Rabbi David Hartman, who wears many hats (author, teacher, philosopher, founder of a think tank in Israel, one-time pulpit rabbi in Canada), also wears many kipas. He keeps several, of varying colors and materials, in his pocket when he walks around Jerusalem.
The multiple yarmulkes are a message and a challenge, Rabbi Hartman said during a Jewish Week Forum this week. They tell people he meets, “You can’t look at my kipa” and pre-judge the rabbi’s opinions. “You have to listen to my ideas.”
Rabbi Hartman, hailed by Time magazine as “perhaps Israel’s paramount religious philosopher,” touched on a variety of issues, from the Mideast peace process to religious pluralism, in a 50-minute conversation with Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.About 200 people attended the event at the Center for Jewish History, which is set to open formally in late October on West 16th Street.
Rabbi Hartman, a Brownsville native who made aliyah in 1971, alternately rebuked and praised the Jewish people, whispering and shouting, and peppering his remarks with Yiddish phrases and biblical quotations.
A product of the Modern Zionist movement, he is a self-declared “halachic Jew” — “I’m not in any way politically identified” — who opens the classrooms of his Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to students of all denominations, as well as secular Jews and non-Jews, and is critical of what he calls a growing factionalism in the Jewish world.
The rabbi described his multiple kipas to illustrate both his style and Israelis’ tendencies to pigeonhole people by such superficialities as one’s head covering. Hollering has replaced talking, in the Knesset and in the streets, he said, “There is no unity.”
“Be critical of whatever you want,” Rabbi Hartman said, but first listen, first read, first understand the other’s opinions. “I don’t mind people being critical of my words,” he said — each of his philosophically oriented books has drawn criticism, especially in right-wing religious circles. “But read it.”
His two new books are “A Heart Of Many Rooms,” and “Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating Its Future,” which he calls his most important work.
“Jews,” he said, “have to read and argue, instead of calling people names.”
“Why did God choose the Jewish people?” Rabbi Hartman asked. “If you read the Tanach seriously,” he said, using the acronym for the Hebrew scriptures, “it’s an indictment of the Jewish people.”
God, the rabbi said, made the Jews the Chosen People because they are, in the Torah’s words, “a stiff-necked people.”
“If I can make them mensches,” Rabbi Hartman said in a personal, midrashic interpretation of God’s biblical words, “I am really God.”
“God is still trying,” he said. “God fell in love with Abraham and got stuck with his grandchildren.”
The rabbi’s often-sarcastic comments drew laughter on several occasions.
“I have no romanticism about the Jews,” he said. He chided Israel’s religious politicians — “The haredi parties have become ‘Zionists.’ They have discovered power,” using their political base to create jobs and fund their institutions. And he criticized secular Jews — “Jews don’t think about God. Only Christians think about God.”
Rabbi Hartman also discussed:
# The future of Jerusalem. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators “have become victims of symbolic language,” he said. The Temple Mount in the Old City, the linchpin of peace negotiations, is promised to Jews and Muslims by their respective “triumphalist” theological traditions. “The issue is, who has [the strongest claim to] the place of Abraham, father of the Jewish and Arab nation.”
#Religious pluralism. “I would speak in any Reform or Conservative synagogue in the world.” Non-Orthodox movements, the rabbi said, encourage competition in the Jewish intellectual marketplace. “I want competition. The worst thing than can happen to Orthodoxy is monopoly.”
# The vice presidential candidacy of Joseph Lieberman. “Joe Lieberman is a mensch. Joe Lieberman is an erlicher Yid,” an honorable Jew. The Connecticut senator has studied Torah with the rabbi during previous trips to Israel. “It’s a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of G-d’s name] that a Jew who loves God can also care about human beings.”
“I’m not a pessimist,” Rabbi Hartman said. “I can’t help but be optimistic. I’m a Torah Jew. I have decided to live with the Jews, to teach them Torah. You can’t just write books. You have to be involved, you have to be engaged.
“To be a Jew,” he said, “is to carry the burden of your people. To be a Jew is to carry klal Yisroel in your neshama [or, soul].”
“Where are you holding in America?” he asked rhetorically. “Do you talk to each other? Is there honest discussion?”