Rabbi David Hartman died in Jerusalem in February 2013. He had left the pulpit of an Orthodox synagogue in Montreal in 1971 to settle in Israel, where he continued his scholarly work and the publication of many important books on Jewish thought.
Five years after his aliyah, with the support of Canadian and other benefactors, he established the Shalom Hartman Institute in memory of his father. His son Rabbi Donniel Hartman is now its president. With time, the institute established a branch in New York that has become a centre of Jewish learning, as well as a driving force in Jewish interdenominational understanding and co-operation.
To mark Rabbi David Hartman’s seventh yahrzeit, the institute in Jerusalem organized a symposium about current efforts to create an indigenous Israeli Judaism. The symposium concentrated on the shape and place of halakhah (Jewish law) in the context of religious renewal in the sovereign Jewish state.
In his opening statement, Rabbi Donniel Hartman referred to the traditional rabbinic understanding of halakhah as a sea offering almost countless possibilities of making one’s way as a Jew in order to reach one’s own religious destination. He suggested the term “halakhah” should never take the definite article, but should often be spoken about in the plural. Rabbi Hartman deplored current attempts to turn Jewish law into a small pool that restricts those in it to a uniformity, unknown in authentic Judaism, that seeks to impose an unwarranted and unnecessary legalistic discipline.
Though the major codifiers of halakhah – notably Moses Maimonides (born around 1135) in his Mishneh Torah and Joseph Karo (born in 1488) in his Shulchan Arukh – in their efforts to establish order and consistency by providing a structure to Jewish life, are often held responsible, it’s those who nowadays seek to impose uniformity in the name of the ancient sages who are the real culprits. In their ostensible
effort to bring Jews closer to God, they’re turning Jews away from God by restricting religious life in the guise of piety and fidelity to tradition.
Nowhere is this more in evidence nowadays than in Israel, where political clout has given exponents of rigid Orthodoxy unprecedented power, much of it exercised through the Ashkenazic and Sephardic chief rabbis and their officials. Instead of providing a structure to Jewish life, they often impose stifling strictures on individuals and groups.
Thus, for example, some 400,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union aren’t recognized as Jews. And to this very day, there are Jews in Ethiopia who are not allowed to come to Israel because their Jewish status isn’t acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Not only have secular and liberal religious Jews been penalized and scandalized by it, but a growing number of Orthodox Jews have distanced themselves from the imposed strictures by making other arrangements. Today, there are Orthodox rabbis in Israel who officiate at weddings not registered with the official authorities. There is also an alternative kashrut organization that seeks to bypass undue and, at times, arbitrary bureaucracy by officials.
All this points to a different kind of Judaism that’s developing in the Jewish state. Though it’ll take decades before it matures, we can already discern trends. Israeli Judaism will transcend the existing divisions of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, which are largely the creations of the Ashkenazic Diaspora and don’t adequately reflect the religious aspiration of Jews living in the sovereign Jewish state.
The Israeli Judaism of tomorrow is also likely to incorporate elements of the practices and attitudes of Jews whose families came to Israel from Muslim lands and who often are more relaxed than their Ashkenazic siblings in their attitudes toward halakhah.
As a result, the old divisions between religious and secular are likely to dwindle, even disappear. Recent surveys indicate that Israelis who describe themselves as secular nevertheless observe traditional religious practices, especially around Jewish festivals and lifecycle events. Living as a Jew in Israel makes it impossible to ignore Jewish traditions, but does so without wrapping them in legalistic rigidity.