By GERALD ZOLDAN
A student once asked Rabbi David Hartman of blessed memory how did he know there was a God?
Rabbi Hartman replied “Because my father told me so.”
By answering that question in that way, Rabbi Hartman was implicitly acknowledging that he was part of a tradition. A tradition handed down over thousands of years from parent to child, from teacher to student.
To Rabbi Hartman, this tradition, this Jewish Tradition, is a treasure handed down to us by the generations that preceded us. To him, is not a stifling, constraining tradition, but a loving, revolutionary, liberating tradition.
My wife and I were in Jerusalem last month studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute with over 100 lay students and 170 Rabbis from all over North America. We had classes on the foundations of Rabbi Hartman’s Torah by many of his students. I’d like to relate to you a teaching by Micah Goodman, one of Rabbi Hartman’s most charismatic and dynamic students.
To demonstrate the foundation of Rabbi Hartman’s innovative treatment of halachah, Micah Goodman used two texts to show us how the Rabbis of the Talmudic period themselves created a revolutionary reinterpretation of the Bible.
Micah Goodman compared the beginning of the Written Law with The beginning of the Oral Law. And by comparing these two texts, he showed how David Hartman was able to establish a tremendous gap between the two Torahs. The gap that David Hartman noticed was the foundation for Rabbi Hartman’s most important philosophical innovation. He tried to teach us what the rabbinic revolution was about.
A gap, a silence, the sound of the Hebrew letter Aleph, the still small voice – this is where the great ones see and hear what most of us mortals pass by. As I take you through Micah Goodman’s logic, look for when you first see David Hartman’s gap.
STARTING AT THE BEGINNING
Micah Goodman starts at the beginning of Genesis, the beginning of the bible which describes the beginning itself. In the Hebrew language there is no word for the cosmos, for the universe. The closest we come is a phrase of two words that represent everything and that is Shamayim v’et Ha’Aretz. Shamayim v’et Ha’Aretz probably means everything from bottom to top from heaven to earth and everything in between. “In the beginning God created everything.”
The second verse of Genesis describes the creation that just took places as Tohu v’Vohu v’hoshech. What does this mean? In truth we don’t know what Tohu va’Vohu means. It is in the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, we find Tohu va’Vohu translated as chaos. The Greeks always imagined the creation of the world as a movement from chaos to order, or cosmos in Greek.
Vohu appears only one other time in the bible, in Jeremiah. But we cannot learn what it means from Jeremiah because he is quoting from our verse in Genesis. While we don’t know what Tohu va’Vohu means, it sure has a voice to it. It has a sound. Hoshech means darkness, absolute darkness. That’s the first thing we can understand from the world before it was created. The second verse ends with v’ruach Elohim mirachapat al pinay hamayim. Mayim we also understand as water. So try to imagine the world before the world. There was this gigantic, dark primoral ocean, a scary and terrifying vision. And then there is intervention.
What is the divine intervention? Let there be light. And this great dark ocean is not absolutely dark anymore because we now have islands of light within the darkness. And the next thing God does is separate the light from the darkness. Then He gives the light and darkness names: day and night.
On Day One God created the concept of day and then ended the day. How did God create the concept of the day? God created light, and that light attacked and broke the totality of darkness creating a never-ending cycle of darkness, light, darkness, light, darkness and light.
On Day Two, in verse 6, God injects spaces into the ancient ocean and separates the water. Where is the water now? It’s both up high and beneath. The two opening acts of creation destroy the monopoly of darkness and the totality of water. The whole world was created when God took an ancient ocean and tore it into two.
These are two dramatic movements by God.
He creates light, creates daytime, creates nighttime, separates night from day, he creates the basic unit of time called days, after time he moves to create space, empty space separating the heavens from earth.
What’s our first impression from the Bible?
It’s very hard for us to have a first impression. I’m asking you to imitate a first impression because we’ve read this chapter so many times. So try to reconstruct the first impression you get from the Bible, from these verses.
The first impression we get is of an omnipotent God who is powerful, controls everything, and controls us. Created light, time, space and eventually God created us. That is a dramatic first impression.
Now let’s see what your first impression is on hearing the opening, the first chapter of the Oral Law.
I’m reading from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 2b.
“From when may we fulfill the obligation to recite the Shema in the evenings? From the time the Kohanim who were tamei (ritually pure) may enter to eat their terumah (the part of the ritual sacrifice left for the priests to eat); i.e., nightfall. And one may recite the Shema until the end of the first watch; these are the words of Rabbi Eliezer. But the Sages say: It may be recited until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says: It may be recited until the light of dawn rises.”
When are we supposed to say the Shema at nighttime? There is a disagreement among the rabbis. One says there are night shifts in the Temple and when the first night shift ends that’s the time limit of saying Shema at nighttime. Another says until midnight. And yet still another says actually, you have all night long.
Not such a dramatic opening?
The Written Torah starts with God creating everything and the Oral Torah starts with an argument about when one is supposed to say Shema at night.
What’s the first impression you get from the Oral Torah?
How is the Talmud drawing us in to its own world? It seems like it is confirming Spinoza’s harsh critique of Judaism the heart of which is that Judaism is about legalism. There’s nothing meaningful there, it’s about training people to submit to authority. It’s not about love, it’s not about philosophy, and it’s not about anything beyond authority. And you look at the opening of the Talmud, what’s the whole drama about? It’s a legal discussion, a very detailed legal discussion.
WHY ASK QUESTIONS?
Micah Goodman points out that David Hartman made a simple observation that the Written Torah starts with a declaration and the Oral Torah starts with a question. This gives us a different flavor of the two Torahs.
But Spinoza’s critique of the legalistic nature of the Oral Torah, the Talmud, is still unanswered. Spinoza’s criticism is important because the Talmud is the foundational document that created the Judaism we practice today. David Hartman didn’t see it that way. He envisioned the Oral Law as a rebellion against the Written Law. His book, A Living Covenant, is a tremendous defense of the kind of human being who is produced by the Oral Law. So for Hartman, there is more to this text than there seems from our first impression.
Now let’s move to the second Mishna. After asking when you say Shema in the evening, in Berachot 9b we are asking another question: when do we say Shema in the morning?
Now it’s getting really interesting!
The second Mishna asks, “From when may we recite the Shema in the morning? From when there is enough daylight that one can distinguish between blue wool and white wool. Rabbi Eliezar says: The time for its recitation begins from when one can distinguish between blue wool and wool dyed the color of leek and continues until sunrise. Rabbi Yehoshua says: It may be recited until the end of the first three hours of the day, for it is the custom of kings to rise from their beds with the passage of three hours.”
When is that first opportunity to say Shema?
What the rabbis are actually asking here is when does morning begin, when is there enough light in the world in order to declare it’s morning?
The sages say if you can differentiate between light blue and white, because at night time we cannot tell the difference, there’s enough light in the world to declare that it’s morning. Rabbi Eliezar says the morning begins when you can differentiate between colors that are even closer than light blue and white, that means you have to have more light in the world. Therefore, according to him when does morning begin? It begins a little later.
The second half of this Mishna asks when does the morning end? When does that window for saying Shema close? The first opinion is when the sun rises. After the sun rises it’s no longer morning, you cannot say Shema anymore.
Now Rabbi Yehoshua is going to disagree with him. To understand Rabbi Yehoshua’s opinion, we need to first understand what an hour is to the Rabbis. It is not what we understand as an hour. What they did is they took all the light of day and divided it into twelve slots of time. This means each hour is longer in the summer than in the winter. So according to Rabbi Yehoshua, morning extends until a quarter of the day is past, three out of twelve hours. Why? Because the sons of kings, when do they wake up? They wake up at 11:00. People who don’t work have no worries, so when do they wake up? When they want to!
What is the argument between Rabbi Eliezar and Rabbi Yehoshua? According to Rabbi Eliezar morning is when the sun rises, but according to Rabbi Yehoshua morning is when people rise.
This is a very interesting argument. When is it morning?
Rabbi Eliezar has natural, objective criteria to define morning, when the sun rises it’s morning.
To Rabbi Yehoshua morning is not something objective, it’s not something found in nature, it’s subjective. Morning is not when the sun rises, but when people wake up.
According to Rabbi Eliezar people are supposed to wake up in the morning. According to Rabbi Yehoshua when people wake up that’s morning.
This is a very powerful argument; it’s about the nature of time. Is time objective or is it subjective? The last person to wake up defines when the morning ends.
By the way, the Halachah is not by Rabbi Eliezar but by Rabbi Yehoshua.
The opening discussion of the Oral Law is about when is it night and when is it morning. And they go into details of how they separate day and night, separate light and darkness. Rabbi Yehoshua takes it another radical step. Not only do we declare when day begins, we define when day begins.
Isn’t it interesting that the opening conversation of the Oral Law is exactly about the opening declaration of the Written Law? What was the written Law about? What was Day One about? The world was dark and what does God do?
God creates light and the first act of creation is creating day and night and separating day and night. The first discussion in the Oral Law is how can we notice the difference between darkness and light and therefore day and night.
It’s about the same thing except for one fundamental difference.
It’s completely different.
It’s completely different because in the Written law who differentiates between light and darkness, day and night? God. It’s divine activity.
And the Oral Law, who separates night from day? Human beings.
This is one of the most important observations of David Hartman. The Bible is a theocentric text. God is in the heart and center of the Bible. The Oral Law is an anthropocentric text. Human beings are at the heart of it. Human beings are active in it. Human beings are creative in it.
We define when morning is. We are moving from a day that God created to a sense of time that human beings create.
It’s about us now.
THE REVOLUTION OF THE ORAL LAW
Between the Oral Torah and the Written Torah we see a radical movement from a text where God is omnipotent, God is in charge, God is in control of everything to a text where human beings are in control and human beings decide and human beings create their own world.
Maybe these are two texts about creation. One is about God creating The World and the other is about us creating Our World. Chapter one of Berachot is a rebellion against chapter one of Genesis.
This is David Hartman’s gap, what he called the revolution of the Oral Law. This is the heart of David Hartman’s Torah. If the Bible describes a people who believe in God, the Talmud describes a people who believe that God believes in people. God trusts us.
There’s another complication to this analysis.
What is the Shema itself about? It’s about accepting God’s authority! While accepting God’s authority, the rabbis are undermining God’s authority, expressing their own liberty.
The text that establishes God’s power over humanity also empowers humanity. We have two texts that are in dialogue with each other.
MENTORSHIP AND REBELLION
Rabbi Hartman was a student of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Soloveitchik taught that God created an imperfect world with a purpose. That purpose was to enable human beings to perfect it. Therefore God created human beings with the ability to create. According to Soloveitchik creation is not over yet. There’s a covenant between human beings and God to create the world together.
In his classic work of Modern Jewish thought, Kol Dodi Dofek, Soloveitchik wrote about the Holocaust and the State of Israel. He suggested there are two kinds of covenants: The covenant of fate and the covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate is where events control the Jewish people. The covenant of destiny is where the Jewish people take control of events themselves, going from passive players to active players in history to fulfill their destiny.
David Hartman takes Soloveitchik’s covenant of destiny one giant step forward. He says just like God created an imperfect world and we’re perfecting it, therefore creating it with God, God also gave us Torah with missing pieces. It’s not adapted to our times. God created within us the ability to interpret the Torah, to use the Torah to create new chapters of Torah.
With this extension, he is rebelling against Soloveitchik by using Soloveitchik’s own language. Hartman says we have a covenant not only to create the world, but we also have a covenant to create the Torah. According to David Hartman, the covenant didn’t end at Sinai and revelation.
Throughout David Hartman’s writings this covenant becomes more and more clear. There are two parties to the covenant, human beings and God, and over time the human part becomes more and more dominant. The radical movement from chapter 1 in Genesis to chapter 1 in Berachot is a movement of people from being dependent to relying on themselves.
WHAT IS IN BETWEEN SCHOLARS?
Now let’s answer Spinoza’s criticism of the Oral Law, that it was too legalistic.
These great narratives in the Talmud are not as Spinoza saw them, just legalistic texts creating the laws that people have to follow. They’re not texts that make us small; they’re texts that make us big. They’re not texts that show the Talmud’s authority, they’re texts that give us authority. That was the big, big move about Torah from David Hartman.
For Soloveitchik creation didn’t end with Genesis and for Hartman the covenant didn’t end at Sinai.
Micah Goodman then points to a beautiful line in the Mishna in Avot, “My entire life I’ve grown in-between scholars.” He thinks it’s great because while our concept of time is divided into two, a period when we grow and a period when we’re finally grown up, the Mishna says you never stop growing.
Reb Nachman of Breslov writes a commentary about this line. He asks what is it that is in-between scholars?
The answer is” a disagreement”. We grow from the tension, from the disagreement between Hillel and Schmmai, the arguments of Rav and Shumeil, and the disputes of Rabba and Abaye. Then extend that to Plato and Aristotle, Hartman and Soloveitchik.
We have two schools of thought represented by the first chapter of Genesis and the first chapter of Berachot. Where David Hartman sees evidence of his living covenant from the movement from one text to another text, Micah Goodman sees that evidence from the growth that occurs from the space, the tension, between these two texts.
This then is the insight of Rabbi David Hartman upon which he built a new Jewish philosophy grounded in moral renewal as taught by Micah Goodman, his beloved disciple.
Gerald Zoldan is a member of the board of directors of the Shalom Hartman Institute.