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).