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A Narrative of Theological Change: Honoring the Thought of David Hartman

How can we retain a deep relationship with a personal God without subscribing to superstitions and crass assertions?

How can we retain a religious worldview focused on a deep relationship with a personal God without subscribing to superstitions and crass assertions about divine providence? How can we make room for change — in particular, growth and progress — within the ambit of a revealed religion founded on God’s eternal and unalterable Torah? And, finally, how can we hold our religious leaders (and ourselves) accountable for the moral failings of our received norms and practices, thus enabling a moral critique of halakhah?
For David Hartman, z”l, who died on Rosh Chodesh Adar (February 10, 2013) at the age of 81, the answer to all three of these fundamental questions was found in the key notion of covenant.
In Hartman’s writings — notably, since the publication of A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism in 1985 — different theological metaphors are not alternate attempts to describe divine reality; rather, they provide distinct characterizations of the relationship between God and human beings. Living as a subject of God the King is very different from discerning the instruction of a divine Teacher, or from loving God like a parent — or, still again, like a spouse.
It was certainly important to Hartman that such alternate models be available contemporaneously, since preserving rival theological conceptions enables the tradition to offer a plurality of options, thereby meeting the existential needs of diverse individuals. But even more important was that these varying conceptions of God allow a narrative of theological change, of historical evolution. While the Jewish people have lived with God in a covenantal relationship throughout their history, it is not always the same kind of covenant. The fundamental character of the relationship evolves. Sometimes, the change is perceived as a response to historical and political transformations: In a world where autocratic power — whether imperial or monarchic — has lost its legitimacy, it is no longer a “live option” to imagine God as “King of Kings”; He must now be a Father or Teacher, and so on. Sometimes, however, Hartman teaches us to appreciate theological change in terms of personal growth and relational progression. The human partner in the covenant moves from obedient subject to autonomous agent, or from childlike dependency to mature independence.
More striking, relational change involves the divine partner as well. Pivotal to all covenantal discourse is the well-known talmudic story of the “Oven of Akhnai.” (BT, Baba Metzia 59b) In the story, the divine voice tries to intervene in the debates of the rabbinic academy, but is ruled out of order by Rabbi Yehoshua’s declaration that Torah is “not in Heaven.” God’s position is ignored, and the law is decided by majority vote. For some thinkers, the crucial point is that human institutions and procedures have come to officially supersede revelation. But for Hartman, the vital element in the narrative is God’s response to the rejection of His voice: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have won against me!’” Like a parent adjusting to the emerging self-sufficiency of his or her children as they become young adults, God evolves in His covenantal role, learning to take pleasure in His children’s independence.
Finally, the evolving character of the covenantal relationship is the ground for asserting a progressively greater human responsibility. This notion played a central role in Hartman’s understanding of the religious significance of the Zionist revolution: The Jewish people had at long last decided to take responsibility for their position in history rather than wait passively for the coming of the Messiah (See Hartman’s book Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating Its Future).
More important — especially in Hartman’s more recent works — the call for mature human responsibility fueled an intensified critique of halakhah. Such a critique was always present in his writing and teaching, as he asserted the spiritual and epistemological independence of human reason and moral judgment. But in his last years, he insisted most emphatically that leaders of the halakhic community — and also the individual members of the community who elect to follow and support these leaders — bear responsibility if they fail to correct the system’s moral abuses. In his penultimate book, The God Who Hates Lies (written with Charlie Buckholtz), his scathing critique of salient features of Orthodox halakhah — including that promulgated by his beloved teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik — focuses on failures of moral integrity.
For example, Hartman condemns the halakhic inequalities of gender (particularly the outrageous trapping of women in marriages they want and need to leave), as well as certain Orthodox policies regarding conversion that are rooted in notions of Jewish biological superiority. Apologetic arguments that seek to justify such practices, Hartman wrote, constitute the very lies that God hates. Strikingly, Hartman here conflates a “mere” lack of intellectual honesty with outright hypocrisy. To some readers, this may seem hyperbolic and rather unfair. But from Hartman’s covenantal perspective, the sharpness of the critique is justified: Exercising authority that sustains harmful and indefensible laws amounts to an abnegation of covenantal responsibility. For my friend and teacher David Hartman, who loved God so much, it was vital that the human partners to the covenant not let Him down.
Originally published by Sh’ma Journal in its May 2013 issue as part of a larger conversation on covenants.

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