From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self

Jewish Lights Publishing  2012


The phrase “Jewish journeys” has become part of the lexicon of Jewish sociology and Jewish education. I remember first coming across it in Bethamie Horowitz’s landmark study of the New York Jewish community. The assumption for many was that the idea that an individual’s Jewish identity today is not stationary, but is constantly evolving, applied to all but Orthodox Jews. In this latest book, Rabbi Dr. Hartman disproves that assumption, as he shows us that Orthodox Jews, and even Orthodox rabbis, also have Jewish identities that shift over time.

This collection of essays covers a significant part of Dr. Hartman’s career. In the introduction, Hartman himself points out that his earlier writings tended to defend and explain Orthodox Jewish law and practices. The later writings, which make up the second part of the book, show him still defending the concept of halacha, but seeking great fluidity and the inclusion of contemporary ethical sensibilities in the process of legal decision making.

Reading the essays carefully, it is clear that the core of Dr. Hartman’s thinking remains firm. In both the earlier and later writings, he is a believer in the concept of halacha, a rationalist who is firmly grounded in the thinking of Rambam (Maimonides), and a person who is fiercely committed to making Judaism and contemporary ethical ideas work together. What does shift is the degree to which he is prepared to move halacha to include ethical considerations.

As always, Dr. Hartman is impressive in his mastery of Jewish thinkers from Rambam to Kaplan to Soloveitchik. His intellect is matched by his sensitivity to the needs of today’s Jews living in a modern world. If you’re already a fan of Dr. Hartman’s writings and career, this will add to your understanding of his journey. And if you aren’t yet a fan, this book can start you on your journey to learn more about one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of our time. Bibliography, notes.

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