A version of this article also appeared in the Toronto Globe & Mail.
Last Sunday, when Rabbi David Hartman died in Jerusalem, the Jewish world lost an intellectual and moral ambassador to the larger world of interfaith dialogue, political thought and religious philosophy. I lost a teacher, advisor and friend.
Trained in the Talmudic tradition of Orthodox Jewry, David Hartman felt deeply at home in the intense piety of that tradition, yet criticized what he believed was an over-emphasis on the internal details of Jewish law. When I and other rabbis would study with him at the Shalom Hartman Institute, he would often refer to his childhood in Brooklyn and his rabbinic studies with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University, how they had nurtured within him a love of people and a passion for truth.
As spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal from 1960 to 1971 and an instructor at McGill University, Hartman energized an entire generation of Jews with his personal passion and intellectual vigour. With his five children and his wife, Bobbie, David was a vital force in what was then the cultural centre of Canadian Jewish life. Mature Jews report to me of their younger years when they came into contact with Rabbi Hartman in his congregation or on campus. He opened for them the possibility of a religious outlook rooted in Jewish tradition and engaged in the world.
In 1971, stimulated by the excitement and opportunity for Jewish renewal in the post-Six Day War period, David Hartman moved from Montreal to Jerusalem, but always maintained a close relationship with Canada, where the groundwork for his academic, interfaith and communal work had been laid. He began to teach at the Hebrew University, but found himself limited by the formal quality of academic life.
Aided by Canadian supporters, Rabbi Hartman established the Shalom Hartman Institute, named in memory of his father, and began to teach in ways that were very different from the rabbinic and academic models he found in Israel. His first book, Joy and Responsibility (1978) had as its subtitle “Israel, modernity and the renewal of Judaism,” themes he would return to in Conflicting Visions: Spiritual Possibilities of Modern Israel (1990), and Israelis and the Jewish Tradition (2000). Hartman also began to cultivate young scholars, encouraging them to link their academic research with questions that would matter to a larger society.
Throughout his life, Hartman paid careful attention to the writings of Maimonides. In his initial presentation of the sage of Cordoba and Cairo, Torah and the Philosophic Quest (1976) and later in Crisis and Leadership (1985), Hartman showed that concern that animated Maimonides in the 13th century remained critical for the 20th century. The bridging of the classical and contemporary became characteristic of the type of academic atmosphere he created at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He wanted serious intellectual inquiry to enter religious life and faithful commitment to engage the challenges of modern life in Israel and the Diaspora.
Hartman’s mature thought is most evident in A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (1985) and Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism (1999). In these works, he offered sustained arguments for a traditional expression of Judaism that allowed for legal innovation and religious pluralism. In his reactions to the writings of his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and to the iconoclastic Israeli thinker, Yeshaya Leibowitz, Hartman placed the Covenant at Sinai, with its emphasis on freedom for humanity and ethical responsibility, at the center of Jewish experience.
In recent years, he became more pointed in his criticism of the exclusionary Orthodox and a articulate advocate for moderate religious innovation, particularly in relationship to women in Judaism. These ideas led more Orthodox rabbis to reject Hartman’s approach to Judaism, even as he gained more popularity among liberal Jews and among religious thinkers of other faiths.
At the Hartman Institute, David initiated annual gatherings of philosophers, theologians, rabbis and educators to stimulate creative scholarship and practice. His influence can be seen in philosophical work by Hillary Putnam of Harvard, political theory by Michael Walzer of the Institute for Advanced Studies, theological studies by Krister Stendahl of Harvard Divinity School, the columns of Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, and many other North American and Israeli thinkers. My years of encounter with David and the Fellows of the Hartman Institute led me to bring ideas and issues from Jerusalem to Toronto. His approach to Jewish life and ideas found a home at Beth Tzedec where we regularly bring faculty and curricula from the Institute to our synagogue.
David Hartman’s charismatic personality made an impact on individuals and led to serious and sustained dialogue with leaders of Diaspora Jewish communities, Israeli politicians and army commanders seeking ethical guidance, and students of the high school situated on the campus of the Hartman Institute. Ever passionate in his presentations and conversations, David would roar and argue, whisper and weep, always seeking a more penetrating and productive way to “learn and teach, to engage and to fulfill” the words of the Torah that he so loved.