"Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself," by Donniel Hartman, Beacon Press, 180 pp., $24.95
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Rabbi Donniel Hartman is not content with the crude attack on religion that hails from the new atheists, according to whom religion is a source of unremitting evil. He’s also not content with religious apologists who seek to whitewash the teachings of whichever religion they happen to be defending.
Wherever you stand on the religious map, “Putting God Second,” with its balance between beautiful prose and argument, and the intimacy with which it’s written, is likely to say something that challenges you. Orthodox and Progressive Jews alike will feel challenged by different parts of Hartman’s book, and secular Jews too will be probed and cajoled into thinking about the unique benefits of living a life of faith.
The book’s argument goes something like this: The classical monotheistic religions are designed, at least in part, to banish ethical indifference from believers. A religious person is not supposed to stand idly by while another is in pain or distress – and yet something about religion itself seems to be a catalyst, under certain circumstances, for creating the very indifference it seeks to banish.
In other words, Hartman’s thesis is that monotheism itself contains the seeds of religious violence. Religious violence isn’t a viral infection that haunts monotheism from outside. It is an autoimmune disease.
The two causes of this disease are what Hartman calls “God intoxication” and “God manipulation.” The former posits that believing in a perfectly good and transcendent Other can all too often lead a person to ignore the needs of lesser, mortal, terrestrial beings. Hartman sees this manifest in the story of Rabbi Ada son of Akba, as presented in the Talmud. He saw a Gentile woman wearing a red headdress in the street. He thought that she was a Jew and tore the headdress off of her head, since it was deemed to be immodest.
The Talmud seems to praise Rabbi Ada for his actions yet Hartman finds them distressing. How can such victimization of another be considered pious? ”What about her feelings?” he asks. “What about the humiliation she will suffer at the hands of this so-called piety? Blinded by God, we fail to see her; indeed, we are commanded not to see her. Here the moral consequences of God intoxication come sharply into relief. It shuts down our moral instincts to such an extent that we no longer see the woman standing before us at all, just the headdress deemed offensive to God.”
God manipulation, meanwhile, occurs when people take the all-powerful transcendent God and co-opt Him into their petty human disputes and institutions. As Hartman puts it, God manipulation “blinds me to myself and the person I have become. I cloak myself in the grace of God, whom I define as being with me regardless of what I do or deserve, attributing pious motivation and religious value to all of my behavior. Once we can no longer see who we have become, we have lost the ability to self-correct, to say I have sinned, and to repent. There are those who have lost their moral compass completely.”
To illustrate the concept of God manipulation, Hartman tells a somewhat painful personal story about his experiences during the first Lebanon war. Having seen very fierce battle on the frontline, he was redeployed to shores of Lake Qaraoun, where a battle had taken place a few days prior. Finding themselves in relative safety, some way from the frontlines, he and his fellow soldiers began to explore their surroundings. Disturbingly, they found a number of Syrian corpses, left to rot out in the open.
Jewish law mandates us to bury the dead, whatever their background. But when Hartman asked his unit’s chaplain about doing so, he was singularly unmoved. ”Does this really trouble you?” he asked. Hartman is astute and even-handed enough to recognize that ”the heat of battle is not known as the ideal setting for moral sensitivity,” but his fear is that the chaplain’s response was really the product of “a religious sensibility rooted in a sense of being chosen and loved by God more: a love in the context of a zero-sum game, in which there is never enough to go around. God’s love and care for me necessarily diminishes God’s love and care for others.”
Hartman didn’t ask his chaplain, for the purposes of this book, or for himself, whether his hunch was right, but he assumes that “For this military chaplain, religious faith did not provide enough God to go around.” And, whether Hartman was right about this particular person or not, I fear that he’s certainly right about too many people of faith.
The Torah as a moral baseline
Part of what makes this book distinctive are the cures that Hartman doesn’t prescribe. He doesn’t agree with the new atheists that the very idea of religion is morally corrosive. In fact, he is at his most eloquent toward the end of the book, when he describes the beneficial role that faith can play in our lives – creating meaning, community and a moral vocabulary.
Hartman also doesn’t adopt a strategy associated more with progressive streams of Judaism, which denies that the Pentateuch was exclusively divinely authored and calls upon us to reject those parts that scholars have come to believe could not possibly have come from God. Instead, Hartman argues that revelation is important to the life of faith, and that the idea of a closed cannon grounded in a singular event of revelation, such as Sinai, is also important.
Instead, he argues, we should adopt the Maimonidean idea, prefigured in the Talmud, that the Torah, despite being a work of divinity, was given to a particular people at a particular time. The laws of the Torah constitute something like a moral baseline, beyond which God felt it would be unwise to push the ancient Jewish people too quickly.
It is our job, in every generation, to go beyond the letter of the law, and the only way to do this, Hartman argues, is to recognize that there is a moral law that is independent of the Torah, and independent even of God. It was to this moral law that Abraham held God himself accountable, when he asked, in connection to the plan to annihilate the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Shall the judge of all the world not act justly?” God Himself is held accountable to an independent standard: the standard of ethics. This is the first way in which Hartman beseeches us to put God second.
Another way in which we must place God second is to recognize that members of the religious community are something like His ambassadors on earth – and in order to make His name great on earth, we have to be good ambassadors who live lives of moral rectitude that put the needs of others first. In other words, in order to put God first, we have to put Him second. By putting people first, irrespective of their beliefs or practices, as ambassadors of God we make His name great.
Unfortunately, the book raises some questions that are left unanswered. When we engage our moral sense in order to go beyond the letter of the law – and it’s clear that we can do more than the law asks of us – what should our guiding principles be? When Scripture seems to forbid something, such as homosexual intercourse, that we might think should be permitted today, are we allowed to be guided by our moral sense and ignore the written prohibition?
In this regard, Hartman places a great deal of weight on the famous Talmudic story in which Rabbi Joshua refused to heed the miracles that Rabbi Eliezer was able to commission as proof that he was right on a certain legal point. Rabbi Joshua’s constant response was that “the Torah isn’t in heaven.“ In the end, the law was sealed in accordance with Rabbi Joshua, against the miraculous proofs of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbinic discussion is not to be conducted with recourse to miracles. The heavens have done their job already; our job is to interpret the law.
For Hartman, the takeaway message from this tale is that “God’s revealed word is confined to sacred scripture, which relies on human courts and religious leaders for reinterpretation and application according to the needs and sensibilities of each new generation.”
The implication that Hartman repeatedly draws from this conclusion is that we must each follow our own conscience in conversation with Scripture, which prods us forward on an ever more moral trajectory: “Our only reliable basis for making moral judgment is the best-reasoned morality of our particular historical moment,” Hartman writes. “Another generation – another person – may disagree. At times the devil may win, and at times the devil may be found in our own faulty logic. But the process of applying humanity’s moral evolution to the interpretation and practice of scripture lies at the heart of both the religious journey and the internal culture war that believers must wage if we are to save our traditions from themselves.”
Still, it’s important to note that the law doesn’t follow Rabbi Joshua because he was using his own autonomous moral compass. The law follows Rabbi Joshua because he managed to convince a majority of his peers – and not just any peers, but rabbinic peers. The law follows the majority of the rabbis, even in the face of miracles.
The rabbinic dictum that Hartman relies upon, according to which we have to make our ethical and legal decisions as best we see fit, is explicitly directed to the judges, not to all people (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Batra, 131a). If Hartman wants to claim that the weight of tradition is calling upon us to be individual, autonomous interpreters of Scripture, he has more work to do; the stories and texts he appeals to simply don’t offer enough to support this assertion.
Nice isn't always true
The book also makes certain assumptions that we might be wise to push back against. I can see how intoxication with a certain sort of God – a transcendent, and wholly other God – could lead one to become indifferent to the world around him. But what about a God intoxication that prompts one to look at every other human being and feel overwhelmed with awe that they are the precious handiwork of a God who loves us all more than we can imagine? Mightn’t that sort of intoxication make it much harder to act indifferently to those around you, when you see in their faces the face of God?
Furthermore, mightn’t such intoxication stop one from engaging in God manipulation by recognizing that God can’t really be co-opted with any certainty into petty human disputes, since his will is greater than we can know? God intoxication doesn’t have to be a problem, as long as you’re intoxicated with the right sort of God, one that cannot be manipulated.
Finally, Hartman has a tendency in this book to argue based upon what would be nice, for him, or for society. But something’s being nice isn’t proof that it’s true. Perhaps that’s a weakness that cannot be remedied in so short a book.
Despite these qualms, Hartman has written a book that places him and his sensitive pen at the forefront of an immensely important discussion facing the Jewish people, and people of faith more generally. Whether we’re left agreeing with the conclusions of the book, any honest reader will be left at times moved and at times challenged, not just by the arguments and conclusions, but by the soul-searching avenues of thought and life experience that led Hartman to them.