The Living Covenant of David Hartman

The pluralistic worldview to which David Hartman subscribed was based on his belief that the covenant between man and his God is, in a deep sense, a covenant that validates difference and diversity.

Avi Sagi
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Avi Sagi

Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, who died on Sunday, was one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century.

He was a special person: a thinker, educator and revolutionary visionary. After the Six-Day War, Hartman chose to move the center of his life to Israel. He did so out of a deep religious sense that only in Israel is the Jewish people the subject of history rather than its object; that here the Jewish nation can forge a complete Jewish way of life that includes the public sphere as well as the private. Hartman's Zionism came not from a position of messianism, but rather from a deep recognition of every Jewish Israeli's responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people.

And he sought to partake of that responsibility during his lifetime. His decision was not a purely personal one. Rather, it was the byproduct and the fulfillment of his spiritual world.

At the center of Hartman's world was the idea of the covenant between man and his God, out of which Hartman derived man's partnership in and responsibility for shaping the real history in which he lives.

The human partner is not an abstract being or beingness, it is always a real being that lives in particular life circumstances and within present-time values systems. This, then is the eternally renewing covenant between God and historical man and the nation, throughout the vicissitudes of his life. The covenant at Sinai leads to the covenant in Zion, as in the Hebrew title of Hartman's master work, "A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism," which translates to "From Sinai to Zion."
Recognition of the real partnership between God and man leads Hartman to a daring and original conclusion.

In contrast to Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who reasoned that the believer must sacrifice his principles in the name of "love God and fear Him," Hartman comes to the opposite conclusion: Since the covenant is with a real being, it validates the existence and the principles of the real human being. It follows from this that the covenant is a meeting between the past and the present that renews the past. This understanding underpins the development of a pluralistic worldview founded upon respect for the beliefs and the principles of human beings. The covenant with God is, in a deep sense, a covenant that validates difference and diversity.

This pluralism does not stop with the religious-Jewish sphere: No, it encompasses within it the non-believing Jew and even the non-Jew. This, because the covenant in which God entrusts history to human beings means trusting in men's judgments and values. With this, Hartman formulates an open and dynamic position that honors the values of human beings and the ways in which they establish their culture and history.

This stance rejects the common idea according to which I cannot be faithful to my principles if I reject the values of others. At the foundation of this concept is the assumption that only by negating the world of others do my own world and values gain validity. Hartman took a clear position against this: loyalty to values means man's willingness to live his world completely in a manner that does not depend on or reject other worlds.

In this festive atmosphere of learning, loyalty to tradition was interpreted as a license to criticize, since someone who is faithful to a tradition may criticize and question it. On the other hand, the tradition poses questions to the present. In this unique beit midrash, or place of study, the present meets the past and the past the present, and together they come together to create and they do create an open and dynamic Jewish life, the embodiment of the tradition. Hartman presided over this celebration not as an authoritative teacher figure but as someone who is himself struggling over himself, over tradition, with his students and colleagues. He was a special teacher, whose goal was to enrich and be enriched by others. He did a great deal to grow the learners, and in this growth he found his place. The richness of the Hartman Institute's educational enterprise in Israel and abroad, all of them saturated with a rich, open and dialogic celebration of study, is testament to his actions. This dynamic manner of learning has and will continue to perpetuate his ideas.

Prof. Avi Sagi is a senior research fellow at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute.

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