Building Bridges

"Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating its Future" by David Hartman, Yale University Press, 192 pages, $18.50 (Hebrew edition: "Bein Rihal Larambam," translated by Noam Zohar, Schocken, 144 pages).

"Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating its Future" by David Hartman, Yale University Press, 192 pages, $18.50 (Hebrew edition: "Bein Rihal Larambam," translated by Noam Zohar, Schocken, 144 pages)

Jerusalem was, and still is, a patchwork of communities, an endless array of Jewish tones and colors. Each color contains a full spectrum of its own. The ultra-Orthodox world is a marvelous study in shades of black, from the Eda Haredit (ultra-Orthodox community) and European communities of previous centuries to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his home-grown Judaic teachings. In Jerusalem, religious Zionism is divided into the Mercaz Harav stream with its focus on messianic nationalism, and supporters of Oz Veshalom and other religious moderates.

Within this great spiritual medley, a unique triumvirate arose which engaged in trenchant debate yet as part of a solid consensus - Yeshayahu Leibowitz, David Hartman and Avi Ravitzky. The differences between them are a reflection of their different life trajectories: The fiery Leibowitz, born in Riga, schooled in Germany, a veteran Zionist, a humanist, a collector of knowledge, a relentless iconoclast; Avi Ravitzky the Jerusalem-born sabra, astute, intellectual, charismatic, immersed in public life and governance; and David Hartman, born in North America, a student of the greatest Zionist Orthodox leader, Rabbi B. Soloveitchik, a brilliant speaker, academic philosopher and Jewish educator, in word and deed.

In the interests of proper disclosure, I confess that I have warm feelings for all three. Intellectually, I regard them as my mentors. Hartman has profoundly affected my Jewish outlook. From him I have learned something of the art of building bridges between the Jewish world locked up within itself, and the wide, open expanses of world culture. From him I have learned to appreciate the spiritual strengths of Diaspora Jewry without having to apologize all day long to the founders of the Zionist movement and its functionaries.

Common denominator

The common denominator between these three is neither style nor the social circle to which they belong. The point of convergence is a Jewish giant from the distant past: Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon - Maimonides. Leibowitz defines him as the greatest Jew of all time, after the patriarchs and the prophets, and the greatest of Jewish posekim (arbiters of Jewish law). Ravitzky calls him the foremost political philosopher in Jewish history. Hartman regards his teachings are the chief guide for Jewish philosophy today.

All three have entered into a covenant with the legacy of Maimonides and become his spokesmen in modern-day Israel. Tirelessly, they have sought the formula: not the pure metal of ancient faith or the alloy of non-Jewish culture, but a new spiritual compound that synthesizes the best of Jewish tradition and the best of world culture to produce the "modern Jew."

In the spiritual vacuum between secular believers at the end of Jewish history and Land of Israel fundamentalists, Hartman's proposal for a new path to Jewish renaissance is virtually a lone voice in the wilderness. In his search for meaning, he tracks down the roots of the redemptive spirituality of the right and offers alternative roots of his own - roots that are no less deep and no less authoritative, and most importantly, capable of providing beauty and shade not only for the inhabitants of settlement ghettos and religious neighborhoods but for all members of Israeli society, whether they observe the commandments or not. Not biblical Judaism stuck in the past, but dynamic Judaism founded on wisdom and ethics from the Talmud to Maimonides. Not active messianism that tests God at every moment of history, but logical, rational spirituality that can satisfy the needs of those who seek depth, significance and rationality in a single package.

This is a project that Hartman takes personally. "One of the tasks of a Jewish philosopher living in Israel is to articulate a vision of Judaism that can empower and energize these spiritual and intellectual needs," he writes. Hartman is battling on two fronts simultaneously: He wants the secular public to remain a partner to the Jewish spiritual experience, and the religious public, to replace its prophet, Yehuda Halevi, with Maimonides.

Both are among the giants of the Middle Ages. "Yehuda Halevi [is the] spiritual precursor of religious Zionism," writes Hartman. "His great love for the Hebrew language and poetry, his yearning for Zion - and his interpretation of exile as a national disease - have contributed to the widespread perception of Halevi as the prototypical philosopher of modern religious Jewry and one of the most beloved spiritual forbears of modern Zionism."

So what makes Maimonides preferable? According to Hartman, there are two basic models of Jewish identity. Rabbi Yehuda Levi represents the narrow tribal model in which the whole world, from creation to redemption, revolves around the fate of the Jewish people, and the process of Jewish national renaissance is part of a continuum leading to messianic deliverance. The second model, represented by Maimonides, perceives the Jewish people as a component in a broad, universal scheme and Israel as a member of the family of nations. Secularism and secular Jews are thus an inseparable part of the body and soul of the nation. The gods of history of Gush Emunim versus the gods of the world envisioned by Hartman and his school.

For Hartman, the Israel-United States connection keeps the creative juices and the electrical current flowing. Both pose problems; both offer solutions. Somewhere deep inside, he seems to accept the idea that Zionism can have more than one spiritual center. The tension between Israeli Zionism and American Judaism is the raw material Hartman uses to build the foundations for continued Jewish existence, now that the majority of Jews, for the first time in history, are no longer living under an immediate threat to their survival.

Instead of the Bible - the foundational text of the pioneers in the early days of Zionism - Hartman proposes a new text for the Jewish discourse of the 21st century: the Talmudic debate and Maimonidean philosophy. He offers us a Jewish theology where God is not constantly being put to the test, as in: Auschwitz - there is no God; victory on the soccer field - there is a God. Hartman writes: "Maimonides ... [lessens] our vulnerability to the triumphant gods of history, be they conquering armies, nationalism, materialism, or whatever the modern equivalents are of the biblical God who promises well-being and security in exchange for obedience."

`Religious anthropology'

"Israelis and Jewish Tradition" is the second book in a fascinating series, coming after "A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism," which won the National Jewish Book Award. "A Living Covenant" focuses on the covenant between God and the people of Israel consolidated at Mt. Sinai.

"My approach to the rabbinic tradition, it must be emphasized, is selective and conceptual. It is in no way an attempt at historical analysis. It is totally thematic and related to my philosophical concern with trying to locate specific tendencies or possibilities within the rabbinic tradition that could be supportive of a covenantal religious anthropology, capable of participating adequately in the challenges of modernity," writes Hartman.

In "A Living Covenant," Hartman already lays out the heart of his philosophy: "The starting point for my argument is the religious anthropology of Maimonides, in which human reason is given the highest function for the development of religious passion."

This book goes one step further, probing the basic structures of Israeli society. "Along with many Israelis," he writes, "I believe that we can find new ways of integrating the Jewish traditions with modern culture and values." In other words, Hartman comes out of the ghetto, extending a hand from the provinces of Judaism to the secular public and ultimately proposing that Israelis and Jews renew their partnership. Hartman offers the modern Israeli a way of life that is neither entirely religious nor entirely secular, but somewhere in the middle.

"I am of the opinion that the secular option no longer works for many Israelis who wish to reconnect with their Jewish spiritual heritage," Hartman explains in the introduction. "Israelis and the Jewish Tradition," based on a series of lectures delivered by Hartman at Yale University in the late 1990s, has now appeared in a masterful Hebrew translation by Hartman's devoted student, Rabbi Dr. Noam Zohar. In the first chapter, Hartman explores the religious crisis and problems of identity faced by the modern Jew. In the second chapter, he discusses the philosophy of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, in which human history is harnessed to a nationalist outlook. The third and fourth chapters are devoted to a detailed study of Maimonides and his universalistic approach. The book ends with a chapter whose title speaks for itself: "Halakhic Sobriety and Inclusiveness."

"Halakha and the rabbinate will change," maintains Hartman, "when people concerned with egalitarianism, human rights and social justice view the Jewish tradition as the national context in which to express their concerns."

This book, in other words, is an invitation to the secular public to resume an active role in shaping tradition, because Judaism is too precious to be left exclusively in religious hands.