This undated photograph provided by the Shalom Hartman Institute shows rabbi David Hartman, one of the world's leading Jewish philosophers who promoted both Jewish pluralism and interfaith dialogue. The Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by the rabbi more than 30 years ago, said Hartman died Sunday Feb. 10, 2013, after a long illness. (AP Photo/Hartman Institute)
Updated: March 17, 2013 6:05PM
JERUSALEM — Rabbi David Hartman, one of the world’s leading Jewish philosophers who promoted both Jewish pluralism and interfaith dialogue, has died. He was 81.
The Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by the rabbi more than 30 years ago, said Mr. Hartman died Sunday after a long illness.
The Brooklyn-born Mr. Hartman was known for bringing a more liberal Judaism to the conservative brand commonplace in Israel, where he moved in 1971 after holding rabbinical posts in the U.S. and Canada.
He is praised for having developed a unique Jewish philosophy which positioned man at the center of Judaism, opening the door to a more tolerant approach that took personal choice and experience into greater account. Mr. Hartman’s line of thought places man in a dialogue with God, rather than as an obedient, unquestioning worshipper. He promoted thoughtful criticism and interpretation of Jewish texts and laws among his students, spawning a generation of thinkers who continue to challenge what’s traditionally accepted or forbidden under Jewish law.
“Contrary to his teachers who saw Jewish law as signed and sealed, he chose to see it as a type of language where the past and present interact,” said Avi Sagi, a professor of philosophy at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University who studied and worked with Mr. Hartman.
Mr. Hartman’s death comes amid an ongoing clash between the more liberal streams of Reform and Conservative Judaism and Israel’s strict, ultra-Orthodox establishment, which has growing political power and has become increasingly resistant to any inroads by those movements. The liberal streams are demanding more recognition for their traditions in Israel, where they are marginal, although they predominate among American Jews, the largest group of the Jewish diaspora.
While Mr. Hartman adhered to the Orthodox tradition, he pushed for a Judaism that was tolerant and open-minded. He was known for his efforts to promote understanding between Jews of various affiliations both inside and outside Israel.
In a 2011 interview to the Yediot Ahronot daily, Mr. Hartman spoke out against some religious groups in Israel for their strict interpretation of some aspects of Jewish law.
“It’s insane, insane,” Mr. Hartman said. “These people emphasize marginal issues. The important thing is loving kindness.”
“They emphasize trivial things. We lost the deeper meaning,” he said. “Do you think that people will want to enter a spiritual life made up only of what is forbidden, forbidden, forbidden?”
The Shalom Hartman Institute was testament to his openness, drawing Jews from many streams, different backgrounds, and accepting men as well as women. Menachem Lorberbaum, a professor at Tel Aviv University who worked closely with Mr. Hartman at the institute, said he “inspired a whole new generation of teachers in Jewish philosophy and theology.” Beyond his work at the institute, Mr. Hartman was widely published and won numerous prizes, including the 1977 National Jewish Book Award.
Mr. Hartman was a proponent of women’s rights within the religion, where a battle is being waged between some of Israel’s Orthodox rabbis and those who support broadening women’s roles. “I can’t see a Judaism that flourishes” while considering women to be “second rate,” he told NPR in 2011. His daughter, Tova Hartman, is a leading Israeli Jewish feminist and one of the founders of an Orthodox feminist synagogue in Jerusalem.
“He advanced political Jewish thought in Israel to a more progressive, democratic and brave place,” said Ruth Calderon, a first-time member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, who studied under Mr. Hartman in the 1980s.
Mr. Hartman also extended his hand to members of other religions, hosting a yearly theological conference for leaders of the Abrahamic faiths, where priests, imams and rabbis debate and discuss issues that are universal to each, such as death, prayer or tolerance.
Lorberbaum said Mr. Hartman will be known for his accomplishments on religious ethics, and as “a pioneer of interfaith dialogue.”
“He was committed to the notion that morality precedes Jewish law,” he said.
Mr. Hartman is survived by his wife and five children. His funeral was scheduled for Monday.