The revered Jewish teacher David Hartman, who died in Jerusalem at the age of 81 this week, is being celebrated for his success in bringing together diverse thinkers from among rarely-interacting Jewish denominations; Christian and Muslim clerics and secular philosophers. Although a frequent target of derision by co-religionists who defined his work as anything from improper to heretical, those who studied with Hartman credit him with opening minds as well as institutions during the four decades since his life-changing epiphany while serving as spiritual leader of the Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem synagogue in Montreal from 1960 to 1971.
Charles Taylor and David Hartman met when Taylor was Professor of Philosophy at McGill University and the young rabbi came to teach there [he would subsequently receive his Doctorate in Philosophy from the university]. Taylor told The Media Line that, “What impressed me the most was his ability to bring secular Jewish intellectuals with people with deep study of Talmud. He brought these conversations together and was able to break down the wall between secularists and religionists.”
Having immigrated to Israel from Canada in 1972, within four years he had founded the Shalom Hartman Institute, named for his father. Serving as the epicenter of all things Hartman, the institution opened boys’ and girls’ high schools; a center for religious research; and a seminar series that has attracted thousands of clergy from numerous denominations and many religions.
“He was able to delve deeply into medieval philosophy and demonstrate the relevance of an argument for contemporary life,” explained Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation, who first became acquainted with Hartman through his writings on Moses Maimonides, the 12th Century rabbi, physician and philosopher. He told The Media Line that, “The bridging of the classical and contemporary became characteristic of the type of academic atmosphere he created at the Shalom Hartman Institute.”
Muhammad Hourani is a Muslim who taught at the Institute for 16 years. He remembered Hartman for “his attempt to bring the moderate voice of Islam by creating a forum for Jews and Muslims to come together once a week.” Hourani told The Media Line that he is saddened that the seminar no longer meets, but cited the series as an example of Hartman’s ability to “teach people respect for each other.”
The style of learning forged by Rabbi Hartman impacted not only on those who came to Jerusalem to study with him or participate in the programs offered by the institute, but according to leading academics, he is credited with elevating the study of Jewish philosophy from the isolation of Jewish Studies departments to the mainstream departments of philosophy. “That belief,” according to Elizabeth Wolfe, immediate past chair of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and executive of the board of Shalom Hartman Institute, “has impact in Harvard, Princeton and the University of Toronto. He made Jewish philosophy universal.”
Contrary to the classic admonition against discussing religion or politics to maintain harmony, Hartman offered both. Many eulogizing him cited as legacy his ability to bring together those whose organizational and institutional affiliations are normally seen as barriers to such interaction. Longtime Hartman associate Haim Solomon partnered with the late rabbi (and their wives) to build a Jewish school in Montreal and now serves as an official of the Institute in Jerusalem. He told The Media Line that, “the mark he left is that he didn’t go for labels; he was always anxious to break down barriers between sectors of the community.” Solomon noted that the Institute’s annual conference on theology “brings together Christians, Muslims and Jews. It began more than fifteen years ago and is even attended by Muslims from abroad.” For the past five years, Christian academics, clerics, theologians and lay leaders have come to spend a year studying Jewish theology in Jerusalem as part of the Institute’s Christian Leadership Initiative, a program created in partnership with the American Jewish Committee.
Solomon summed up the essence of David Hartman as revealed to him decades ago in Montreal. “He said, ‘University is fine for intellectual pursuits, but it can’t make Jews. You need an institute to help make Jews.’”