‘Putting God Second’
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‘Putting God Second’

How Rabbi Donniel Hartman wants to save religion from itself

Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman
Rabbi Donniel Hartman

Rabbi Donniel Hartman begins “Putting God Second: How To Save Religion From Itself” by questioning the conflation of the metaphysical and the martial.

He recalls standing in an Israeli military cemetery, wondering why the chaplain had to assert that his brother-in-law, a casualty of Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War, fell al kiddush haShem, in sanctification of God’s name. After all, that war now is widely regarded as a fiasco that wreaked a devastating toll on the Lebanese civilian population,

To Hartman, the chaplain’s talk represented a disquieting mixture of the concerns of a state and those of the deity worshipped by many of its citizens.

This conflation is hardly unique to Israel and Judaism. Back when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld regularly briefed President George W. Bush on the progress of the war in Iraq, his reports often included cover sheets with triumphant Bible verses superimposed on full-color military action photos. And the first two letters of ISIS stand for “Islamic State.” It’s hard to look at the state of the world without discussing atrocities committed or justified in the name of God. No surprise, then, that since September 11, 2001, religious apologists have moved somewhat from discussing whether or not God exists to the more practical matter of whether religion, writ large, is a force for good in the world or not.

One approach, taken by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his recent “Not In God’s Name,” is to argue that religion must be quarantined from state power to prevent it from becoming a tool for those who might misunderstand or cynically pervert it.

Hartman, though, refuses to place all the blame on states and power. Instead he identifies two inherent (and somewhat overlapping) problems at the core of religious practice itself that naturally gravitate toward fanaticism — what he calls religion’s “autoimmune disorders.”

The first problem, which he labels “God intoxication,” is the tendency for religious devotion — the desire to carry out what we perceive to be God’s will — to overpower both our instinct for self-preservation and our natural empathy for each other. Rabbi Akiva’s ecstatic martyrdom on one hand, and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on the other, demonstrate both the power and the danger of this phenomenon. For Hartman, these examples, both glorified in the rabbinic tradition, are too close to a contemporary suicide bomber for comfort.

A02-L-PuttingGodSecondThe second problem he identifies, “God manipulation,” is the impulse to draft God, as it were, into the service of our own self-interest. Here, Hartman most directly targets Jewish nationalism and “chosenness,” and the tendency to self-justify crimes and injustices against others by cloaking them in religious garb.

If these problems are inherent to religion, how can they be avoided? Hartman would “insulate” our moral intuition so that religious study and practice cannot replace an innate moral sense, but can only reinforce it. The cure for God intoxication is to identify and prioritize the sources within Jewish tradition that emphasize empathy with human beings over obedience of God. These include Hillel’s maxim, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow,” or those that see the ultimate goal of religious service in acting in accordance with an independent ethical vision.

Likewise, Hartman combats God manipulation by calling on religious followers to hold God accountable, as it were, to an external moral standard. The Abraham whom we need to emulate, he argues, is the one who challenged God over the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, not the one who meekly and obediently acquiesced to the binding of Isaac. Finally, just as the Talmud records incidents in which the rabbis seem open to a moral critique of their law from their Roman counterparts, hearing perspectives on how Judaism is perceived and experienced from the outside is an important check on our perspective.

In this way, Hartman continues to develop his father’s “covenantal” approach to Judaism. To Rabbi David Hartman, God is a partner in an ongoing dialogue, soliciting and responding to human demands and moral arguments. The younger Hartman, though, navigates a narrow path. On one side he has to carefully assemble a collection of sources that do not involve some level of surrender or submission to the Divine will. On the other, he struggles to explain the value of a religion whose primary purpose is merely to remind people of the moral values they already know.

Hartman’s primary innovation is characterizing religious practice as inherently self-destructive if it lacks proper introspection and course correction. The flip side of this coin, though, means he does not consider how social, political, or cultural factors are reflected in toxic forms of religious expression. If a particular society finds the tragedy, violence, and submission of the binding of Isaac narrative particularly compelling as a template for religious life, it is not enough to offer other, less resonant teachings in its place. Rather, we must understand why those themes are so meaningful to those people at that particular time.

In this context, I also was disappointed at the paucity of contemporary real-life examples in the book. Though “Putting God Second” shares an editor, Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz, with David Hartman’s final book, “The God Who Hates Lies,” the latter used modern-day questions, personal stories, and halachic decision-making to illustrate the theological stakes. In contrast, after the opening graveside story, “Putting God Second” feels somewhat detached from reality, and oddly so.

Given Hartman’s position at the helm of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a remarkably large and vibrant organization that focuses on the intersection between pluralistic Jewish principles and public life and policy, I was hoping for many more concrete applications. What, for example, does it mean to “Put God Second” when it comes to the recent surge of religious youth volunteering for elite IDF units or applying for officer commissions? Does a Roman scholar critiquing unbalanced halachot to the rabbis centuries ago teach us anything about the perspective of a Palestinian waiting at a checkpoint in the contemporary State of Israel? I know that Hartman spends a great deal of time working on these very issues, which is why their absence from this book feels like an omission.

His discussion and arrangement of sources often is provocative and bold, but in the end Hartman falls short of his title’s ambition. To his credit, though, he comes closer than others in his genre, which generally suffers from the lack of a target audience. Someone considering moving to Syria and fighting for ISIS is not likely to be convinced by Jonathan Sacks’ reading of Genesis, for example, nor by Hartman’s insistence on the primacy of Hillel. Hartman, at least, does have something to say to his natural readership, which is that the gap that separates them from their religion’s dark side is much narrower than they may like to think. If nothing else, that sobering thought makes “Putting God Second” a worthwhile read.

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