David Hartman —
Hope in a Hopeless God

David Hartman died a year ago this week. The Orthodox rabbi was a charismatic and challenging figure in Israeli society, called a “public philosopher for the Jewish people” and a “champion of adaptive Judaism.” We remember his window into the unfolding of his tradition in the modern world — Judaism as a lens on the human condition.

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was an Orthodox rabbi and founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He authored many books, including A Heart of Many Rooms and The God Who Hates Lies.

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The daughter of an evangelical pastor finds comfort in the questions of an Orthodox rabbi — and his ability to change his mind on women's issues because of his relationship with his daughter.

Video Interviews with Krista Tippett

In the Room with Rabbi David Hartman

From the offices of the Shalom Hartman Institute in the German Colony of Jerusalem, watch our unedited interview with the Jewish philosopher.

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Ultra Orthodox Jews pray at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the northern Israeli village of Meron during the day-long holy Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer, which commemorates Bar Yochai's death. Bar Yochai was a great scholar and one of the most important sages in Jewish history some 1800 years ago. Hundreds of thousands Jews light large bonfires all night long and visit his resting place in Meron.

Photo by Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

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In January and February over 8 days I joined an Alternative Tour of the Holy Land. Hearing that Krista Tippett traveled to that area and interviewed people we did not meet brought my listening ear.

I have begun listening to some of the conversations from the time that Krista Tippett visited Israel and the West Bank. The conversation with David Hartman feels like a touching and true love story. Thank you

I read the podcast entitled “Opening up Windows” in which Krista Tippett is in Jerusalem interviewing the Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman. Rabbi Hartman shares with us 80 years of his philosophy. He was raised what he says is “very Jewish.” His interview made a lot of sense to me in some very deep regards. Rabbi Hartman talks about his youth in where he says “I was a nice religious boy until I started to read.” He goes on to talk about moving away from conventional Orthodoxy because he was not satisfied with the answers. I found that to be a very profound statement and it is no wonder he is one that creates some controversy. It is the questioning of one’s faith that I find refreshing. He was able to do something that I feel very few people are able to do and walk away satisfied and that is to redefine God for what he believes makes the most sense to him and the world we live in. While that may be a great contradiction to what it means to be faithful the Rabbi tells us that he has “no desire to leave the faith. I have a desire to make it better.” He seems to do that. His view of the world is not typical for what I am used to hearing from religious leaders. He even addressed my feelings when he speaks of the young man who comes to him and tells him that he is an atheist. The one thing Rabbi Hartman asked was what changed? His criterion for being human is: are you acting any different with your non-belief than when you were a believer? That fits me perfectly. I feel that even without a god in my life, I am still a kind, caring, trustworthy person. It was nice to hear some acceptance from someone who is so deeply rooted in spirituality. Some of the things that stuck me in his interview were also his views on where the Jews are today. He speaks of their strengths while at the same time he acknowledges their difficulties. He mentions the Jews wanting to be loved. He wants to understand why the world hates them. He mentions that they live with a deep fear. Those are some fantastic points. In some of that talk is where I find myself disagreeing with the Rabbi. The one thing he never does mention is that Israel makes mistakes. He only mentions the faults of other nations and religions. He speaks of the anger that the Palestinians cause him. He fails to look at his own nation more critically. I think that is something that he and I will differ on. What the Rabbi does to redeem himself to me is when he mentions wanting to just sit down and engage in some meaningful dialogue. That Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike should be able to talk, iron out their differences and I feel that would be a great plan. That is the one thing I feel we are lacking in the entire world. We as different nations with different major belief systems fail to understand even a small bit of what it is like to see the world through the eyes of another. I think we lack the compassion for those we do not understand. Rabbi Hartman really made me stop and think about how I look at those with different belief systems. Often I am quite hard on them for having beliefs that I do not. That sort of intolerance is the problem. I need to be more compassionate with those I do not see eye to eye with. Instead of instantly getting into a debate, slow down and try meaningful dialogue. I may learn something if I just stop and listen.

Very well said, really captures the essence of the interview.

Thank you for your comment- after listening today, I wondered how many people would have a similar response. I had hoped that Hartman would have shown more self insight but was disappointed that he could say, "the German Jews trusted, and look what happened..." without realizing that he had JUST said, "the Palestinians should trust us..." This, when Israel constantly shows itself the aggressor and regularly violates the civil and property rights of Palestinians. It was laughable, if not so tragic.

Furthermore, his sweeping generalizations of Palestinians left no doubt that he is a bigot as well. In Hartman's world, Israel won't know what peace is because it is only interested in peace on its terms. Like John Lennon wrote, "War is Over! If you want it."

David Hartman's statement I at first agreed with: "You cannot have a moral argument without power." Then, when he mentioned the Palestinians, I assumed he was referring to them as the powerless people who are not compelled to engage in a moral argument without power. But then he put the Israelis in the hypothetical "powerless" role. He exhibited appalling blindness to his own hypocrisy, and I was very disappointed that you missed it, or let it slide. Hartman needs to be challenged on this, and in resolving it, bring this awareness to his own people, as he has done on many vital issues.

Thank you! I was so upset when I heard this comment and other comments he made. I am an African American woman and when my culture uses the past as an excuse for raicism (not trusting the world because he saw what happened in Germany so he can't trust Palestinians) I correct people quickly! There is NO EXCUSE for treating an entire group of people badly for the actions of a few! We must treat the individual! Being whoever you are, practicing whatever faith you want to practice will never make you better or more deserving of life than anyone else.

I was struck by this, too. Since when has "might makes right" been an acceptable moral argument?

According to Israeli historian, author and journalist Tom Segev, Israel striking at the Palestinians to "teach them a lesson" is "a basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its inception".

Even more sinister and equally unlikely to ever be challenged by On Being, a program whose host seems to blindly glorify and hold harmless any and all things religious, is the Biblical teaching of Israel as the land promised to the Jews by their god (Genesis 15:18-21 Exodus 23:28-33 Numbers 34:1-15 Deuteronomy 11:24 Deuteronomy 1:7 Ezekiel 47:13-20.) Holiday observances, special events and daily prayers include prayers for a return to Israel and Jerusalem. Rabbis (based on Numbers 33:53) declare a mitzvah (commandment) the taking possession of Israel to live there.

Indeed, unabashedly intoned by the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories (deemed illegal by the international community) is the mantra that their god "gave them the land".


I wonder if "Mandelbrot" feels the same way about Tibetan Buddhists longing to return to Tibet, or Native Americans longing for a return to their lands? Not likely.

His closing "Shalom" (peace) can't hide his rejection of a country specifically being Jewish.

Actually I do.

A neurotically held ancestral (real or imagined)"our lands" nostalgia fetish is a neurotically held ancestral (real or imagined) "our lands" nostalgia fetish regardless of who holds it. And yes that includes Palestinians who insist on going back to great grandpa's exact pile of rubble next to great grandpa's exact olive-tree even if it requires GPS to locate it. And Native Americans who long for a return to "their lands" were their great grandpas used to take enemy tribe's scalps. And Tibetan Buddhists who want to return to the idyllic feudalism of the Dalai Lamas - idyllic for the Lama class, not so much for the peasantry they exploited and abused.

One would hope it were the norm in the 21st century the rejection of a country specifically being Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Scientologist, Bahai, Rastafarian, Pastafarian or any other mythology based dogma. The Founding Fathers endeavored to make it the norm for the United States of America in the 18th century. I'd say they were on to something.

That would be her not "his" closing

"Yismach lev m'vakshei Hashem" ("Joyful are those who seek God, not those who found God."). I needed that tonight. He is still teaching. Thank you.

I'm really frustrated! I have sent many email queries to On Being, and NEVER received any sort of reply.
My issue it that I CAN'T figure out how to download a podcast! Your podcast info page is not helpful. I have no problem getting the mp3 files for podcasts from other organizations. I don't want to subscribe, just download the occasional interview.

Obviously,the fact that I want to save some interviews indicates how impressed I am with On Being!


Ian MacDonald

I tuned in on the way to Church at 8:30 AM. I sat in the car outside and listened for a while. After church I came home and found the unedited version. Thank you so much for going to the effort to interview this important man. The idea's and thoughts of Rabbi Hartman gave me all those things he wanted for Jews ; to have joy, depth, critical reflection and and changed mind.
The interview was the best two hours I've spent in years. thanks, Greg

as a Catholic, so many things that Rabbi Hartman said ring true; so many similar problems. ......can't say kaddish with one man short, but there are also 7 women in the same room......I would very much have met the Rabbi and sat and asked questions, so many questions.

I loved your being on MPR today for interview with Kerri Miller. Where would I find your address to Stanford students, dear Krista?
Thank you for ALL you give on public radio, etc. Lydia Holsten

David Hartman was quoted in Washington Post on March 1, 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, urging then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be more brutal:
“Which population in the world would allow itself to be intimidated and terrified as this whole population is, where you can’t send your kid out for a pizza at night without fear he’ll be blown up?” said David Hartman, a rabbi and philosopher who runs a think tank in Jerusalem. “The frustration is, ‘Sharon, we thought you’d show our power.”
“Let’s really let them understand what the implication of their actions is. . . . Very simply, wipe them out. Level them.”

Just from this one interview I can understand how intelligent and soulful and man the Rabbi must have been. I am probably the furthest thing from Jewish, a product of the polytheistic traditions of Hinduism. But, I find great wisdom and inspiration in the intelligent conversations of great Rabbis like Rabbi Hartman. In them, I hear the voices of gurus of the past.

I found this interview, as all of the ones you do to be so....stimulating. The Rabbi was a very special man and humanity is better for him being here. I like the fact that he acknowledged his contradictions...and just because he had the desire to work through them, how he seemed to have grown for it. Beautiful. Your work is very inspiring.

The interview with Rabbi David Hartman was so moving. Rabbi Hartman speaks with such passion and conviction. What I admire the most was that even though he disagreed with some aspects of his Jewish faith, he was compelled to make it better. The Shalom Institute in which he founded is extraordinary and unprecedented. It is a fantastic model for ALL faith traditions striving to build a more diverse and tolerant understanding of each other. It appears that through his compassion and love for people, he opened doors that may have never been opened and provided the ground for which conversation and learning had precedence over arrogance and narrowmindedness. He was indeed a great model.

I chose this show because of the title: Hope in a Hopeless God. I am interested in listening to people that attempt to make sense out of the religions that are so popular today; not people that just follow ignorantly, without questions. David Hartman spoke about his growth as a religious man and then his turn to atheism. He explained that his view changed after watching the news one night. That news cast showed a newly married couple that died in a plane crash. They were just going to start their lives together, then it was over in the blink of an eye. He changed because he wondered if God had a sense of humor, or if there just wasn't one.

I relate to David Hartman on many levels. Especially when he says “I want to be religious, but I haven’t found anyone to talk me into wanting to be religious.” I tell people I am not an atheist because in my opinion, atheists chose that there is not a God. I on the other hand agree with David in that I just have not found something to believe in yet. David Hartman wants god in all aspects of reality, as in more questions should be able to be answered and there are no contradictions.

It is hard for me to imagine what it would be like to be a part of religion that does not allow women to be on the same page. I will never believe a religion that thinks women and men should be treated differently, like Judaism. And that is another reason why David Hartman said he changed his beliefs.

Rabbi Hartman has such diverse views on a wide range of topics. He touches many times on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and I think being that he has lived in Israel for many years now, it is clearly an extremely personal matter close to his heart. It seems that some comments made show maybe at one time he was more angry about the issue. He talks about how in the morning, he hated Palestinians, but that he calmed down throughout the day and no longer felt that way. Overall, though, I sensed he was weary of the turmoil and wanted peace, not only for his people but those on the other side as well.

I sense that the rabbi has an extreme love for his people and the religion that they practiced. He spoke of the current reality that we all live in and how traditional, orthodox Judaism (and the rabbis that practice it) many times do not have the answers that it's followers seek and perhaps is out of touch with it's people and the problems they face in today's world. He touches on the fact that if you have a history and roots you therefore have an identity, and this allows you to feel secure enough to branch out and hear other's history and what their roots and identities are.

One last thing that stuck with me was his denouncement of laws that had no basis in religious morals or God. I think this is something that works in a country with a nationally declared religion, but in a place like the United States it isn't practical.

Rabbi Hartman's interview was inspiring! As a Jewish woman I have often felt how his daughter feels about the role of women and that there needs to be some real changes within the Jewish customs. Hartman makes Judaism so relatable and approachable which unfortunately it often is not under normal circumstances. Well done Krista on yet another fantastic interview!

I truly enjoyed this on being, because it does make sense on his views of where is the hope when you sometimes feel god is a hopeless figure, because as much as i want to believe in god alot, but sometimes its not the easiest thing when he isnt a person that you see on a daily basis or that you can have a converstation with. Where he explains how its not easy to be religious , but he wants to be, but doesnt want to be. I completely agree with this statement, because i feel the same way because its not easy to be religious these days with everything in the world, religion isnt what it use to be as it use to be.

Hope in a Hopeless God
Rabbi David Hartman, who died last year, came from an Orthodox Jewish religion. His beliefs ran deep with tradition. He also was a Philosopher and teacher of the religion. Yet he felt at a young age that the laws of Judaism didn’t line up with God’s love for all humanity.
Rabbi Hartman moved to Israel in 1967 from Montreal Canada. One of his many concerns that bothered him about his religion was exclusion of women from participating in religion activities. He wondered why women could flourish in some industries, yet powerless in all religious aspects. Women were considered less than man. What kind of religion allows this to happen, he thought? Tova, his daughter, grew up and became an Orthodox feminist for the revolution. Her influence along with the writings of William James and Peter Berger among others changed Rabbi’s attitude. He always had a passion for the human condition even though he was taught to be true to Orthodox Jewish laws which only concerns among them. Rabbi was proud to be a Jew; and yet ashamed of the limited thinking and beliefs of his people. They failed to see the world through compassion just as God see us all. Your conscious should make you want to show the love of God in you. Rabbi responded in the discussion, “God wanted me to be moral”. He struggled trying to make a connection with all faiths and beliefs, not just his Jewish faith. He called it “the reshaping of God”. Rabbi Hartman continues to follow God’s instructions to open the minds of the Orthodox Jewish faith to the world.
He challenged the values of Judaism. He started the Shalom Institute which was considered a safe haven for all religions. Rabbi spoke of breaking the cycle and sharing in dialogue with people of all faiths and religions to bring about change and peace. Within the walls of the institute, no chain of command existed. The Shalom Institute provided training for girls and women into traditions of Jewish religion. Classes were held for Jews and Rabbis of different Jewish traditions. Included were spiritual teachings with military officers that opened a dialogue for change. His dream was for Israel to meet people with dignity. He was known as public Philosopher for the Jewish people.
I enjoyed listening to Rabbi Hartman and Ms. Krista Tippett. Here was a man with a vision to open his people up to the love of God instead of the laws of old. “Joyful are those who seek God; not those whose found God”. His love for God and strong conviction shined through denial of change with his own faith. “Judaism has the capacity to make the transition as a tradition”. Rabbi Hartman said “philosophy opens up windows of possibilities, it doesn’t give you truths”. He brought to the table dialogue of ethical and spiritual issues of the Orthodox tradition and suggestions for change. Even though history is important in knowing the laws of religion, the present in which God’s love, shows through all. The Rabbi brought down barriers with some Palestinians in order to study and understand their religion and way of life in which the people are seeking. He hoped for peace in the Middle East. He truly was a man of God that believed through faith and conversation was the key for growth and change. My eyes opened up to the belief that we as people are comfortable in our beliefs and traditions, but be open to change. Rabbi Hartman displayed with a humble heart by not letting go of our unwillingness to open ourselves up to change; we will never grow together as God’s children.