David Hartman, leading Jewish philosopher, dies at 81

Rabbi David Hartman, a leading Jewish philosopher who promoted Jewish pluralism and interfaith dialogue, died Feb. 10 at his home in Jerusalem. He was 81.

His death was announced by the Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by the rabbi more than 30 years ago. The cause was not reported.

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The Brooklyn-born Rabbi Hartman was known for bringing a more liberal Judaism to the conservative brand commonplace in Israel, where he moved in 1971 after holding rabbinical posts in the United States and Canada.

He was praised for having developed a unique Jewish philosophy that positioned man at the center of Judaism, opening the door to a more tolerant approach that took personal choice and experience into greater account.

Rabbi Hartman’s line of thought placed man in a dialogue with God, rather than as an obedient, unquestioning worshipper. He promoted thoughtful criticism and interpretation of Jewish texts and laws among his students, spawning a generation of thinkers who continue to challenge what is traditionally accepted or forbidden under Jewish law.

“Contrary to his teachers who saw Jewish law as signed and sealed, he chose to see it as a type of language where the past and present interact,” said Avi Sagi, a professor of philosophy at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University who studied and worked with Rabbi Hartman.

Rabbi Hartman’s death comes amid an ongoing clash between the more liberal streams of reform and conservative Judaism and Israel’s powerful ultra-
Orthodox establishment.

The liberal streams are demanding more recognition for their traditions in Israel, where they are marginal, although they predominate among American Jews, the largest group of the Jewish diaspora.

While Rabbi Hartman adhered to the Orthodox tradition, he pushed for a Judaism that was tolerant and open-minded. He was known for his efforts to promote understanding between Jews of various affiliations.

In a 2011 interview with the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Rabbi Hartman spoke out against some religious groups in Israel for their strict interpretation of some aspects of Jewish law.

“It’s insane, insane,” he said. “These people emphasize marginal issues. The important thing is loving kindness.”

“They emphasize trivial things. We lost the deeper meaning,” he said. “Do you think that people will want to enter a spiritual life made up only of what is forbidden, forbidden, forbidden?”

Menachem Lorberbaum, a professor at Tel Aviv University who worked closely with Rabbi Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said he “inspired a whole new generation of teachers in Jewish philosophy and theology.”

Beyond his work at the institute, Rabbi Hartman was widely published and won numerous prizes, including the 1977 National Jewish Book Award.

Rabbi Hartman was a proponent of women’s rights within the religion, where a battle is being waged between some of Israel’s Orthodox rabbis and those who support broadening women’s roles.

“I can’t see a Judaism that flourishes” while considering women to be “second-rate,” he told NPR in 2011. His daughter, Tova Hartman, is a leading Israeli Jewish feminist and one of the founders of an Orthodox feminist synagogue in Jerusalem.

Survivors include his wife and five children.

— Associated Press and staff reports