Rabbi David Hartman’s Unorthodox Embrace of Jewish Thought

Rabbi Hartman's critical and experimental Judaism suffused my years at his Jerusalem high school, and his mandate, 'Never let anyone take your place at the table of Judaism,' is a key to finding my place as an Orthodox gay Jew.

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Orthodoxy is generally associated with conformity, particularly in the context of religious belief. However, etymologically, the word derives from a combination of two Greek words, literally translated as "right" or "true" (ortho) and "opinion" or "belief" (doxa). Rabbi David Hartman z”l, who passed away on February 10, 2013, Rosh Hodesh Adar 5773, was an ordained Orthodox rabbi, but was far from being a religious conformist. He was, however, a deeply orthodox Jew, in that he possessed some of the truest beliefs of any religious leader and teacher I have had the privilege of knowing and learning from.

I am neither a scholar nor a theologian and therefore feel ill-equipped to speak about Hartman’s philosophy and scholarship with any authority. However, I was Hartman’s student for a brief four years when I attended the high school he founded in Jerusalem. I consider him to be my "Rebbe" and myself his student long beyond that formal period of education, since his revolutionary teachings during those formative years of my adolescence instilled in me an approach to religion that accompanies me to this day and that has shaped my faith in God as a grown man.

Hartman was the student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, author of the famous "Lonely Man of Faith." Soloveitchik's teachings about a covenantal approach toward faith resonated in Hartman’s hashkafa (approach) toward Judaism. Without doing injustice to the complexity of Hartman’s theology, the key message he pressed upon us, his students, as young men, was that religious observance is not about passive subservience but about an active and ongoing engagement with God - or in his picturesque words to us as ninth graders: “People aren’t monkeys.”

He believed that halakha (Jewish law) was, far from being a stagnant codex for the observant Jew, a living link between present day Jews and the Jewish people’s covenant with God at Sinai. Hartman taught us that study, dialectic, a dialogue with science and philosophy, reasoned criticism and open-mindedness were all key to preserving the vitality of the Sinai covenant, no less than practical worship and observance. In the world of Orthodox Jewish thought of the late 20th century, when Orthodox Judaism in Israel was becoming increasingly more conservative, narrow-minded and began following the tutelage of rabbis more closely associated with the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Yeshiva world - a trend that has intensified in recent years - such an approach was almost unheard of. Through his teachings, Hartman was able to confidently couple Orthodoxy with an open engagement with modern thought and philosophy.

It was Rabbi Hartman’s desire to educate generations of passionately faithful and deeply committed Modern Orthodox Jews (including his own children and grandchildren) that led to the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute, initially in the Hartmans’ living room, and later the institute’s high school, originally for young men only and in recent years for young women as well. It is no coincidence that the school was titled both "Torani" (a place committed to the study of Torah) and "nisui" (experimental). Hartman’s desire to create a place of Torah learning for young students that was to broaden our horizons, challenge our beliefs and encourage us to be inquisitive, critical and free thinking, was nothing less than experimental.

Though the school taught a curriculum rich with the study of halakha and Talmud, it also exposed its students to a rich spectrum of philosophical thought (Jewish and non-Jewish), in addition to comprehensive education in science and liberal arts. The school placed a far greater emphasis on scholarship than on religious practice. For example, in the early years, students who felt disassociated with traditional daily prayers were encouraged to participate in alternative learning activities. Thus, the school appealed to parents and students who felt that a commitment to top-notch religious education did not necessarily dictate an ignorance of the other echelons of Western science, art and philosophy. (I doubt many Orthodox Jewish high schools assign "The Varieties of Religious Experience", by William James, a non-Jewish philosopher, as summer reading.)

An anecdote that demonstrates this experimental spirit relates to when, in the late 1990s, the beautiful campus of the Hartman Institute was opened in Jerusalem. As students of the high school we were warmly encouraged to attend the conference celebrating the opening of the new Beit Midrash. I remember attending a comparative religion panel that included Muslim, Christian and Jewish men of faith. Though I may have opted to attend that particular session to avoid a physics class, I remember leaving deeply confused by a statement made by one of the panelists, an Anglican minister and theologian. When I later mentioned this to Rabbi Hartman, he encouraged me to write the minister and present my query directly to him (he never replied, mind you). How many Orthodox rabbis would encourage an 11th grader to actively engage a minister of another faith on religious issues? Not many. Perhaps none. To me, this story demonstrates the depth of Rabbi Hartman’s confidence in our ability, as his students, to approach faith from an open-minded and critical stance, as well as his genuine commitment to viewing the experience of religious faith as a dialogue rather than a monologue.

It was that very same approach that led Hartman, who was always in high demand, to insist on spending time personally educating even his youngest students. Though we were only in our mid-teens, Hartman was a regular presence in our schooling. When planning the institute’s new campus, he insisted that a small foot bridge (to which he fondly referred as the “bridge katan”) be built between our school and the institute’s central Beit Midrash, so that we would always be just a few steps away from that center of Torah and learning.

His hands-on involvement in our education is testament to the passion he had for shaping our religious hashkafa long before we settled into the comfortable certainties and patterns often characteristic of religious adulthood. At an age where most students in Orthodox schools and Torah academies are preached obedience and discipline, Rabbi Hartman harnessed our teenage rebelliousness and curiosity (which on a particular occasion led us to let goldfish free in the Hartman Institute’s newly installed water fountains, and, on another, to decorate a fern with a string of Christmas lights) toward a religious experience based on ideological exploration and faith kindled by a constant dialogue with our personal beliefs, those of others, and ultimately – with God. In over three decades, Hartman educated an entire generation of Jewish adolescents and scholars of all ages, whose voices have and will continue to play an important role in shaping the debates of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

I confess sadly that I do not recall the particular context in which Rabbi Hartman said to me the sentence that played an immensely profound role in my life as a Jew. He once said to me: “Never let anyone take your place at the table of Judaism”. When I was struggling with my identity as an Orthodox gay Jew, and later when I began working with others demanding greater tolerance towards LGBT persons in the Orthodox Jewish world, it was those words that echoed most loudly with me. To me, they remain a simplified paraphrase of the covenantal and vital Judaism that Rabbi Hartman taught me, my friends and classmates, and so many thousands of others. I owe him my place at the table.

May he be of blessed memory.

Yehoshua Gurtler, 32, is an attorney and a graduate of the Shalom Hartman High School's class of 1998.

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