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Book Review: ‘Judaism and Challenges of Modern Life’

The book challenges you to look at Jewish life in the modern age both in a democratic State of Israel and in the Diaspora
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the


The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem states that its vision is based on the following statement:
“The Shalom Hartman Institute is a pluralistic research and leadership training institute fostering new directions in Jewish thought and education. Our programs empower thousands of scholars, educators, rabbis and lay leaders to address the central challenges of contemporary Judaism, shaping the future of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.”
The founder and director of the Institute is Rabbi Dr. David Hartman . A graduate of Yeshiva University who received a Doctorate of Philosophy from McGill University in Montreal, Rabbi Hartman made aliyah with his family in the 1970s. He founded the Shalom Hartman Institute, named after his father, in 1976. He taught for many years at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and established the Institute to bring to the fore, both in Israel and the Diaspora, his philosophical ideas concerning Jewish life and the rebirth of the State of Israel.
His son, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman , now Co-Director of the Institute, is an ordained rabbi and has a doctorate in Jewish Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Donniel spent a number of years in the United States where he was a JCC Rabbi in New Jersey and, together with his father, has made the Institute a ground-breaking place for scholarship, educational innovation and pluralistic work.
I am currently privileged to serve as a Hartman Rabbinic Fellow and study with scholars of the Institute on an ongoing basis. I study with them throughout the year, for the month of July and a week in January in Israel, and the rest of the year by videoconference. The purpose of the program is to bring together in serious study rabbis of all denominations from across North America. Currently there are 27 of us in this intensive program. The Institute also has programs on-site for personnel in the army , high school students , lay leaders from the Diaspora and houses a series of public lectures .
Judaism and Modern Life, Kogod Books, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, IsraelRecently, it started to publish books under the label of The Kogod Library of Judaic Studies and has published a number of books in English and Hebrew that are groundbreaking in many different areas. The current volume, “Judaism and Challenges of Modern Life,” was published in 2007 and is edited by Donniel Hartman and Moshe Halbertal , who also teaches at the Institute and has a Doctorate of Jewish Thought from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The purpose of this particular volume, which contains within it a number of essays by some of the leading scholars of the Institute, is, according to Donniel Hartman in his introduction: “To explore and develop ways in which the Jewish tradition can enrich life in the modern world. As a multi-denominational institution that passionately promotes pluralistic approaches to Judaism, the Institute does not create policy or extend legal rulings. Its task is to expand horizons of Jewish thought and to advocate a wide range of opinions with the belief that such plurality is both the core feature of Jewish tradition and a vital tool in creating a Judaism that can accommodate variety in backgrounds and ideologies.”
According to Dr. Hartman, the aim of the book is the same aim as the Institute and thus, does not present any single position endorsed by the Institute. Instead, it reflects a range of thinking of some of the Institute scholars on a number of central questions facing contemporary Jewish life. The book is divided into three sections and addresses three aspects of Judaism and the challenges posed by modernity: the challenge of ideas, the challenge of diversity, and the challenge of statehood.
Part 1 includes seven articles consisting of topics that include “Judaism and the Challenges of Science”; “Tradition: Continuity or Change”; “Revelation and Ethics” and articles on “The Challenge of Feminism to Modern Judaism” and the issue of homosexuality.
The second part of the book attempts to deal with the challenges of diversity. It includes four articles, including David Hartman’s “The Religious Significance of Religious Pluralism” and Donniel Hartman’s “Who is a Jew? Membership and Admission Policies in the Jewish Community,” which he has expanded into a full book entitled “The Boundaries of Judaism” recently published by The Kogod Library of Jewish Studies.
Finally, Part 3 deals with the challenges that present themselves to the modern State of Israel. It also includes four articles including David Hartman’s “The Significance of Israel for the Future of Judaism” and Moshe Halbertal’s “Human Rights and Membership Rights in the Jewish Tradition.”
As in any book with a series of essays or articles, there is great inconsistency in the manner in which sources are handled by individual authors. Thus, although the editors have attempted to arrange the articles by a theme, that theme is quite flexible. In other words, it seems to me that the scholars approached wrote on their particular expertise and, in attempting to put the book in good order, the editors placed the essays together in particular sections. Part of the problem with this approach is that we need to know the background of each of the authors. Unfortunately, nowhere in the book is there a biography of any of the authors and we cannot, therefore, understand their scholarly background, the context of their work, nor know what brings them to ask the questions that they do and the essays that they write. I found that to be a great lacking in the book, though I am quite familiar with many of the scholars from my studies at the Shalom Hartman Institute. For the average reader it is simply impossible, unless they want to go online and search for the individual authors, to appreciate the background of the authors and the context in which they write.
However, even with these caveats, many of the essays deserve close reading. Since it is not a book that deals with one particular theme, I see no need to delve into each of the essays. Instead, I suggest we look at one essay from each of the sections and then see how they fit together to promote the thinking of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the scholars who are part of it.
In the first section on the history of ideas, Dr. Zvi Zohar , Professor of Sephardic Law and Ethics at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, has written an article entitled “Tradition and Legal Change.” Zohar, together with Dr. Avi Sagi , who also is a Hartman fellow, has written a book which has just been translated into English and is an extremely important addition to Jewish scholarship. It is entitled “Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transformation from Gentile to Jew – Structure and Meaning.” It is also published by The Kogod Library and came out in Hebrew a number of years ago. I read it in Hebrew approximately six years ago and have just acquired the English volume, as I understand that there are some additions that the authors have added over time. The book deals with the process of conversion and makes some important suggestions concerning the possibility of being flexible with regard to conversions in the Diaspora, and specifically in the State of Israel. I would hope that their ideas could be followed by rabbinic authorities in Israel as they would make a great difference in the Jewish State.
In our book Zvi Zohar gives the philosophical background for his understanding of Jewish law and its ability to change throughout history. He suggests that halacha has a dynamic nature to it that is already present within the system. He uses as his example the concept of marriage and shows that in early Biblical times the patriarchs had more than one wife and a number of concubines. Over time, in Rabbinic literature, the institution of marriage was changed by the Rabbis who did not see themselves, as Zohar states: “As operating against or outside of Torah. Rather, they thought that such changes expressed authentic commitment to Torah.”
He outlines three different models which create dynamic dialogue between the eternal Torah and the way it is implemented and lived. The first model is changes through interpretation. This means that we must “acknowledge Torah as eternal, but that does not mean that we must acknowledge our understanding of Torah as eternal. Our understanding of Torah can change, and when that happens, we will begin to permit actions our ancestors thought the Torah forbade, or we will begin to forbid that which they thought the Torah permitted.”
The second model is change by legislation. Here a change in Jewish law is not interpretive but legislative but still does not see itself as undermining the eternality of Torah. He writes, “While Torah is eternal and perfect, human beings are imperfect and historical reality is fickle. Therefore, there may be some cases which call for abrogation of certain norms of Torah, and others which add on limits or stringencies not required by Torah. In principle, these are limited in duration. When the context changes, the enactment may no longer be valid.”
The third model is changes by custom. Zohar suggests that in Jewish life custom has a great deal of power and authority: “There are two schools of thought within halacha that suggest that. One holds that since what is now customary began as an innovation, it must have been validated by the Rabbis of that time. The other view holds that custom begins not with Rabbis, but with people. The Jewish people possess creative powers that do not derive simply from texts, but from life and culture, and halacha recognizes and validates these powers.”
While Zohar does not expand greatly on all of these areas and only gives a few examples, the essay does allow one to look at the history of ideas and the history of halacha. It offers a dynamic view of Jewish law and suggests that this is the normative process. Therefore, it is not surprising that in his much expanded work on conversion, together with Avi Sagi, their view of halacha is dynamic, flexible and able to change with the times.
In the second section, Donniel Hartman’s essay on “Who is a Jew?” is one which is very challenging and thought provoking. His essay in the book reframes what the last part of his extended book discusses. He looks at the issues of matrilineal and patrilineal descent, Jewishness as ethnicity, membership through marriage, membership through conversion, all leading to a discussion of the modern situation. He uses past discussion of Jewish sources in Mishnaic, Talmudic and medieval times to look at the modern era and its changes. He suggests that: “We must recognize that we cannot determine the membership policies of the whole people on the basis of our own denominational affiliations. Over the course of the long history of the Jewish people, individuals have joined our people and different groups have reached different understandings of how that may occur.” Hartman believes that: “So long as one remains within the boundaries of this narrative, absent of consensus, I believe it is our duty to recognize the legitimacy of his/her claim to membership in the Jewish people.”
While he is relatively flexible in these definitions, he understands that diverse denominational policies, specifically having to do with conversion, will lead many to refrain from marrying one another. “While in theory this is of grave consequence, on a collective level, in reality, the situation need not necessarily require a communal solution,” he writes. In personal discussions with him, he has told me that he and his family can decide who their children can marry. However, since we have a sovereign State of Israel and a modern Jewish people we must move beyond denominational decisions and “separate ideological commitments from the need for political posturing and halachic principles from the need to constantly de-legitimize each other.” Hartman, in consonance with the vision and philosophy of the Institute, writes that: “We can accept each other as Jews even though we each disagree with the Judaism the other professes.”
While I don’t necessarily agree totally with Dr. Hartman, and he and I have had both private and public discussions on this issue, I appreciate very much his thinking of how to solve the many problems that affect the Jewish people in the Diaspora and, in particular, in the State of Israel. These issues relate to membership in the Jewish people, citizenship in the State of Israel and involvement in the Jewish religion in the life of the State. To his credit, Donniel Hartman has offered some very important solutions which must be examined closely and need to be discussed seriously.
The third section of the book deals with the challenge of statehood, living in a world with the State of Israel and attempting to create a Jewish and democratic society. David Hartman has written widely on this topic. His views can be seen in a lecture series entitled “Conflicting Visions” in which he describes the need for Israelis to accept responsibility for building a society of tolerance to the minorities within their borders, to other religious traditions and to other cultures.
In this essay, he attempts to look at Zionism in its various forms and update it to the modern State of Israel. He offers some brief overviews of secular Zionism in revolt, religious anti-Zionism and messianic religious Zionism. Analyzing all of these visions, he suggests that using Biblical and Rabbinic and Maimonidean concepts that: “Israel is not only called upon to implement covenantal norms, but also to analyze, define and expand their content. No longer is God the final interpreter of His own law as in Biblical tradition.” He therefore suggests that: “The Zionist revolution expanded the Rabbinic spirit of confidence and trust in human initiative to new dimensions by liberating Jews from the traditional paths of orientation to historical hope grounded in the helpless dependency on the Lord of history.” It is Hartman’s belief that in the same way the Talmud liberated the intellect to define the contents of Torah, “Zionism liberated the will of the nation to become politically responsible, to promote the ingathering of the exiles and to establish Israel’s covenantal nature in history without relying on a divine rupture into human history.” He thus sees the dynamic challenge of Judaism and the Jewish people in the State of Israel as an ongoing nation-building exercise which is dependent upon an understanding of the covenantal relationship with the God of Israel.
These three essays embody the spirit of Shalom Hartman Institute. They ask serious questions, delve into troubling issues and, using Jewish sources, attempt to convey solutions which though, sometimes radical, are well thought out and presented. They bring to the fore academic scholarship, secular philosophy and post-enlightenment challenges to the Jewish people. I have selected these three essays because I believe they outline not only the thinking of the book, but the thinking of the Institute. Being a student at the Institute has opened me to these thinkers in a most profound fashion and I am thankful for that opportunity. I would suggest you go online to the Institute’s website, where you can read these scholars, and others, and the provocative and exciting material they are producing.
While the book itself is somewhat uneven, based on the fact that it is a group of essays, it does challenge you to look at Jewish life in the modern age both in a democratic State of Israel and in the Diaspora. If this is the goal, then the book accomplishes that vision. Each of the essays, though scholarly in form, is meant for the ordinary reader. There are not many footnotes and most of the scholarly discussions have been arranged in a manner that can be understood by someone who is interested in the subject. This makes the book most worthwhile for reading, study and discussion.
The Shalom Hartman Institute would be very pleased to know that their writings are taken seriously, are debated and discussed. As Donniel Hartman contends in his introduction: “Jews do not view modernity as a problem, but rather an opportunity and a challenge. The pertinent questions we face are how to embrace modernity as Jews, and what such an embrace means for the meaning of the future of Jewish life.” Needless to say, there is no simple answer to that question and we must continue to use our tradition, update it, struggle with it, and make it meaningful for ourselves and for generations to follow. The book raises these important issues and in that realm it deserves to be read and studied.
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is a member of the Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative . This review is adapted from a presentation given to the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.

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