Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
David Hartman with Charlie Buckholtz, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2011)
Two adolescent encounters with two important teachers shaped the person I have become and formed the core of my scholarly and personal values. One was with David Hartman, then a young rabbi. I had just given what I thought was an imaginative d’var Torah at a Yeshiva University Young Leadership Seminar. Self-impressed with my seeming erudition, I quoted original sources, Biblical and Rabbinic—even Maimonides commentary on the prohibitions of an Israelite King acquiring too many horses or marrying too many wives. Hartman approached me and asked: “Do you believe what you said and did you say what you believed? Or did you merely want to appear impressive and not rile up your audience?” I internalized his question and have asked it again and again whenever I speak and whenever I write.
I kept thinking of this encounter as I read his newest book, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition.
A bit of biography: Hartman is best known for founding the Shalom Hartman Institute, a meeting ground for secular and religious Israelis of many stripes and a place where rabbis of all denominations from the Diaspora (many from the United States) study classic texts together—where the sacred text becomes the bond that bridges great denominational divides. The Hartman Institute is the Red Heifer of the modern Jewish world, a mediating institution where the sacred and secular enrich each other intellectually and Jewishly. Its offerings are wide and its institutional writings significant.
The pure, those who prefer the shelters of their intellectual ghettos, are contaminated, albeit but for a while, while the impure encounter the sacred and are touched by it, sometimes for a lifetime.
Hartman was a product of the Haredi community. He studied in Lakewood and came to Yeshiva University where he met his mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who combined unquestioned Talmudic brilliance with Western philosophical mastery. He created a system that insulated his religious life and observance from his encounter with Western civilization and its values. He wrote:
“When Halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand. He orientates himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles… His approach begins with an ideal world and concludes with a real one.”
Hartman became the Rav’s protégée and, until now, his fierce defender.
Ordained by Yeshiva University, he was advised by the Rav to go to the Jesuits, to New York’s Fordham University for his doctoral training in Philosophy. For 18 years he was a successful, charismatic and influential rabbi in Montreal. He went to Israel in the post-1967 exuberance, hoping to bring the insights of his Judaism to bear on the great questions facing Israeli society, which could no longer operate within the four cubits of Halakha but had to confront all the issues facing a modern state. Today, his Shalom Hartman Institute may be one of the last and most creative bastions of a religious Zionism that is not Messianic.
Ironically, Hartman preferred to be seen as a religious thinker, not as an institution builder. Yet like Martin Buber before him, he was best appreciated abroad, not in Israel. His scholarship was too relevant, too engaged with the here and now (and perhaps too popular for the academics) and his concerns too religious for the bulk of secular Israelis. Yiddish is his favorite, his warmest and most expressive tongue. His English is tinged with Yiddish and his Hebrew is infused with English.
Now fourscore years of age, Hartman has written a powerful and painful book. It marks an important break with his great teacher and mentor on a point central to both student and disciple—the history and Halakha. Soloveitchik could encounter history because his philosophy of Halakha insulated him from history and Hartman wants Halakha, especially in Israel, to engage every aspect of history from welfare to warfare, from economics to ecology.
This work may also be an even deeper severing of ties with the Orthodoxy that has emerged in this generation. A generation ago, Hartman’s attempt at synthesis and dialogue, his confrontation with the modern world and Orthodox sensibilities would have made him a hero of modern Orthodoxy. A generation ago, he also could have shifted to Conservative Judaism, whose central motif then was the struggle between tradition and change, creating a Halakha responsive to history, but the distance is too great today. After this latest work, he will find himself in no man’s land, confined to a community of fellow seekers who dwell in two worlds, the world of Torah and Halakha and the modern world with all its challenges. His institutional role should allow him to create Jews who are fervent, but not fanatical, proud and pious, and also pluralistic. For both “types,” the study of sacred text is absolutely central.
For Hartman, three issues force the confrontation with the Orthodoxy of his youth and, painfully, with the person who had been his model of coexistence between the Halakhic and the modern.
The first issue is the treatment of women within Halakha, including the inability (inability is too soft a word, more accurately we should describe it as ‘the adamant refusal’) of the Orthodox Rabbinate, especially in Israel, to solve the problem of Agunah, the woman whose recalcitrant husband’s refusal to give her a divorce leaves her unable to initiate a divorce and chains her to a future without marriage. This is but one manifestation of his discomfort with the entire treatment of women in Halakha.
Another is that Jewish women can be Supreme Court Justices in the United States, other countries and in Israel; they can serve as Prime Ministers, but their signatures cannot validate a religious document. Their status is often reduced to that of a minor; women are even compared to possessions.
One more manifestation of this treatment is that women do not participate as equals in the religious life of the community. To change that, Hartman’s daughter, Tova, founded Shirah Hadashah [A New Song], the Jerusalem congregation that provides women with as many opportunities to participate in the service as a creative understanding of Halakha permits. This might seem whimsical to those who come from equalitarian communities and observe the Mechitzah being drawn closed or opened at various points in the service and those non-binding segments of the service that women can lead. The “moving” Mechitzah makes the congregation unacceptable to many Orthodox Jews. Conversely, not removing the Mechitzah makes it unacceptable and/or strange to egalitarian Jews for whom this debate was settled a long time ago.
In one sense, the Mechitzah compromise seems artificial rather than organic, timid rather than bold. And yet, it may provide Hartman and the Jews who feel as he does with a place to daven with the people they speak with, and a place to speak with the people with whom they can daven.
The second issue is the question of the non-Jew. As a rabbi, Hartman once faced the question of whether a Cohen could marry a woman who converted for love of Judaism and was an active and religious Jew. Did her previous status as a non-Jew make her a zona and Biblically prohibited to a descendant of the priestly line? Hartman studied with the Jesuits and recognized non-Jews who are intellectually sophisticated and devoutly religious. You cannot simply categorize them as “goyim.”
This is the merely tip of the iceberg that Halakhic Judaism must confront when dealing with issues of democracy and a society that aspires to justice. Up until now, accommodation to the state was based on utilitarian purposes—avoiding what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all against all.” There is no theology or Halakha to guide Halakhic Judaism in the acceptance of democracy. They understand the rule of law. They do not understand the state is a mediator of justice.
The third issue is the self-inflicted incapacity of the Orthodox Rabbinate to come to terms with the modern state of Israel—in the prayers recited and in the treatment of new generations. On Tisha B’av, we still speak of Jerusalem as abandoned and uninhabited, lying in ruins. The lack of sensitivity in the all-important category of membership in the nation is illustrated most profoundly by a soldier who dies for his country and is not eligible to be buried with his comrades because his maternal Jewish origins were doubtful.
The agony of this book is how Hartman wrestles with the tension between the God he believes in, the tradition that nourished him and to which he has profound loyalty and love, and the encounters with reality that force him to challenge that tradition—and even break from his mentor and master.
The details are important, but his struggle is all the more significant. He is looking for a way of living with integrity and confronting the reality of the world he encounters.
At his age, he has fulfilled the challenge he posed to me. He now may be liberated by age, stature and status to say what he believes and believe what he says. The results are most impressive. The seal of the Holy One is truth and those who worship must worship the Holy One in truth. Perhaps that is why the deepest of all lies are those we tell ourselves.
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May 22, 2011 | 6:39 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
[UPDATE No. 2 5/22/2011]:
That was Friday. President Obama addressed AIPAC on Sunday morning, The reception he received was far from frigid, it fact it seemed enthusiastic, not quite the way you would receive a political leaders who had proposed “Auschwitz borders.”
Here is what the President said:
“It was my reference to the 1967 lines—with mutually agreed swaps—that received the lion’s share of the attention, including just now. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.
By definition, it means that the parties themselves -– Israelis and Palestinians -– will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. (Applause.) That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. (Applause.) It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two people: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people—(applause)—and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people—each state in joined self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. (Applause.)”
As the President said there was nothing new or original in these propsoals. They have been American policy essentially since 1967, nothing different from the Clinton Administration and as President George W. Bush’s Chief of the National Security Council Stephen Hadley said on CNN nothing different that the Bush Administration.
So we Jews must ask ourselves: how irresponsible is it to invoke the image of Auschwitz? What are we going to say if ever there is an emergency?
As of this morning, it seems as if the Israeli Prime Minister is backtracking. Stay tuned, let us see what he has to say to AIPAC tomorrow evening and what he has to say when he addresses a Joint Session of Congress. [End UPDATE]
UPDATE: In the hours since I wrote this entry, it seems that other Jews also cannot help but invoking the Auschwitz comparison. Alan Dershowitz at least had the good sense to qualify his invocation of Auschwitz, but the ZOA left all caution to the wind: Its headline, “We Won’t Return to Auschwitz.”
I wonder, was the State of Israel between 1948-1967 Auschwitz? The ZOA, once the proud heirs of the great Zionist movement and which once supported partition as a means to obtain a Jewish State, might as well proclaim Israel is a failure. The IDF cannot protect the security of the Jewish State. Israel, even in 1967 borders, is not Auschwitz—- far from it.
So in its fury – remember, under its current leadership the ZOA opposed Israel’s efforts at peace – the ZOA in one press release has managed to trivialize the Holocaust and debase the accomplishments of the State of Israel while also seemingly comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler.
What an achievement! [end update]
Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper are my friends. I admire their work, their drive and their service to the Jewish people so this criticism is historical and certainly not personal. Still I disagree with a statement of Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Just after President Obama finished his speech on the Middle East today, the Wiesenthal Center sent out a statement condemning the speech with the title: “SIMON WISENTHAL CENTER ISRAEL SHOULD REJECT A RETURN TO 1967 ‘AUSCHWITZ’ BORDERS”
The use of the term “Auschwitz borders” is offensive and anti-historical. It demeans the Holocaust and diminishes the genuine achievement of Jewish empowerment in the post-Holocaust era of Jewish history. Despite the fact that Abba Eban and Benjamin Netanyahu—and now the distinguished leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center—have used it, does not make it any more credible or any less ahistorical. It makes it only all the more problematic
Permit me to tell you why.
Simply put, it misrepresents the situation of Jews in Auschwitz and the power of the contemporary Israel state. Jews had no troops, no armies, no tanks and no planes within the vicinity of Auschwitz; they had precious little to defend themselves, except perhaps their willingness to die.
Not all dangers facing the Jewish people are the dangers of Auschwitz.
I do not quarrel that the Jewish people face dangers but not all enemies are capable of – even if they were to desire to—systematic state-sponsored murder while dominating the fate of 9 million Jews.
Even the situation with Iran is not comparable to the Holocaust for one very basic reason. If you had to bet your life on whether Israel is more likely to attack Iran to prevent its nuclearization or Iran is likely to attack Israel with nuclear weapons, which way would you bet?
I can tell you how my Israeli family answers that question.
Israel’s first response to Iran’s nuclear threat was to obtain submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons so that any leader of Iran who decided to attack Israel would have to consider that his country would face retaliation – the very basic calculus of Mutual Assured Destruction. They may be mad – or denying of this world—enough to attempt it, but they well know that such an attack would not go unanswered.
Auschwitz was Auschwitz. The borders of Israel are the borders of a sovereign state, which has the power to defend them. Let us not confuse the two.
Israel’s army is, to quote its current Defense Minister, the most powerful army within 1,000 miles. Israel is a regional military superpower and it is also enormously and disproportionately powerful economically in a global universe because of the talent of its people and their creativity in high tech and medicine and so many other fields.
As I have written before: “Comparing the contemporary situation to the Holocaust is to cede to our enemies a power they do not have, an intent they may not share, and to disparage to great achievement of the Zionist revolution that the Jews become actors in history rather than its passive victims.
“It is to invite upon ourselves not only nightmare of our own times, but the absolute darkness of another time and another place that is not our own and bears no resemblance to our own. Those who do so manifest considerable ignorance of those times and misinterpret our own.
Finally, it should not go unmentioned that President Obama did not suggest a withdrawal to the borders of 1967. Here is what he said:
“So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states…”
This has been American policy since 1967. The President has restated the obvious. “Mutually agreed swaps” is not a return to the borders of 1967, actually the 1949 Armistice Line. “Secure and recognized borders” is also not a return to the borders of 1967.
Negotiation is the means: Would that the parties could negotiate.
May 8, 2011 | 7:25 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
The American people are united in paying tribute to the U.S. military and to American intelligence operatives for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Almost all Americans — including many Republicans — are also willing to give President Barack Obama considerable credit for his courageous and considered judgment to order the attack on the compound and the capture of bin Laden.
Yet, there seems to be considerable division regarding whether pictures of bin Laden’s body should be released to the public. Some two-thirds approve of not releasing the photographs, and one-third — including many in the political and journalistic world — are in favor of releasing Osama’s photos. Their arguments vary: Some are arguing the public’s right to know, others believe that it will convince the world that bin Laden is dead, and still others merely want the satisfaction of seeing this murderer of Americans, of Westerners and of many more Muslims dead of gunshot wounds to the head.
I applaud the president for not releasing the photographs.
I do not believe that the photographs will convince the doubters, and I do believe that it could incite some in the world of radical Islam to ever greater violence and could, therefore, endanger American soldiers and/or other Americans.
Sometimes the imagination is more powerful than the actual photograph. Let people imagine what he looks like dead, shattered.
From the perspective of Jewish religious values, the decision not to release the photos is the right call; in fact, the only call.
Jewish tradition would easily sanction the attack on bin Laden: “If one comes to kill you, arise earlier and kill him,” the Talmud teaches. Self-defense is a sufficient justification.
But once the murderer is dead, his body must be treated with respect. After all, the murderer, even the mass murderer, is also a child of God — and, believe me, I do not envy God such children.
On Passover, Jews powerfully give expression to the desire for justice but also recognize that the perpetrators of injustice were also human.
Recall that we recite the Ten Plagues. Through the marvels of rabbinic commentary, we learn that because the Ten Plagues of Egypt were but the “finger of God”; at the sea, we experienced “the hand of God;” thus, there were 50 plagues. Because each plague had multiple dimensions to it, some rabbis say 200 and others say 250 plagues were inflicted on the Egyptians at the sea.
And yet, before we recite the Ten Plagues, we fill our wine cup, and as we recite them, we remove one drop of wine from the glass plague by plague, symbolically teaching that while the plagues were necessary, our cup is not full because there were human victims — even our oppressors.
According to the Bible, the Children of Israel began to sing of their victory at the sea. “God, the Warrior” [literally God is a man of war], “Who is like unto thee among those worshipped, Oh Lord?”
According to the midrash, when the angels sought to join this song in heaven, God silenced them: “My creatures are drowning in the Sea, and you sing songs?”
Bin Laden’s execution was so very well deserved that we can wholeheartedly celebrate his demise. The world is a slightly better place, but then we must remind ourselves — however difficult that reminder may be — that he was human and his body must be treated as it was, with respect.
We should not parade around with heads on swords. As the president said: “That’s not us” — at least, that should not be us.
Bin Laden’s death occurred on Yom HaShoah, the paradigmatic atrocity of the 20th century. It also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Adolf Eichmann trial. Israel never showed a picture of the execution. Eichmann was cremated — as were his victims — his ashes scattered at sea so that there would be no grave to become a shrine. It was wise of the United States to bury bin Laden’s body at sea. His burial place will remain unknown, unmarked. No shrine will arise for his followers.
The media kept asking whether bin Laden’s death brought closure for those who had lost a loved one on 9/11, or even to the American people, as if there was a simple equation. They failed to grasp the difference between a tragedy and an atrocity.
The bombing of the World Trade Center — like the Oklahoma City bombing before it, and, without comparing the events, like the Holocaust 66 years ago — was not a tragedy but an atrocity. The reason the people of Oklahoma City could find no closure to their suffering after the execution of Timothy McVeigh was because of the imbalance between the magnitude of the crime and the limited justice that could be achieved.
Even the killing of bin Laden will offer no closure to the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings because the justice achieved can never balance the injustice of the deed. It is fragmented justice — at best.
Even as we rebuild, even as the 9/11 Memorial is opened, even as the site of the World Trade Center is repopulated with buildings and people, even as widows have remarried and orphans have given birth to their own offspring, the void will remain — absence where presence had been. So it must be in the aftermath of atrocity.