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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Rabbi Hartman’s heartfelt answer to the heartless rabbis

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-5-11

Anyone who doubts the importance of protecting freedom of speech should watch the farce unfolding in Jerusalem over that despicable book Torat HaMelekh, which misreads Jewish texts to justify killing non-Jews during wartime. By summoning the leading rabbis who vouched for the book to deny allegations of incitement, the police gave the book a publicity bonanza. Hundreds of young Yeshiva hooligans protested – sometimes violently. The media confused this defense of the rabbis with a defense of that hateful book, further publicizing it. Meanwhile, rightists wondered why their rabbis get interrogated while leftists advocating terrorism are undisturbed. The police should ignore them all.

Freedom of speech reflects faith in the people along with distrust of the authorities. I trust the people – and the free marketplace of ideas – to reject the book’s ugly lies. And I doubt the Israeli police’s ability to handle this complex halakhic argument effectively.

Silly me. I want the police preventing burglaries, solving murders, untangling traffic, crushing the underworld – while avoiding politics and intellectual life. Especially considering that officers felt compelled to interrogate Avigdor Lieberman the day after he became foreign minister, yet 27 months later the case remains open, I confess to trust issues with the Israeli police – or any police force – regarding delicate political or intellectual matters.

We should remember Natan Sharansky’s “public square test” for healthy democracies, asking if citizens can denounce their government publicly – and even say hateful things – without fearing arrest or bodily harm. We also should remember that in today’s media-ocracy, conflict rules, making this hysterical media circus predictable – and best avoided.

Israel – led by religious Zionists – needs a strong chorus refuting the book. Professor Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa – a renowned Maimonides scholar who learned at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva – is one of many religious scholars disgusted by the book. Claiming the authors spend more than 200 pages “misusing Maimonides” to support their “twisted conclusions,” Kellner calls the book biased, “intellectually dishonest,” “seriously anti-Zionist,” guilty of “conceptual confusion” in failing to “distinguish among gentiles, Noachides, and idolaters.” The book makes “the “astounding (and wholly unsupported in the halakhic tradition) assumption that the lives of Gentiles who are not ‘resident aliens’ have no meaning and no legitimacy.” The authors, Kellner concludes, are “either evil, or idiots, or both.”

Rabbi Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, urged Orthodox rabbis worldwide, especially Israel’s chief rabbis, to denounce the text “as a perversion of Judaism, cloaking itself as an authoritative interpretation of Jewish biblical law.” And the “Twelfth of Heshvan,” a coalition of Religious Zionist organizations recalling the day of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, petitioned the Supreme Court seeking to confiscate the work and arrest the authors. While rejecting these methods, I am glad to see religious forces fighting this evil.

Fortunately, one of the world’s leading philosophers and rabbinic authorities, Rabbi David Hartman, just published a powerful book criticizing the underlying culture which spawned these perversions. Hartman’s concerns are tamer – issues of conversion, women in Judaism, and the need for Haredi and religious Jews to embrace Israel’s great moral potential as a modern Jewish state. But his vision of what he calls a “God-intoxicated Halakha,” Jewish law consecrated by God and tradition yet responsive to the developing wonders of the world God created, implicitly counters the petty, insular, immoral, ideological cesspools where distorted readings of Jewish tradition fester.

Rabbi Hartman’s “meta-Halakhic” approach spurns modern Orthodoxy’s rigidity, as articulated by Hartman’s beloved mentor, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik. Hartman rejects Soloveitchik’s “theology of halakhic permanence” for freezing Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in place,” ignoring “the passing of time,” neglecting “the shifting of culture,” and sometimes snubbing Jews the rabbis originally discounted, especially women and converts. Hartman believes that The God Who Hates Lies – the book’s title – would never want halakha taken “out of history and out of human experience.”

Instead, Hartman builds his “theology of response” on the Talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.” Having created humans in His own image, God wants us to “incorporate” experiences, moral imperatives, new insights “into our spiritual and ritual lives.” Mixing human needs and moral development into the midrash’s “living waters” of tradition will create a more vital, humane, and authentic halakha.

Hartman seeks this individually and collectively, excited as he is by the theological possibilities offered by the great political revolution of re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in Israel. He wants to explore the “religious significance of Israel’s experiment in building a total Jewish society.” And he wants an “Israel where we could witness the ethical spirit of Torah manifested in a sovereign Jewish society.”

Hartman’s relationship to God is intense, personal. His book brims with passion while being embedded in substance. Religious and non-religious Jews should answer his call. This is one formidable Jew whose Judaism throbs with the sensuality of Yehudah HaLevi, the rigor of Maimonides, the depth of the Vilna Gaon, the wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the moral “musar” of Israel Salanter — leavened and actually more fully realized by the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, the idealism of Martin Luther King, the humanism of Betty Friedan – many of whose ideas, of course, stemmed from the Bible.

Alas, this important, challenging, spiritually-stretching and rich text is not making headlines. I would prefer to see Israelis debating Rabbi Hartman’s grand ideas than those of the hateful little rabbis. I would prefer to see Israel, Zionism, and Judaism judged by Hartman’s pluralism and openness than by the provincial Yeshiva hooligans swarming the Supreme Court. While I am sure his publisher and the Shalom Hartman Institute he founded – where I have a research fellowship – have a publicity plan, maybe someone knows an overzealous police captain who wants to ban the book, and help it sell?

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com