Rabbi David Hartman: Philosopher who brought a liberal approach to Judaism


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The Independent Online

Rabbi David Hartman, who died on 10 February aged 81, was one of the world's leading Jewish philosophers, who promoted Jewish pluralism and interfaith dialogue. Brooklyn-born, he brought a more liberal Judaism to the conservative brand commonplace in Israel, where he moved in 1971 after holding rabbinical posts in the US and Canada.

He developed a unique philosophy which positioned man 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 man in a dialogue with God, rather than as an obedient, unquestioning worshipper. He promoted thoughtful criticism and interpretation of Jewish texts and laws, spawning a generation of thinkers who continue to challenge what is 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 Hartman.

Hartman's death comes amid an ongoing clash between the more liberal streams of Reform and Conservative Judaism and Israel's ultra-Orthodox establishment. The liberal streams want more recognition for their traditions in Israel, where they are marginal, although they predominate among American Jews.

While Hartman adhered to the Orthodox tradition, he was known for his efforts to promote understanding between Jews of various affiliations both inside and outside Israel. In 2011 he spoke out against some religious groups in Israel for their strict interpretation of some aspects of Jewish law. "It's insane, insane," he said. "These people emphasise marginal issues. The important thing is loving kindness ... Do you think people will want to enter a spiritual life made up only of what is forbidden, forbidden, forbidden?"

The Shalom Hartman Institute he founded was testament to his openness, drawing Jews from many streams, and accepting women as well as men. Hartman was a proponent of women's rights within the religion, 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 said in 2011. His daughter, Tova Hartman, is a leading Israeli Jewish feminist and one of the founders of an Orthodox feminist synagogue in Jerusalem.

"He advanced political Jewish thought in Israel to a more progressive, democratic and brave place," said Ruth Calderon, a member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, who studied under Hartman in the 1980s.

Hartman extended his hand to other religions, hosting a yearly theological conference where priests, imams and rabbis debate and discuss universal issues such as death, prayer or tolerance.