RABBI DAVID Hartman was one of the great figures of contemporary Jewish life. The founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a prophet of religious tolerance, the self-described Jewish kid from Brooklyn had a huge impact on his generation, both in Israel, where he lived since 1971, and in the broader Jewish world. Less predictably, Hartman — who died last week at 81 — was a towering inspiration to me, a Catholic guy from Boston.
After World War II and the horrors of the Nazi death camps, Jews and Christians had to learn a new language if they were ever to communicate again. Remarkably enough, they found it. With every reason not to do so, leaders of the Jewish community, such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Marc Tanenbaum, entered into a daring conversation with Christian partners, like the Lutheran scholar Krister Stendahl and the Catholic theologian John Pawlikowski. The momentous and ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue that such figures established is one of the most significant religious events in history, for it has led to the dismantling of ancient structures of Christian anti-Semitism. This movement away from hostility to deep mutuality provides the world with a model of reconciliation.
David Hartman made his name within the Jewish community as a proponent of reconciliation among the varied streams of Jewish life and thought — from reform and conservative Judaism, to the ultra-Orthodox, and to his own liberal Orthodox viewpoint. His educational center in Jerusalem, liberal in the best sense, was remarkable for its outreach across these sectarian divides. But David Hartman’s other work was to advance the Jewish-Christian relationship to its next stage, for it was at his center that the dialogue first became a “tri-alogue,” formally opening to include Muslims. Together with Krister Stendahl, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School and bishop of Stockholm, Hartman founded the annual International Theology Conference in 1988, envisioned as a Jerusalem embodiment of the Jewish-Christian encounter. But after the first few years, David and Krister were alike in sensing the missing third, and Islamic partners were invited to join the conversation. In the same spirit, women became essential participants, too. Theology was never the same.
Every year since, this weeklong meeting has brought together thinkers and practitioners from Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; from Israel, Palestine, Europe, Africa, and North America. I have myself been privileged to attend many times. As it happens, the conference convenes in Jerusalem for the 25th year beginning today.
The conference has met throughout the years of the intifadas, the wars on terror, and the misconceived conflict between Islam and “the West.” Christian and Muslim participants from the West Bank and East Jerusalem have braved Israeli checkpoints to attend. The conference unflinchingly takes up the hard questions that these conflicts force. If the Hartman Institute has thus been a rare oasis of peace, that is because David Hartman’s heart was at its center, and his heart was large enough to welcome all.
I was astonished by the generosity with which he befriended me. As an unconventional Jewish philosopher much disapproved by the conservative religious establishment of his own tradition, he regarded me as a Catholic fellow traveler. His last book, published in 2012, was entitled “From Defender to Critic,” and it carried the apt subtitle, “The Search for a New Jewish Self.” David showed me and countless others what the task of reimagining a beloved but sorely outmoded tradition requires. Criticism of the tradition, we learned, is self-criticism in the presence of those whom the tradition offends. No one in dialogue with David could ride the moral high horse for long. The many hours I sat beside him, poring over the texts on which conference discussions were based — Talmud, Koran, Gospel — remain with me now as the most enlightening instruction I have ever received.
But more precious still were those moments when, with his most infectious grin, he looked up, and cut to the quick of the subject at hand with a sly irreverence. He would laugh, self-mockingly shake his head, and reach across to clasp his partner’s arm, conveying in a flash an infinite affection. All particular talk of God out there had become, that quickly, a universal intimation of God right here — alive in David’s sparkling smile.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.