Some years ago I was discussing David Hartman’s work with the renowned Israeli philosopher Aviezer Ravitsky.
“Hartman is not a scholar,” Ravitsky said about his colleague in Department of Jewish Thought at The Hebrew University. “He is more than a scholar.” Indeed he was.
David Hartman was a combustible mix of energy, ideas and commitment. I worked with him for five years at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem during the 1990s, and I hear his words ringing in my ears today as clearly as they did 20 years ago. Long after leaving Jerusalem, I would ask myself where I got the ideas that came out of my mouth when I taught in America. More often than not it was Hartman.
Like his biblical namesake, David Hartman was a man of enormous and irresistible passions – for Israel, for the Jewish people and rabbinic tradition, for the Talmudic study and philosophy, for intellectual honesty, for human dignity and for modernity. That torrent of passions caused deep contradictions in his soul that tormented him and frequently made him a blistering critic of what he loved. How could he value the Israeli rabbinate when it demeaned women in overseeing marriage and divorce? Could he continue to love Zionism when some of its spokesmen championed chauvinism and racism?
“Duvie” loved Maimonides’ depth, yet hated his dehumanization of people with no philosophic knowledge. He loved the spiritual yearning of Orthodoxy but could not abide the Orthodox obsession with ritual minutiae, self-interest and denigration of others.
Hartman taught me that a person or institution need not be perfect in order to love them and that it is important to reject their errors.
He was born in 1932 to an ultra-Orthodox family in Brooklyn, and used to tell his traditionalist detractors that he was a Jewish blue-blood whose family came over on the Mayflower. Early in life he left the narrow world of the Lakewood Orthodoxy for Yeshiva University, where he studied Talmud for 11 years with the great R. Joseph Soloveitchik. Noticing Hartman’s rare creative intellect, his teacher insisted that he study philosophy, so Hartman enrolled in nearby Fordham University, a Catholic institution – better to study philosophy with Jesuits than to leave Soloveitchik’s class for an Ivy League school far from New York. The Fordham Catholics impressed him deeply, and he claimed they taught him to speak about God without apology.
After a relatively short but spectacular rabbinic career in Montreal, Hartman left suddenly for Israel in 1971, impelled by the influence of the Six-Day War. Israel had become the center of Jewish history and a player on the world stage. He couldn’t sit on the sidelines in America as a mere observer to the unfolding drama.
He taught Jewish philosophy in Israel and pursued his dream of building a world-class think tank in Jerusalem in his father’s memory. Patterned after Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, Hartman’s institute is dedicated to forcing Jewish tradition to grapple with modern life. He knew that Judaism could no longer stay in the intellectual and moral ghetto of the past. It needed to come to grips in a serious way with secularism, the intellectual challenge to religious authority and most of all, Jewish sovereignty. Hartman believed that the State of Israel meant a fundamental change for Judaism, Torah and the Jewish people – similar to the historical change stimulated by the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.