The Covenantal Thought of David Hartman
For more than a week, the Jewish world has echoed with laments for the passing of David Hartman, the renowned Jewish philosopher, charismatic educator, and visionary institution builder. Trained as a modern Orthodox rabbi, Hartman served as a communal rabbi in a number of Orthodox communities in North America before immigrating to Israel, where he was a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University for over 20 years. Convinced that neither the traditional yeshiva nor the university was completely adequate as a means for the transmission of Jewish culture and the creation of Jewish commitment, he established the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Within the framework of an alternative beit midrash that bridged the cultural divide between religious and secular Jews, he developed a new approach to the study of Talmud, one which undermined the sharp distinction between aggadah and halakhah. Just as important, he fostered the growth of a research community that rejected the conventional partition between academic scholarship and engagement with problems of Jewish existence. Similarly, in his theological reflections, Hartman attempted to do away with conceptions and divisions that he felt were toxic to the Jewish community. In particular, he viewed the supposed dichotomy between authoritative Orthodoxy and autonomous liberalism as damaging both to the Orthodox and to the liberal Jew. His innovative attempt to recalibrate the balance between divine authority and human freedom within the Jewish covenantal framework found expression in scores of articles and books in which Hartman articulated one of the most significant contemporary Jewish theologies.
There has not yet been as much research as there should be on Hartman's rich scholarly and theological oeuvre. But the beginnings have been made, and they include Simon Cooper's recently published work Contemporary Covenantal Thought: Interpretations of Covenant in the Thought of David Hartman and Eugene Borowitz. In this book Cooper outlines the major contours of Hartman's covenantal theology, comparing it to that of the contemporary Reform Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz. Cooper explores various facets of both men’s Jewish philosophies, focusing especially on the extent to which they acknowledge human freedom within the covenantal framework, their views on the authority of Jewish law, and the impact of the Holocaust on their thought. Yet Cooper is probably most illuminating in his probing discussion of the historical and cultural context from which Hartman and Borowitz’s covenantal thought emerged. He demonstrates that the two thinkers, despite their different backgrounds and denominational affiliations, were both responding to the mid-20th century reconfiguration of American Jewish philosophy. Indeed, both had belonged to a group of Jewish thinkers from different denominations that met intermittently during the second half of the 1960s in the Laurentian Mountains outside of Montreal. Hartman initiated and hosted the gatherings, which included Emil Fackenheim and Irving Greenberg as well as other prominent figures. Over the subsequent years, many of these men joined Hartman and Borowitz in developing new understandings of the idea of covenant, with an emphasis on the living relationship and human partnership with God.
Cooper's lucid and accessible analysis of Hartman's covenantal theology shows how Hartman responds to what he considers the most powerful element of the modern critique of religion: the tendency of religion in general and Judaism in particular to promote feelings of resignation and powerlessness. Hartman insists that the Jewish tradition possesses a covenantal metaphor which not only instills a sense of human adequacy but actually empowers the Jew. The tradition at times depicts the covenant between the Jew and God as resembling the relationship between husband and wife. God can thus be understood to have invited the Jews to enter into this intimate relationship, and the Jews, for their part, commit themselves to a life of mitzvot, which constitutes an expression of the human love of God rather than mere acceptance of divine authority. God also acts within this relationship as a teacher, encouraging His human partners to assume increased responsibility and initiative.
According to Hartman, God gradually educates His people toward moral responsibility, intellectual freedom, and participation in the drama of history. Hartman is well aware, of course, of contrary voices within the tradition, such as the biblical account of Abraham's sacrificing Isaac, which underscore the need for self-sacrifice and fear of God. Yet he believes that his own approach to the covenant, which portrays the covenant as a partnership, will allow Jews committed to the modern value of autonomy to retain their commitment to halakhic observance. He also avers that a religious consciousness grounded in a sense of autonomy, responsibility, and creativity is a higher form of spirituality and a more mature religiosity.
Hartman never ceased to grapple with his conception of the covenant and the extent to which halakhah allows for human freedom and initiative. In fact, in the last few years, he began to express a more critical stance vis-à-vis the halakhic system. Never unwilling to question his beliefs and values, Hartman concluded that he had underestimated the ethical problems related to the halakhic treatment of women and converts. This shift is manifest in his last work, The God Who Hates Lies, co-authored with Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz. Here the uncompromising spirit, which characterizes Hartman’s philosophy as a whole, makes one of its last appearances in print. Hartman’s challenging and prophetic voice, which was animated by a deep love for the Jewish people and the Torah, will be sorely missed.
Dr. Ari Ackerman is a lecturer in Jewish Education and Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
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