Thursday, October 17, 2019

David Hartman's Life and Thought

Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar
The following has been excerpted and translated from the Introduction to the Hebrew Festschrift for David Hartman, entitled "Renewing Jewish Commitment: The Work and Thought of David Hartman."
David Hartman occupies a special place among the important Jewish thinkers of our time. Traditionally, Jewish philosophy dealt with metaphysical and theological topics, posed by abstract thought, Hartman is one of the only Jewish philosophers whose philosophical project centers on the issues raised by the contemporary concrete existence of the Jewish people. He focuses not on "meaning" but on 'significance." He is less concerned with God per se than with the man-God relationship. Hartman's focus on concrete existence is also a response to his own concrete personal life-story.
         Hartman, son of a Jerusalem family of the pre-Zionist "Old Yishuv," spent his childhood and received his education in the United States. His schooling included traditional Jewish learning and secular education, combining the Old World with the New. His parental home, suffused with the spirit of traditional Jewish society, made a deep impression on him, a point underscored in his various writings. That home was the anchor that linked him, and has continued to link trim, with the Jewish world in an immediate, experiential fashion. In this spirit, Hartman went on to "learn" in yeshiva day schools, a highly unusual step in the context of American Jewry before World War II. After high school, he continued his yeshiva studies in the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, then considered the most important and prestigious yeshiva in North America. This path of study was characteristic of the most conservative wing of Orthodoxy in those years.
A crucial turning point in his personal development was Hartman's move to the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the yeshiva branch of New York's Yeshiva University. There he met the person who would come to be the most important educative intellectual figure in his life, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik In the figure of Soloveitchik, Hartman saw a marvelous interweaving of deep religious commitment and openness to the intellectual world of modern Western civilization. To him, Soloveitchik symbolized the correct spiritual direction for the contemporary Jew.

Under Soloveitchik's tutelage, Hartman studied Talmud according to the method characteristic of the Brisk school, which employs analytical tools to reach a particularly high level of conceptualization of talmudic arguments, and it was Soloveitchik who granted him rabbinic ordination. Subsequently he served with great success as rabbi of Orthodox congregations in the United States and Canada. During those years he initiated his graduate studies at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution. Hartman has stated that the encounter with believing Christians who were deeply committed to their religion and at the same time open to the wider world and to the worlds of other religions left an indelible impression upon him.

Aliyah opened a new chapter in Hartman's life. In his view, immigration to Israel is an act of religious and theological significance. Only in Eretz Yisrael, in the midst of a sovereign Jewish community, can a full Jewish life be attained. In the Diaspora, Jewish life reaches its fulfillment primarily in the way the individual's life is lived and in the context of a synagogue community. In Eretz Yisrael, in contrast, the individual Jew is called upon to assume full social and political responsibility. Among contemporary Jewish philosophers, Hartman is unique in stressing the centrality of the Zionist project and Jewish political sovereignty while avoiding the attribution of Messianic, eschatological significance to these phenomena. In his eyes, the importance of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the State of Israel stems from their being the completion of the theological transformation begun in the Sinai covenant. At Sinai, the people of Israel accepted complete responsibility for the interpretation of Torah and its application in the world. In returning to Zion, the Jewish people has accepted full responsibility for Jewish history. Jews should see themselves as called upon to create a society manifesting a worthy Jewish life in this particular time and place. In Hartman's view, the theological significance of the State of Israel derives from the very possibility of establishing Jewish life there, and not in its being a stage in i eschatological plan. This is the meaning for our times of the covenantal relationship established at Sinai.

         Acting out of this sense of responsibility, Hartman set himself the challenge of reconstituting the possibility of a new Jewish discourse that could integrate commitment to the Jewish tradition of Torah with openness to the present. He took on the task of creating a new beit midrash that would bring this vision to fruition. Young men and women, who also sought a new path to the Jewish tradition, responded to Hartman's invitation, and joined together in study. In their joint learning, they focused on classic rabbinic texts, which now responded to contemporary concerns and intellectual critique. The establishment of the Beit Midrash constituted the first step in creating the Shalom Hartman Institute, which has become a gathering place for people of scholarship and creativity, each in his or her own way carrying forward aspects of the intergenerational Jewish discourse in the spirit that Hartman innovated. This discourse, begun over twenty years ago, has produced a significant body of scholarship, characterized by an open, interdisciplinary approach to the sources of Jewish culture throughout the ages.

Some of the Institute's members entered the field of education, and with Hartman's blessing and encouragement established the experi­mental religious school associated with the Shalom Hartman Institute, which now includes both a junior high school and a high school. In addition, the Institute conducts training and enrichment programs for teachers from all over Israel and for rabbis and community leaders from all over the world. The effects of Hartman's spiritual biography have thus extended beyond his theological and philosophical project.

Book by David Hartman

Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1976).
Joy and Responsibility: Israel, Modernity and the Renewal of Judaism (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Pozner, 1978).
The Breakdown of Tradition and the Quest for Renewal: Reflections on Three Jewish Responses to Modernity (Montreal: Gate Press, 1980).
Crisis and leadership: The Epistles of Maimonides (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985). Reissued as Epistles of Maimonides: Crises and Leadership. Translation and notes by Abraham Halkin (Philadelphia and Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1993).
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (New York: The Free Press, 1985); reissued (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997).
Conflicting Visions: Spiritual Possibilities of Modern Israel (New York: Shocken Books, 1990)
A Heart of Many Rooms (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999)
Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating Its Future (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000).
Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Vol I (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001).

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Five Big Hartman Ideas


A Little Hartman

RABBI DAVID HARTMAN: The human condition is caught between two poles. I'm part of the world and I'm separate from the world. But I believe philosophy becomes true when it's anchored in the intimacy of your life. I think within the concrete.

I remember one of my students saying to me, "Rabbi Hartman, I want you to know, but don't get upset with me. I became an atheist."

I said, "When did you become an atheist?"

He said, "Wednesday."

"Oh, boy, that's a remarkable thing. What were you Tuesday? You were a believer, right? And what happened on Thursday?" I said, "Is there any difference between the way you lived when you were a believer and when you became an atheist?" And that's the criterion for me.

Auschwitz or Sinai? 1982

There is a healthy spirit of serious self-evaluation and criticism in the land today. The triumphant ecstasy of the Six Day War no longer dominates the consciousness of many Israelis.
In retrospect, the jubilant sense of victory created by the Six Day War was a mixed blessing. Besides the positive effect of awakening the Jewish world to the centrality and importance of Israel, it also gave rise to national self-adulation and hubris.
Widespread in Israeli society today are a sober appreciation of political and moral complexities and a serious sense of responsibility for the unintended consequences of our actions. These elements made themselves felt during the recent war and are positive and hopeful signs of a mature orientation to life.
The fact that our country tolerates serious and often heated disagreement is a sign of its internal health and strength. There is no doubt that Israeli society contains the vital moral forces needed for regeneration and renewal.
In the Judaic tradition, belief in renewal resulted from respect for mature and intelligent self-criticism. Heshbon ha-nefesh (self-examination) is a necessary condition for teshuva(repentance and renewal). Honesty to oneself and to others is a precondition for authentic human growth and creativity. Self-praise and adulation are deceptive and lead to moral sloppiness and to reveling in the status quo. Breakthroughs in the human spirit are facilitated by the courage to admit to moral failures.
The belief in the power of renewal is a central motif in Judaism. Such concepts as psychological determinism, historical inevitability and fatalism are alien to our tradition’s understanding of human action. Belief in radical freedom, in an open future, in surprise and novelty is crucial element of Judaism’s vitality and perseverance.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between the yearning for a new future that reflects wishful romantic dreams and the judicious hope that has been tested by suffering, failure and tragedy.
Although we are a young nation, the intensity of our political reality and our long historical memories provide us with the experience and insights necessary for finding new and mature directions for our society.
One of the fundamental issues facing the new spirit of maturity in Israel is: Should Auschwitz or Sinai be the orienting category shaping our understanding of the rebirth of the State of Israel? There are important differences resulting from the relative emphasis we place on these two models.
In the 20th century we have again become a traumatized nation. The ugly demonic forces of anti-Semitism have horrified our sensibilities. We can never forget the destruction of millions of Jews in World War II. Many, therefore, justify and interpret the significance of our rebirth in terms of Jewish suffering and persecution.
One often hears in speeches in the Knesset and at the UJA fund-raising dinners phrases such as: “Never again will we be vulnerable. Never again will we expose our lives to the ugly political forces in the world. Our powerful army has eliminated the need to beg for pity and compassion from the nations of the world”.
While I respect and share in the anguish expressed in these sentiments, I believe it is destructive to make the Holocaust the dominant organizing category of modern Jewish history and of our national renewal and rebirth. It is both politically and morally dangerous for our nation to perceive itself essentially as the suffering remnant of the Holocaust. It is childish and often vulgar to attempt to demonstrate how the Jewish people’s suffering is unique in history.
Our bodies have painfully tasted man’s indifference and inhumanity to his fellow man. We have witnessed in our own flesh the moral evil present in human society. But this should not tempt us to become morally arrogant. Our suffering should not lead us to self-righteous postures, but to an increased sensitivity about all human suffering.
Nonetheless, there are individuals obsessed with the trauma of the Holocaust who proclaim that no one can judge the Jewish people. “No nation has the right to call us to moral judgment. We need not take the moral criticism of the world seriously because the uniqueness of our suffering places us above the moral judgment of an immoral world”.
Those who make such statements judge others, but refuse to be judged. In so doing, a basic Judaic principle is violated: no one may judge if he refuses to be judged himself.
Although it is right to appreciate the dignity that comes with power and statehood, with freedom from the inconsistent and fragile goodwill of the nations of the world, it is a serious mistake to allow the trauma of Jewish suffering to be the exclusive frame of reference for understanding our national renaissance.
Israel is not only a response to modern anti-Semitism, but is above all a modern expression of the eternal Sinai covenant that has shaped Jewish consciousness throughout the millennia. It was not Hitler who brought us back to Zion, but rather belief in the eternal validity of the Sinai covenant. One need not visit Yad Vashem in order to understand our love for Jerusalem. It is dangerous to our growth as a healthy people if the memory of Auschwitz becomes a substitute for Sinai.
The model of Sinai awakens the Jewish people to the awesome responsibility of becoming a holy people. At Sinai, we discover the absolute demand of God; we discover who we are by what we do. Sinai calls us to action, to moral awakening, to living constantly with challenges of building a moral and just society which mirrors the kingdom of God in history. Sinai creates humility and openness to the demands of self-transcendence. In this respect, it is the antithesis of the moral narcissism that can result from suffering and from viewing oneself as a victim.
The centrality of mitzvah in Judaism shatters egocentricity and demands of the Jew that he judge himself by the way he acts and not by mystical myths regarding the purity or uniqueness of the Jewish soul. Na’aseh ve-nishma (we will do and we will understand) was the response of our people at Sinai. We understand ourselves through our doing.
Sinai does not tell us about the moral purity of the Jewish nation, but about the significance of aspiring to live by the commandments. Sinai permanently exposes the Jewish people to prophetic aspirations and judgments. Jews were never frightened for the failure to implement covenantal responsibilities.
 Immediately after the account of the revelation at Sinai, we are reminded of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant in the vivid description of the Golden Calf incident. Sinai teaches us that there is no meaning to election without judgment - there are no privileges without demands.
Sinai requires of the Jew that he believe in the possibility of integrating the moral seriousness of the prophet with the realism and political judgment of the statesman. Politics and morality were united when Israel was born as a nation at Sinai. Sinai prohibits the Jewish people from ever abandoning the effort of creating a shared moral language with the nations of the world.
The rebirth of Israel can be viewed as a return to the fullness of the Sinai covenant - to Judaism as a way of life. The moral and spiritual aspirations of the Jewish tradition were not meant to be realized in Sabbath sermons or by messianic dreamers who wait passively on the margins of society for redemption to break miraculously into history. Torah study is not a substitute for actual life, nor are prayer and the synagogue escapes from the ambiguities and complexities of political life.
The Jewish world will have to learn that the synagogue is no longer the exclusive defining framework for Jewish communal life. Moral seriousness and political maturity and wisdom must come to our nation if we are to be judged by the way we struggle to integrate the Sinai covenant with the complexities of political realities.
The establishment of the modern State of Israel has removed us from the insulated world of the ghetto and has exposed Judaism and the Jewish people to the judgment of the world. We can no longer hide our weaknesses and petty failings. We live in total exposure.
We must therefore define who we are by what we do and not by any obsession with the long and noble history of Jewish suffering. In coming back to our land and rebuilding our nation, we have chosen to give greater moral weight to our actions in the present than to noble dreams of the future or to the memories of our heroic past.
In choosing to act in the 20th century rather than wait for perfect messianic conditions, we permanently run the risk of making serious mistakes in our moral and political judgments. We must, therefore, respond maturely to anyone who is critical of our shortcomings. The time has come for us to free ourselves from the exaggerated rhetoric of moral superiority (“no one can teach us morality”) and to face the awesome task implicit in the Sinai covenant.
The prophets teach us that the state has only instrumental value for the purpose of embodying the covenantal demands of Judaism. When nationalism becomes an absolute value for Jews and political and military judgments are not related to the larger purpose of our national renaissance, we can no longer claim to represent the Judaic tradition. Rather, we have ironically become assimilated while speaking Hebrew in our own country.
In being open and appreciative of criticism, regardless of its source, we demonstrate that we seek to walk humbly and responsibly before the Lord of all creation, who demands that Israel bear witness to the demands of justice within an imperfect world.
It is important to remember that the Jewish people did not go from the suffering conditions of Egypt directly into the land. We first went to Sinai, made a covenant with God, and pledged absolute allegiance to the commandments. We spent years in the desert casting off the mantle of the suffering slave.
After we overcome the humiliating memory of slavery and persecution and understood that we were called to bear witness to God’s kingdom in history, only than did we enter the land. The memory of suffering in Egypt was absorbed by the conventional normative demands of Sinai. We were taught not to focus on suffering outside of its normative and moral implications.
Because of Sinai, Jewish suffering did not create self-pity but moral sensitivity: “And you shall love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
Auschwitz, like all Jewish suffering of the past, must be absorbed and understood within the normative framework of Sinai. We will mourn forever because of the memory of Auschwitz. We will build a healthy new society because of the memory of Sinai.

First Videos

David Hartman: Why Judaism Survived

On Being with Krista Tippett - David Hartman
Hope in a Hopeless God

Monday, August 5, 2019


By Peretz Wolf-Prusan

We are coming upon the seventh year since the passing of Rabbi David Hartman (9/11/1931 – 2/10/2013), which does not seem possible because I hear his voice in my head nearly every day. He was one of the most creative Jewish intellectuals of our time and one of my greatest teachers. I studied under him in Jerusalem from 2001-2005. 
Rabbi David Hartman and Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan  

One of my classmates, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, wrote, "Hartman’s passion rose from his conviction. He perceived the singular spiritual significance of this moment in Jewish history. For Hartman, our emergence from the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel initiated a new stage, the third stage, in the unfolding covenantal drama of the Jewish people.”

Hartman’s books include: Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism, Conflicting Visions: Spiritual Possibilities of Modern Israel and A Heart of Many Rooms, to name a few.

In this five-session seminar we will discuss his radical thinking and compelling ideas. 

Monday Evenings at 7:30pm
Osher Marin JCC
10/7, 11/4, 11/18, 12/2,12/16 

To participate: CLICK HERE

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Who We Read 2018-2019

Arthur Green
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
 Rachel Adler
Debbie Friedman
Irving "Yitz" Greenberg
Benay Lappe
Rabbi David Hartman
Abraham Joshua Heschel

David Ben Gurion
Judith Plaskow

Ze'ev Jabotinsky

Moses Maimonides

Abraham Isaac Kook

Samson Raphael Hirsch

Baruch deSpinoza
Martin Buber