Saturday, December 17, 2011
I spent Shabbat appropriately by reading David Hartman’s latest book, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition. Hartman, who recently turned 80, is an Orthodox Rabbi who moved to Israel in 1971 and founded the Shalom Hartman Institute. He moved from Montreal where he had been serving as the Rabbi of an Orthodox Congregation. The Shalom Hartman Institute is self-described as a “center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges facing the Jewish people and elevates the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.” One of Hartman’s sons, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the current president of the Institute. Hartman’s daughter, Tova, is one of the founders of Shira Hadasha, an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem.
The God Who Hates Lies is partly an autobiographical spiritual journey tracing the time that Hartman spent in Orthodox Yeshivas growing up to his experiences as a pulpit Rabbi. But the book then turns to Hartman’s development of his own theological outlook. Exposed to a range of ideas at Fordham University and Yeshiva University, Hartman began to contemplate how to reconcile the traditional view of revelatory halakha (Jewish law) with the realities of a modern world, while still within an Orthodox Jewish framework. Three particular issues seem to have caught his attention.
The first is the issue of gender equality in Judaism, brought to his consciousness most dramatically by his daughter. “A persistent, committed and sharply insightful evaluation of how these issues were treated by much of the halakhic and Orthodox theological world revealed to me how inadequate the tradition had been in dealing with such a fundamental challenge.” Hartman concludes that he could not justify the continued Orthodox exclusion of women from a minyan (from being counted as part of the 10 person quorum required for Jewish prayer). How can a woman, for example, who is trusted in the courtroom or the hospital, or any other profession or occupation in society at large, be treated with the same status limitations as a child or a slave in the synagogue?
Hartman’s second area of concern relates to the interaction with the non-Jewish world and with traditional Orthodox views of non-observant and secular Jews, non-Jews and would be converts. As in the case with gender equality issues, Hartman challenges the traditional Orthodox notions of interaction in these areas.
Thirdly, Hartman seeks to reposition the centrality of the role of the State of Israel as a key aspect of the rebirth of the Jewish people and with a dynamic and changing role in the development of halakha in a vibrant way that is not stagnant and mired in the past. His book is particularly scornful of ultra-religious (Haredi) communities which are anti-Zionist, refuse to serve in the army, participate in the development of the State and contribute to the economic well-being of Israel. He views their interpretation of Jewish law as unchanging, divinely revealed and impervious to the outside world as fundamentally dangerous to the growth and development of the Jewish people over the long term.
The book addresses each of these areas in some detail. It canvasses many of Judaism’s great thinkers and their respective views of the nature of Jewish Law. It then moves to Hartman’s view of halakha as a “communally mediated religious system dedicated to seeking God’s presence in every aspect of life,” which is defined as having different ways in which it can function. Although it can be viewed in traditional fashion, as an obligatory legal system, Hartman proposes that it can also be viewed as an educational system. In either case, Hartman arrives at certain core problems where present-day normative halakha meets moral challenges that do not appear to be answered appropriately in the modern world.
Certainly, some questions come to mind when assessing Hartman’s approach. What is the source of the morality upon which he relies to question the morality of some current halakhic difficulties? It may be tautological. Or it may be that the exposure to present day values of equality and other aspects of liberalism trump, in Hartman’s mind, some halakhic ideas that hearken back to a time of many hundreds of years earlier.
The most problematic issues that Hartman addresses relate to the role of women. Whether Hartman is discussing the plight of the aguna (a divorced Jewish woman whose ex-husband has not agreed to grant her a divorce certificate and therefore cannot remarry under Jewish law) or the halakhic failings of Jewish legal approaches to women in family life, ritual life and even public life, Hartman is not content to accept traditional Orthodox views in these areas. He discusses the historically accepted concept of gender inequality in Judaism and takes issue with various apologetic rabbis and authors who have sought to justify this inequality. He calls on the need for women to be “initiators, conquerors and builders – even of themselves” starting with their own direct access to the mechanisms of culture, the sacred tradition.
In a concluding chapter entitled “The God Who Hates Lies: Choosing Life in the Midst of Uncertainty,” Hartman speaks about the need to continue to develop the authentic Israeli public that is dealing with halakhic issues in a relevant and modern way. A quintessential Zionist, Hartman devotes much of the final chapter to a discussion of the way in which the State of Israel can and does play a central role in defining the face of the Jewish world. Hartman’s quest, as embodied by the goals of his institute is to embrace of vision of Jewish law which responds to the “shifting cultural landscapes of our ever-emerging historical drama.”
Though the book falls short in presenting concrete proposals for dealing with many of these vexing issues in a way that might be considered acceptable in Orthodox circles (that may not be possible today), it is quite an interesting read. Theologically, as some critics have maintained, it probably positions Hartman very close to Conservative Judaism but Hartman does not make that leap. For example, he does not expressly call for fully egalitarian, mixed seating prayer services in his book, which would be the logical response to the questions he poses. However, he does offer a level of respect to non-Orthodox Jewish denominations that is all too often sorely absent.