Author Archives: Rabbi David Hartman

Rabbi David Hartman

About Rabbi David Hartman

Rabbi David Hartman is the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He also served as a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting professor at the Universities of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles.

The Religious Significance of Israel

Reprinted with permission from A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (

Jewish Lights


Most Jewish religious responses to the rebirth of the state of Israel do see in it God’s providential hand. Two major halakhic [Jewish legal] thinkers who have taken such a view are Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik.


Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel in the British Mandate period, viewed the Zionist revolution as part of God’s redemptive scheme in history. He attributed profound religious significance to the Zionist revolution–de­spite its antireligious origins and manifestations–with the help of a di­alectical perspective on history: Judaism’s development in exile had caused the repression of vital spiritual forces in the Jewish people, and only by the overthrow of much of traditional Judaism would new, healthy forces and energies within the Jewish people be released. The Zionist activist concern for restoring the Jewish people to its homeland would unleash new messianic redemptive forces.

It was Kook’s deepest conviction that ultimately the new energies brought forth by the rev­olution would be integrated with the covenantal Torah spirit in a higher religious synthesis. He looked forward to a new unity between the larger prophetic passion for history found in the Bible and the sober concern for details that characterizes talmudic Judaism. Most religious Zionist youths in Israel are taught to perceive the state from this messianic per­spective.


Soloveitchik, too, embraces the state of Israel, but without a messi­anic dialectic. In Reflections of the Rav, Soloveitchik characterizes the period of the Holocaust as the state of hester panim, a “hiding of the divine face,” a state when God turned His back, as it were, chaos ruled, and human beings had no sense of the divine presence in the world.

Israel’s rebirth represents middat ha-din, the “attribute of God’s judg­ment,” which gives human life a sense that there is some divine order, justice, and structure in the world, that the world is not entirely under the sway of barbaric chaotic forces.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) was among the premier intellectuals of Israeli life before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. A scientist and philosopher, it was in the latter role that he had the biggest impact. Leibowitz believed that halakhah (Jewish law) was an end in itself and the primary focus of Judaism. This view led him to controversial views on Zionism and the state. The following article offers a brief overview of Leibowitz’s thought and his critique of Zionism. Reprinted with permission of the Shalom Hartman Institute from Conflicting Visions (Schocken Books).

Leibowitz is not alone in seeing the creation of Israel as a fundamental challenge to Judaism. In order to understand how he approaches the problem, however, his basic views on the nature of Judaism must be outlined.

By Halakhah Alone

According to Leibowitz, Judaism is fundamentally a communal frame of reference. Its prime concern is not with saving the soul of the individual but with providing a way of life whereby a community can express its commitment to serve God. The religious impulse motivating Judaism is the decision of a people to bear witness to the presence of God in the world through its worship and its way of life. Halakhah gives expression to the way that this community lives out its existence and defines its place in the world.

For long periods, the Jewish people was viewed by others and saw itself as a nation constituted by the rule of Torah. To Leibowitz, how­ever, what made Jews different from other nations was not their theol­ogy; other religions share basic assumptions of Jewish monotheism, eschatology, and the like. Nor did their Bible distinguish them, for it has also been adopted by the Christians.

What made the Jews unique was the halakhah that governed their way of life. The laws governing what Jews could eat, which days they were allowed to work, when sexual relations were permitted, as well as the laws on the liturgical forms for daily and festive worship–all these structured and institu­tionalized the Jewish community and provided its distinct character.

The Anthropological Implications of Suffering

Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from
Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought
, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

In examining how the rabbis [of the talmudic era] sought to handle this problem [i.e. the existence of evil and suffering], we may say that their approach belongs more to what we would now call religious anthropology than to philosophical theology. This distinction is of basic importance. To the philosopher or theologian concerned with the problem of theodicy, the existence of morally indifferent causes of suffering appears to be incompatible with the existence of an all‑powerful and benevolent God. Such an individual is faced with the problem of reconciling what seems to be this incompatibility of facts and beliefs. How is it logically possible to claim that God is the just Lord of history in view of the senseless evil manifest in the world?suffering quiz 

Changing the Focus from God’s Responsibility to Humanity’s Response

The problem of suffering appears in a different light, however, when the focus is more on its anthropological than its theological implications. The questions then become: How do we respond to events that can call into question our whole identity as God’s covenantal community? Can we allow ourselves to embrace a personal God knowing that chaos can at any moment invade our reality and arbitrarily nullify all our efforts and expectations? Do we have the strength to open ourselves to a personal God in a world filled with unpredictable suffering? When her child dies, the question a mother faces is less how to explain the logic of God’s omnipotence than whether she has the strength and emotional energy to love again.

From the anthropological perspective on the problem of suffering, therefore, the prime concern is not so much to defend the notions of divine justice and power. It is, rather, as in other personal relationships, to determine what measure of continuity, stability, and predictability can enable the relationship with God to survive all shocks.