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February 13, 1987 - Image 38

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-02-13

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a law-laden religion concerned with obedi-
ence, Judaism, says Hartman, is deeply
concerned with individual freedom. He
sees prayer not as an admission of power-
lessness but as a vehicle for personal ex-
pression; history not as ordained but as a
product of human action; and the estab-
lishment of the State of Israel not only as
the fulfillment of prophecy but as an op-
portunity to implement the covenant
today and to test the viability of Judaism
as a way of life.
"Why would a Jew from America, and
later from Canada, come to live in Israel?"
he asks of himself. "Because he is touched
by the holy dream, because it means
engaging in a battle where philosophers are
as important as generals, and because he
believes Israel is too important to be left
to the Israelis."
Despite the intensity of his feelings, or
perhaps because of them, humor is never
far from the surface in Hartman's conver-
sations. Indeed, he sounds at times like a
cross between a serious philosopher and a
Catskills comedian, his almost manic
laughter punctuating his remarks. As
when he explains how the rabbis of old
used the laws of kashrut "to make it im-
possible for us to live with non-Jews —
because how long can you keep turning
down your neighbor's invitation for a meal
by saying 'I ate already.' " He launches into
a routine about how isolated he feels when
he is served his kosher meal on an airplane
and must contend with endless reams of
aluminum foil to dispose of. "And that's
precisely the point — to make us different."
Halacha, says Hartman, "creates a com-
munity in opposition to the world." And
yet he believes fervently that Halacha can
and must be made compatible with the
world, with modernity. That is the center
of his approach to Judaism. And the
challenge is "to cherish and hold on to the
traditions while saying 'yes' to modern life
— to be able to live with that enormous
Hartman believes that "if we don't ad-
just to modernity and the acceptance of
diversity and find mechanisms for living
together, the great experiment will fail.

Israel will not persevere."
But he takes a long-term approach to the
burning issues of the day, suggesting that
the resolution of the Who Is A Jew debate
may take 200 years to solve. "The em-
phasis today on resolution is dangerous
and self-deluding," says Hartman. "I'm not
looking for unity among Jews, but for
honest, passionate disagreement. We've
got to get our hands dirty. We have to
accept that Jews are divided and we can't
change that. And most of all, we've got to
study. Now is not the time for deciding.
Now is the time for learning."

Part of Hartman's mission in leaving the
rabbinate after 18 years and settling in
Israel was to establish an educational
center. The Shalom Hartman Institute,
folinded in 1976 in memory of Hartman's
father, offers a unique approach to the
study and application of the Ibrah in the
context of a modern society which is both
pluralistic and non-authoritarian. It offers
scholars and students a fellowship in which
to develop an approach to Judaism, respon-
sive to both ancient tradition and the cur-
rent reality of life in a Jewish state. (See

In calling for a return to serious ques-
tioning and study, David Hartman says he
is terrified by the burden of charting a new
path within Jewish tradition. "Who am I
to write about these issues?" he asks. "But
the Talmud teaches us that the 'Farah is not
in heaven, it is a living tradition, for us here
on earth, and God does not require obe-
dience of us, He requires understanding. \
God accepts us as limited but somehow He
needs us. We shouldn't seek certainty, or
believe there is only one way. We need to
find a path, an approach to Him, and we
must begin.
"The key is to let people sense the vitali-
ty in all of this. I try to excite people's im-
agination. I tell them not to be frightened
or timid, but to strive for a bold new
outlook. In Israel, we have to irrigate
Halacha as well as the land. Moses never
gave up on the dream of our becoming a
holy people, and I want to help realize that
dream." ❑

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