David Hartman z”l on Living a Spiritual Life

The following is a transcript of Episode 125 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Monday, January 30th, 2023. 

We’re coming up this month on David Hartman’s 10th yahrzeit. You’ll hear more about that from us if you’re on our mailing list, including news about a conference in Jerusalem next month, which we’ll be live-streaming. 

Hartman was a rabbi, a teacher, a philosopher, and notably for this podcast coming out of this organization, the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, named for his father. The truth is I barely knew Rabbi Hartman personally. I didn’t study here at Hartman before coming to work here. I had the chance to meet David a few times and to sit in a few classes with him in the brief time in which we overlapped.

I came to the institute in 2010 and primarily worked out of our then-small New York office. And he passed away just a few years later. In some ways that feels okay. This is not a Hasidic dynastic organization and I don’t really believe in hagiography about great rabbis or great people for that matter. I’ve mostly gotten to know David Hartman through his books and his articles, which I’ll say more than just hold up.

I’m taken by his reading of the rabbinic tradition as emphasizing what he called “covenantal anthropology,” prioritizing the role of people in understanding the responsibilities we bear in a covenantal relationship with God, as a particularly powerful theology for a post-Holocaust era. I love the fact that Hartman kept returning in his writings to the theme of pluralism as an essential Torah for modernity, and I, too, keep doing the same. And Hartman’s reading of the state of Israel as the framework and the crucible for the Jewish people to wrestle with whether we are as good as we think we are. Well, I can’t think of a more urgent way to think about the present. 

Still, I suppose, and this is putting it most prosaically, I regret that I didn’t get more of a chance to study with Hartman, only to know his voice on paper. I think he would’ve made a great podcast guest, although it pains me to think about the heartbreak that I’m sure he would’ve felt in watching the language of religious Zionism, for instance, become owned today politically and theologically by the extremists that he detested.

Hartman preferred the iconoclastic Abraham of Genesis 18, arguing with God against the possible murder of the innocence along with the guilty in Sodom, over the obedient Abraham of Genesis 22 of the Binding of Isaac. There are some blind spots in that choice to be sure, but we need a lot more of that Torah today: bold religious thinking that claims the tradition as its own, and demands of us that in our moral commitments, we honor the Torah’s deepest intentions. A Torah that insists that we human beings who claim to be made in the image of God, honor that responsibility with how we act. 

So I can’t interview Hartman today, but we’re at least bringing you his voice. This speech that you’ll hear next is David Hartman speaking at the Lion of Judah conference in 1995, where he spoke on the plenary just before Hillary Rodham Clinton. We have this archival footage thanks to the foresight and generosity of longtime Hartman friend and student Dr. Doug Lansky, also of blessed memory.

It’s a message of what spirituality could and should mean for North American Jews. The questions still endure, and so does I think this Torah that David Hartman offers. Enjoy

David Hartman: In thinking about the role of spirituality, during the summertime, and I was moved by the fact that this was the theme chosen for myself because I have a sense that there is something happening in America in which people are aware that there’s something more to power, to affluence, and that in some sense, spirituality is a desire to endow with a deeper connection to a deeper framework of meaning, to feel that one’s life is not just here, and representing a temporal moment unconnected to a larger meaning, but people are looking for the holy, we can call it a looking for God. They’re looking to anchor their life in some ultimate ground of meaning. 

Meaninglessness is the killer to the significance of human life. I’ve spent the majority of my thinking life reflecting on what I as a child saw, but yet did not understand in my parents’ home, which mediated for me spirituality. Wittgenstein remarked that the limits of your language should revolve around the limits of your experience. I’m not going to speak about spirituality in abstract universalist terms, but spirituality as it was reflected in my own life, in the experiences that I saw.

I was privileged to be born into a home in which I saw the transformative power of a day in the life of a family that was poor. I recall my father, who was a poor customer peddler, many times during the week when I would have to ask him Pa, can I have some money for ice cream or things of that nature, in which, often he had to say no because nebuch, he didn’t have, and always feeling himself a failure economically.

And yet, when Shabbat came, when the Sabbath came, I saw how the man with the hole was transformed. How poverty did not define his own sense of dignity. I saw how after sunset, he changed his clothes and we sat at the table, and my mother would always serve him the head of the fish so that he should feel he’s the head of the family and he would sing his Shabbos song.

And I, as a child had very little patience for all the melodies that he heard from his father who heard it from his father. And the thing I learned that my father’s greatest gift to me was his ability to be irrelevant in my life as a child. He had the ability to sing his song if I understood it or not. And when I said, Pa, could you hurry it up a little bit? My girlfriend is, waiting. He would say, “David, du vest da zitsn biz ikh endikn meyn niggunim. You will be here until I finish all my songs, because that’s how my father did it and that’s how I do it. And you’re going to have to learn to sit patiently at a meal, quietly, without having your rushed teenage agenda.” He didn’t use that language, but in a sense he used a different language. 

Now this, the dignity of not being frightened to be irrelevant. That’s a profound sense of dignity. The ability to be yourself without measuring yourself by the sense of how young people are going to respond to you. And I asked myself as I began to grow older, what gave this customer peddler this ability to suddenly see himself in totally different spirit, in a different sense, a different sense of identity?

How did this poor, impoverished family that often didn’t have challah for Shabbos, and we used to be dispossessed sometimes because we couldn’t afford to pay the rent, and my father would move us in Brownsville from place to place so he could take us out of the concrete jungle and we’d go to the Catskills for the summertime, and then, because then he didn’t have to pay rent? 

How did, as Edwin Markham remarked, to what avail do you build worlds if the builder doesn’t grow as well? What gave this family and this person the ability to sing? The ability to study? The ability not to define himself purely by the check he would bring home at the end of the week? How did he transform himself from economic man to spiritual man? What gave him that power and what gave my mother the power to keep the family within the tradition? Because I remember when we, the family came from Jerusalem because of poverty in 1929. My father was born in the old city. My mother was born in Tzfat, and when he came here, his brothers told him, Shalom, you should know, this is America. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. And therefore forget about the notion of Shabbat. Forget about all those traditions that you had in the old country. Here, seven days shalt thou labor. 

And my mother said, Shalom, the soul that we had when we lived in Jerusalem is gonna be the soul that we’re gonna have here, and this is how we’re gonna bring up the family. My mother, thank God, had the influence.

And if we reflect on what they did, not on what they thought about. On the living tradition that grew in their lives. Let me see if I could in some way share with you in capsule form what this spirituality was about. The Sabbath is the mediative principle for spirituality in the Judaic tradition as it comes out of the biblical framework.

Six days shalt thou labor. Sheshet yamim taavod, v’yom hashvi shabbat l’adoni elohecha. The seventh day shall be a Sabbath of the Lord your God, because in six days I created the world, and the seventh day I rested. And the rabbinic tradition interestingly says that six days shalt thou labor, that this is also a mitzvah. It’s not only a mitzvah, a commandment to observe the Sabbat in terms of succession of labor, but what you do during the six days is equally as well part of the spiritual dimension. 

Spirituality in the rabbinic tradition was not a day of retreat or withdrawal from the world, or some way turning inward, but equally as well what you do during the six days defines your spirituality as well. So there’s an integrative harmony because from the seventh day to the sixth day, now what is that dialectic?

In the creational story, you have as well a God who shapes the world. The biblical vision of God and contrast to Aristotle is active. He’s willful. Now, the shaping power, the ground of reality is a personal will, an active will. The creation of the world comes out of the biblical traditional. For the Aristotle, the world was co-eternal with the ultimate principle of motion. The world is a given, in the Greek tradition, flowing from necessity, from the divine reality. In the biblical prophetic tradition, creation grows out of a personal will. 

So willfulness, wanting the world, wanting existence, living in the world is in some way to encounter a personal will. So existence is not just a brute fact of necessity, but there’s some implicit purpose. What does this come to teach me? What am I required to do? To be in the biblical sense is to live with responsiveness. To be is to be awake to a world calling you to act. 

And yet this God who is so powerful in acting ceases his activity on the Sabbath. Pardon my male gendering in terms of theology. It’s a result of my earliest Yeshiva training. And I, if I would have to stop speaking that way, I just would be silent, you know, and become like a stutterer like Moses. So you’ll forgive that. It’s not only that you should forgive me, but God should forgive me for calling him in a male gender because I think he would get confused. He would get confused.

Now, there are two ultimate principles, two ultimate rhythms that define the spiritual life. There’s the willful principle, the principle of energizing, the principle of empowerment, the ability to cope and shape reality, the sense of adequacy to respond to a world that’s many times unresponsive to our needs, to feel adequate, to cope with weakness, to shape the world in our image.

This is the willful aspect of spirituality. Feel energized to act. The biblical tradition is deeply opposed to the Eastern tradition which sees in withdrawal into the inner soul, into the quiet contemplated framework, the essence of spirituality. In the biblical framework, you find the spiritual life in the activist principle of life, in feeling called to shape and create a world. 

A builder, to be a builder in the world, not to feel helpless resignation before the world. This is the energizing, willful principle of the God of will, not the God of necessity, which came out of Aristotle. Now, the willful God equally as well does something that seems so strange, which one doesn’t understand, here God says, let there be light, and there was light. Let there be a cosmos, and there was a cosmos. 

And then God creates humans in his image and he wants human beings to be mentioned. So I imagine God should have said, let there be a mensch. Let there be a mensch, and a mensch should have come. I mean, if you can create a cosmos, why can’t you create a human being? So if you read in the Garden of Eden story, I mean, suddenly you, you look at Eve and say, Eve, please no, don’t think it’s gonna give you something. 

And you wonder many, I’m even in Hebrew school, I remember asking, why couldn’t God create people nice? What was this principle of humans who have the ability to say no to the divine power? And I would say the second principle of spirituality in terms of the image of God, which is gonna be very important in terms of the Sabbath, is that God creates a principle of otherness. The human is, and in the human’s freedom in the ability to sin, in the ability to say no to the divine power is when the divine reality finds its fullest fulfillment.

Otherness is an important feature of the divine relationship to the world. God relates to the world not only in the principle of power as the Lord of the world, but the Sabbath introduces the principle in which God withdraws his power as Lord and meets the world as other. This is the meaning, and God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. It stands in its own otherness. 

The human being in the presence of God is God’s divine other, and it’s God’s divine challenge to see if I, if he could introduce a new principle into reality, to live without control, to live without power. The meaning of Sabbath is in some way to integrate into your consciousness two dimensions of experience.

And the quest for spirituality in our lives is not a simple thing. It is the ability, and this is what the Sabbath did for my father. It’s the ability to build life without control. I remember the dialogue I would have with my roses when I would have a garden in Montreal when the synagogue had a synagogue home. The first time a Brownsville boy had a garden, and I was overwhelmed as I would walk Friday and the Sabbath would come, and I’m sure you’ve noticed in a Jewish calendar, and you’d notice when the Sabbath begins, it says 4:12, 4:18, then it goes to 4:30, quarter to five. 

And I remember having a dialogue with someone says, what’s all this confusion? All these times when Sabbath begins? Why don’t you make a fixed time so people would know six o’clock? And I remember having a dialogue with one rabbi who says, Sabbath in my home begins when I say, let us proclaim the Sabbath. I say, sorry, I, you’re so fortunate, Rabbi Miller. In my home. It’s a race with the sunset. It’s Shabbos already. Wait, it’s, not yet, as many times I feel like saying to the sunset, listen, I’m working on my last chapter of my book, can you please wait? Joshua was able to do it. I can’t.

And in a sense, it doesn’t wait for me to be ready. I have no control. When the Sabbath comes, it comes with sunset. In the rhythms of nature, suddenly the world takes on another dimension. There’s a new ontological reality. It’s a world that proclaims human life without power and manipulation.

Suddenly you discover a way of dignity without control, without control, without, in other words, to be empowered is not just the ability to shape, to be empowered is equally as well the ability to love, the ability to see the other. 

My father, when it came Shabbat would sit at the table and the family would sing or talk. There was no television, thank God. So we spoke. It was like speaking about a different world. And children spoke to parents. Wives and husbands had to learn the art of communicating, of meeting each other without manipulation. There was no control. Sabbath is the principle of harmony. It’s the principle of relationship without manipulation and power, and in a sense, these two dimensions of spirituality, the empowerment dimension, the shaping, what form do you give the shape? How do you live with these two opposing real rhythms? I would say we don’t integrate them in a perfect harmony, but we allow them to be. Sometimes it’s important to allow different rhythms to be in your soul. How that gets integrated ultimately into your psyche, it’s you don’t control that, just allow them to be there.

The ability to, in one level, have an aggressive instinct towards life, not be passive, be willful, and another aspect to live without power so that your servant may rest like you. Sabbath introduces into the family otherness. The ability for each person to meet each other in their separateness, and to believe in the capacity for relationship without control.

Cause many times the terror of being alone, the terror of loneliness, and many times we create dependency through money or through other things because we’re terrified that the person won’t respond if we can’t elicit that response. What will happen when children will be in some way capable of standing on their own feet?

I remember I used to work with mothers in my community who are constantly worrying about their children’s homework in school, and I pleaded to let him try to see if he could make it on her own. And I remember it was a trauma for her. It was a truthfully, trauma.

Okay. The trauma was, what if the child discovers that she could cope with reality without my help, would she then even wanna turn to me? In a sense then, the need for control is not because we wanna, sadistically, it’s because we want relationship. We wanna be loved, we wanna be cared for. We want to be needed. And we think that without power, no one would come. The ability to believe that the world could be responsive and humans could be responsive to you without power is the great gift of the spirituality of the Sabbath. 

And I would say, and just quickly, because I wanna keep within the range of my time, in the modern world, Israel and you people are so devoted, Israel has given spirituality to the Jewish people by empowering the people not to leave history after the demonic experience of the Holocaust, the normal response to human life should have been to go into the coffee houses of history and hide and become stoics. Learn not to care. Learn not to care. Learn not to be involved because you never know when demonic evil will come. 

And in a sense, Israel, when I lived there, in Jerusalem, what I feel is the power of a people who refused to leave history, who refused to abandon the possibility of tikkun haolam, of shaping the world, not allowing the memory of the Holocaust to paralyze our will. It is a six days shalt thou labor is a mitzvah. The holy is found in the activist principle, in the belief and possibilities, in belief that tomorrow could be different than yesterday. In the belief that I can shape my world, that I’m not a passive victim. 

Israel has in some way healed the Jewish people from becoming passive victims. It has energized our will to become responsible for a total society. And in that sense, this giving, this will is why I deeply respect the efforts of my Prime Minister and Secretary of State in the peace process. I’m deeply shocked when I hear that rabbis are opposed to this peace process. Deeply shocked.

And I would say to you, what is the spiritual meaning of the peace process to me? And I remember speaking to my son. I have 13 grandchildren, in Israel, and one is now going to the army. What Rabin and Peres have done, they’ve introduced a new word into the vocabulary. When I came to live in Israel in 1971, when I would ask, why is this done? The answer I would get, I don’t know if you ever had that experience, kacha, kacha, kacha. That’s how it is, kacha. This is the way things are here. 

It is a deep, since Israel is a revolutionary society, in order to survive it had to become really conservative in its psyche. Kacha. Kacha mekubal etzlenu. That’s how it’s been by us. That sense of this is the way it has been, has been the dominant spirit. What Rabin and Peres have done, they’ve introduced the word maybe. Change may. The notion that tomorrow may, maybe, not there’s a certainty of peace, but introducing to your political vocabulary the notion of maybe is a deep, spiritual, and religious act, to feel that your life could maybe take on another meaning, not a blind sense of hopefulness or romanticism. No. Maybe. I’m not caught in the web of necess. 

It is a Jewish country. Deeply, deeply believing that the role of Israel was never to check out and never to despair at the notion of possibility. The belief in possibility is a profound aspect of spirituality, but the further aspect of spirituality is what you do in your homes on Friday night when you light those candles and cover your eyes. What you’re saying is, may a spirit of relationship without manipulation pervade my home. I give up power. Let us meet each other in, in an I-thou, instead of subject-object, but into subjectivity, a way in which your home can breathe that quiet, that silence. 

So you’re energized to act. I know that. Amazing sense of empowerment, but there’s another form of empowerment to believe in the power of relationship without manipulation. To believe in the ability for people to love each other and to care without having to manipulate that relationship.

When you light those candles Friday night, that’s what you’re saying to the home. And I, my bracha to you all is, have the courage to be irrelevant to your children as my father had to me. Will children understand everything that you stand for in the beginning? No. The purpose of being a parent is to give a memory, a burden that children their whole life then have to think about.

I mean, a whole, and I believe what our children require are heavy memories. They’re so thin because their world consists of their own peer groups. They need to meet people who represent and bear witness to something else. Bear witness to your own spiritual hunger. Are the kids in there with it? I don’t know. Are young people showing up? I don’t know. Are they excited by it? I don’t know. 

Don’t feel that you have to compete with Madonna all the time. Feel that what you have to compete with is the sense that you want your life to have a meaning and a purpose, and you wanna bring your family into a larger rhythm of meaning. Bear that witness as a philosopher, I could only say, because my father had that courage, I spend a lifetime thinking about the dialectic between empowerment and love. Power and love, as two features of reality, and to trust both and to live in both rhythms, to know when to make room for the other and to listen, and to be quiet and to create that quiet. 

That quiet means in which all people can surface in their dignity. Make room for that other. And in that way, I hope you can find spirituality in your own lives. Thank you.

Yehuda: Well, thanks for listening to our show this week. Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited this week by our production manager, M Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz, with music provided by so-called. 

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