Philosopher Rabbi David Hartman dies at 81
The Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by the rabbi more than 30 years ago, said Hartman died yesterday after a long illness.
The Brooklyn-born Hartman was known for bringing a more liberal Judaism to the conservative brand commonplace in Israel, where he moved in 1971 after holding rabbinical posts in the United States and Canada.
He is praised for having developed a unique Jewish philosophy which positioned man at the center of Judaism, opening the door to a more tolerant approach that took personal choice and experience into greater account. Hartman's 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 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 Hartman.
Hartman's death comes amid an ongoing clash between the more liberal streams of Reform and Conservative Judaism and Israel's strict, ultra-Orthodox establishment, which has growing political power and has become increasingly resistant to any inroads by those movements. The liberal streams are demanding more recognition for their traditions in Israel, where they are marginal, although they predominate among American Jews, the largest group of the Jewish Diaspora.
While Hartman adhered to the Orthodox tradition, he pushed for a Judaism that was tolerant and open-minded.
In a 2011 interview to the Yediot Ahronot daily, Hartman spoke out against some religious groups in Israel for their strict interpretation of some aspects of Jewish law.
"It's insane, insane," Hartman said. "These people emphasize marginal issues. The important thing is loving kindness.
"They 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 Shalom Hartman Institute was testament to his openness, drawing Jews from many streams, different backgrounds, and accepting men as well as women.
"I can't see a Judaism that flourishes" while considering women to be "second rate," he told NPR in 2011. His daughter, Tova Hartman, is a leading Israeli Jewish feminist and one of the founders of an Orthodox feminist synagogue in Jerusalem.