David Hartman Was Man of Passion for Jewish Modernity and Israel

Appreciation

By Eugene Korn (JTA)

Published February 13, 2013.
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For 20 years he traveled around the world single-handedly raising funds for his intellectual “tabernacle,” which moved from one temporary location after another in Jerusalem until it found its permanent home in 1996. Today the Shalom Hartman Institute stands on a majestic campus in one of the most expensive neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The late Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek loved Hartman’s pluralism and tolerance, so Kollek sold him the property for one shekel.

The formative influences in Hartman’s life were Maimonides, Soloveitchik and his European mother, who showed him the power of an unsophisticated and intimate faith in God. But Hartman lacked the philosophic moderation of Maimonides, the Lithuanian restraint of Soloveitchik and the naivete of the mother he revered. He continued to love them – and struggle with them – until the end of his life, but ultimately had to blaze his own path. He rejected Maimonides’ emotionless rationality and Soloveitchik’s anthropocentric Orthodoxy and halachic formalism. His writing reflected this: It was vital, bold and pulsating with visceral emotion – the opposite of dry scholarship, stilted research or technical halachic discourse.

Hartman had overpowering charisma: He was humorous, shocking and scathingly intolerant of those he opposed, particularly hypocrites masquerading as religious authorities. People misunderstood the purpose of his humor, taking it as mere entertainment. Because he spoke of ultimately serious things like God, ethics, revelation, the future of the Jewish people and Israel, he knew he had to put people at ease with his humor. In his soul he believed in the combination of joy and responsibility (the title of his first book), in authentic religious life and that the Jewish God could not be reached through monkish seriousness or ascetic discomfort. And if he was sometimes hyperbolic as a speaker, he could write with balance, sensitivity and nuance, as he demonstrated in “A Living Covenant,” which was his best and intellectually richest book.

Hartman grew more critical as he aged and as his health failed. (His last book was “From Defender to Critic –the Search for a New Jewish Self.”) Yet fundamentally, he remained a constructive personality. His vision and drive led him to build the institute, now populated by the best Jewish minds around the world, many of whom were taught by Hartman, and all of whom were inspired by his passion, values and intellectual deftness. The institute bears his father’s name, but it is the younger Hartman’s fierce spirit that animates its ideals and activities.

The pluralist Hartman shed the narrow confines of denominational Orthodoxy of his rebbe, but Soloveitchik never lost his fondness for his student. Long after Hartman moved to Israel, he went to see his teacher. After the meeting, Soloveitchik showed a boyish grin when he told his next visitor, “I like Hartman. He is a God-intoxicated individual.”

David Hartman left us on Feb. 10. The people of Israel and the Torah of Israel are much poorer for his absence, and the myriad of people he touched profoundly mourn his passing. Hartman influenced a whole new generation to be committed to Jewish learning and unflinching intellectual honesty.

Eugene Korn is the American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Israel, the former editor of Meorot-A Forum for Modern Orthodox Discourse and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem.


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