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Conversation with Rabbi Donniel Hartman


By Stacey Dresner

WESTERN MASS. — Rabbi Donniel Hartman will serve as the scholar-in-residence during the 90th Anniversary Weekend celebration of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass. Nov. 4-5. “A Weekend of Inspiration and Community with Rabbi Donniel Hartman” will feature three lectures by Rabbi Hartman, as well as a community Shabbat dinner, Shabbat luncheon and Havdallah service.

donniel-hartmanRabbi Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, founded in 1976 by his father, the late Rabbi David Hartman.

The author of Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, published earlier this year, Rabbi Donniel Hartman has founded extensive training and educational programs for scholars, educators, rabbis and lay leaders in Israel and North America.

He has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an M.A in political philosophy from New York University, an M.A. in religion from Temple University, and Rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.

He is the author of The Boundaries of Judaism; co-editor of Judaism and the Challenges of Modern Life; co-author of Spheres of Jewish Identity; and lead author of Speaking iEngage: Creating a New Narrative Regarding the Significance of Israel for Jewish Life. He recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about the Shalom Hartford Institute, “putting God second” and the legacy of Shimon Peres.

Q: What is the Shalom Hartman Institute and what is its mission?

A: The Shalom Hartman Institute is a research and educational center committed to developing a vibrant and value-based Judaism in the 21st century. We are multi-denominational and our goal is to elevate the quality of Jewish life so that Judaism could compete in the open marketplace of ideas.

The focus of our work is on the key change agents in the Jewish community whether they are in Israel or North America, and by that we mean, rabbis, lay leaders, communal professionals, principals, teachers, senior officers in the army, Hillel directors. Whoever is shaping the agenda of future Jewish life, we want to help infuse their thinking with the resources of our traditions so that they can create a Judaism where people could choose to be Jewish because we know that in our generation no one HAS to be Jewish anymore.

Our people are only going to continue if we have a quality product. Our goal at the Institute is to help develop that product.

Q: Two local rabbis, Rabbi Mark Shapiro and Rabbi Amy Katz, have studied at the Institute. Rabbi Katz is now in your Rabbinic Leadership Initiative program. Can you tell us about that?

A: It is a program to pick outstanding rabbis around the country – we pick 25 to 30 at a time for three years. And she is in the fifth cohort. [The idea is to] seed America with two or three hundred rabbis who have a larger vision of the questions that the Jewish people are facing, the challenges they face, and also the various answers and ideas we could put forth to meet those challenges. One rabbi is 1,000 families. If you tried to reach 1,000 families, you could maybe send a YouTube, but it’s a rabbi who can reach [them] through intensive work and training. We pick people who are accomplished and the ideas is how do we give them the philosophical understanding and the sources and also reconnect them back to learning, which the rabbinate very often takes you away from, unfortunately. So that is our goal.

Q: Another of your programs is iEngage, in which Sinai Temple in Springfield has participated. What is iEngage and what does it provide for a congregation?

A: iEngage is a nationwide program used all across America in hundreds of sites, to help develop a new narrative for the relationship between Israel and world Jewry…Basically what has happened is that the Jewish community in Israel and North America were able to build their relationship in the past on the basis of a crisis narrative. Someone was dying; the question was whom? Either when Zionism starts world Jewry is dying, and therefore you need Israel. Or world Jewry is scared that they may die one day if a holocaust returns and therefore you need Israel. Or Israel is dying or in danger and therefore world Jewry has to support Israel. And so we create a strong bond with each other on the basis of an existential crisis. The greatest existential crisis we face today is that we don’t have as many existential crises.

The Jews of North America aren’t frightened of dying in America. They’re at home, and while there is some anti-Semitism, it is far more frightening to be an African-American or to be a Muslim or even to be a Mexican in America. Every group [has] somebody [that] hates you. But the reality is that anti-Semitism is not an existential reality. Therefore Israel would be a solution to a problem most North American Jews don’t face. And at the same time, to most Americans Israel is much too powerful [to be afraid for]. When people look at Israel – we’ve succeeded. Israel is a powerful, successful, vibrant country. You can’t sell support for Israel because Israel is about to die. You can’t. So, the question is, if nobody is dying, what kind of relationship can we have, and our community is not prepared for that. We are used to just galvanizing people for crisis narratives, but now we have to develop what we call the “Jewish values narrative.” How are the 6.5 million Jews of America, and the 6.5 million Jews of Israel going to connect with each other, what do we learn from each other, what does Israel need, and how do we talk about the various issues of Israel in a way that again would enable Israel to be part of a Jewish identity of Jews worldwide and to do so in a way that doesn’t divide and bifurcate and create political divides? How do we bring Israel back in a new way? And that is what iEngage is and it is being taught in about 400 synagogues, and Federations and JCC’s – all across the country. We use our network – we have about 1,000 rabbis who have studied at Hartman and graduated between the two different programs we have; through Hillel we are on 50 campuses, and work with Muslim leadership and Christian leadership. It’s this huge, huge endeavor in which your synagogue is just one part of that larger endeavor.

Q: The Times of Israel called you a “religious revolutionary” when writing about your book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Just what is it you mean by “putting God second?”

A: Putting God Second basically is a call to ensure that in our religious lives, our moral responsibilities to others take precedence over our religious responsibilities to God, and hat issues of faith and ritual will always be and must always be secondary to our responsibility to our fellow human beings… The reason why I say “Put God second” [is that] monotheism naturally often puts God first and that precisely by putting God first inadvertently it undermines our moral responsibilities. So I want to create a religious language in which God and the ethical embrace each other and complement each other but to do that God has to be second.

Q: In light of the recent death of Shimon Peres, can you tell me what you think his legacy will be?

A: I can tell you his legacy is unclear, and in many ways it is going to be dependent on us, not on him. No matter who you are you don’t get to determine your legacy. The people who survive you determine it. The legacy that he put forth is the idea that the Jewishness of Israel is expressed in our ability to aspire to be more, to be greater, not to accept reality as a given. The Tikvah, which is our anthem, is one of the deepest parts of our tradition. Our prayers are dreams – Sim Shalom – we dream about and pray for a better tomorrow. Shimon Peres had the audacity to create not the politics of hope, but the politics of dreaming.

And the interesting question will be whether we are going to be wise enough to enable that to be a legacy, whether that is going to be Shimon Peres’s unique quality, and then [do] we just look at him as the one that embodied it? It is a legacy if we ourselves try to emulate it. I would say that is a great challenge that the Jewish people face. And I can’t tell you that it is self-evident that we are going to remember that. We ought to.

Q: You recently supported and attended the Gay Pride March in Jerusalem. Why is it so important to you that the LGBT community is accepted in Israel? Do you think there will be a time when everyone, including the Orthodox, will be more accepting of the LGBT community?

A: It’s important to me that the LGBT community be accepted everywhere. It’s important to me that all human beings who are pursuing their life choices, as adults, have the right, the freedom and the communal respect for the choices that they make. I believe it to be a civilized person that is to see people, to hear them and to be obligated by what you hear. There is a community who are saying — whether it is the LGBT community or whether it is liberal Jews or ultra-Orthodox Jews – we don’t agree. We have very different notions about how you should live Jewish lives and how you should live your own personal sexual life, what it is that creates a virtuous life, a meaningful life. I think…that consenting adults’ choices should not just be allowed but their choices should be respected as part of who they are as people. Right now the LGBT community is at the forefront of this, but it’s a societal issue and whether it is the LGBT community or whether its Israel’s ability to make room for liberal Jews, we Israeli Jews like to define Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Now [in a] home, one of the challenges is that as your children grow up, a home is not yours. A home is a place that all of the different members of the family have a right to be there, to feel loved, to feel cared for. Now Israel has to be the homeland of the Jewish people. And the Jewish people are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, straight, gay – all of them. So we have to grow up. We have to realize that the sovereign reality which is Israel has to be a sovereign reality which is profoundly respectful for the Jewish people, and so wherever there is a group of people who aren’t respected or wherever there is a group of people who don’t feel at home in Israel, you will always see me and my colleagues there. There we belong.



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