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Remembering Rabbi David Hartman’s commitment to Jewish learning and intellectual honesty

BERGENFIELD, N.J. (JTA) — 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.

Rabbi Dr. 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.

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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