Hartman, David

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HARTMAN, DAVID (1931– ), rabbi and contemporary Jewish thinker in Jerusalem. Born in the United States to a family that had emigrated from the old yishuv in Jerusalem, Hartman received a traditional education in Jewish day schools, and then in the prestigious Lakewood yeshivah. His transfer to the Isaac Elhanan Seminary of Yeshiva University resulted in a major shift in his life, as he came under the influence of Rabbi Joseph B. *Soloveitchik, whose teachings would become the focus of much of Hartman's intellectual and spiritual quest. Soloveitchik represented, for the young Hartman, an exemplary combination of profound religious commitment and openness to the modern, Western intellectual world, a combination appropriate for the committed modern Jew. This combination of two worlds would become a central axis of Hartman's thought.

Following his rabbinic ordination by Soloveitchik, Hartman served several congregations in the U.S. and Canada, while completing his graduate studies at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution. This exposure to believing Christians, deeply committed to their religion but open to the world outside of religion, and to other religions, left an indelible impression on Hartman, and is clearly reflected in his thought. After receiving his Ph.D. he began his academic career, in addition to continuing his rabbinical work, and became professor of philosophy at McGill University. After his immigration to Israel in 1971 he joined the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and was promoted to professor of Jewish thought.

Hartman regarded his immigration as having religioustheological significance. Only in the Land of Israel, he believed, can one realize a full Jewish life. In the Diaspora, Jewish life is limited to the private realm and to the synagogue, and does not encompass the entire person. By contrast, in Israel, and only in Israel, the Jew is obligated to comprehensive political responsibility; this responsibility, in turn, bears religious and theological significance. Hartman is thus prominent among contemporary Jewish thinkers in emphasizing the religious significance of Zionism, climaxing in the establishment of the State of Israel and reflecting the theological imprint of the covenant at Sinai. In that covenant, the Jewish people received exclusive and absolute responsibility for interpreting the Torah and implementing it in the world, and the return to Zion expands that covenant into history. God, who gradually withdrew from direct control of history, entrusted it to human responsibility. Today, with the return to Zion, the Jewish people has realized its responsibility by reestablishing Jewish life in all areas of life. For Hartman, the importance of the State of Israel thus lies in the very possibility of establishing Jewish life, and not in its being a metaphysical program of redemption. In this regard, Hartman was close to such other thinkers as Yeshayahu *Leibowitz, Eliezer *Berkovits, and his friend Eliezer *Goldman, each of whom, in his own way, pointed out the necessity of the state for Jewish life, without attributing to the state any metaphysical significance. In adopting this position, Hartman distanced himself from the view of his teacher Soloveitchik, who did not draw a metaphysical, theological map of Israel's redemption, yet regarded the establishment of the State as the Jewish people's response to the direct metaphysical challenge posed by God in history. For Soloveitchik, historical events are the voice of the "lover" who is knocking (Song of Songs 5:2) and who awaits his people's response. Hartman, on the other hand, regarded the Zionist enterprise as an exclusively human endeavor, which is the culmination of the historic covenant at Sinai.

This sense of responsibility led Hartman to accept the challenge of restoring the possibility of a new Jewish dialogue, integrating commitment to Jewish tradition with openness to the present, and took upon himself the task of establishing a new bet midrash to serve this vision. In 1976 a group of young men and women joined Hartman in this search for a new way to express their connection to tradition. Most of them were graduates of religious Zionist education, who felt basically uncomfortable regarding the relation of the present to the past. Hartman offered them a new way of studying, which in cultural terms is a dialogue with tradition, and which in religious terms is the realization of the covenant at Sinai and the implementation of the Torah in human life. This group of young men and women became the foundation stone of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which has since then become a leading institution of Jewish research, frequented by scholars from diverse disciplines and different fields of Jewish studies, but sharing the recognition of the need to shape a new dialogue between present and past. Hartman's approach has become a recognized school of thought in Jewish studies, combining the best of classical scientific research with contemporary inter-disciplinary approaches, thus making possible a new approach to Jewish tradition. This school of thought is a realization of Hartman's religious-theological vision, even if not all its members share his theological presuppositions.

The Shalom Hartman Institute is not merely a theoretical bet midrash for a scholarly elite. It promotes a wide range of educational activities, including training teachers for Jewish studies in Israel and the world; seminars for Jewish communal and intellectual leaders from Israel and abroad; and, more recently, training senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces in Jewish identity and values. Hartman himself remains active in all these diverse areas of the Institute's program.

Beyond his institutional and educational activity, Hartman is among the leading Jewish theologians today. While always remaining indebted to his teacher Soloveitchik, Hartman continually rejects Soloveitchik's strict existential stance and refuses to adopt the philosophy of fracture and contradiction which typifies Soloveitchik's later thought. For the same reason, he rejects Leibowitz's conclusions. Although, like Leibowitz, Hartman recognizes the decisive role played by the believer in shaping the religious world, he rejects Leibowitz's idea that at the essence of Judaism lie a rupture and contradiction with the world of moral values. To the contrary, for Hartman this is the very meaning of the covenant at Sinai: God establishes a covenant with people as they are, with the totality of their values and conceptions. The believer is not required to withdraw from his human world, but to locate the covenant in the heart of human life itself. In this respect, Hartman is close to Eliezer Goldman. Both Hartman and Goldman emphasized, in different contexts, the fact that the realm of religious life is not located outside the totality of human life, but at its center. The difference between them is that Goldman regarded religious decisions as nourished by a cultural and social understanding of human existence, and by an analysis of the meaning of the halakhah, whereas Hartman regarded these decisions as founded on the theological significance of the covenant at Sinai.

Hartman may be considered an a priori modernist, for whom modern values are accepted as a matter of principle, and make possible a renewed and more mature encounter with Jewish tradition, as opposed to an a posteriori position, such as we find in Soloveitchik's later thought, according to which Judaism develops internally, as a closed system, independently of the external world, but is forced by circumstances to participate in the external world. Hartman's position thus reflects a Hegelian view of history, in which a later stage is more important and decisive. Unlike Hegel, however, in Hartman's view the later historical stage permits a renewed return to the beginning and a more profound insight into what is latently present in earlier formative stages. For instance, in Hartman's view, the neutralization of God in the world, which post-Nietzschean modernists expressed imperfectly as the death of God, is not opposed to Judaism. To the contrary, the neutralization of God is the profoundest significance of the covenant at Sinai. In contrast with the creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt, in which God acts alone, at Sinai God turns to people. The belief in the covenant at Sinai, therefore, is for Hartman not grounded on a past historical event, but on the partnership between people and God. Jewish history is a continual expression of the historic imprint in which people take on an ever-increasingly active role. This imprint began in the period of the Talmud, with the cognition that God does not act in history: "The world behaves in its customary way" (olam ke-minhago noheg). Whereas in the biblical period the encounter with God was immediate and direct, for the rabbis the relationship with God was intermediated by halakhic norms. Hartman's preference for the talmudic over the biblical period is based not only on his Hegelian orientation, but is also a matter of principle, in two regards. First, whereas the biblical period was theocentric, seeing God as the exclusive agent in nature and history, the talmudic period was more anthropocentric, shifting attention away from the divine drama of creation to the real history of people, who are now responsible for God's presence in the world, by studying Torah, observing the commandments, and prayer. The talmudic approach is thus more responsive to the modern insistence on retaining autonomy and personal freedom. Hartman's later thought regards the formation of a sovereign Jewish community in the State of Israel as an additional stage in this process of increasing human responsibility for the divine presence in the world. Second, biblical thought makes the material status of the human being dependent on human actions. This dependence, however, opens the way for the belief in "other gods" who also are capable of assuring material blessings. In Hartman's opinion, the talmudic world-view, and especially Maimonides' subsequent revolution, saved Judaism from such idolatrous belief.

The struggle against idolatry, which was thus a major factor in Hartman's preference for the talmudic period, also points to the great proximity between Hartman's thought and that of Leibowitz: they both maintain a transcendent conception of God and both understand the struggle against idolatry in terms of rejecting the contingent and immanent roles attributed to God. They also share the view that the subject of idolatry is not necessarily another, foreign god, but an erroneous conception of God's status in the world.

The transcendent conception of God, together with the emphasis on the centrality of human religious activity, enabled Hartman to develop a type of religious pluralism, based on the idea that revelation reflects the divine desire to encounter people in their finitude and historical context, and to develop a dialogue with them in their own language. This approach enabled Hartman to a universalization of the covenant, to include not only Jews but also believers from other religions. This radical interpretation, in turn, enabled Hartman to reinterpret religious commitment. Instead of the classical understanding of religious commitment in terms of objective truth which is universally valid, Hartman's theology posits religious commitment as the believer's loyalty to his or her faith. Different believers have diverse religious commitments, and none can claim exclusivity of commitment; yet their commitments are not thereby harmed.

Hartman's emphasis on the autonomous, human dimension could have led him to conclude that belief is an entirely private and voluntary affair. In opposition to this view, he repeatedly emphasized the decisive role of community. The believer does not encounter God alone and isolated from the experience of the real and historic Jewish community; the believer is thus a partner in a historical covenant with God, and is not a founder of a new covenant.

Hartman's thought may thus be characterized both as continued interpretation of Maimonides and Soloveitchik, the two thinkers who had greatest impact on him, and as constructive dialogue with such modern and post-modern thinkers as Charles Taylor, Alastair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty, and others.

Hartman's works include Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest (1976); Joy and Responsibility: Israel, Modernity and the Renewal of Judaism (1978); A Living Covenant, The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (1985); Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides (Eng. tr., 1985); Conflicting Visions, Spiritual Possibilities of Modern Israel (1990); A Heart of Many Rooms, Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism (1999); Israelis and the Jewish Tradition, An Ancient People Debating its Future, (2000); Love and Terror in God Encounter, The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, vol. 1 (2001).


A. Sagi and Z. Zohar (eds.), Renewing Jewish Commitment, The Work and Thought of David Hartman, 2 vols. (Heb., 2001); J. Malino (ed.), Judaism and Modernity, The Religious Philosophy of David Hartman (2004).

[Avi Sagi (2nd ed.)]

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