Rabbi David Hartman’s Theological Legacy

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Rabbi David Hartman’s Theological Legacy: A Preliminary Evaluation

Guest post by Alex Ozar

Alex Ozar is a Fellow at the Tikvah Fund in New York, and working toward semikha at RIETS. His writing has appeared, or will be appearing, in Tradition, the Torah U-Madda Journal, and First Things magazine.

“Two ships, both without a compass, are drifting on a night as dark as pitch. The one captain is resigned to having lost his way. The other searches, perhaps desperately, for a glimpse of the North Star. The second is looking for an authoritative point of reference, while the first assumes there is none.” (Father Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square, 18.)

When Rabbi David Hartman died earlier this year, the Jewish world lost one of its most compelling minds, dynamic leaders, and incisive pens. Charged with magnetic passion and energy, and ably equipped with rich and rigorous educations in both rabbinics and philosophy, he was a remarkably prolific writer and lecturer and an effective spiritual leader. R. Hartman labored to provide an inclusive home for Jewish minds committed to the progressive advancement of the Jewish mission in faithful conversation with Jewish tradition.

But while his influence in the broader Jewish world has been considerable – one Jewish public philosopher of note calls him “our most important Jewish public philosopher”1 – R. Hartman has enjoyed comparably minimal audience in the Orthodox community,2 especially in America. This is, I believe, a shame, and ought to be righted, not because his teachings should necessarily be adopted by Orthodoxy – many of them, I will argue, should not – but because they represent a valuable opportunity for wholesome and faithful religious growth. An optimally flourishing Orthodox community will be one wherein a voice like Rabbi Hartman’s can have a substantial living presence.

R. Hartman’s writings are many and wide-ranging, but a representative assembly of the various strands in his thought helpfully converges in his hallmark take on the akedah. Countering the philosophy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, on which the akedah is the only legitimate paradigm for genuine Jewish worship, as well as R. Soloveitchik’s less stark but equally emphatic valorization of akedah-like religious sacrifice, R. Hartman rejects the akedah as utterly inconsistent with moral personhood. This rejection then becomes the theoretical basis for his program of halakhic renewal. Now it needn’t be stressed that a brief essay could not possibly do justice to the breadth of R. Hartman’s thinking, nor even to the particular issues lent explicit attention. And so the aim here, then, is to simply provide an efficient introduction to R. Hartman’s thought, along with a preliminary sketch of what fruitfully critical engagement with that thought might look like. With the akedah as a pivot, I argue that (a) many of R. Hartman’s conclusions, because Jewishly and philosophically problematic, are and ought to be unacceptable to mainline Orthodoxy, but also that (2) R. Hartman’s thought, because Jewishly and philosophically compelling, ought to have an important voice in the continuing story of healthy Orthodox discourse.

Countering the akedah

First a brief autobiographical tangent. As I remember it, much of my nineteen year old self’s initial attraction to R. Soloveitchik’s philosophy had to do with the simple delight in finding a credentialed Orthodox thinker who so enthusiastically embraced the broadly humanistic values of worldliness, personal creativity, and of course, individual autonomy. It turned out, the adolescent me was excited to discover, that being authentically religious didn’t require sacrificing my personality and self-determining independence on the altar of some authoritarian conformism. Judaism, R. Soloveitchik taught, is a covenantal partnership between man and God – a genuinely bilateral relationship through which each party, with its integrity respected and sustained, joins together in pursuit of common purpose. This was wonderful news.

But Rabbi Hartman, though regarding R. Soloveitchik as a principal mentor, remained deeply unsatisfied with the Rav’s philosophy, because to his mind it simply did not press the issue far enough: As I would come to appreciate in rereading R. Soloveitchik with more mature eyes, the Rav’s endorsement of personal autonomy is decidedly balanced with an at least as emphatic call for humble submission to the commanding, at times devastating, authority of the Lord. As religious individuals, we are meant to live toward our own ends in pursuit of dignity and majesty, but should God give the order, we must be prepared to throw it all way and slaughter our first, our only son. The authentically religious personality, on R. Soloveitchik’s view, is both independent and subservient, free and yet absolutely, unconditionally obligated.

It’s that unconditionality which so exercised R. Hartman: There is nothing more fundamental to our human personhood, R. Hartman argues, than our basic adequacy as autonomous moral agents. To have and exercise the capacity to recognize right and wrong, and to act freely in accordance thereof, is just what it is to be a person. To forfeit that capacity – to “deny our humanity”3 – therefore, is simply unconscionable, if not outright impossible. Not un-reminiscent of R. Soloveitchik’s celebrated repudiation of the mystic’s attempt to nullify himself before God, R. Hartman emphatically rejects any philosophy which would demand the sacrifice of man’s moral autonomy.

The akedah, then, poses a serious problem. If there is anything man knows, it is that it is rather unseemly to murder one’s son in cold blood. God’s commanding Avraham to do just that, Hartman explains, demands that he violate the most rudimentary dictate of his conscience and so effectively torpedoes Avraham’s moral independence. Not just Yitzchak alone but Avraham, as well, was to be sacrificed on Moriah, because taking a knife to his son’s throat would inevitably “squelch the ethical impulse”4 – the act indelibly relieving Avraham of the ability discern, by his own lights, right and wrong.

Following such an experience, R. Hartman asks, “What kind of human being then stands in the service of God?” His arresting answer: “A person, it stands to reason, who is drained of moral passion, having forcibly suppressed that part of him- or herself.”5 It is now God alone who calls the ethical shots, with man dutifully following orders as a servile, spineless lackey. From the akedah viewpoint, “to be claimed by God, I must be willing to sacrifice my intellect and intuition, to give up everything I know and cherish as a human being, in deference and obedience to the word of God.”6

This sort of sacrifice is simply unacceptable to Hartman, however noble the impetus. And so where so many have found the ultimate, ideal model of Jewish faith and devotion, R. Hartman sees the akedah as the pinnacle of what religion should not be – a morality tale accenting the perils of excessive piety. Indicting it as less foundational religious inspiration than simply a cruel personal trauma, he resolves to a perspective which “completely rejects the akedah model for covenantal halakhah.”7

The bold simplicity of the move makes for a compellingly clear perspective. Again, “If covenantal mutuality is to be taken seriously, one’s ethical and rational capacities must never be crushed, as Soloveitchik demands when he makes the akedah the supreme paradigm of religious authenticity.”8 Committed as we are to lives in covenantal service to and with God, we should never forfeit our basic humanity. And submitting unconditionally to the inscrutable demands of an authoritarian God, R. Hartman argues, means just that. Accepting even the possibility of an akedah-like command, beyond courting the danger of immoral action, in itself threatens our identity as moral persons.

The Policy Program

In the latter half of the 20th century, R. Eliezer Berkovits called for a liberalization of halakhah on account of the ethical imperatives internal to the system; Yeshayahu Leibowitz out of concern for the needs of a modern state; Louis Jacobs because he rejected the literal notion of torah mi-sinai. Rabbi Hartman prescribes that renewal as a safeguard for our integrity as moral individuals.

In practice, R. Hartman’s philosophy translated into a wide-ranging program for the revitalization of Jewish life in the contemporary world. We are, and ought always be, free and autonomous moral individuals, and that reality, he argues, should animate our Halakhah in its details and its overall spirit. Should, then, the Halakhah threaten our ethical convictions – Hartman supplies a number of real life cases, from the agunah to the place of women in liturgical life, in which he believes it does – we must do our utmost to cancel that threat. Overall, we should relate to the Halakhah less as authoritative command to which we are compelled to acquiesce than as a gracious opportunity for relational closeness with God; we should observe its prescriptions and proscriptions not because we are strictly obligated by divine fiat, but because we see in that observance a road to “God-intoxication” and the realization of heaven here on Earth.9

Because it represents a viable mode of religiosity to the vast majority of Jews who would simply never embrace the Torah as literally commanded by God, this understanding of Halakhah – the understanding for which the akedah is essentially foreign – is commended by the basic need to continue the Jewish project. Hartman’s vision is addressed to the whole of the Jewish people in the hope of galvanizing that whole, in some meaningful way, toward fulfillment of the Sinai covenant. His non-authoritarian Halakhah is meant to carry the call of Sinai to the united camp of Israel. The number, diversity, and quality of his followers are surely indicators of some success in this regard. Most fundamentally, Rabbi Hartman’s project is a way of securing, and cultivating, the moral, and thereby human, integrity of religious individuals.

A Parental Metaphor

For those who believe that Torah really is the command of a God to whose authority we owe our unconditional allegiance, R. Hartman’s philosophy is at best liable to strike a nerve; certainly it is a point of view we are unlikely to fully embrace. But it may yet remain worthwhile to explore why we prefer our approach. What is it that we stand to gain by preserving the possibility of akedah-like commitments in our religious life? We should engage R. Hartman’s challenge head on: Are we, in submitting to the will of the Lord come what may, in fact compromising our humanity? Might we somehow avoid, or perhaps modulate, the sacrifice?

There is something at least initially compelling about R. Hartman’s concern here. If one’s goal were to deaden one’s conscience, the method of submissively murdering children at a powerful superior’s order would certainly stand out as promising. Surely an all-powerful, authoritarian deity could, if he so desired, crush the moral human personality as a hammer shatters rock. And we might imagine something like the akedah would be a handy technique to that end. The question is whether, under the right conditions, something like the akedah might serve the opposite end as well.

Parents hold much the same power over their children – for both good and ill. A developing child, all will agree, requires enough latitude to exercise his own sense of right and wrong in the formation of an independent, responsible moral personality. Inevitably, though, there will be times when the parent sees the child on the brink of grave error and so must intervene, if necessary forcibly, whether the child understands or not. Done excessively and the child’s soul will indeed be crushed, his moral self condemned to a life of impotence and ineptitude. But limited to well-selected, pedagogically ripe moments, and coming at the warm hand of a recognizably wise and loving parent, precisely this kind of authority is vitally integral to a sound moral education. The question, it seems, turns less on the content of any specific episode than on the overall context of relationship and love.

Autonomy Reconsidered

Since the Enlightenment, autonomy has enjoyed an A-list celebrity status among human virtues – Kant famously declares that “Kneeling down or groveling on the ground, even to express your reverence for heavenly things, is contrary to human dignity”10 – and moderns have tended to emphasize separation, individuation, and independent self-determination as the defining marks of personal maturity. But this cannot be the whole story, because there simply is more to the wholesome human person than the achievement of an unencumbered self.11 Wholly autonomous characters make for rather unpleasant company because the healthy ethical personality is precisely one who understands that his are not the only will and whim that count; that the truth ever exceeds his own perspective; and that being in the world demands compromising one’s own designs for the sake of others. True relationship always requires sacrifice – real sacrifice – and only with true relationship can we be authentically moral.12 Autonomy bounded by sacrifice is the only autonomy worth having.

The reality is that at our best, we humans are finite creatures, riddled with flaws and shortcomings of all kinds – not the least of them moral. The understanding of the wisest is always inadequate to the Truth; the choices of the ethical virtuoso always prone to error.

Now, it does not follow from our finitude that there is some source of infinite wisdom out there, and it certainly does not follow that we have access to it at any given time. We must therefore always be prepared to do our independent, autonomous best in meeting the vagaries of life; our responsibilities, to ourselves and to God both, demand that we develop as self-reliant, autonomous individuals. But a wholesomely autonomous personality will, at the same time, not rule out accepting the direction of a higher authority because, at least in principle, he recognizes that he may indeed require guidance and that there may indeed be a Guide worthy of his allegiance.13

That the akedah can, in fact, fit this model is not obvious. As R. Soloveitchik writes, God appears in that story as a “master to whom man is enslaved and who almost ruthlessly lays claim to the entirety of human existence,” and that God’s command meant the “absolute surrender of the servant.” This is where we lose R. Hartman. But R. Soloveitchik only picks up steam:

The akedah became indeed the motto of the covenant and its symbol…From then on, the covenant spelled mutual, inherent, all-inclusive belonging. Man sacrificed himself to God, and God dedicated himself to man…Earlier promises were cast in a new light. Instead of the primitive covenant which embodied a mere utilitarian agreement like any other treaty negotiated between two individuals, a new covenant came into being, a covenant of an existential community of God and man.14

Avraham’s gesture was indeed a total submission to God’s authority. But it was precisely that readiness for sacrifice and the total, unconditional commitment it expressed that made for a full-blooded relationship of mutuality between man and God – for a genuine covenant. “The value of sacrifice is determined, not only by what one gives away, but also by the goal to which it is given,” and for healthy religious persons that goal should be “not to renounce life but to bring it close to Him.”15 We submit in the hope of realizing our moral selves in loving relationship with the Almighty.

And so we can follow Rabbi Hartman in his concern that akedah-like events can impede the development of healthy moral personalities, while no less maintaining that akedah-like events, exercised appropriately, are essential to any wholesome ethical formation. In allowing the akedah a place in our religious lives, we acknowledge that, with our autonomous moral aptitudes in hand, there is always more to what’s right and wrong than we can know – that our own minds and hearts are not all that counts. Even at our best, we at times need the guidance of a loving parent. For our openness to that guidance to be genuine, we must be ready to act on it even when we don’t, when we can’t, understand. That guidance, and our healthy openness to it, ought to always stand prominently at the foundation of Jewish life.


Formulating a response to R. Hartman’s rejection of the akedah is, I hope we’ve seen, a valuable intellectual and spiritual exercise. But there are positive lessons to be drawn as well. If we are in the end going to insist on maintaining the akedah’s place in our Jewish understanding – and as Orthodox Jews who accept the Torah as the commanding authority of God pure and simple, we certainly will – R. Hartman’s philosophy counsels that we do so with appropriate care and intelligent caution.

Though tension with our ethical convictions may not give us license to rewrite the rules, we should not shrink from the prerogatives the halakhah does in fact grant its faithful practitioners. And one important measure of our religious success ought to be the extent to which we can cultivate autonomous moral personalities while ever sustaining the full burden of authoritative mitzvot. Embracing our obligations to God’s guidance should not vitiate our moral identities, but rather strengthen and enliven them. Living under halakhah ought to cultivate the kinds of character and aptitudes necessary for making and following through on ethical choices – to create and nurture genuine moral personalities. . That result, however, is not a given, but an enduring challenge – one we would do well to engage with all available resources on hand.

In a review essay on R. Eliezer Berkovits’s Essential Essays on Judaism, R. Shalom Carmy begins by noting that on account of certain of Berkovits’s trademark conclusions, “many deny validity to all of Berkovits’s discussions of Halakhah and the philosophy of Halakhah.” What follows is instructive: “This is a mistake, in my opinion: Berkovits raises significant issues that no other thinker of his rank has tackled. I therefore urge Orthodox readers to bracket our rejection of Berkovits’s views…in order to concentrate on other elements in his thought.”16 I want to counsel against what I worry would be a similar mistake regarding David Hartman, and I hope to have gestured toward a positive case in favor of our continued, if critical, engagement with his thought.

Rabbi Hartman’s philosophy models for us the kind of noble struggle a faithful servant ought to have in making sense of his moral identity before God. His reasoning is always clear, his commitments transparent, and importantly, his assertions never dogmatic: With all his cards on display, he shares with us how he would play his hand, respecting all the while that we may elect a different strategy or may simply have different cards. Above all, he makes clear and compelling the moral and spiritual gravities at stake. These are just a few of the reasons why, for all Jews of all stripes, Rabbi Hartman’s voice is one worth hearing.

* I would like to thank R. Shalom Carmy, Dr. Ben Elton, Lauren Steinberg, Shlomit Cohen, David Lasher, and R. Gil Student — for their insightful comments and for their friendship.

Many of the ideas and some of the language in this essay appeared previously in my “The Limits of Orthodox Autonomy: Evaluating Rabbi David Hartman’s Moral-Theological Enterprise,” Tradition 44:4 (2011).

  1. Michael Sandel, Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 196.
  2. The question is thoughtfully discussed by Rabbi David Wolkenfeld here.
  3. David Hartman, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition, (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Press, 2011), 63.
  4. Ibid, 13.
  5. Ibid, 63.
  6. Hartman, A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices Within Judaism, (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2002), 14.
  7. Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism, (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 132.
  8. Ibid, 97.
  9. The point is argued most clearly in The God Who Hates Lies, especially pp. 49-68.
  10. Immanuel Kant, “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals,” in Ethical Thought, trans. James Ellington, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994), 99.
  11. A number of important philosophers, psychologists, and notably feminist theorists have sounded this concern against the prevailing orthodoxy; Alasdaire MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Virginia Held are prominent examples. To quote one representative formulation, Robert Kegan observes that “highly differentiated autonomy and independence…may not be the fullest picture of maturity in the domain of the person,” and that what we ultimately require is the “recognition that neither differentiation nor integration is prior, but that each is a part of the reality of being alive” (The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 210).
  12. The point is assumed here. For fuller discussion and defense of the claim in the context of modern Jewish thought, see my “Yeridah L-Tsorekh Aliyah: Autonomy and Submission in the Thought of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik,” forthcoming in The Torah U-Madda Journal, as well as Leora Batnitzky, “Dependency and Vulnerability: Jewish and Feminist Existentialist Constructions of the Human,” in Women and Gender in Jewish Philosophy, ed. Hava Tirsosh-Samuelson, (Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 127-152.
  13. It should be stressed that, broadly speaking, these are all points to which R. Hartman would likely agree and which reflect a point of view his writing in fact often articulates. He regularly stresses the many ways Judaism cultivates a healthy sense of humility, finitude, and duty. His position, as he puts it, is never “Promethean.” The issue here, then, is whether this Jewish recognition of human finitude can help us come to terms with the akedah. I am arguing that it can.
  14. R. Joseph Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man, ed. Michael Berger (Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2005), 157 n. 2.
  15. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, (New York: Harper and Row Torchbooks, 1966), 399.
  16. Shalom Carmy, “Eliezer Berkovits’s Challenge to Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Torah U-Madda Journal (12/2004), 193.

About Alex Ozar

Rabbi Alex Ozar is a PhD student in philosophy of religion at Yale University. His writing has appeared, or will be appearing, in Tradition, Torah U-Madda Journal, Harvard Theological Review, Journal of Religious Ethics, and First Things magazine.

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