1931 - 2013 |

Rabbi David Hartman, the Passionate Leader of Orthodox Renewal

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Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, a leader of the liberal wing of Orthodox Judaism, philosopher and educator to whom thousands of people owe their Jewish knowledge and education, passed away Sunday morning in Jerusalem. Hartman was the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute, an international center for Jewish studies based in Jerusalem that incorporates an academic research institute, study halls, schools and educational programs. He passed away after a long illness, at the age of 81.

Hartman's name is identified with the Orthodox renewal movement in the past generation: He adhered to halakha (Jewish religious law) while also promoting pluralistic and liberal values. He supported the revolution of Torah studies for women and encouraged joint study and debate among people of ranging outlooks who were affiliated with various denominations both in and outside of Judaism.

Hartman was born in 1931 in Brooklyn to a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) family, and throughout his adolescence studied in a number of Haredi yeshivas, including the prestigious Lakewood Yeshiva. In 1953, as a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the leading rabbis and thinkers of the generation, he received rabbinical certification from Yeshiva University in Manhattan. While continuing his studies with Rabbi Soloveichik, he completed a master's degree in philosophy at Fordham University. In the late 1950s he served as the rabbi of a congregation in the Bronx, and then left for Montreal, where he served as congregational rabbi while writing his doctoral thesis in philosophy at McGill University.

In 1971, in the wake of the Six-Day War, he immigrated to Israel with his family and began teaching Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and continued doing so for over two decades. At the same time he served as a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

In an attempt to breach the conservative boundaries of Orthodox Judaism, Hartman did not make do with writing books and academic teaching. In late 1976, in light of the messianic awakening led by the Mercaz Harav yeshiva and its head, and the crisis following the Yom Kippur War, Hartman gathered a series of Jewish studies scholars around him and founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, named after his father.

The charismatic Hartman, whose lively lessons were regularly conducted in three languages – Hebrew, English and Yiddish – attracted dozens of intellectuals from the entire academic leadership in Israel, and among his most prominent students were Prof. Moshe Halbertal, Noam Zohar, Zvi Zohar, Menachem Lorberbaum and Israel Knohl.

The institute at first focused primarily on academic activity, but over the years boys' and girls' schools, a graduate-level study hall and additional frameworks were established around it. In recent years the Hartman Institute has been involved in educational programs in varied fields, including for example training senior Israel Defense Forces officers in Jewish studies, and training teachers of Jewish studies. Under Hartman's sponsorship the institute also cooperated with secular frameworks for Jewish studies, and continues to support them.

Hartman published dozens of articles and books, including "Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest," "Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating Its Future," "A Living Covenant," "A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices Within Judaism," and "Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides." His writing was devoted to an attempt to bring together tradition and the present, halakha and a religious atmosphere with contemporary creativity and thought.

The Jewish establishment rejected him, and during certain periods the same was true of academe, and still he achieved international recognition, for example when he was awarded the Avi Chai Foundation Prize (2000) and the Guardian of Jerusalem Prize (2001), as well as honorary doctorates from Yale University, Hebrew Union College and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.

Hartman had ties with several prime ministers and advised them on issues related to the Jewish world and religious pluralism. From 1977 to 1984 he was the adviser of Education Minister Zevulun Hammer. Hartman often spoke in favor of a diplomatic arrangement with the Palestinians and at the same time was a fervent Zionist, and he also dealt with the subject extensively in his books and lessons.

Prof. Moshe Idel, a research fellow at the Hartman Institute for over 20 years, said that Hartman was exceptional both as a rabbi and a philosopher. "Philosophers don't build: They criticize, they understand phenomena. You won't find many philosophers who have built a community. Hartman built a community the way the Hasidic movement does. It's not a teacher, it's someone who creates," said Idel.

He added that "It's impossible to describe his activity only in the Orthodox context. If a journalist like Thomas Friedman comes to Israel and goes directly to interview Hartman, that's not Orthodoxy. If ministers and prime ministers come to consult with him, that's not Orthodoxy.

"He was a voice in the Jewish world. He thought that the Jewish world deserved a voice that differed from that given it by Orthodoxy and by academe. He himself couldn't find himself in either of those worlds. He was looking for something with involvement and openness and pragmatism, and that's impossible to find in the usual places. Because of his greatness he couldn't find himself in those places, so he looked for something that he could shape. He didn't shape an institution, he shaped people."

Hartman had five children, including Dr. Donniel Hartman, who has headed the institute in recent years.

Rabbi Prof. David Hartman's funeral will leave Monday at 11 A.M. from the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Prof. David Hartman. Credit: Lior Mizrahi
David Hartman sitting with institute fellows.Credit: Courtesy

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