David Hartman, Lonely Man of Truth, Pushed Jews of All Stripes to Adapt


By Yossi Klein Halevi

Published February 12, 2013, issue of February 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Rabbi David Hartman, who died on February 10 at age 81, was perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher of our time. He raised a generation of students who are helping transform Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora.

David Hartman
courtesy of shalom hartman institute
David Hartman

His books changed the way many of us understand the relationship between Judaism and modernity and national sovereignty, between Jewish law and individual conscience. His life’s work — the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic center for advanced Jewish studies in Jerusalem, which he founded in 1976 — reflects the range of his vision, his sense of Jewish possibility.

But for all his gifts to us, I think that David Hartman would have most wanted to be remembered as a lover of his people and a lover of truth. And for David, those two loves were inseparable, even when they seemed to clash.
Born in Brooklyn (he never lost the accent), a graduate of the elite ultra-Orthodox Lakewood Yeshiva and of Yeshiva University, he began his career as a rabbi in Montreal. He initially conceived his work as reinvigorating modern Orthodoxy. Halakhah, he believed, had to respond to the drastic transformations of modern Jewish life, especially the reestablishment of Jewish national sovereignty and the creation of a free and self-confident Diaspora.

I first encountered David Hartman when I was an undergraduate at Hebrew University in 1973 and took his course on the thought of his mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. David brought the passion of the beit midrash, the study hall, into the university. He didn’t lecture. He roared; he was Soloveichik’s lonely man of faith.

As he turned increasingly pluralistic – engaged with other Jewish denominations, and with other faiths, the Orthodox world largely rejected him. At a lecture last year David teased his audience: “Now you’ll go home and ask yourselves, ‘But is he still frum [observant]?’”

Even as he challenged Orthodox Judaism to broaden, he challenged liberal Judaism to deepen. He loved his Jews even as he was tormented by their limitations. How, he wondered, could his own Orthodox community turn a system of religious inquiry, whose very glory was its open-endedness, into dogma? How could halakhic creativity fail us at precisely the moment in our history when it was needed most? How could Israeli governments ignore the Jewish ethical tradition, millennia of exquisite moral inquiry?

During the 1982 Lebanon War, David emerged as one of the leading doves within the Orthodox world. (He lost his son-in-law, a pilot, during that war.) His criticism of Israeli policy intensified during the first intifada of the late 1980s, and he became an early proponent of a two-state solution. “From Defender to Critic,” was the title of his final collection of essays, on halakhah. But the title is incomplete: Even as critic he defended his people. Criticize us like a mother, not a mother in law, he recently appealed to Diaspora liberals disillusioned with Israeli policies.

Unlike some of his friends on the left, David unequivocally faulted the Palestinian leadership for the collapse of the peace process and the second intifada. He readily conceded he had been wrong about trusting Palestinian intentions. The left, he concluded, had been prescient about the dangers of occupation, but the right had been correct about the delusions of a one-way peace process. In politics as in theology, David Hartman was a man of truth.

He never stopped questioning his own ideas, his most basic premises. Though he revered Rabbi Soloveitchik, he came to fault him for the failure of modern Orthodoxy to grapple with the ethical challenges to halakhah. And just recently he told friends how much he regretted his failure to confront the Shoah in his writings. I was wrong!” he lamented

I visited David shortly before his death. He sat in an armchair, seemingly unaware of my presence, in and out of sleep. I spoke, but he didn’t respond. I got up to leave. Suddenly he opened his eyes. Gripping his walker, he struggled to his feet and took a few steps toward me. “Are you walking me out?” I asked, surprised. He nodded. We walked together slowly, for long minutes, until we reached the front door. Of all his extraordinary teachings, that walk is the Hartman Torah I will cherish most.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of the institute’s IEngage seminar.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.