From Defender to Critic

The Search for a New Jewish Self

By Dr. David Hartman

Jewish Life Publishing, 2012, 303 pages

Rabbi Dr. David Hartman disagrees with the views of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the former Dean of Yeshiva University and spiritual leader of the Rabbinical Council of America, the organization of Orthodox rabbis. Hartman (born 1931) is also a noted Orthodox rabbi and is the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The Institute is dedicated to developing a new understanding of classical Judaism that provides direction for Judaism’s confrontation with modernity.


Rabbi Soloveitchik was somewhat mystical in his approach to Judaism and to life generally. He insisted that the views of the mystic, other-worldly Nachmanides are correct and used them in interpreting the Bible and Midrashim. He rejected the teaching of the rational Moses Maimonides (in Maimonides’ introduction to Perek Helek) where Maimonides wrote that he who takes the fanciful Midrashim, parable designed to teach lessons, literally is a fool. Soloveitchik insisted that Torah events as well as their Midrashic interpretations happened exactly as described, and shouldn’t be understood figuratively, no matter how fanciful they may appear. Jacob, for example, actually fought with an angel, and this was not a dream as Maimonides wrote.


Soloveitchik insisted that Jews must obey all of the ancient commands, both biblical and rabbinical without any deviation or change because of modern situations and current human needs. Thus, he insisted that Jews may not change the agunah law that only a husband may give a divorce decree, even though this ancient law results in hundreds of wives being unable to remarry because their husbands, although separated from them and sometimes even remarried, refuse to give them a Jewish divorce.


Hartman bewailed this ruling as well Soloveitchik’s general treatment of women as “not entirely human.” The ancients interpreted Abraham’s response, “She is in the tent” (Genesis 18:19), to the question, “Where is your wife,” to require women to be excluded from male activities. Soloveitchik accepted this out-of-date non-sequitur even though it led to many restrictions and the segregation of women from social and religious life.


Hartman states that Jews need to stop living in the past and being slaves to ancient misinterpretations. Maimonides wrote that God placed eyes in the front of faces to encourage people to look forward, not behind. Hartman writes that we need to shift our “emphasis from dogmatic theology, leaps of faith, eschatological pronouncements, and miraculous expectations, to an analysis of the human implications and significance of religious concepts.”


Soloveitchik insisted that a Jews’ focus should be on doing the divine mitzvot, commands, no matter how difficult, no matter how painful or unreasonable they may appear. What is important to Soloveitchik is “self denial, even the complete negation of the self.” He called it akeda-like self sacrifice, based on his understanding that Isaac was willing to allow himself to be bound (the meaning of akeda) and surrender his life because he understood that his father Abraham heard a divine command to kill him. Hartman considers this emphasis on the blind observance of mitzvot misguided. It turns mitzvot into idols. He notes that Maimonides didn’t want to dismiss the importance of mitzvot; “on the contrary, he sees its role as vital and necessary in constructing an ordered political community.” But it is not the end goal, as Soloveitchik insists; it is the means leading to the improvement of individuals and society. “Put more simply, the entire purpose of halakhah (Jewish laws) is to take one beyond halakhah. 


Hartman calls Soloveitchik’s akeda-like self sacrifice “masochistic and tragic.” He cites the case of a bride and groom whom Soloveitchik decreed must refrain from sexual intercourse on their wedding night because the bride discovered that she bled a drop of blood. “This is not heroism, but cruelty. It carries a great risk of trampling intimacy, distorting natural love…. I cry with the young bride and groom…. For me, the ultimate expression of Jewish spirituality is the celebration of life, of human powers, of human dignity. I don’t choose to see submission, pain, suffering, and death as a reflection of our deepest faith.”


Hartman teaches that God gave the ancient Israelites rules appropriate for their life time “for building an ordered moral world and then (God) steps back so that we (humans) can step forward” and build upon these rules. We “are not living in the same world that they did…. God calls upon human beings to complete the task and take responsibility for areas of life once within God’s purview.” Humans must assume “the role of interpreting God’s law for our time and place.” “Maimonides,” he continues, “is instructing us that halakhah is not a voice heard from on high but the product of rabbinic responsiveness created in conjunction with the community.” Halakhah developed over time, and should continue to do so.