Rabbi David Hartman, Israel's Avant-garde Thinker

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The passing away of Rabbi Professor David Hartman on Sunday was mentioned by most Israeli news organizations. Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that the man who was considered one of the greatest Jewish thinkers and educators of the last generation, and who lived and worked in Israel for more than four decades, did not leave as noticeable an impression on Israeli public discourse as could have been expected from a man of his stature.

This may sound unbelievable to followers and admirers of Rabbi Hartman outside of Israel, but his writing and appearances were undoubtedly more visible in the international, English-speaking scene, than in the Israeli environment in which he worked for more than half his life.

Many compared him to the firebrand philosopher and professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who died nineteen years ago and was considered the leading religious thinker in Israel of the previous generation. But while Leibowitz was known to widespread audiences, both religious and secular, Hartman operated in much smaller spheres in Israel and did not garner similar acclaim. How is it that the most in-demand commentator on Judaism in American media, the man who articulated a groundbreaking "Jewishness" that fused traditional Jewish values with modern universal concepts, the man who helped found the movement that would be called "the return to the Jewish bookcase" in Israel was not recognized there during his life?

"If you compare David to Orthodox rabbis, he did not fill up halls like they do, but appealed to a very specific layer," says Philosopher Avi Sagi of Bar-Ilan University, who studied at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem from the end of the 1970s and is a senior research fellow there to this day. "He represents a Judaism without illusions and messianism. Along with a commitment and loyalty to religion, he also had question marks. The breathless Israeli discourse is mainly conducted over short distances. There is a preference, on right and left, among religious and secular, for prophets who know the truth over thinkers who ask questions. In this environment, a man like David Hartman, who presents a complex position and tries to introduce a perspective that is not built on negating the other, has less room."

Hartman's students, who began learning with him after he immigrated to Israel in 1971 and after the Shalom Hartman Institute opened in 1976, believe that his refusal to behave as expected from a rabbi – despite being ordained and having served as a pulpit rabbi in the U.S. and Canada previously – made it harder for Israelis to categorize him. He was also a professor at the Hebrew University, but his stature did not stop him from developing a havruta (study friendship) with many of his students, with whom he was always on a first-name basis.

"He never treated us as his students," says Sagi. "He allowed me, in our conversations, to develop a legitimacy for my own questions. It was like being a student of Nietzsche who said that 'to be my student you must betray me.' He nourished thinking people."

Professor Menachem Lurberboim of Tel Aviv University, an early Hartman Institute student says that making aliyah to Israel actually helped Hartman stop serving as a rabbi. "It came from a very deep place within him," says Lurberboim. "His religion was connected to deep humanity, not the trappings of the rabbinate."

The writer and philosopher Dr. Micah Goodman belongs to a younger generation of students who knew Hartman from the 1990s on, when the institute was more established and a large part of its activities were executed by Hartman's son Daniel and his students. Goodman feels that Hartman was simply thirty years ahead of his time in Israel. "If you compare his presence in Israel with the one he had in the U.S, and his success in America and the fact that everyone reads him in English and not Hebrew, it is very clear that in Israel we missed out on him," says Goodman. "I think that the Hartman message fits Israel today very well, but he put out that message just a minute before we were mature enough to hear it." 

Goodman believes that Hartman's work was at its peak "during a period when it just didn't fit in with the prevailing mood in Israel."

Goodman explains: "He was talking about a middle-ground Judaism over forty years ago. It appeals to secular people who feel connected to their Jewishness and to religious people who are very open to the outside world and are not threatened by it. There is an audience for that today in Israel, but in 1971 it was very strange. Secular Israelis then had a very secular ideology and open religious Israelis were few and on the margins."

Hartman's religious perspective – in which Judaism contains seemingly contrary values of sacrifice in the Binding of Isaac and the corruption of Sodom and Gomorrah – was one that few Israelis could identify with. In addition, the well-mannered Hartman, with his heavy American accent and seeming lack of ambition to push himself him on to public platforms, did not fit in.

"He had a lot of anger at the religious establishment in Israel and the politics" says Goodman. "He was dissatisfied with Israeli life and was not aware of the influence he actually could have had." Despite this, Hartman's students are convinced his influence, even if not obvious, was immense. His legacy includes generations of students who are leading educators and academics, two religious-liberal high schools he founded in Jerusalem and the Beeri program, which deepens a Jewish-Israeli cultural identity in secular high schools, and was developed in the Hartman Institute.  Most of all, his gift was the institute itself, which set an example for similar centers of study: It is a place of shared learning that from its first day was open to religious and secular, men and women, Jews and non-Jews. Today that may seem a common and simple framework, but in the 1970s it was nothing less than revolutionary.

Educator and new MK Ruth Calderon, founder of the Elul organization and the Alma College for Hebrew culture in Tel Aviv, was a student at the institute in the 1980s. "The institute was the first joint, equal and heterogenic beit midrash (place of study) that was also open then to secular students," she says. "We studied a lot of Talmud but also law and philosophy." Learning there inspired her to found her own beit midrash.

"David Hartman deeply influenced me," she says. "He was the first pioneer, and the Jewish and political language he created is extremely relevant." During his life, he was not as well-known outside the Jerusalem bubble, in places like Tel Aviv, she says, but his students and devotees became the main people to influence Israeli culture. "He was our avant-garde, and we always miss out with the first ones."

The late Rabbi David Hartman, one of the world's leading Jewish philosophers.Credit: AP

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