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Can morality and faith find common ground?

21st century answers to an ancient problem

Hartman Book image

"If praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer." 

That old Hassidic adage is one way Rabbi Donniel Hartman illustrates for readers of his brilliant book the vexing reality of the present, a time when religion is engaged in what he calls a "cultural and intellectual war" over its essential identity.

In Putting God Second , Hartman ascribes crimes committed throughout history in the name of God to a paradox whereby monotheism, in an effort to uproot idolatry, "gives rise to the greatest idolatry of all, the idolatry of human self-intoxication, an idolatry in which God is drafted in the service of human self-interest."

In chapters that are profound but accessible, explaining ideas both complex and enthralling, Hartman diagnoses and presents antidotes to what he terms religion's autoimmune disease. "For in the very act of self-revelation, of making the divine presence accessible to human experience, God unleashes a spiritual virus on human beings that even God cannot control," he writes. The result is that "…the immoral becomes mysteriously moral, the profane miraculously holy."

Rather than indicting Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Hartman's goal is to aid monotheistic faith communities in "rediscovering and reclaiming a religious system that does not merely attempt to balance love of God with love of neighbor but that clearly prioritizes love of neighbor over love of God." By doing so, Hartman, who is among Judaism's most influential educators, implores the faithful to recognize the religious primacy of the ethical.

Orienting religion around the primacy of the ethical is critical to overcoming what Hartman calls "God intoxication," an effect of monotheism's autoimmune disorder that, he says, "plagues and subverts the spiritual priority of human moral responsibility."

To walk with God, Hartman asserts, is to "walk with human beings through all of our shared struggles and needs." To do so is to transform religious passion into a fuel for moral greatness. This, he claims, is the power and potential of the ancient maxim of Rabbi Hillel, who two millennia ago laid the basis of rabbinic Judaism: "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary [on the principle]; go and learn it."

Hartman offers a radical ideal in this age of religious radicalism: The purpose of religious systems, commandments, and laws, he states, is not to determine moral good in the first place. Rather "they function to remind us of that which we already know, and their primary role is to condition us to overcome the most significant cause of moral mediocrity, which is not lack of knowledge but weakness of character." 

To refocus religion in service of humanity's moral evolution will entail what Hartman calls an internal culture war that believers must wage "if we are to save our traditions from themselves."

"We must be, and cultivate, internal critics who can look moral failure squarely in the eye, not as an indictment of religion but as a failure of religion to live up to its own goals," he writes.

Hartman and his colleagues are doing that through the Shalom Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem and North America, by redefining the conversation about Judaism in modernity, religious pluralism, Israeli democracy, Israel and world Jewry, and the relationship with other faith communities. For its part, the Jewish United Fund has supported the participation of a dozen Chicago-area rabbis in the institute's Rabbinic Leadership Initiative.* 

"In light of religion's resurgence as a significant power in shaping the world, it is critical that the faithful take an honest look at the types of people and communities our systems are producing….The broad geopolitical and socioeconomic impact of religion in the world today demands that people of faith take ownership over the consequences of their ideologies," Hartman writes.

Readers of Putting God Second will find within its pages kernels of wisdom and of hope that the rent fabric of humanity can be restored with the thread of divine inspiration. 

* The following Chicago-area rabbis have participated in the Shalom Hartman Institute's Rabbinic Leadership Initiative with the support of JUF: Paul Cohen, Shoshanah Conover, Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, Alejandro (Alex) Felch, Samuel Gordon, Sidney Helbraun, Debra Newman Kamin, Vernon Kurtz, Asher Lopatin, Steve Mason, Michael Siegel, and Carl Wolkin. 

A conversation with Rabbi Donniel Hartman

JUF News: What moved you to write this book?

Rabbi Donniel Hartman: As a religious person, it's very disturbing to me how God is made the framework under which immorality is allowed and how prevalent that is. On the global level, God has literally blown up. To me this is not what our religion is. Religion is important if your life is enriched and you become a better person because of it. I wanted to understand why religion is so generally underachieving.

How worried are you about the mixing of religion and politics?

It's not the combination of religion and politics that concerns me; all religion by definition is political. And therefore the notion that you're going to separate religion from politics is [unproductive]…Psychologically, religion is not about what you do in your inner house. It's about a system of values that shapes your world. You're not going to save religion by separating it from politics; you're going to save it when you ensure what it does when it gets involved in politics. 

What are the correctives to the paradox of, on the one hand, the self-effacement that gives rise to what you call God intoxication (putting God above all else) and, on the other hand, the covenantal partnership that can give rise to God manipulation (using God to your
own ends)?

The corrective I'm suggesting is a different mode of faithfulness with God-putting God second. We need to create a different internal religious language where the more faithful I am with God, the more I place the ethical responsibility above God. That's the Hillelian Principle: "What is hateful unto you do not do unto others; that is the whole Torah." The New Atheists and others say that what you need to do is to exit your religious system in order to save yourself from religion. I'm trying to heal religion from the inside and I'm trying to create a religious vocabulary that sees piety not in terms of a willingness to sacrifice yourself-or, more often than not, sacrifice somebody else for God-but that truly reflects a common humanity. A corrective is the primacy of the ethical and the independence of the ethical. 

Why is our belief system not elevating ethical issues to the top of the conversation? 

Those are considered so-called secular values, but are what the prophets spoke about all the time. The Pope is very much in that tradition. He's trying to create a religious discourse of the primacy of the ethical. But it falls primarily on deaf ears because we haven't created a theology that makes this coherent. The idea that the good is independent of religion is in Genesis 18, when Abraham says to God, "Will the judge of the whole earth not deal justly?" and he assumes that his standard of ethics trumps God's. But the more God enters into your life, you're looking for salvation-salvation from doubt. You want answers. And when that happens, then you can kill in the name of God. Everything you do is in the name of God. Is that good? 

How will fundamentalists deal with your plea to weigh these ethical exigencies? 

My goal is to make sure they don't define religion for a whole group of people who are salvageable. Paradoxically, the public discourse-that there are no Muslim terrorists-is hurting us because it's not creating the inner battle. You think you're protecting religion from the fundamentalists, but you're not. People know there's a problem in religion. But you're not offering them another vision of religion. You're just saying, no, there is no problem in religion. There are Muslims who are doing terrorists acts, but they're not Muslim terrorists. People look and say, "How much murder is being perpetrated now in the name of God? Whatever that God might be, I don't want any part of it." If you create a different religious language, you're creating a door for more people to be part of a religious conversation. Let's create a discourse that reminds us of what really makes our religion great, and makes every religion great. 

What do you hope to accomplish with the book?

I want to upgrade the quality of Jewish discourse. I'm tired of moral blindness in the name of God! I'm tired of superficial religious conversations. We have to reclaim our traditions. 

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