Book Review – A Heart Of Many Rooms

A Heart Of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism

Author: David Hartman Publisher: Jewish Light Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont

296 pages, + Preface, Introduction and Index

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Rabbi and Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem—Dr. Hartman is a renowned philosopher, theologian, rabbi and social activist. His A Heart Of Many Rooms is a worthwhile read for both Jewish and Christian scholars.

The intention of this volume is to build “educational bridges between different sectors of the population in Israel and throughout the Jewish world.” (p. xiv) So the audience addressed by Dr. Hartman is the entire Jewish world in all of its diversity; as well as non-Jews interested in a deeper understanding of the Jewish faith. He therefore is an advocate of the rabbinic teaching, “Beloved are all human beings created in the image of God.” (p. xvi)

Dr. Hartman divided the volume into for parts: Part I “Family And Mitzvah Within An Interpretive Tradition,” Part II “Educating Toward Inclusiveness,” Part III “Celebrating Religious Diversity,” and Part IV “Religious Perspectives On The Future Of Israel.” Each part contains two or more essays/chapters.

In every essay/chapter, the author demonstrates his vast knowledge and insights into Jewish history and tradition. A Maimonides scholar, following his teacher’s method; he endeavours to communicate to both the Jewish and non-Jewish world the subject matter in as clear, intelligent manner as possible. Dr. Hartman is indeed a gifted teacher and writer—descending to the intellectual depths of his subject matter and ascending to the inspirational heights while captivated by the divine truths of the Torah. As a creative thinker, he has the gift of sharing discoveries that others may very well overlook.

For example, in response to the old, stereotypical Christian critique that Judaism is “pharisaic legalism,” obsessed with a merciless keeping of the letter of the law; Dr. Hartman writes: “In receiving mitzvot, we experience joy in knowing that God accepts human beings in their limitations and believes in their capacities to shoulder responsibility. In fulfilling mitzvot, we experience joy in performing mitzvot for their own sake (li-shma). Just as there is joy in our acceptance by God, there is joy in our acceptance of God and of the mitzvot for their own sakes. Divine acceptance empowers human acceptance in the form of our serving God with joy.” (p. 46)

As an educator, the author paddled against the stream by inverting the rabbinic premise that study is greater than practice because study leads to and informs practice. Hartman cites an example of students losing things at school. From that experience educators were able to teach about what the Torah (Deut 22:1-3) had to say about the importance of returning what is lost. As an educator, Hartman contends: “In contrast to Heschel, my position is that you don’t begin with “my God” but with “the God of my father.” The crucial issue in Jewish education is not whether you can sense the living presence of God but whether you feel a personal, existential identification with the tradition. The challenge of the Jewish educator is to create a living reality where students feel connected to what they study.” (p. 126)

Dr. Hartman’s scholarship shines in his chapter on comparing the different attitudes concerning Christianity of three Jewish thinkers: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joseph Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz. The latter two were opposed to Jewish-Christian dialogue; both believing that the two faiths had little in common. Heschel, on the other hand, favoured and promoted Jewish-Christian dialogue; seeing enough common ground for it in both traditions. Heschel credited Christianity with giving Jews access to the works of Philo, Ibn Gabirol, Josephus, and others. “Heschel understood that Christianity had created a religious universe in which Judaism could flourish.” (p. 186)

When reflecting on contemporary Israel, Dr. Hartman asks: “Should Auschwitz or Sinai be the orienting category that shapes our understanding of the rebirth of the State of Israel?” (p. 260) His answer is likely to stir some controversy and perhaps even be offensive to some Jews: “I believe it is destructive to make the Holocaust the dominant organizing category of modern Jewish identity. It is pointless and often vulgar to argue that the Jewish people’s suffering is unique in history.” (p. 261) Moreover, the author critiques those political leaders who operate with the principle that no one can judge the Jewish people after what they have gone through in the Holocaust. “In so doing, they—i.e. political leaders who hold to this principle—violate a basic Talmudic principle: you may not judge others if you refuse to be judged yourself.” (p. 261)

According to Dr. Hartman, it is the Sinai covenant that defines Israel as a State—both morally and politically. “The rebirth of Israel can be viewed as a potential return to the fullness of the Sinai covenant—to Judaism as a way of life. We must therefore define who we are by what we do, not by any obsession with the long and noble history of Jewish suffering.” (p. 263)

Reading Dr. Hartman’s work was, for this reviewer, like being present in the same room and participating in a dialogue with the author and several other eminent Jewish scholars. What a privilege! Thank you Dr. Hartman.

About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: gwh photos:

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