It feels poignant, and important, to put this conversation, “Opening Up Windows,” with David Hartman out into the world this week. Last week’s experience of the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh evoked a bit of light and air in the present contested moment. So, too — albeit very differently — does David Hartman. Neither of these men speaks for his people, but each uniquely embodies and articulates the drama of his national narrative.
What David Hartman offers is a window into intra-Israeli searching and struggles that drive news headlines from this part of the world, but are rarely heard in and for themselves. The effect of his presence is at once humanizing, uncomfortable, and revealing.
Years ago, in the early days of creating this program, people sometimes asked me about the balance of drawing out a single voice to speak to a complex issue. The question, I think, betrays the way we’ve narrowed the idea of balance in our public deliberation of many important issues. There is certainly a place for debate between fixed, competing positions; but the biggest “issues” before us are often, as Sari Nusseibeh so acutely put it, matters of gradual human maturation and evolution. Point-counterpoint exchanges bury this possibility, but it can be heard through a single voice — in the self-examined life of a person who wrestles with complexity and change, and who continues to challenge oneself.
So, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, questions of how to define statehood and draw borders always coexist with related, but not identical, questions of how two peoples can maintain their dignity and live together. As a Jew who chose to move to Israel with his wife and five children in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, David Hartman has lived along the continuum of the Jewish encounter with all those questions in the decades since. A former congregational rabbi, he created a think tank and educational center that has brought Jews of different traditions together in unprecedented ways.
David Hartman has also been an unusual religious figure in Israeli society as a leader who challenges traditional Judaism from the inside. His daughter Tova is known as an Orthodox feminist. In part, because of her influence, David Hartman became an activist for the inclusion of women in ritual and practice, challenging traditional Jews to see the matter of women’s rabbinic ordination as a statement of nothing less than the character of the God one worships. To deny the full personhood of women, David Hartman says with characteristic forcefulness, is “spiritual suicide.”
He is frank and searching, too, on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “That’s so painful,” he says, when I ask how his discernment on God and the dignity of women might relate to the Jewish relationship to Palestinians. On the morning I interviewed him, a Jewish family, including a three-month-old infant, had just been brutally murdered in a settlement near Nablus. The weight of that news was all around us, and so too was the fear — soon to be realized — that this act of violence would yield to a new cycle of reprisal and attack, with grief on both sides. “I am constantly moved up and back,” David Hartman tells us. “When my family gets killed, and my family’s frightened to go to sleep at night, I get angry. I have a lot of anger in me. But part of my tradition is to learn how to control that anger. And I don’t know if they really want to live with me.”
It’s strange, really, that for all the human drama that is so assiduously reported from this part of the world, we so rarely hear the kind of direct struggle with anger and pain that David Hartman offers in this conversation. Both emotions are embedded in the fabric of daily life in this land, and they merge with the longer lineage of Jewish history. “[A] core meaning of the State of Israel,” David Hartman has written, “is precisely the will of the Jewish people to remain in history, despite overwhelming evidence of the risks involved.” In Israel as in the rest of the world, as he describes it, Jews walk a constant tightrope between vulnerability and responsibility — alternately powerful and weak, and both at once.
He describes the dignity he experiences of being at home in Israel as “a return to memory.” And so, he adds evocatively, “How do we deal with this memory? Narcissistically? Triumphantly? Arrogantly? Or we say, ‘Now that I have my memory, tell me about yours.’” This echoes the journey Sari Nusseibeh shared with us, of walking into a former “No Man’s Land” in 1967 and looking back at where he came from — wanting to see himself from the other side. In such images, we don’t merely experience a new way to see a painful global crisis; we feel ourselves addressed.
About the photo: Krista Tippett interviews Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo by Trent Gilliss.