November 10, 2010
Lonely man of thought
The elderly man was hunched over, walking slowly with the help of a cane toward a small stage where a table, chair and microphone awaited him. The medium-size conference hall was utterly silent despite being packed with people, most of whom knew him well, some of them wondering, perhaps, whether he would make it up the steps to the stage. I was one of those people, sitting in the back. I had waited years for this moment — the chance to be in Jerusalem at the Shalom Hartman Institute and listen to the words of its founder, Rabbi David Hartman.
He owned the room for three hours, doing a verbal jazz session that blended philosophical rants and challenges to Orthodox dogmas, talmudic insights and silly recollections of his childhood in Montreal. I scribbled furiously, filling a whole notebook with the rabbi’s rebellious musings. There was one thing he said, however, that stood out and that I couldn’t get out of my mind:
“I’m not my son,” Rabbi Hartman said, “and my son is not me.”
Hartman was talking about his disagreements with men he felt very close to: his teacher and mentor Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the founder and guiding light of the Modern Orthodox movement; and the great Maimonides, about whom Hartman has written extensively. He was telling us that you can love and admire someone but still disagree with that person — that being a follower doesn’t mean being a blind follower.
And that includes the relationship between father and son.
Two years later, that son, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the man who has taken the institute to the next level and made it an intellectual force in the Jewish world, was sitting in my living room and sharing his own philosophical musings. He was on a U.S. visit to drum up support for the many initiatives of the institute, which is a combination think tank, nerve center and study retreat for all things deep and Jewish.
Donniel Hartman can’t stand anything easy and quick; he might have lasted 30 seconds in an ad agency. He thinks in long form. His latest mastermind, called the Israel Engagement Project, includes a DVD set that features some of the top Zionist thinkers in Israel engaging the complex subject of Israel and Jewish values. He hopes it will become the basis for a national conversation in the American Jewish community.
If you have a short attention span, watch out: The DVD set is 15 hours long.
Donniel Hartman embodies things that are usually perceived as mutually exclusive: a charismatic speaker who shies away from sound bites; an Orthodox rabbi who legitimizes other branches of Judaism; a fervent Zionist who is deeply liberal; a centrist with passion; a theorist who is pragmatic; a thinker who can act.
A friend of his once remarked that “he lives at the meeting point of conflict.”
He’s the only liberal I know who has actually called for an “end to Charedi bashing,” which he did in a recent op-ed on Ynet. He’s pragmatic enough to recognize that the Charedim have become “central players in Israel’s social and political environment,” while also high-minded enough to see that the Zionist majority must not cede the ideological high ground in the debate, lest you “undermine your own position and make it impossible to have any impact on those with whom you are arguing.”
This ability to embrace different polarities has been a key part of the Hartman Institute’s success. When I was there for a study program two summers ago, I saw lay and rabbinic leaders from all denominations mingling together. It’s true, they were all of the “open-minded” variety, but that’s precisely the point of the institute — to nurture and grow this so-called “segment of the open-minded.”
This is one the great ironies of the Hartman Institute. They promote the kind of thinking that encourages you to go off and think for yourself. They are rebels against dogma, enemies of the status quo. They may be as Torah observant as any Orthodox Jew, but within this Torah context, they are agitators.
Before he left my house, I had to ask Donniel if he ever “broke” with his famous father on any issue. He came up with two issues on which they’ve had some disagreements: the “validity of secular Judaism” and “Can there be a Judaism without God?” Donniel is more of a pure pluralist than his father, and he puts a greater value on what he calls a “Judaism of belonging to a people,” whether one believes in God or not.
The root of all these disagreements — this family tradition of “thinking for oneself” — originates at the Hartman dinner table. Growing up, they were all encouraged to challenge the status quo. In fact, Donniel’s sister, Tova, is one of the founders of the egalitarian Shira Hadasha minyan in Jerusalem.
Donniel recalls that his father’s favorite question was: “What do you think?”
He remembers one of the first times he heard the question. As soon as he started answering, “Rashi says ...,” his father interrupted him.
“I didn’t ask you what Rashi said,” the father told him. “I asked you what you think.”