David Hartman. 'God is pressuring me not to give up'
Photo: Alex Kolomoisky

'Religion now more dangerous than Arabs'

Rabbi David Hartman, teacher and rebel, is celebrating his 80th birthday and cannot believe the kind of Judaism developing around him: 'Instead of creating a new humanity, Religious Zionism leaders are fighting over stones and verses'

“The leaders of Religious Zionism have lost all sense of purpose. Everything has become a war - a war with stones, a war to preserve power. Religion today is controlled by people who do not understand what Jewish revival is, what revolution is, and what we wanted to have here.”


What did they want?


“The revolution was meant to create a new humanity, a humanity that lives in reality and takes responsibility for that reality, working within that reality, not in a fantasy world.

Not a world in which passages from the Bible are constantly quoted and fought over – that’s nonsense.”


This isn’t what you dreamed of.


“I moved here in 1971 out of a belief that we were creating a new history, a new Jew. So, yes, we have a State, but there is something missing. We are missing people to instill a spiritual vision. The leadership lost the connection to revolution, to awakening, to ethical possibilities. It’s killing me.”


Rabbi Professor David Hartman is hurting, even during his festivities. He recently marked his 80th birthday with a series of content- and participant-filled events, but he was not relaxed. He manages to overcome his physical pains, those that stem from his ailing health and even inhibit his ability to walk.


“The Land of Israel is attained through distress,” he smiles as he sits heavily. These are his spiritual pains, the ones that give him no rest.


He sighs, exhales heavily, moans, sometimes raises his voice, and occasionally bangs on the table. Eighty years after he was born to a religious family in Brooklyn, forty years after he moved to Jerusalem, leaving behind a prestigious theological and academic career, we meet for a long talk at the Shalom Hartman Institute, which he established in his father’s memory in the Talbieh neighborhood in Jerusalem, where he is President Emeritus.


Tens of thousands of teenagers, educators, and rabbis have passed through these doors and the many programs the Institute offers. Today the Institute defines itself as “a center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges facing the Jewish people and elevates the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.”


In a world in which Religious Zionism is becoming more extreme – politically and religiously – this is a center of a different Judaism: moderate, compromising, humanistic, and universal – in short, in the spirit of Rabbi Hartman.

'It’s a sexual obsession.' Female soldiers (Arcive photo: Gadi Kabalo)


We set out all the building blocks of his life: God, Judaism, the land and State of Israel. The key question is what is happening to Religious Zionism, the stream that is meant to blend all these different elements.


We sharpen the question: How has the moderate voice within Religious Zionism become so small and withered? The very stream that should pursue peace and love of humanity, the one that Hartman has represented so visibly and audibly.


“I know Religious Zionism is dead,” he responds. “In America, I received a doctorate in philosophy. I taught general philosophy and Jewish philosophy. I wrote a book about Maimonides, whose greatness was in the way that the Jewish-particularistic and the universalistic coexisted within him. He lived with both of them, and it was impossible to know when he would choose to emphasize one or the other.”


Why did that happen?


“Religious Zionism is dead. It had a vision, but its leaders were afraid of losing their sense of belonging to Judaism. They thought that if they brought rabbis, everything would be ok. But it wasn’t. The haredim? They are being fruitful and multiplying. I have relatives who have 12 or 18 children. I’m happy for them, because I love Jewish life, but I’m not happy about their moral lives.


"The ‘hardal’ world (religious Zionist haredi) is becoming haredi. They think that a religious outlook requires detachment from the world of western culture. They love Israel, they serve in the army, but it doesn’t change their minds.


“We thought that paratrooper rabbis were the essence of modernism, but jumping from a plane does not symbolize spiritual maturity. It takes time and openness to develop a worldview and free thought. It requires a willingness to listen to different music – something they don’t have. Okay, so they go to elite army units. It doesn’t make them modern people.”


Speaking of the army, I asked Rabbi Hartman to relate to one of the hot-button issues: The attitude towards women in the IDF – or to be precise, the attempts to exclude them. For example, when soldiers in Military Training Camp abandoned a ceremony in which female soldiers were singing on stage.


“It’s insane, insane,” Hartman said. “These people emphasize marginal issues. The important thing is loving kindness. I served as an adviser to Zevulon Hammer, when he was Minister of Welfare in the first Rabin government. There was a debate about F-15s landing on Shabbat. I said, 'Planes are not obligated to keep Shabbat, pilots are. Why are you worrying about the plane and not trying to educate and open the heart of the pilot?' But they lost all contact with the pilot.


“Except my son-in-law, Aharal’eh Katz, who was killed in Lebanon. He was a spiritual giant. He received a Medal of Honor in the Yom Kippur War. He was the first navigator who was slated to be a pilot commander. He was an ethical man, who woke up early in the morning to pray so as not to impose on anyone else. He flew on Shabbat in place of others. He flew on Yom Kippur in place of others.


“It’s a different world. You don’t see that anymore. They emphasize trivial things. We lost the deeper meaning.”


In the main IDF hakafot event (the evening after Simchat Torah ), female soldiers were pushed aside.


“It’s a sexual obsession. They have made all of Judaism part of their sexual issues. Tell me, does all Judaism rest on this? I don’t understand, are they like sex maniacs, aroused the second they see a woman? Is this what we’re building the world on? Do you think that people will want to enter a spiritual life made up only of what is forbidden, forbidden, forbidden?”


From a halachic perspective, is there a problem with women standing up to sing?


“No. The Gemara talks only a loss of concentration while reciting the Shema. If women are singing when you are in the middle of reciting the Shema, it will hinder your intent. That’s it. No more. A rabbi in Israel saying that it’s better to die than to hear a woman singing is crazy.” (Referring to Elyakim Levanon, the rabbi of Elon Moreh, who declared that he would prefer to stand in front of a firing squad than hear a woman sing).


“Listen to this story about another rabbi, a normal one. You should say sheheheyanu over the fact that there are still rabbis like this. This daughter of this rabbi loves to sing. When his friends came to visit, someone asked him to tell her to stop singing. He replied that according to Halacha she’s allowed to sing, the man is not allowed to listen. He suggested that the guest leave.


“There used to be normal rabbis. One day, a group of believers came to a rabbi and asked him what they should be focusing on while fulfilling the commandment to burn chametz. He said, ‘You should make sure that your wife, who is dragging the sacks of flour, isn’t working too hard.’ Where has all that gone? What has happened to us?”


You tell me.


“I don’t know! It all started with the Labor Party. They decided that Jewish representation should be in the hands of the haredim. Today’s situation is Ben-Gurion's fault. He didn’t think that he and his friends should be responsible for the spiritual revolution. This disaster didn’t start in 1967 but rather in 1948. They made a distinction: Judaism would belong to the religious, and we would be responsible for state and society.”


Something that arouses love

It’s possible to yearn for the National Religious Party of the past, I said to him at this point. When we read the Eshkol government minutes from directly before and after the Six-Day War, the most moderate voices belong to Haim Moshe Shapira, Zerach Warhaftig, and Yosef Burg. You can’t help but wonder where that voice disappeared to.


“They lost faith in themselves,” Hartman responds. “They lost belief in the importance of their own spiritual enterprise. Secularism won. Not just in Israel. The direction of the entire world tilted towards secularism, and they didn’t have the strength to withstand that pressure. They searched for a direction that would give them strength, and they found the territories. It’s as if they are saying that settlers express love of Israel. That’s the great idiocy.


“I told the soldiers I teach: Love of Israel is not love of the land; it’s love of the people living in the land. There is no holiness in earth. I also told this to Hanan Porat and his friends, over and over again. Holiness is behavior with people.


“I am considered a world expert on Maimonides. People ask me if I’ve been to his grave. I haven’t. What do I need to go to a cemetery for? I learn from books, not from looking at headstones.”


So let’s talk about the Hilltop Youth .


“Their behavior tells me that religious education has failed. There are priorities in life, and they have latched on to something trivial. Trivial!”


Why hasn’t there been a strong rabbinical outcry against “price tag” activities ?


“Because the leadership is twisted. Corrupt to the core. I met with soldiers in hesder yeshivot. You should have heard the kind of questions they asked me: ‘If I see an Arab who is wounded, his life is being threatened, am I allowed to call an ambulance to save him, or there is no such thing as the sanctity of gentile life?’


“My philosophical outlook has always been: What do you think? What do you feel is the right thing to do?”


And what did they say?


“They said, ‘We don’t know what the Halacha says. We need to hear from you what the Halacha is.’ (Shouting) I said to them: ‘Halacha is in your gut, the moral guidance you feel from inside. If you lose your autonomous moral feeling, you lose your divine image.’ That was a huge revelation for them. I said, ‘How do you imagine your God? Does he want the Arab to die, or does he respect life? Which God do you want to live with?’

Hilltop Youth. 'Love of Israel is not love of the land' (Photo: Gil Yohanan)


“But here they don’t educate towards the sanctity of life. They talk in slogans. They don’t say, ‘Man is good for he was created in the image of God.’ You can see this in the attitude towards Arabs, and you can see it in the attitude towards women. In my new book, "The God Who Hates Lies," there is an attack on the entire world of Religious Zionism precisely because of these issues.”


Hartman is considered one of the great students of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Like him, he belongs to the liberal stream of Orthodox Judaism that is thriving in the United States but is struggling for survival in the Holy Land. He is a man with a large physical presence, and I sense a large heart as well. He is a fatherly figure and constitutes a spiritual father figure and guide to generations of students. He also has six children of his own.


One of his sons, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, is President of the bustling institute that bears the family name. One of his daughters, Tova, established the Shira Hadasha synagogue in Jerusalem 10 years ago, a synagogue that insists on merging Judaism and feminism. It was, of course, not a smooth road.


“When my daughter built the synagogue,” he recalls, “people came to me and said, ‘But she’s a woman.’ I said: ‘You are willing to go to a female brain surgeon, to let a woman be responsible for your life or death, but when a woman walks into the synagogue, she becomes a little girl? It’s ridiculous.'”


Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, women have been removed from billboards.


“That’s insulting to me. I’m embarrassed. This is what has become of the Zionist dream? When I came to Israel for the first time after the Six-Day War, Prof. Akiva Simon insisted that I go to a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz. So I went. I saw that they were building a road in the middle of the kibbutz and asked him why. He explained that they were building a road so that a member of the kibbutz who was paralyzed and lived on the edge of the kibbutz could get to the dining room.


“Afterwards, people asked me what my most religious experience was in Israel. They thought that I would say, reading Mishna at the Western Wall. But I said that it was at the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz where I saw them building a road for one person. That’s a holy place. The entire community makes sure that the individual does not lose his place.


“That’s what I thought I would see in Israel--a living Judaism that was gentle, sensitive, moral, loving. From the moment that I moved here, I fought for it to be that way. That’s why I built the institute, as a place open to religious and secular, Jews and Arabs.”


Is anyone even listening to you?


I have not lost hope. I wake up in the morning, and God says to me, ‘David, put on your tefillin and go to work. Don’t give up.’”


You talk to God?


“I search for God. I hope that he sees my work as important.”


He talks to you?


“Yes. He is pressuring me not to give up, to believe that I can contribute, not to stop believing that things can change, to get out of the war. It’s an existential war for me. What is happening today with religion is more dangerous than what’s happening with the Arabs. The Arabs want to kill my body – the Jews are killing my soul.”


From the dialogue you describe with God, it seems that this is not the Judaism he wants either.


“Right. I just wrote about that in my book. God says to me: ‘The work is not for you to finish, but you are also not free to shirk it off.’ Meaning, you have not finished entirely, but something is happening. All week we’ve been celebrating my 80th birthday. People and students have been coming to tell me, ‘You don’t know what a great influence you’ve had on my life.’


“To be religious today is an ongoing war not to let the haredim and the hardalim own the Torah. I want to return the Torah to the Labor Party, to the entire people of Israel. I don’t want religion to be the private property of certain people. I don’t want the length of the sidelocks to be the determining factor.”


Is this even a happy birthday for you?


“I’m sick. You can see that it’s hard for me to walk. But the joy of life, as in all holy wars, is still burning in my heart. I have not lost the faith that we can grow the light for the world from here.”


Like a knife in the gut

We discussed the polemics around the Tzohar rabbis’ complex marriage ceremonies. “I am happy for them that they have come to an arrangement, but this should be just the beginning,” Rabbi Hartman said. “We have to advance much further. What is this? Is the Torah private property? It’s terrible. Judaism and marriage ceremonies are not private property.


“I love teaching soldiers (in the Institute’s Lev Aharon program for senior IDF officers). Officers ask me to teach, and I come willingly. I teach that to be a Jew means to be a human being. Listen to this story. An officer came to me and said, ‘When I was in Lithuania, I was religious. When I moved to Israel, I lost all faith.’


"I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because here Judaism is racist.’ His friend volunteered to be an officer in a tank unit and was killed. The rabbis discovered that a few generations ago, one of his parents was not Jewish, so he couldn’t be buried in the cemetery. The officer said: ‘I’m called upon to die as a Jew, but to be buried without the dignity of being a Jew.’


“This was like a knife to the gut. I understood why he didn’t want any connection to this thing. You can’t respect a man who was willing to die for the survival of the Jewish people? I mean, there’s nothing holier than that. From my perspective, identifying with the survival of the Jewish people is religiousness today.


“That’s why there is no such thing as secularism. If you want the Jewish people to exist, you’re not secular. Will to survive, that’s all. If that’s not enough, then what the hell is enough? Gefilte fish?”


What do you think about the hesder yeshivot?


“Their problem is that they went only half way: they understood that it was important to find a way for yeshiva boys to be drafted into the army without compromising their ability to keep learning, but that’s only the beginning.


"The question is what content is given to them? Is national zealousness everything? The very extreme rabbis are dangerous in my opinion. I understand the need to belong to the land, but that doesn’t make you a Jew. What makes you a Jew is how you behave on that land.


“It’s killing me. I fight them. I was once called for a joint interview with Hanan Porat and Haim Druckman. I said to Hanan: ‘I want to see the new man that you built. The fact that you have more territories doesn’t make you a people. It doesn’t make everyone righteous and pious.’


"There are so many deep things in Judaism that need to be exposed. They buried it all. They took a few piquant things and turned that into all of Judaism. Kashrut, modesty.”


We got to modesty.


“Oho! It’s crazy. You have to accept the fact that Jews can be crazy. They are covering signs, building partitions, separating buses. We even have partitions on the street. It wasn’t always like that. It emerged because there was a vacuum. Aristotle said that nature abhors a vacuum. So people fill it in.


“Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich from the Maaleh Adumim hesder yeshiva told his students that you have to fight people who come to evacuate settlements because saving the land is equivalent to saving a life. I asked him, ‘And what about saving the person?’ I knew him when he was still in Canada. At the time I was the rabbi of a congregation in Montreal. He didn’t act like this then. He changed here.”


So your life work was in a sense a failure?


“A lot of young people come to me and say, ‘If not for you, I wouldn’t be religious.’ So I did not fail. I don’t believe that life here is for naught. Even though it drains my energy and I am weak – this is the place. If we can’t make it here, we can’t make it anywhere. I tried to create a different kind of spiritual ideal. Not a shteibel, not a shtetl – a people. It can be done.

Rabbi Motti Elon. 'He apparently failed' (Photo: Gili Eliyahu)


“My son Ranan, for example, established the Kiryat Ono College. He brought in haredim, Ethiopians, he made a real educational revolution. He is making Jews take responsibility for their lives. It’s possible, but you have to fight for it.”


What do you think of the Rabbi Motti Elon story?


“I felt sad. You know what the conclusion is? That people are vulnerable. They have inclinations. They have weaknesses. Man should not believe that he is above having urges. He has to be aware of the fact that he can fall. Rabbi Elon was a star, and he apparently failed.


“The closed nature of the Orthodox world is unacceptable to me. To understand rabbis’ weaknesses the Orthodox world has to be part of the public discourse.”


Has religious authority become excessive?


“That’s a very important question. Their authority today is not about important things. They have too much self-confidence, and they do not demonstrate morality. They don’t say: ‘You see that rabbi? He represents true Judaism.’ I don’t see that phenomenon today. I’m looking. I haven’t found it yet. I fear God, not rabbis.”


They malign me

“People read my books. It makes me happy,” Rabbi Hartman says. “There is a minority that we can build upon, but I don’t know if it’s strong enough. One thing is for sure: It’s hard work. And they try to embarrass me. They try to say that Hartman is not really religious. They malign me. It doesn’t bother me. I am threatening to them – very threatening –I can’t be loved by all.


“At least it frees me from having to worry about marrying people. I left the Rabbinate. I said to myself, ‘Thank God I became a philosopher in America and found another way.’ I would die here as a rabbi. It’s better to be a philosopher, an educator, to build an institution that shines outward, that welcomes every person equally. There is a lot of work, but you can believe in possibilities. I thought that Israel would expand my soul. I am going to keep working until my last day.”


Is that an agreement between you and God?


“I don’t have to involve God in this. It’s an agreement between me and my people. It’s my family. When I moved to Israel, people in America said to me, ‘You’re so important to us here, and the Vietnam War is happening, why would you want to leave us?’


"I told them that I had to look after my family first and then worry about the rest of the world. My family needs help, and I have to be there. I don’t regret it for one second. There has not been one day during which I had a fleeting thought to leave Israel.”


But there are painful moments.


“Oho. There are moments I want to kill myself, when I ask myself, ‘This is Israel? This is the Jewish people?’ I feel like a lone voice calling out in the desert. But I cannot stay in the desert. I have to return to the town--to work with the army, the doctors.


“The Jewish people had the power to come here after the Holocaust and to survive, and the decision to survive was not a simple one. I have been searching for the deep feelings of Jewish existence my whole life.”


Maybe we’re feeling pangs for the Messiah?


“I can see that you’re sensitive, that you understand that there should be something else here. Stay here, and don’t rely on what some rabbinic authority tells you.”


No problem. I’m not religious. But I care about the existence of the Jewish people.


“Nu, so you’re a seriously religious person. More than them, because you care.”


I care a lot. But I’m worried.


“You have good reason to be.”



פרסום ראשון: 12.11.11, 19:00
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