Halakhic Community, Freedom & the Limits of Jewish Law (David Hartman, z”l)

david hartman

David Hartman was one of the first living Jewish philosophers I encountered in seminar my first year of graduate school in 1988. Raised a proud am-haaretz, A Living Covenant was my second introduction to a liberal form of modern orthodox thought. I came to him a short while after Eliezer Berkovitz. What always drew me to these liberal orthodox thinkers was what I once thought to be the seamless combination of (legal) form and (intellectual) freedom. I have more doubts today about how seamless a synthesis this really is. As orthodox Judaism moves further and further to the right, I think now that the liberals did the best they could. Sadly, I like very much Bernard Avishai’s critical reflections on Hartman that appeared in Open Zion.

Avishai’s piece is very touching tribute that locates Hartman’s thought and the phenomena represented by him in a particular time and set of places, namely the emergence of modern orthodoxy in North America and Israel in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. As a young man on his way out of orthodox Judaism into something more free and secular, Avishai was once very much under Hartman’s influence, about which he writes:

I suppose I would not have been quite so bold in my doubts had I not experienced the Israeli moshav and its cultural Zionism before taking Hartman’s hook. What I saw and felt in Israel in 1967 kept me from swallowing it. I found what he had to say about preserving Jewish civilization in all of its nuances and colors hard to resist. But wasn’t that the real purpose of Israel, which would provide its children the tools to turn all the materials of this civilization into their own poetry? Why organize around Orthodox law, why “halachic community,” if you could have a Jewish national home?  Yehuda Amichai was no less grounded in those materials than Hartman, but his sense of freedom in those materials seemed more natural, less forced. For that matter, so was Saul Bellow’s. 

What I like about these remarks is the way by which Avishai understands how the synthesis of form and freedom was performance, never really seamless. In the end, Avishai helps one understand that the entire project attempted by Hartman ultimately vulnerable  to foundering on too fixed a model of halakhic community in relation to the more loose, cosmopolitan forms of civilization outside its frame. The relation between form and freedom needs to be re-thought, and then re-thought again and then again and again. (A point made by Buber in his Pathways in Utopia).

I’m beginning to think that Hartman and liberal orthodoxy went only half way. In the United States, we can fudge this in ways that you cannot in Israel. About this, A.B. Yehoshua was right so many years ago. The lines require constant attention and re-distribution. It’s too easy to drop the ball, especially when you set up an institute based on your name. Hartman’s is a precious legacy, buffeted by the exigencies of politics and place and ravages of time.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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