The first time I heard Rabbi David Hartman speak was in the summer following my “shannah aleph” year in Israel between high school and college. After spending a year in the yeshiva one of my teachers invited me to accompany him to a panel discussion taking place one evening at the Machon – the Shalom Hartman Institute – in Jerusalem’s German Colony. I barely remember what was said that evening by any of the panelists – including Rabbi Hartman. But I do remember the thrill of encountering a vibrant Jewish intellectual conversation that was taking place outside the walls of my Orthodox beit-midrash. Hearing about his death this week, at the age of 81 (an age that does not seem old when considering a scholar with so many insights left unsaid), has caused me to reflect on his legacy within my own life and work.There are two ideas that have become central to my own worldview and teaching that I learned from Rabbi Hartman. Additionally, his place within (and outside of) contemporary Orthodoxy has an additional message for the future.
The quest by Jews, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, to translate the message of Judaism into something with universal significance was, to Rabbi Hartman, a mistake. The Torah is not a universal book with universal significance to all people. Rather, the Torah should be understood as a particular book about the relationship between the Jewish people and God. One therefore cannot turn to the Torah for guidance about other nations, other religions, and their place in God’s universe. That just is not what the Torah is about.
The Torah is a book for Jews to learn about our relationship with God and our responsibilities to God. We need to look elsewhere to learn about other people. In his “Heart of Many Rooms” Rabbi Hartman explains:
“When revelation is understood as the concretization of the universal, then “whose truth is the truth?” becomes the paramount religious question and pluralism becomes a vacuous religious ideal. If, however, revelation can be separated from the claim of universality, and if a community of faith can regain an appreciation of the particularity of the divine-human encounter, the pluralism can become a meaningful part of Biblical faith experiences…”
This passage, quoted in Professor Alan Brill’s excellent book “Judaism and World Religions” is a core text when I teach about the possibility of inter-religious pluralism from a Jewish perspective. It always strikes a chord with students and I believe it offers a productive way forward for Jewish understandings of other religions.
Rabbi Avraham Kook had imagined the State of Israel as a messianic synthesis of traditional Orthodoxy and the vitality and creativity of secular Jewish nationalism. A utopian visionary, Rabbi Avraham Kook wrote that only in the aftermath of the First World War (“the war to end all wars”) was it appropriate for sovereignty to return to the Jewish people. Rabbi Avraham Kook died in 1931 and it was left to his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook to interpret his father’s messianic hopes for the State of Israel in light of the actual State of Israel that arose in the aftermath of Holocaust and war, and that continues to fight wars for its survival. For Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, and his students – many of whom occupy positions of influence throughout Israel today – the existing State of Israel can be identified entirely with the messianic state of Rabbi Avraham Kook’s writings. This Messianic Religious Zionism has fueled the idealism, energy, and fervor of the Israeli Religious Zionist community and has brought it from the margins of Israeli society to its center. But there has been a steep price as well. Messianic Zionism has coincided with an intransigent stance regarding territorial compromise as a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whether one has a more right-wing or a more left-wing political orientation, one can see the problematic nature of a theological position that locks the Religious Zionist community into absolute rejection of all territorial compromise. Coming as the Religious Zionist sector achieves political prominence, Israel’s leaders are denied the flexibility to act proactively on behalf of Israel.
Rabbi Hartman’s book “Israeli’s and the Jewish Tradition” articulates an alternative theology for Religious Zionism that is not connected to identifying the State of Israel as being located on a specific point in the process of redemption.
“Today we have an opportunity to reestablish the normative moment of Sinai, rather than the Exodus story, as the primary framework for evaluating the significance of Jewish history. To be religiously significant, a historical event does not have to be situated between the moment of the Exodus and the coming of the Messiah. It can be significant by encouraging us to discover new depths in the foundational moment of Israel’s election as a covenantal people… In reestablishing the Jewish nation in its ancient homeland, Jews have taken responsibility for all aspects of social life. The divine call to become a holy nation committed to implementing the letter and spirit of the Torah must influence our economic, political, and religious institutions. Through the establishment of the state of Israel, we are called upon to demonstrate the moral and spiritual power of the Torah to respond to the challenges of daily life.”
In the aftermath of the Six Day Way, the Messianic Religious Zionism of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook gained increasing ascendancy within the Religious Zionist community in Israel. Rabbi Hartman has been one of the most vigorous and articulate opponents of Messianic Religious Zionism and has offered a compelling theology of Religious Zionism that is rooted in the rebirth of Jewish peoplehood in its fullest expression and not in the expansion of Jewish settlement throughout every inch the historic Jewish homeland.
Rabbi Hartman’s final book, The God Who Hates Lies, written with Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz was the subject of a critical review in Tradition “the journal of Orthodox Jewish thought.” The review was intelligent, respectful, and raised objections to Rabbi Hartman’s thesis that I thought were cogent and compelling. However, reading the review left me with a feeling of sadness. In publishing the review, the editors of Tradition (a group that includes many of the individuals I most respect) were acknowledging that responding to and evaluating Rabbi Hartman’s ideas was a priority for the “journal of Orthodox Jewish thought” but it had been many years since Rabbi Hartman himself had been published in Tradition. In the fifteen years or so that I have been a reader of Tradition, the journal has published erudite rejections of partnership minyannim, a respectful and thoughtful critical review of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s theology of Jewish-Christian relations, and a scholarly rebuttal of Tzvi Zohar’s book on the history of conversion standards. All of these episodes illustrate that the Modern Orthodox intelligentsia recognizes that there are ideas and phenomenon taking place at the periphery of our community that demand a response. But, the advocates for these new paths and ways of thinking are relatively absent from our journals, our schools, and our synagogues.
No idea deserves acceptance just because it’s new. And I personally often sympathize with more conventional and traditional ways of thinking and behaving. But it seems that we have become more afraid of the “wrong idea” in contemporary Orthodoxy than we are excited about discovering the next “right idea.” Too often our scholars devote more effort to rebutting a solution they dislike than they devote to using their Torah scholarship to create new solutions to the problems facing our community.
Figures of great influence and authority within contemporary Orthodoxy, (such as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on religious pluralism and Rabbi Yehuda Amital z’l on non-messianic Zionism) have shared ideas that Rabbi Hartman had developed years earlier. His intellectual legacy is broad within Orthodoxy and his ideas are easy to find. But it is harder to find the voice of Rabbi Hartman himself. There is much to celebrate in his legacy after such a productive and rich life, but for the Orthodox community, the absence of Rabbi David Hartman from our communal discourse is a warning for the future.