Rabbi David Hartman was a world-renowned U.S.-born philosopher who promoted both Jewish pluralism and interfaith dialogue and who got his start in Canada.
In Montreal’s tight-knit Jewish community, his is still a household name as a pulpit rabbi who helped shepherd his flock through some tumultuous times. Since 1976, his name has been most closely associated with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a respected study centre he created to express his commitment to pluralism by bringing together leaders from all strains of Judaism.
Dr. Hartman won praise for having developed a unique Jewish philosophy that positioned humanity at the centre of Judaism, opening the door to a more tolerant approach that took personal choice and experience into greater account. His line of thought places people in a dialogue with God, rather than as obedient, unquestioning worshippers.
“He was a public philosopher for the Jewish people,” said Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard who has written about Dr. Hartman’s work. “As Maimonides drew Aristotle into conversation with Moses and Rabbi Akiva, so Hartman renovated Jewish thought by bringing the liberal sensibilities to bear on Talmudic argument.”
A charismatic teacher and prolific author, he promoted thoughtful criticism and interpretation of Jewish texts and laws among his students, spawning a generation of thinkers who continue to challenge what’s traditionally accepted or forbidden under Jewish law.
“Contrary to his teachers who saw Jewish law as signed and sealed, he chose to see it as a type of language where the past and present interact,” said Avi Sagi, a professor of philosophy at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University who studied and worked with Dr. Hartman.
Though he followed the Orthodox stream, Dr. Hartman pushed for a Judaism that was more open-minded. He was known for his efforts to promote understanding between Jews of various affiliations both inside and outside Israel.
In a 2011 interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, he spoke out against some religious groups in Israel for their strict interpretation of what he saw as minutiae in Jewish law.
“It’s insane, insane,” he declared. “These people emphasize trivial things. We lost the deeper meaning,” he said. “Do you think that people will want to enter a spiritual life made up only of what is forbidden, forbidden, forbidden?
“The important thing is loving kindness.”
At the centre of his thinking was “a kind of counter-religious idea, where religious life is a life of affirmation, not a life of denial,” said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University and Dr. Hartman’s former son-in-law.
Dr. Hartman was the founding spiritual leader of Montreal’s Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem. His start there, in 1960, coincided with the first stirrings of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, and he helped guide a jittery, mostly Anglophone Jewish community through the turbulent growth of separatist sentiments. He left for Israel with his family in 1971 as part of a generation of Zionists inspired by the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Charles Taylor met Dr. Hartman when Dr. Taylor was professor of philosophy at McGill University and the young rabbi went to teach there (he would subsequently receive his doctorate in philosophy from the university). Dr. Taylor told The Media Line, a Mideast news service, that what impressed him most was Dr. Hartman’s ability to bring secular Jewish intellectuals together with people with deep knowledge of Jewish law and exegesis. “He brought these conversations together and was able to break down the wall between secularists and religionists.”
Dr. Hartman died at his home in Jerusalem on Feb. 10, at the age of 81, following a lengthy illness.
David Hartman was born on Sept. 11, 1931, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, one of six children of Shalom and Batya Hartman, Hasidim who had moved to New York from Palestine. Donniel Hartman, David’s son, said the family was poor – Shalom peddled sheets and pillowcases door to door – but that the four boys became rabbis and the two girls married rabbis.
David was educated at the Lakewood Yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., which was considered the most prestigious yeshiva for North American Jews, and was ordained by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, perhaps the most important Orthodox thinker of the 20th century.
Dr. Hartman published several books in English and Hebrew, including two about Maimonides, the great Torah scholar of the Middle Ages; one on the theological legacy of Dr. Soloveitchik; and two about his own spiritual evolution.
He was an adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert; Teddy Kollek, the longtime mayor of Jerusalem; and Zevulun Hammer, Israel’s education minister from 1977 to 1984.
“He combined an active rabbinate with excellent and creative scholarship,” said Concordia University religion professor Ira Robinson. “He also combined a spirit of openness toward the world of general culture and philosophy with a maximal Judaism. Similarly, he had an openness toward the entire spectrum of Judaic interpretation that was possible in an Orthodox rabbi in the 1960s and is less prevalent in Orthodoxy nowadays.”
Dr. Hartman was a proponent of women’s rights within Judaism, where a battle is being waged between some of Israel’s Orthodox rabbis and those who support broadening women’s roles. “I can’t see a Judaism that flourishes” while considering women to be “second rate,” he told National Public Radio in 2011. His daughter, Tova Hartman, is a leading Israeli feminist and one of the founders of an Orthodox feminist synagogue in Jerusalem.
The Shalom Hartman Institute, which Dr. Hartman founded in his father’s name, has become a theological and cultural landmark, particularly for the thousands of Diaspora Jews who attend conferences or spend summers studying there.
But Dr. Hartman’s progressive, universalistic approach was embraced more in the United States than in Israel, where some challenged his status as Orthodox and shunned his open-mindedness as heresy. He received honorary doctorates from Yale and Hebrew Union College, a Reform institution with three branches in the United States and one in Jerusalem, but not – to his painful regret, people close to him said – the coveted Israel Prize.
Besides his son Donniel, who replaced him as president of the Hartman Institute, Dr. Hartman leaves four other children, 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He also leaves his former wife, Barbara; the couple were married and divorced twice.