David Hartman: From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self

That 70’s Show
Over thirty years ago, I visited an acquaintance for an evening at Ohr Sameach in Jerusalem. He had in his room a book from the yeshiva’s library by David Hartman called Joy and Responsibility (1976). The book was published by Bnai –Brith in conjunction with the newly formed Mechon Hartman. At the time of publication Hartman was still involved in outreach and Shappels and Hamivtar were recent offshoots of his Mechon. Hartman rewrote the book a second time as Israelis and the Jewish Tradition (1990), by that point I was interested in Hasidism and Ohr Sameach would not stock his book since the update contained many new ideas on pluralism, revelation, and halakhah. The book has been rewritten a third time as From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self in which he softens many of his previous statements returning us to the 1970’s.

The new book is a quick read especially if you have read some of Hartman’s prior works. He opens up by reiterating that Christians need to learn to understand how halakhah is the essence of Judaism and that we find our religious joy in the law. Hartman asserts that properly understood, Jews should be attracted to the this-worldly, democratic, and rational world of the halakhah as presented by Maimonides and Rav Soloveitchik. Once again in this book, Hartman returns to his break with Lakewood of the 1960’s by seeking modern philosophy, psychology and science. (It would be worthwhile to compare Hartman to Rav Soloveitchik’s 1978 lecture to Mental Health Professionals for the similaritiies).

I never got around to writing my own opinion on his last work The God Who Hates Lies written in conjunction with Charlie Buckholtz, because I could not grasp it or pin it down. Buckholtz framed it as if Hartman followed Rackman’s pragmatism yet Hartman still loyally follows the method, if not content, of the existential abstractions of Rav Soloveitchik. Buckholtz makes Hartman sound like Heschel’s piety, and he leaves open details of stories that weakens it rather than strengthens it. For example, think of the story in the last book where Hartman declares that a kohen cannot marry his fiancé as unethical. We are left guessing if he constructed a leniency based on Rabbenu Tam (which is what he did as RCA member) or he jettisons halakhah before his ethical voice. I did, however, learn from the last book how many young rabbis in the field are still followers of Hartman.

This book is easy to form an opinion about its contents. In the book, Hartman basically tones down his prior radicalism and his questioning the system. It is a return to the 1970’s. This book could have been used for discussion in the nostalgic Edah organization, since defunct, because it is once again “the courage to be modern and orthodox.” Halakhah can assert itself against the 1950’s and be pluralistic, individualistic, and this-worldly.

The last chapter on universalism and particularism sums up my problem with the book. He discusses the particularism of his Lakewood background and calls for a more open view of gentiles. To which he proffers the solution of Samson Raphael Hirsch. Where are the books authored by your own Machon on the topic? Where are the 25 years of results from your annual interfaith conferences? The book is a return to the 1970’s. Hartman only uses and responds to Urbach, Scholem, and early Fackenheim. But your own institution has produced scholars who have changed the nature of the study Rabbinic thought, you have Idel on the staff, and you have encouraged your students to produce books on pluralism. Where is your own self-reflections on what you have created? All the new institutions in Israel follow your model for teaching halakhah with philosophic questions, did it work? Did you come up with anything beyond Hirsch?

The other chapters have ideas we have seen before. The book advocates a Hartman’s understanding of Soloveitchik’s approach to Halakhah as a basis for all movements and a commitment to a halakhic future of Judaism. The need to translate Torah into a language intelligible by those not part of the closed world of Torah; Torah cannot be just for the few. Even if most Jews do not accept the metaphysics and doctrines of Judaism because one is modern, one can still be part of the process. Instead of focusing on God, focus on our collective responsibility. Focus on Abraham who fought with God to save the people of Sodom, not just the submissive Abraham. Instead of focusing on revelation, focus on the responsibility of the halakhah Instead of Berkovits’ revelation as a paradox of God infinite given to the human finite, we have revelation as showing how finite and limited we are- therefore don’t look for absolutes. (He does not even cite his more strident A Living Covenant in this book.) And redemption is a this-worldly making Israel and the world better through halakhah.

In keeping with his pluralism, Hartman jettisons the sense of certainty that one associates with Orthodoxy. It is his claim that one may believe that halakhic Judaism is the best for oneself, but not necessarily the best for everyone. A healthy Orthodoxy, therefore, should be able to accept and legitimate the “dignified other” among the Jewish people. David Hartman thinks a reapproachment between religion and political liberalism is possible. And unlike his view of Lakewood in the 1960’s as stifling creativity and individuality, Hartman proclaims an individualistic Orthodoxy that works for the good of all Israel.

If we can assume that it is possible for individuals to agree on what they reject, without acknowledging what they affirm, we may be able to create a shared theology of the repudiation of idolatry, without demanding a clearly defined commitment to belief in God. The believer can share common aspirations with the atheist and the agnostic, if all three strive to reject idolatry. This striving can have great significance and far-ranging consequences if the idolatry that is combatted is luring, and constitutes a vital problem to be eradicated (1978, p. 147).

In a review of the 1990 version, Arnie Eisen, current chancellor of JTSA, notes that Hartman does not accept a Biblical Judaism without Rabbinics, nor does he allow Buber, Rosenzweig, or other liberal thinkers to speak for Judaism. Eisen does capture how Hartman rewrites tradition but preserves it content.

Hartman is not willing to say (in my words): “God commanded mizvot on Sinai, so they are binding on every Jew,” or to insist that Judaism offers the finest path to God and the good life, let alone the only path. But he can, and does, say something like this (my words again): “Judaism’s distinctive way of standing before God, fashioned by the rabbis, involves the communal performance of mizvot. Choosing to fulfill our part of the covenant as part of a community, therefore, provides as much intimacy with God and as much moral worth as human beings are privileged to know. Each Jew who chooses not to take on that way of standing before God, in Israel, where community is best accomplished, must give a satisfactory account of why not.”

On the topic of feminism, he footnotes his daughter but makes no use of her work. He argues that for our daughters we cannot return to our bubbis and grandmothers Torah. He uses as his example of a mistaken approach Rav Kook’s banning women from voting as the definitive halakhah. Where is the last forty years?

Hartman articulates the ethical dilemma better than others and acknowledges the difference between himself and the texts:

The problem with attempting to use internal mechanisms within the tradition to resolve moral quandaries is that the moral problematic is never named, much less explicitly critiqued, Engaging authentically with our most sacred book means acknowledging when it arouses our sense of injustice or compassion—and admitting that some of its injunctions may be flawed. ..the tradition cant save itself from itself.”

But for the answer of how to overcome this difference, the problem of difficult texts has been with us for decades and there are many answers. Even on this blog, last week we had Yehuda Gellman arguing, seemingly like Hartman, those immoral texts were divine concession to that era, while Fleishacker preserves the morality of revelation and sees the potholes as part of a system to be maintained even if reinterpreted.

Finally, the title of the book implies Hartman recently moved from defender to critic, rather than forty years ago. I mentioned the title to a friend, who said that this is the theme of forthcoming books. Many who became observant in the 1980’s and 1990’s have moved from defenders to critics after all the immoral behavior within the community, the conversion crisis, and the provincialism of the community. Hartman’s became a critic before the era of Rabbis Eliashiv or Yitzhak Shapira, before the community was used to seeing members arrested for fraud, and before the quest for doctrinal and legal purity started. Hartman’s title implied that he would deal with these issues. What are his answers to these new questions?

IF I have already read the books written at Mechon Hartman by Sagi, Halbertal, Lorberbaum, the Zohar brothers, Rosenak, Knohl, and Achitov, Can I return to the 1970’s questions? This book may be one of the clearest and least controversial presentations of Hartman’s opinions for those looking where to start. But it also highlights how the issues look different in todays papers or after reading the works produced by his own Mechon.

Here is a 1991 interview from the Jerusalem Post in which Hartman distinguishes between the tolerant Orthodoxy of the 1930’s and the recent 1950’s immigrant from Europe who created a closed and frightened reaction.

You are an Orthodox rabbi, yet your practice of Orthodoxy is markedly more tolerant than the Orthodoxy to which we are accustomed. Did you have to struggle against the Orthodox milieu in which you were raised in order to attain this tolerance?

Not at all. There is a tolerant stream in Orthodox Judaism and I was raised in it.
Their closedness is rooted firstly in the most ghetto-bound, diversity-fearing streams of Eastern European Orthodoxy and secondly in a traumatized reaction to the genocide of World War II. This turning inward is very different from the pluralistic Orthodox milieu in which I myself was raised in Brooklyn in the ’30s and ’40s.
The climate in which I was raised was pious, but not in the slightest bit fanatical. Brownsville at that time was filled with all forms of Jews: Socialists, Communists, Bundists. There was no ghetto climate of dogmatism and rejection of those who disagreed with one’s views. It was a pluralistic community. We played basketball with Blacks and Italians on the streets. There was no “us and them.” One could learn from and respect everybody. This is the kind of Orthodoxy which is home to me.
– Right. We are talking about a far less fanatical and defensive kind of Orthodoxy. World War II made many Orthodox feel a zealous need to preserve a threatened way of life. There are also Orthodox Sephardim who maintain their tradition’s historic attitude of tolerance.

3 responses to “David Hartman: From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self

  1. Yehudah Mirsky

    Fwiw, a few months ago my wife attended an 80th birthday gathering for Hartman at the Machon. When it was his turn to speak, she said, he got up and told everyone that his life’s work had been a failure, and that he had in particular failed to deal with the single most central problem of our time, i.e. belief in God after the Holocaust.
    I know that this last talk of his, on the face of it, comes from a different planet than the one on which the book under review here was written.

  2. I do think they are related. He is re-entering a certain moment in his life.

  3. You write in this review that “We are left guessing if he constructed a leniency based on Rabbenu Tam (which is what he did as RCA member) or he jettisons halakhah before his ethical voice”. Are you saying that the marriage was given an OK and registered by the RCA who had knowledge of the circumstances. If so, then the book is very misleading and unfair to Rabbi Hartman. Thanks David

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