By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Rabbi David Hartman, the distinguished exponent of contemporary Judaism, who died a year ago, built his monument while he was alive and named it after his father: the Shalom Hartman Institute. The Institute has become a powerful presence in Israel dedicated to opening the eyes of Israelis to pluralistic Judaism and to building bridges between Jews in the world and Jews in the Jewish state.
To mark the anniversary, the Institute sponsored last Sunday another of its annual conferences on Jewish-Democratic Israel. The theme this year was about the spirit that moves us: Israel in the flesh imbued with the spirit of Judaism and Judaism around the world renewed by the physical existence of Israel.
One of the speakers at the opening session was Professor Moshe Idel, the influential scholar of Judaism in general and Jewish mysticism in particular, and a towering presence at the Institute. He made a strong case linking the spirit of Judaism with the otherness of the Jew (presumably over against those who strive to be like others, i.e., assimilate). As examples he cited figures like Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka and Jacques Derrida. He could have added many others.
After the opening session we were divided into groups. I chose the one on “Israel and World Jewry.” Against my better judgment I asked a sort-of question after the presentation by the three panelists. As they each reflected American provincialism by taking for granted that world Jewry meant American Jewry, I began by remarking that I’m the product of four diasporas, none of them American. (I could have said the same about the luminaries cited by Idel).
What shaped my Jewish self-understanding was precisely the sense of otherness that Idel spoke of. My commitment to Zionism, on the other hand, was the outcome of the desire to be like others, which I felt was only possible for a Jew in the Jewish state. I had hoped that in Israel Judaism and Jewishness would finally be of one piece.
I asked the panelists to comment on the search of a formula that would enable Jews to heed Idel’s call yet be fully integrated in Israel: an historic exercise of being both other, i.e., different, and like the other, i.e., not different from anybody else around me. I understood David Hartman to have challenged us to live thus when he taught that only Israel made that possible.
Needless to say I didn’t get an answer, which may have been due to the way I asked the question. However, the person from Montevideo (the session was on the web at the same time) who asked about the place of non-American Jewry didn’t fare any better.) I’m, therefore, at least as confused now as I was before the session.
I don’t blame the panelists for it; I don’t know the answer either. However, I believe it to be crucial for the new Judaism that David Hartman wished to articulate when he insisted that Israel and the Diaspora cannot exist without each other. Despite his superb fund raising skills that enabled him to build his Institute, he would have been the first to admit that the relationships cannot be based on American money and Israeli ingenuity. A way of honoring his memory must be to engage on a deeper level.
It’s this that prompted my question. As elusive as the answer may be, finding it shouldn’t be beyond us: our future depends on it.