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Cultivating a Culture of Innovative Traditionalism

Shalom Hartman Institute confronts philosophical and theological questions that arise from the challenging reality of Judaism in the 21st century.
Image: your123/Adobe Stock
Image: your123/Adobe Stock
Shalom Hartman Institute Founder Rabbi Prof. David Hartman z”l was a leading thinker among philosophers of contemporary Judaism and an internationally renowned Jewish author. As part of his unique vision to deal with the challenges of Judaism in the modern world, Rabbi Prof. David Hartman founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1976 in honor of his father. He was a man who is with us no more A thinker, teacher, and lover of mankind Our

The modern experience is caught between human empowerment and impotence. Never before has the individual felt so free to choose and shape his own life. Globalization, the breakdown of tradition and the emergence of multiple, competing social values and lifestyles provide the individual with enormous opportunities for self-expression and creativity.

Yet, this unprecedented sense of freedom can be illusory and lead to a paralyzing sense of impotence. The sheer abundance of options and the rapid pace of change can undermine the foundations of human identity.

Tradition and history, two fundamental sources of human identity, are under attack by the spirit of change and impermanence that pervades our multicultural, global environment. People experience a world changing before their eyes; they don’t know where it’s heading or where and when it will come to rest.

Empowerment, openness and the capacity for innovation, on the one hand; impotence, paralysis and confusion, on the other hand; this is the human situation that all three major Western religious traditions face today. Their fate and impact on our lives depend on how they confront this complex and dynamic reality.

Islam is caught up in a vicious struggle with fundamentalism, which rejects modern Western culture based on an uncompromising, either/or perception of alternatives: total indifference to their tradition or total indifference to the other’s culture. Christianity has taken steps toward reexamining some of its age-old doctrines in light of recent history and its encounter with modernity. Judaism, too, has had to confront the challenging conditions of modernity both in the Diaspora and especially – and in a unique way – in Israel.

Antagonism toward religious establishment

Israeli society is very much part of the modern experience and ethos. Many Israelis have embraced the social values and sensibilities of modern liberal Western culture. In addition to adopting its ethical and social concerns for human rights and alternate life styles as well as its pronounced consumerism, many Israelis harbor a deep antagonism toward the religious establishment, especially to what they regard as its outmoded, medieval worldview and its adamant, self-righteous refusal to acknowledge the need for change.

At the same time, however, the Jewish tradition is an indispensable part of Israeli life. In contrast to living in any other country, living in Israel connects Jews to their past. The land reverberates with the collective memories of this people’s long history, a history that stretches back to rabbinic, prophetic and Biblical times.

You cannot escape your Jewish past here. It follows you in the landscape, in the city names, in the street signs, in the yearly cycle of holidays and public celebrations organized around the Jewish calendar. It follows you in mundane conversations with ordinary Israelis whose everyday language abounds with rabbinic and biblical expressions.

Nonetheless, the cultural reality in Israel is far from idyllic harmony. It is fraught with conflict and is, in many ways, dysfunctional. Israeli society is torn between those who reject tradition, who feel that the Jewish religion has nothing to contribute to today’s world, and those who renounce modernity, and who believe there is nothing liberalism and democracy can offer Judaism.

Internal threat poses danger

These two extremes within Israeli society – and within the Jewish world at large – are tearing it apart, precipitating a dangerous polarization of Jews into two culturally irreconcilable camps. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that besides the external threats to Jews today, the internal threat of cultural chaos and irreparable rupture within the Jewish people poses a real danger to the future of Jewish life, in general, and to Israeli society, in particular.

The Shalom Hartman Institute is in many ways a response to these critical historical predicaments. Dedicated to bridging the gap between tradition and modernity and to elucidating the confusing currents of the modern experience, the Institute’s community of scholars confronts the philosophical and theological questions arising from the challenging reality of Judaism in the 21st century: how can we reconcile the need for innovation and creativity with the demand for obedience and commitment?

What does it mean to be an “interpretive community”? How does change take place in Jewish history? Can the Jewish religion accommodate multiple opinions? Have Jewish religiosity and halakhic practice become dominated by fundamentalism and literalism? What is the place of subjectivity and autonomy in the tradition? Can individual creativity and self-expression be valued in a community oriented framework?

Both I and my fellow scholars at the Shalom Hartman Institute have written a great deal on these issues, in our ongoing quest for a cultural language that can accommodate the seemingly dissociated realities of tradition and modernity, individual and community.

Enrich modernity with tradition

The Shalom Hartman Institute was founded on the belief that tradition and innovation are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but can be mutually enhancing. The Jewish tradition can benefit immensely from the new possibilities inherent in modern liberalism; personal responsibility, pluralism, critical thinking and free discussion are essential to the continued growth of Judaism today and in future generations.

Similarly, modernity can be enriched by tradition. Offering an alternative perspective on such concepts as individuality, family and freedom, Judaism can empower the modern person by providing an alternative vantage point from which to evaluate contemporary culture. Tradition can provide a person with the sense of distance that is necessary for critically examining current values and trends.

To ensure the future of the Jewish people, and avoid the dangers of fundamentalism and moral relativism, we must strive to cultivate a culture of innovative traditionalism, a culture which will fully harmonize the forces of Judaism and modernity. This is the purpose of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Addressing the burning issues facing the Jewish world today, our website will present Shalom Hartman Institute’s thought-provoking visions and points of view, and expose readers to the philosophical and educational activity that goes on in the Institute.

I would like to personally invite you to take part in our discussion, in our reflection, in our dilemmas and responses, and help us broaden the horizons of modern Jewish thought. Join us in our pilgrimage of innovation and tradition; join us as we face the future of Judaism with a sense of responsibility and hope.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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