Nurturing Elites by Eclectic Fires

The Hartman Institute looks back on its winding road from 25 years ago to now

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

The most interesting thing about the guests at the Shalom Hartman Institute's 25th anniversary celebrations in Jerusalem two weeks ago was not how many were there, but who they were. When the Hartman Institute was founded it was considered a "stepson" of religious Zionism. Now, a prominent number of the guests were from the religious-Zionist mainstream.

True, there were no renowned yeshiva heads, but among the guests, as among the institute's permanent staff of scholars, were graduates of hesder yeshivot who would have been thrown out of their yeshivot 25 years ago had they dared join the institute.

There were members of the Kibbutz Hadati movement and even some of its rabbis. A few hundred sons of religious Zionists in Jerusalem already study in the Hartman high school, including some from well-known establishment families.

It seems therefore that Professor David Hartman, the founder of the institute that bears his father's name, has become accepted. This was clear not only from who came to join the festivities, but more especially in the institutes very ideology. Once, the mere concept of the "Hartman Institute" was viewed among religious Zionists as a code word for heterodoxy. It is an institute, whose founder describes himself as an Orthodox rabbi, but which fostered the joint study of Torah for men and women, for religious and secular, and espouses a study of Torah employing academic research tools - historical and cultural context, comparison with other cultures, and so on.

Today, however, one can find members of the religious-Zionist community, graduates of yeshivot, in all the institutes and midrashim for the study of Judaism shared by religious and secular Jews as a matter of course. Hesder yeshiva graduates are taking major roles in universities' Judaic Studies departments, notwithstanding the "heretical" research methods. Some of the best of them are research fellows at the institute too.

Professor Hartman is convinced that his positions have won out. "The religious community has matured. People are no longer afraid of intellectual honesty." Professor Avi Sagi, one of the Hartman Institute's most prominent scholars, is somewhat more skeptical. Unlike Hartman, who was born in the United States, Sagi is more involved in local religious society and he sees the cup as three-quarters empty.

"The religious-Zionist rabbinical and educational establishment continue to fight us, just like then. The rabbis you see here are themselves stepsons. The test for me is how the establishment relates to the texts we create here. There is an enormous scope of creativity here, both in quantity and quality, but the religious-Zionist "mainstream" does not relate to it. As long as my daughter's ulpana studies any rabbi's works, but not a single one of my articles, it means that no real change has yet occurred."

Acceptance then is relative. The institute is still viewed as avant-garde, as deviating from the religious-Zionist straight and narrow (at least as the rabbinical and educational establishment view it), but many share this "deviation." As to the question of what brought about the change, Hartman is the first to admit that the main factor is not the work of the institute itself, but rather internal processes within religious society that brought it closer to his world. "The religious image was conservative and bourgeois. To be religious was interpreted as non-intellectual, until a thirst for something else was created. People are no longer afraid to think independently, or even to criticize tradition."


What makes Hartman more than just another academic institute making fellowship grants? Senior and junior Judaic studies scholars gather there to conduct research and publish studies that would likely be published as part of their regular academic work. But Dr. Menachem Lorberboim, one of the most veteran of the institute's scholars, contests this description.

"The same could be said about any advanced studies institute in the world. In fact, this institute has created a spiritual and intellectual community that is far more intense than anything you find in the university." Rabbi Donniel Hartman, son of the founder, who since last week is co-director along with his father (and director in practice), adds "the close tutorship we provide for our younger scholars by senior veteran scholars."

But the main thing, it appears, is that the gathering together of people creates a school of thought. In the case of Hartman, it is more than just an approach that seeks to assimilate the legitimization of scientific tools within religious society, but just the opposite - a group of scholars - including the secular ones - that believes that Jewish studies are relevant to the philosophical and social issues of the modern and Israeli world.

Says Sagi, "What characterizes the institute is that it focuses not only on deciphering the text per se, in the spirit of classical research, but that it focuses on the question of `what does it have to tell us' in our generation using modern research tools. For example, when Moshe Halbertal writes about the exegetic revolution among the sages, he is ostensibly conducting a historical study, but the framework within which he presents the questions is contemporary. The same is true when I study the culture of dispute among the sages. I am in fact examining their position on tolerance, in the fully modern meaning of the concept."

Hartman himself defines it in this way: "Here, you don't have to apologize for conducting a `relevant' study, what the universities call a `populist study.'" But while Israeli academia may be contemptuous of "relevantizing" of Judaic studies, in the Western world, especially in the United States, where the concept of think tanks with a strong ideological commitment to a particular idea is more popular, the institute has become a significant address for scholars seeking to study exactly that - the intellectual processes of Jewish thought.

Catholic scholar Paul Van-Buren, who sought to reformulate Catholic theology vis-a-vis Judaism, distributed the draft of his book among the institute's scholars to get reactions before publishing the final version. Jewish philosophers from all over the world, who have recently "discovered" their Jewish roots and who want to examine what Judaism has to say about the questions they are contending with have made close contact with the institute. That is how the annual philosophers' seminar held each summer at the institute was born.

David Hartman himself is far better known in the American than the Israeli media. There were years when he was a sought-after interview subject for crossing swords with the Orthodox establishment, but today Tommy Lapid is far more popular for this purpose. And when a spiritual-cultural analysis of the Israeli drama is on the agenda, radio talk-show hosts will always prefer Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua. In the New York Times, on the other hand, Hartman filled this niche for many years, especially when the paper's local correspondents were Tom Friedman or David Shipler.

Perhaps it is because paradoxically, the institute has chosen to disseminate its approach of "Jewish relevance" not to the general public, but rather to a very elitist group. Donniel Hartman says, "That was my father's conscious plan from the outset. We do not hold courses for the public, or mass gatherings or Jewish studies festivals, although all of these have been suggested to us many times, because we believe in long-term influence through narrow elitist groups. My father believes his way to influence the Jewish people will be through the shaping of maybe 30 people in all, who will affect their students and so on."

Nurtured elites

In recent years, the institute has had opportunities to disseminate its "Jewish relevance" in wider circles, but then too it chose to do so via the elites. Following the publication of the Shinhar commission report, which called for the promulgation of Jewish studies in Israeli state education, the Hartman Institute became the principal executive branch to carry out the report.

In a decade of dozens of study halls and Jewish studies festivals for secular people, it appears that the elitist, hardly visible road Hartman took is having the deepest effect. It is conducting a project in which principals and teachers from 78 secular high schools throughout the country (at present only Jewish schools) come to the institute for a few years of courses in Jewish studies. Donniel Hartman says: "This is a long-term project, which precisely expresses our educational approach. The test will be in a generation from now, when the principals influence the teachers, the teachers influence the students and the students become the next generation of parents."

Nonetheless, there is among some of the institute's people, as well as among the new generation of those studying "open" Jewish studies, a bitter sense of missed opportunity. The reason is that the new religious avant-garde is no longer satisfied with the legitimization of "scientific" Jewish studies, alongside secular people and women. These are people seeking new religious experience (largely influenced by the New Age and the lure of the Far East). They want more powerful prayers with a far stronger mixture of singing and music; the study of hassidism and Jewish mysticism; a more egalitarian approach to women in Jewish communities in general, as well as in the synagogue.

And thus, while the rabbinical establishment is still trying to swallow Hartman's philosophical innovations, the religious avant-garde has already overtaken them and is looking for more. Moti Bar-Or, the director of the Kolot Beit Midrash, which is also involved in Jewish studies by secular elites, says: "As someone who a friend and admires David Hartman, I sense that there is something tragic in the fact that the entire dimension of his religious experience, and religious leadership, and his rabbinical biography is not sufficiently manifest in the institute he established. There, only his academic-scholarly side exists. He conceded the creation of a community with alternative prayers, and from this respect, the institute is not keeping pace with the real processes occurring today in religious society."

Donniel Hartman views this issue as crucial. "Our institute wants to maintain a community of scholars, not worshipers. There are enough synagogues in the area for that." And thus, despite the multiplicity of religious scholars, and despite repeated requests, the Hartman Institute does not have a synagogue to this day and does not hold Sabbath prayer services. The religious scholars and students who wish to pray do so in one of the regular rooms.

This decision would appear to stem from a combination of the elder Hartman's fear of rending the real threads which tie him to the Orthodox world - in which he grew up - and the younger Hartman's fear that the secular people that frequent the institute would be deterred by an institute centering around a synagogue (no matter how enlightened it might be).

One way or another, this decision is controversial even within the Hartman family itself. At the festive dinner at the end of the three study days held to celebrate the 25th anniversary, Hartman's daughter Tova Halbertal turned to her father and said: "The institute you created will not be complete until you add the spiritual dimension, and create a community of a different type than that which is commonly accepted in the Orthodox world." In her words, she mainly underscored the different approach required for the status of women in the synagogue.

The gauntlet was thrown down at a most incisive moment and in a piecing manner. Tova Halbertal's brother, who was officially appointed that evening as co-director, may firmly oppose this move, but Sagi says that the dispute on the matter can be expected to be raised and thoroughly debated in the institute.

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