David Hartman Part III

Continues from Part I here and from Part II here.

Here is another post about the 1985 book A Living Covenant. I assume that I will receive the interview with Charlie Buckholtz soon, then and only then will I address the new book directly.
In the very friendly review of Hartman by David Ellenson of HUC in Modern Judaism, we learn that Ellenson finds Hartman as exemplar of what Orthodoxy, nay the entire modern rabbinate should be. And then Ellenson gives a few broad critiques. Why does Hartman base himself on Talmud and Rabbinics and not the Bible? What would compel the modern Jew to follow Hartman’s Talmudism? Important questions for the ex-Orthodox Ellenson who continuously looks to Orthodox Teshuvot for guidance.

This review by Neil Gilman of JTS. offers a strong contrast to the review of Landes and Elleenson.

Gilman pegs Hartman as a follower of the approach of Jacob Katz in which sociology changes halakhah. In that for Jacob Katz there is an “interpretive power of the community to interpret halakhah- based on what the community will accept. God’s Torah can be interpreted in a liberal way if the community accept it. [AB- but it is important to note that Hartman himself makes his argument from ethics, not from historical change.]
(Back in the 1960’s the Jewish Observer considered the use of Jacob Katz enough to make one Conservative, by the 1980’s there came to be a YU interpretative of Katz without the historic change or historicism.)

But Gilman asks is that enough or even justified. For Gilman there is a human role in the writings of the Torah. The Bible and the entire creation of Talmud as human documents. When Gilman quotes Hartman as saying that the debate over tanur shel achnui shows the potential of God’s word, Gilman adds [SIC] after Hartman’s mention of “God’s word” to demonstrative to his reader that – of course it is not God’s word. How could Hartman be so foolish to belief that?

For Gilman, to interpret means that it is a human product. He does not understand how for Hartman and Berkovits to reinterpret is a power of the Divine halakhah itself. For Gilman innovation means a human change from the past, not a continuation of the tradtional idea of chiddush (AB –catch that Hartman’s belief in Chiddush is not Maimonides and closer to what we consider Nahmanidean- see Halbertal on the topic of the continuous growth of halakhah.)

In this review, we see that the Orthodoxy of Berkovits and Hartman argues for ethical consciences: and pragmatics in the law. The Conservative approach of Gilman needs the Torah to be a human text, he needs a rejection of traditional theology, and historical/sociological argument.
On the question of Hartman’s relationship to Rav Soloveitchik in his writings. Landes – did not see any break. Depending on the topic, Hartman was closer to the Rav thought then was Landes. However, Gilman sees a break. I already have read the new 2011 book and in that one there is clearly a break.

When I first read the book in 85, then I just did not recognize the Rav Soloveitchik that I knew in the pages of Hartman’s Living Covenant Even though the Rav’s influence came out in Hartman’s public talks, I did not see it int he book. In the 1980’s Hartman would talk about how much therapy time he spend working through his relationship with Rav Soloveitchik, how he had an Oedipal relationship with the Rav. But at the time, I felt that Hartman’s presentation of Rav Soloveitchik’s creativity vs submission is not the same as the Rav’s own majesty and humility.I chalked it up to my youth and to maybe the 30 year difference in the Rav. And in those years, people were much more troubled by revisionism from the right since, at the time, it seemed a complete distortion.

Gilman review- he does not think that Hartman has a liberal enough theory of revelation, talks too much about God’s Torah, he wont win against rising Fundamentalism. But he likes his Zionist theology.

Alternatively, he could adopt a view of revelation that denies literal-ism in favor of acknowledging a more substantive human role in shaping the contents of Torah

But both of these positions would inevitably require Hartman to redefine what he means by mizvah and to reconsider the issue of the authority of Torah, thereby undermining the traditionalist cast of his entire study. (His subtitle is, after all, “The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism”). In fact, under both of these models, the authority is transferred from God to the community. Both poles of the dialectic, the autonomous and the theonomous, become embodied within the community. But has not Hartman, himself, conceded this result in accepting Jacob Katz’s definition of the limits of interpretive freedom as “. . . what the community is in fact prepared to accept as Torah”?

On this issue, then, Hartman is in a bind. As a result, the issue is avoided and his covenantal anthropology, however acutely perceived, authentically rooted and programmatically desirable, floats in a theological vacuum.

In fact, A Living Covenant ends up as a much richer and more substantial version of Eliezer Berkovits’ Not in Heaven, with much the same shortcomings. Like Hartman, Berkovits argues for a more open recognition of the subjective, flexible, pluralistic understanding of the halakhic process as a legitimately human undertaking. Berkovits, too, plumbs the tanur shel akhnai anecdote which he interprets, much as Hartman does, as insisting on “the human share and responsibility in the interpretation and administration of the revealed Word of God (sic)”, and that “the affairs of men cannot be guided by absolute objectivity, but only by human objectivity.” Halakhah represents not “objective truth” but “pragmatic validity” (p.48). “Once a Jew accepts the Torah from Sinai, whatever it teaches him in his search for its meaning and message is the word of God for him” (p.51). Berkovits repeatedly invokes what he calls the “halakhic conscience” which he perceives as impelling the rabbis to limit the application of, or, at times, even render inoperative, a piece of biblical legislation which they find morally offensive (p.28). But, again, one searches in vain for a theology of revelation which might ground his understanding of the halakhic process.

While Berkovits limits his argument to the issue of halakhic development, Hartman’s canvass is much broader. It encompasses a phenomenology of much of Jewish religious life and teaching. The book remains, then, a passionately argued and authentically documented defense of a humanistic, pluralistic, flexible, and creative reading of traditional Judaism. Programmatically, then, it serves as an apologia for Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy. This position is clearly under siege today, both in Israel and in America. If anything, the current wave of fundamentalism in religion reflects a preference for the temper of submission and self-denial which Hartman rejects. This contemporary style in religion, together with Hartman’s critique of much of Soloveitchik’s theology, will unquestionably render this volume suspect in the eyes of precisely those of Hartman’s confreres who could benefit most from his inquiry. If this is, indeed, the outcome, the Jewish theologically concerned community as a whole will be the loser.

But, if for no other reason, this book should be studied and taught for its concluding chapter, “The Third Jewish Commonwealth.” Here, Hartman applies his reading of Judaism to the new challenges posed by the creation of the State of Israel. He insists that even if we reject, as he does, a simplistic reading of the rebirth of Israel in messianic terms as reflecting God’s overt intervention in history, this event can yet exert extraordinary religious influence on the life of the community. Economic, social, and political issues, the moral quality of the army, the exercise of power moderated by moral sensitivity, can all be brought under the purview of Torah.
In fact, Israel also exposes the moral and spiritual inadequacies in the Jewish tradition and can thus provide ” . . . unique conditions for a serious critique of Judaism as it is practiced by commited halakhic Jews” (p.294).

Not unexpectedly, then, Hartman calls for a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of the place of religion and halakhah in Israeli life. But even beyond this, the chapter provides the most compelling argument for the Jew’s throwing his lot in with Israel in a direct and personal way, not, as the usual Zionist rhetoric has it, because diaspora Judaism is doomed, but, rather, because Israel provides the broadest possible canvass for Judaism’s engagement with modernity.

From Neil Gilman, ” The exciting future of Jewish theology, Judaism, Spring 1990, Vol. 39, Issue 2.

One response to “David Hartman Part III

  1. As part of the homework, we should (re)read Lawrence Kaplan’s article in the February 2010 Modern Judaism: “From Cooperation to Conflict: Rabbi Professor Emanuel Rackman, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Evolution of American Modern Orthodoxy”.

    Soloveitchik/Rackman 1950 vs. 1975 is instructive to looking at Hartman 1985 vs. 2011; particularly in light of Chapter 5 in the new book (which footnotes Kaplan’s article).

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