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Five Hartman-esque Ideas from David Hartman

David Hartman was more Socrates than Plato. He challenged young and old alike on their sacred presuppositions
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Mishael Zion

If you walked into his class, you were probably going to get yelled at. The most boring thing you could say to him was “I agree with you.” His sharpness – and fallibility – managed to revive the Talmudic Beit Midrash, bringing students, intellectuals and politicians to his door.

Our teacher David Hartman, who passed away this week at age 81, was more Socrates than Plato. He challenged young and old alike on their sacred presuppositions. Yet he sought not to condemn self-righteously, but to engage in dialogue. The educational process he nurtured was based not on Shammai’s disdain of fools but on Hillel’s acceptance of his students at their own starting point without predetermining the outcome of that process. While he was with Hillel in seeking a big tent of social peace, he was with Shammai in never compromising his truth-telling. He was a fiery personality whose thirst for questioning his tradition – Jewish and Western – was never quenched. He challenged his people – and all people – to reimagine themselves, through a true encounter with text, people, and reality. While we will no longer get to encounter him inspiring humanity, we have only begun to play out his ideas and questions.

In his honor, we offer five of his most influential ideas enshrined by the provocative catch-phrases he often used to describe them.

“Sinai or Auschwitz?” – In the 1970’s, the Holocaust came to dominate the strategies for enhancing Jewish identity in Israel and America. Hartman was sharply critical of what he saw as a “Holocaustization” of Judaism. Without detracting from the calamities of the Shoah, the center of Jewish experience must be Sinai, not Auschwitz, he claimed. Sinai is the blue print for a living community which seeks to embody in practice a world of justice, solidarity and service. Dwelling on the indignities of the past will not renew our passion for a just life – rather the creation of a vibrant future-oriented discourse must be the basis of our identity. Hartman loved teaching a passage in Maimonides which addresses a seemingly ritualistic question: The Candle of Hanukkah and the Candle of Shabbat, which candle takes preference? In Hartman’s keen reading, this was a question of philosophy, not blind ritual: What takes precedence – commemorating heroic wars and the defense of God and the Jewish people, or conserving shalom bayit and the intimacy of a candle-lit Shabbat dinner? Maimonides resoundingly subordinates Hanukkah to Shabbat, which to Hartman was a call to subordinate historical memory and messianic dreams for the joy of a Shabbat meal and the vibrancy of family life. As his teacher Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik said: “The Jewish people were not put in this world simply to fight Anti-Semitism.”

“From Sinai to Zion”, from Children to Adults – Hartman’s book A Living Covenant was translated into Hebrew as From Sinai to Zion. For many Jews, Sinai represents the moment that God forced Israel to accede to his commandments, a God of paternal authority who threatens to destroy those who do not obey him. Instead, David Hartman’s theology emphasized God as a loving parent who gradually steps back. A wise parent creates room for his child to grow into an adult and make his own mistakes. Loyalty to God’s is tested by constantly reinterpreting God’s living covenant: If in the Bible the Jewish people are children in the desert who need God to miraculously intervene in everything, they grow into a self-defending and self-governing people when they enter the Land of Israel under Joshua and later David. The Rabbinic project continues God’s ceding of responsibility to a preponderance of human wisdom in the partnership of God and Israel. Hartman made Rabbi Joshua’s cry – “it is not in Heaven” into the canonized text of all liberal minded Jews. God’s self-ironizing response: “My sons have out-argued me!” is the supreme expression of Hartman’s notion that Torah education is a millennial process of making Jewish children take on the adult responsibilities of shaping the Divine law in human hands. Zionism was the final stage in this movement, where the Jewish people took on not only law, but also history.

But where others saw messianic redemption in the State of Israel as the achievement of Judaism’s vision on earth, Hartman saw it as only the expansion of a challenge that puts our Jewish adulthood to the supreme test. The Jewish state in Zion with its empowerment over all aspects of society is the laboratory to test the Jews capability of fulfilling the desert vision of Sinai in a real world without miracles. But it is also a test-tube for Judaism to see if it has matured enough to provide not just idealistic sermons in the synagogues of the Diaspora, but to guide a modern democratic Torah-inspired state with a concern both for human rights and for security, for democracy and for Jewish identity. Hartman had a profound faith that Judaism can offer constructive wisdom for the modern world and that if Rabbinic visions compete in the marketplace their ideas could prove relevant and realistic. Yet he was equally fearful that Rabbinic Judaism as developed so far in the era of the long exile was not yet ready for that challenge. He created the Hartman Institute’s Advanced Studies Center to meet that challenge by identifying insightful strengths and terrifying weaknesses in Talmudic texts and medieval Jewish philosophers. He knew as he passed away that the outcome on the grand experiment in an adult Judaism with political and military power in the State of Israel was still in doubt.

There is just as much a Jewish morality as there is a Jewish science!” – Hartman had no patience for the self-congratulatory discourse of an essentialist “Jewish ethics”, and enjoyed counting the reasons why: First, he recalled that historically Jews in all generations held a myriad of opinions and that the gap between even their best moral maxims and the actual communal behavior was often appalling. In this way, he was a student of the Biblical prophets who have pointed this out in every generation. Second, the strength of Jewish thought is not in celebrating a common core but in revisiting the grand debates of Judaism. His books engaged in a series of living dialogues: the Bible versus the Rabbis, Maimonides versus Nachmanides and HaLevi, Rabbi Kook versus Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rav Soloveitchik. Judaism is not a monolithic tradition, but a series of grand debates and fiery revolutions. Third, “the God of Sinai is still the God of Creation,” and any other claim is a desecration of God’s name. Jewish ethics is first a universal ethics based on the creation of all human beings in the image of God. Human dignity is not divisible and the chosen people cannot preach their own intrinsic superiority, discriminating against others in the name of becoming a holy people. Hartman loved to cite the story of a Talmudic rabbi who was urged to use a legal loophole to justify cheating a nonJew in the purchase of his donkey. The Rabbi retorts: “What, shall I become a Babrbarian?!”. That Jewish law, like other systems, cannot prevent one from being a barbarian, was one of his most profound lessons. Hartman’s most uncompromising diatribes against venerable Jewish wisdom were his angry dismissals of the racist presuppositions he found in Kabbalah, Chabad or Rav Kook.

 “Out of the Bathtub of the Shulkhan Arukh!” – Hartman sought to hold two poles – the ghettoized and the cosmopolitan. On one hand there was Torah study as an all-encompassing passionate practice, such as he experienced in the Lakewood yeshiva among the great scholars of Lithuania who escaped the Holocaust. In Lakewood, just as since the destruction of the Temple all God has is the four ells of halacha, thus today all a Jew needs is the four walls of the Beit Midrash. IN many ways, Hartman never left that Beit Midrash. On the other hand Torah is meant to be a torat hayim – a guide for life in all aspects of human endeavor. He loved to quote Maimonides who cited Aristotle’s Ethics to illuminate Pirkei Avot: “Accept truth from whomever has spoken it”. For Hartman this meant that Jewish scholars must come out of their intellectual ghettos to seek a critical dialogue with Western thinkers and with other religions. Hartman could be sharply critical of liberal Judaism for neglecting deep Jewish learning in quality and quantity, even though he honored their commitment to adapting Judaism creatively. On the other hand Hartman, whose parents and siblings would today be called Haredi, would often lash out at the Orthodox community for what he saw as a turning of the “Talmudic Sea of Halakha” into the sordid “Bathtub of the Shulkhan Arukh”. Halakhic Judaism had become obsessively concerned with libido – kosher eating, kosher sex and kosher dress. The Shulkhan Aruch avoided pursuing the Talmudic discussion of capital punishment, the ethics of war or statecraft. Following in the footsteps of his “patron saint” Maimonides, Hartman sought to revisit and renew a Jewish discourse of political thought. Statehood was the opportunity to return Judaism to the cosmopolitan sea of conversation, bringing Jewish texts back into a true engagement with the street and the marketplace, not just the synagogue and the kitchen.

“What can I say? I love my people…” – David, whose name means lover, loved both the Torah and the Jewish people. He abhorred those who used Halakha to degrade the ordinary Jew’s failure to reach its ideals. Yet he never promoted a facile, apologetic Judaism to pander to Jews seeking a self-congratulatory religion. He loved the Jewish people with a passion, but wanted them to be a sea of raging intellectuals, a yeshiva where all Jews and indeed all seekers of truth could sit, study, and argue. He loved Rabbinic Judaism precisely because it preserves and engenders perennial ongoing debates about conflicting values. His heart was made of many rooms, but these were not neatly distanced conference rooms for polite toleration of difference, rather it was one big Beit Midrash with many dueling study hevrutas. Rather than a return to the pristine days of old, Hartman celebrated the living covenant of Sinai, where each generation applies a constant reinterpretation to the ancient texts. In this way Judaism is not a community of shared beliefs or values, but rather a community of interpretation – where different readings of shared texts create the boundaries of the community.

Rabbi Nachman of Bresov, who David Hartman had very little patience for, once taught that since the essence of a person is his or her da’at, their unique wisdom or attainment, therefore “a person should leave after themselves a blessing – a child or a students – so that their da’at [wisdom, attainment, uniqueness] will remain down here even when they have risen from this world… For when a person’s da’at remains through children and students, it is considered as if that person itself is still in this world.” (Likutei Moharan II:8).

David Hartman’s da’at was unique and powerful. He is no longer around, but his da’at will continue to do his work for many years to come.

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

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