I met Charlie Buckholtz a few years ago at a Tu BeShevat Seder, where he was in front of the congregation playing the guitar and telling Hasidic tales. The seder was a joint project of three downtown Orthodox shuls and at the time he was rabbi of the Sixth Street Synagogue in NYC. Recently, I saw that he was co-author of the new book by David Hartman, The God who Hates Lies, so I asked him for an interview in my attempt to evaluate that book. The response was a very personal and introspective interview, in which he dealt with his own religious journey and questions.
From the interview I learned how much Rabbi Charlie was an actual co-author of this work. (Many of Hartman’s prior editors like Malcolm Lowe, were only editors.) The interview also help explain to me the attraction of the book for many and why I am having difficulty approaching it. From this collaboration, we receive a more emotional side of Hartman. Charlie helped Hartman speak from from his kishkes. Hartman is quite emotional in public but his books always took the intellectual route. Hence, the new book has fewer appeals, compared to prior works by Hartman, to Maimonidean rationalism or Leibowitz’s rejection of a this-worldly use of relgion. In this volume, Hartman appears less the intellectual and philosopher and more the pulpit rabbi speaking from his heart.
This is not my cup of tea. Yet, some of my readers may have a visceral reaction to this interview. Nevertheless, please formulate your response in a productive way. If we are fortunate, Charlie may answer some questions on his position. So keep the questions respectful.
This interview is part of a longer series on my trying to understand Hartman Part I here and Part II here and Part III here.
Charlie Buckholtz attended Williams College and Yeshivat Hamivtar, received an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and rabbinical ordination from the Bat Ayin Yeshiva. He held a year-long fellowship as a rabbinical apprentice to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and served for three years as rabbi of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue in the East Village. He coauthored the punk-rock-murder-mystery, In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre, and is currently Senior Editor at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
1] How did your very different life story resonate with that of Hartman’s?
He came from an urban ethnic background to Haredi and then to YU and finally Israel. You are a suburban kid who likes music and writing.
I think a big part of David Hartman’s success as a public intellectual, and community- and institution-builder over the last half-century is that his questions strike a chord with lots of people who resonate in different ways with the rich vitality of traditional life, but are not comfortable with the kinds of tradeoffs that modern traditionalist gatekeepers have concocted as the admission fee for ‘legitimacy,’ ‘authenticity,’ etc. As I understand him and his thinking, a central question at the heart of his work, addressed most explicitly in this recent book, is: “Does the tradition really desire, indeed require, that we check huge parts of ourselves at the door in order to engage with it in good standing?” This is a basic human spiritual question that clearly has implications across Judaism and beyond it.
Another part of my own resonance with Hartman is temperament–a healthy dose of skepticism towards authority along with a confidence in the sincerity and authenticity of one’s own religious quest.
Hartman knew himself well enough to know that there was no contradiction between his passion for gemara and his intellectual thirst to contextualize what he was learning historically and conceptualize it philosophically. How could this inner drive to understand the ‘story’ he was learning on deeper and deeper levels — to turn it and turn it — disqualify him from being a valid carrier of the story? So when he started getting that message at Lakewood, he left Lakewood, and when he started getting it from the broader modern Orthodox world in the U.S. and Israel, he built a community and started his own institute. He knew his path was fueled by a love for the tradition and that he thus had a place in it, notwithstanding the various self- and community-appointed gatekeepers telling him he didn’t.
I tend to be similarly inclined. I was a kind of ‘artsy’ or ‘alternative’ kid from the suburbs who became a ba’al teshuva while at Hebrew U. my junior year of college.I was deeply moved by the rhythms of life in Jerusalem and as a literary person, a reader and writer, I was drawn to the poetry, imagination, and wisdom of the tradition. While that resonance with the spirituality, authenticity, and heimishkeit of traditional life have remained constant, the overwhelming emphasis on rabbinic authority and social conformity — and subjugating one’s point of view to the traditional version of ‘reality’ — that tends to typify Orthodox culture has always nagged at me a distortion of some the Jewish values I’ve always valued most–empathy, imagination, and intellectual fearlessness.
2] How does your Bat Ayin spirituality relate to a very rational Hartman? Hartman is not exactly a Rav Nachman follower or guitar player.
He’s actually a pretty soulful guy who loves a lot of Hassidic music, and is passionate about the music of Shlomo Carlebach.
I would say his philosophical thinking is informed by American Pragmatism, particularly William James, who carves out a reasoned space for doubt, uncertainty, and spirituality. I would suggest he’s more of a ‘critical appropriator,’ finding different and diverse thinkers that strike different and diverse chords within his thinking and prompt evocative associations from within the tradition; then bringing the resonant strains of these multiple voices into his inner beit midrash and having fruitful conversations without attempting any systematic synthesis.
I suppose I have a similarly ‘postmodern’ orientation. For example, I consider Rebbe Nachman of Breslov to be my rebbe. My connection to him and his teachings is deep, longstanding, intimate, and authentic (whatever that means). At the same time, ‘my’ Rebbe Nachman is not the Rebbe Nachman of Mea Shearim or Borough Park, of academia or Renewal; though he is shaded by all of those influences. My Rebbe Nachman is the one who wants our personalities to emerge out of an intense, ongoing, personal conversation with God; who holds that desire is the most (if not only) important spiritual quality; who pranced like a madman through the streets of Istanbul; who wants us to be in Uman on Rosh Hashana, for our own good and for the souls of the martyrs who died there, who wrote truly strange, enigmatic stories based on universal folk tales and appropriated for them all the sacredness of the Torah itself.
Hartman hasn’t had much exposure to Breslov Hassidut, and is not mystically inclined, so there’s a gap there. But at the same time, and perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t claim to present an exhaustive approach to Jewish spirituality. To the contrary, he is a believer in the sacredness of partial perspectives who celebrates the diversity of Jewish spiritual traditions and personalities as constitutive of a partial, historical revelation and its natural outgrowth in the evolution of halakha.
Moreover, I find Davi Hartman’s pragmatic insistence on evaluating ideas against their empirical consequences to be a grounding force against some of the more apocalyptic tendencies (both individually and communally) that can result from adopting a mystical point of view.
3] Why do you feel so connected to the events from several decades ago that involved Rabbis Emmanuel Rackman, and Joseph D Soloveitchik?
The story about The Rav publicly denouncing Rabbi Rackman at the RCA convention feels extremely relevant to me. Personally, listening to the tape of Soloveitchik’s speech and discussing the incident with Hartman helped me to understand a lot of my own experiences and frustrations as I’ve travelled through the Modern Orthodox world, first in yeshiva and eventually as an Orthodox congregational rabbi. Soloveitchik’s version of halakhic theology set the template for American Modern Orthodoxy and continues to permeate and dominate its spiritual culture, as well as its attitude towards halakhic development.
It is, I feel, a shadow that continues to loom over this world, and the speech he gave at the RCA — enlisting all the weight of his persona and the authority of his stature to stigmatize and foreclose an empathic, intuitive human way of thinking about the Torah in favor of formalist abstraction and ‘heroic’ self-sacrifice — was, to me, a dark episode. Something about it helped me personally to understand the extent to which many of my own critiques and areas of resistance to various aspects of Modern Orthodox culture can be traced back to his legacy in particular.
For all his theological creativity and religious pathos, Rav Soloveitchik’s essential stance vis a vis tradition and modernity is both triumphalist and apologetic. He does not tend to adopt the posture of having struggled with, much less having had to rethink any of his assumptions or principles, in light of his encounter with Western ideas. His struggles, his pathos (at least, as he tends to characterize them), are all deeply internal to the tradition. When it comes to the encounter with external ideas, he’s read everything, thought it all out, squared all the circles. Torah stands as a wise critique/noble rebuke of some trends of Western thought and culture, and embodies the highest values of others. While often scintillating, illuminating, and deeply moving, the cumulative effect is one of reassurance.
And this, indeed, seems to have been a powerful motive of his teaching and writing–that contemporary Orthodox Jews should not feel “ashamed” (his word) in the face of the Western philosophical tradition. He did not allow for the possibility that Torah itself, and Torah communities, might have something new and important to learn from philosophy or psychology or history–or just daily life (what he pejoratively referred to as ‘the utilitarian marketplace’); he did not advocate a substantive, open-ended encounter.
The net result of this perspective, it seems to me, as it has filtered into MO groupthink, is a prominent strain of complacency, smugness, reflexive superiority, suspicion of subjectivity, anxious insecurity, and alarmist resistance to halakhic change. If the system is perfect — majestic — and has nothing to learn, any change could only be to its detriment, and anyone seeking change could only be misguided, uninformed, or sick, and therefore must be marginalized. Who am I to assert my puny subjectivity against the objective ontological perfection of the Torah? As he says elsewhere in the lecture, “It’s ridiculous to say, ‘I have discovered something which the Rashba didn’t know, and which the Ketzos didn’t know, and the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge. I have discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new!’ It’s ridiculous.”
The community chose the Rav as their paradigm for the encounter between tradition and modernity. I think a central purpose of the chapter about Soloveitchik and Rackman is to show that this was not a foregone conclusion, not the only authentic Orthodoxy available to American Jews.
To me Rackman’s embrace of historical context, subjectivity and self-awareness as legitimate and important factors in religious life and halakhic decision-making — neither contradicting, nor contradicted by, the tradition — could have opened new possibilities for halakhic development and Orthodox culture and led to a more sane, human, inclusive Orthodoxy. The fact that Soloveitchik saw this possibility as intolerable is, in my opinion, a failure of imagination, empathy, and communal leadership.