Rabbi Hartman offers a ‘theology of response’

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 7-14-11

Although he moved from Montreal to Jerusalem in 1971, Rabbi David Hartman still inspires many Canadians with his warmth, his passion and his brilliance.

Similarly, as his new book makes clear, his experiences as a Montreal rabbi continue to shape him, too. In The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition, Hartman continues struggling with some of the dilemmas congregants shared with him. His response has triggered his bold approach to Halachah, Jewish law, as he seeks to “embrace a tradition that embraces a God who embraces life.”

A courageous thinker, Rabbi Hartman runs toward the very conflicts others flee. Struggling with the agunah question, the purgatory a woman suffers when her husband does not give her a signed divorce decree, he recalls one “major modern Orthodox halachic authority” who told him: “This is my personal Akedah,” comparing his frustration over this archaic rule with the test of faith God imposed on Abraham by binding Isaac for sacrifice. “Your Akedah,” Rabbi Hartman snapped. “Is that supposed to bring comfort to the abandoned woman whose life is passing her by?” Rabbi Hartman recoils from “this theological posturing, with its distasteful rhetoric of rabbinic helplessness and suffering.”

As a young rabbi, Rabbi Hartman was so busy encouraging his congregants to observe the commandments he overlooked what he calls “many of Halachah’s darker moral trends.” He tells the story of Peter, a 45-year-old single congregant who fell in love with Susan. Although both were serious Jews, Peter as a Kohen – a priest – was forbidden from marrying Susan, a convert. This reading of Jewish virtue when it comes to conversions, along with, as he puts it, “the systemic moral challenge of feminism,” propelled Rabbi Hartman into a “meta-halachic” search, trying to understand the central principle underlying Jewish law.

Rabbi Hartman regretfully rejects the “theology of halachic permanence” articulated by his beloved teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. In a powerful chapter asking Where Did Modern Orthodoxy Go Wrong?, Rabbi Hartman critiques Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach, which freezes Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in place,” ignoring “the passing of time” and “the shifting of culture.” Hartman finds the approach “deeply inhuman,” saying, “I must part company with a view of Halachah that takes it out of history and out of human experience…. I do not think that loyalty to and love for this tradition requires exiting history or exiting life.”

Instead, Rabbi Hartman offers what he calls a “theology of response” based on the talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.” The “God who hates lies” wants us to respond to our experiences, to our moral sensibilities, as they develop, to “incorporate” them “into our spiritual and ritual lives.” Accepting the premise that “reality speaks,” Rabbi Hartman identifies an authentic, historically rooted, Jewish theology that allows Peter to marry Susan because “identity drawn from choice and behaviour” trumps “identify as a biological gift of the God of Israel.”

This morally driven theology will honour as a Jew the Russian-born Israeli soldier who dies fighting for the Jewish people, even if he may have some non-Jewish blood. This person-centred approach is open to honouring women as equal human beings having been “created in the image of God.” And this sensitivity to history reframes the discussion about religion in the sovereign State of Israel by welcoming new moral horizons, as well as a deeper understanding of peoplehood, loyalty, and identity with a Halachah conceived in Jewish powerlessness now applied and adapted to the new reality of Jews having power.

Critics will rush to caricature Rabbi Hartman’s argument as yet another reformer’s appeal. But serious readers of this book will realize that such a dismissal is too facile. This book is “God-intoxicated” – Rabbi Hartman’s phrase – and text-intoxicated, steeped in a passionate, erudite, creative yet reverential engagement with Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hartman is simply too learned to be ignored so easily. He knows his Maimonides and his Talmud, his Tanach and his Tosefos, rooting his humanistic halachic vision in a lively, learned, traditional reading of the sources.

In the 40 years since he left Montreal, Rabbi Hartman has been a revolutionary, doing good in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world. This prophet of pluralism, this philosopher who rejects falsehood, this rabbi of reason and reach has now posed a serious challenge to his Orthodox colleagues. It is incumbent upon them to read, respond – and maybe even reformulate, if not reform.

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