection and engaged in the struggle to increase Torah with joy.

His memory and his model will be a blessing for generations to come.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is a prominent rabbi and theologian.

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