Why have the monotheistic religions failed to produce societies that live up to their ethical ideals? A prominent rabbi answers this question by looking at his own faith and offering a way for religion to heal itself. In Putting God Second, Rabbi Donniel Hartman tackles one of modern life's most urgent and vexing questions- Why are the great monotheistic faiths-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-chronically unable to fulfill their own self-professed goal of creating individuals infused with moral sensitivity and societies governed by the highest ethical standards? To answer this question, Hartman takes a sober look at the moral peaks and valleys of his own tradition, Judaism, and diagnoses it with clarity, creativity, and erudition. He rejects both the sweeping denouncements of those who view religion as an inherent impediment to moral progress and the apologetics of fundamentalists who proclaim religion's moral perfection against all evidence to the contrary. Hartman identifies the primary source of religion's moral failure in what he terms its "autoimmune disease," or the way religions so often undermine their own deepest values. While God obligates the good and calls us into its service, Hartman argues, God simultaneously and inadvertently makes us morally blind. The nature of this self-defeating condition is that the human religious desire to live in relationship with God often distracts religious believers from their traditions' core moral truths. The answer Hartman offers is this- put God second. In order to fulfill religion's true vision for humanity-an uncompromising focus on the ethical treatment of others-religious believers must hold their traditions accountable to the highest independent moral standards. Decency toward one's neighbor must always take precedence over acts of religious devotion, and ethical piety must trump ritual piety. For as long as devotion to God comes first, responsibility to other people will trail far, far behind. In this book, Judaism serves as a template for how the challenge might be addressed by those of other faiths, whose sacred scriptures similarly evoke both the sublime heights of human aspiration and the depths of narcissistic moral blindness. In Putting God Second, Rabbi Hartman offers a lucid analysis of religion's flaws, as well as a compelling resource, and vision, for its repair.
With respect to Judaism, author Donniel Hartman is unsurprisingly on solid ground. He makes a good case from the Tanakh and the Talmud to support the supremacy of ethics and social conscience over the received codes of religious conduct and even over conviction of the existence of the Jewish God. This particular religion, in addition to being the one which the author can address with authority, supplies particularly sore and evident contemporary cases of the failings that the rabbi seeks to highlight. Although it is not made an explicit site of the conversation, the injustice of the Jewish Israeli state's dispossession of the non-Jewish inhabitants of that region is a constant presence in the background.
The other two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, are also vulnerable to the basic criticisms and cautions that Hartman raises. He discusses "God-intoxication," where a sense of being commanded by the transcendent leaves adherents careless about the well-being of mere humans, and "God-manipulation," where believers leverage their religious identities and dedication to "deserve" privilege and dominance over others. In a further section, he focuses on the range of cases "when scripture is the problem," recognizing that the most revered texts contain words preserved for millennia that nevertheless clearly sanction unjust and appalling conduct. No matter how a clever exegesis may recuperate such passages for the benefit of sincere believers, ingenious readings do not remove the indelible hazard (and recurring damage) from a sentiment like Psalm 137:9: "Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock" (in reference to the Babylonian oppressors).
Augustine of Hippo rationalized that the babies of the psalm were a figure of the germinal desires that would lead to sin. Curiously, Aleister Crowley took very much the same tack when first grappling with Liber Legis II:21. In explaining "Stamp down the wretched and the weak," he proposed: "But 'the poor and the outcast' are the petty thoughts and the qliphothic thoughts and the sad thoughts. These must be rooted out, or the ecstasy of Hadit is not in us." So, even for Thelemites, scripture can still be "the problem." Nevertheless, I think that Thelema includes some useful countermeasures against the sources of Hartman's concern. The danger of scriptural justifications and "God-manipulation" is decidedly blunted by the "Short Comment" to Liber Legis: "The study of this book is forbidden. ... Those who discuss the contents of this book are to be shunned by all ...." Likewise, "God-manipulation" is undercut by the essential privacy of the essential attainment to which Thelemites aspire: the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. And the doctrine of O.T.O. that "There is no god but man" should inoculate against both "God-intoxication" and "God-manipulation." It is in no way clear, however, that ethical integrity is the ultimate goal of Thelema or of the general glut of religious systems, although it is common for many of them to justify themselves with ethical claims.
Although its arguments pertain especially to Western monotheisms, this fairly brief work is worth the contemplation of anyone interested in religion, and most particularly clergy, who must concern themselves with the social consequences of the teachings they promote.
In his deeply faithful and courageously reflective book, Rabbi Hartman argues that monotheistic religion suffers from an "autoimmune disease": that the desire to be in relationship with God often blinds its adherents to the central moral teachings of their own religious traditions. Specifically, religious believers are susceptible to what he calls God Intoxication, in which one's focus on God blocks one's obligations to ones fellow human beings, and God Manipulation, in which religion is used to support the interests of self and tribe. Hartman describes these phenomena at length and with subtlety, using the Jewish religious tradition as his springboard. He also includes a fascinating chapter called "When Scripture Is the Problem." Although my own religious tradition is Christian, I found it easy to apply the author's points to my experience, at the same time that my knowledge of the Talmud was deepened considerably, and often with delight.
I find it difficult to argue with his points. The trouble is that Hartman can provide no model for how religious leaders can encourage this kind of self-examination among the faithful. Those who are in most need of his message would never read a book with such a title, while those who are already open enough to read it are those least in need of its message. I hope his book is read widely (and not only by religious liberals) and that it gives encouragement to others who have the courage to look at the religion they love with a critical eye.
There are plenty of reviews out there that tell you what the book is about so I won’t bother doing that here. So I’ll just say that I’m going to read this book again because Rabbi Hartman’s interpretations and conclusions are so enlightening and freeing. And…beautifully well articulated.
I won this book in exchange for a review and I’m so happy I did. This book is a keeper.
As an example of God Intoxication, Hartman presents the story of Abraham's god calling him to sacrifice his son and Abraham's ready acceptance (Gen. 22:1-3). Were it not for the angel, conveniently inserted into the narrative, staying Abraham's hand, Abraham would have abrogated his moral obligation to Isaac by way of his act of murder. To illustrate God Manipulation, Hartman cites the offensive wars the Abrahamic god directs his chosen people to wage (e.g. Deut. 20:10-14). Here, the Israelites' view of themselves as The Chosen trumps any sort of justice and civility. To counter this "autoimmune disease", as Hartman calls it, he proposes a philosophy wherein there is an ethic that transcends his god. The biblical literalist may find this abhorrent, but one should remember that Hartman comes from a tradition that holds that its scriptures are human productions influenced by the biases of their authors.
The book is well thought out except, perhaps, for the final two chapters. After spending most of the book making what might be considered a very good case for atheism, Hartman stumbles over himself trying to defend his god. In all, however, I would recommend this book to all people who consider themselves theists, to get them thinking about some of the pitfalls of their religious positions.
If you're confused by the current climate in America where political and religious doctrines are intermixing, this book may hold some answers for you. Hartman does an excellent job of outlining how doctrines and policies are developed that pull religion from it's central mission, all in the name of promoting God. He refers to these processes as "autoimmune disorders." Similar to the medical term, these disorders cause a religion to turn against itself and its true mission as it fights perceived threats.
This is a well thought out and meticulous argument that many will find enlightening.
Note: I was given a free ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The second flaw is God Manipulation, which enables believers to justify unchecked self-interest. "...the myth of chosenness supports an image of God that subverts (ethical sensitivity to the other's needs) by enabling us to exclude most others from this obligation, legitimating a systemic moral double standard. For those who claim to own God, there is no sin that cannot be purified, sanctified, and ultimately transformed into a virtue."
Hartman calls these monotheism's autoimmune disease. Are they inherent to the system, unavoidable? If so, their legacy of moral mediocrity, corruption and even downright evil prevents the aspiration to produce individuals and communities of moral excellence. Hartman then talks about the prospects of recovering from this disease within the context of Judaism. Although he quotes at times from the New Testament and the Koran, he feels specifics for counteracting these diseases in Christianity and Islam should come within those communities. Through the use of Jewish scripture and Torah, he explains why the touchstone is always, does our religion result in ethical behavior toward ALL humanity? While this may seem self-evident and trite when I say it here, the way he develops this and supports it through the evolving meaning of Scripture and the Jewish tradition is masterful and fascinating reading. I recommend this to everyone with any interest in religion.
I was very excited about this book before reading it.
The message of the title is well summed up by a story found early in Chapter 1: Briefly: "if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the
The introduction (Chapter 0) is wide-ranging and eminently readable, quoting from the Talmud, the Christian Bible, and the Quran, to describe the promise and perils of monotheistic religions. I wish that the book had followed in the same vein. The author clearly has the passion and the knowledge to do so.
The remainder of the book, however, is more narrowly focused. It will be of interest to religious scholars, especially those interested in the Jewish rabbinical tradition.
**More fully: 200 years ago, "a famous Hassidic master" is walking down the street, when he hears "a cry that pierced the night" coming from his student's house, the sound of a baby crying. The student is "enraptured in prayer, swaying in pious devotion" when the Master walks in and rocks the baby to sleep. The student is embarrassed when he finally is paying attention to the world again. The master tells his student, "if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer." (p19-20)
Putting God second means putting the well-being of God's creation first. Hence, ultimately, putting God first when it comes down to it. It means acting out of love and compassion. Acknowledging that some of the worst things in this world come from putting God first - being blind to your fellow humans' suffering - Hartman shows how putting God second can be a remedy by pointing out the various Biblical passages and rabbinic literature wherein God actually advocates for this.
I thought I would read this book and then pass it to someone else but I enjoyed it so much and underlined so much that I will keep it in on my shelf with my other Abrahamic religious resources and recommend it highly.
(I received a free copy of this book via LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for a review).
The message isn't radical, but it's well argued, though brief.
That's the point at which it gets a bit sticky, because he says that human beings have an inate sense of the moral, and that G-d wants certain actions because they are moral -- rather than the way many of our more fundamentalist co-religioners think, namely that actions are moral because G-d wants them. Hartman emphasizes that the Torah was written in a certain time and place, and that human ideas of what's appropriate behavior between people have evolved, and advanced, over time. Which means, to him, that Torah Law, and certainly Oral Law, can and should be abrogated in favor of our more advanced understanding of the moral.
This is eminently reasonable -- but. But. When and what can we change? Are we understanding the moral correctly? How do we know when we are sufficiently sensitive to judge the moral? He points to the big matters of (Orthodox) Judaism today, namely women's participation in liturgy, and gay people's place in Jewish life. But once you start saying my moral sense trumps the law, when does it stop? What if I'm wrong? or flawed? Why be Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or believe in G-d at all?
His main point is correct -- that sometimes we, in fear and trembling, need to set aside the ritual for the sake of humans. Those ideas can be found in Jewish tradition. But oddly, Rabbi Hartman only cites a few sources -- over and over and over. And he doesn't fully look at the counter-idea, the doubt that perhaps humans are flawed in their gut ideas of the moral, and the Torah and Oral Law are correct.
Hartman points out, through stories from the Bible and from the Talmud, that Judaism has another strain of thought. God Himself is held to an external standard of justice, as when Abraham challenges God's plan to destroy Sodom. The idea that good is defined outside of the preferences of God or Gods is also found in the thought of Plato. The prophets also proclaim a God who is more interested in human kindness than in sacrifices, directing His people to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give justice to widows and orphans.
This book is thought provoking and informative. It addresses the question of interpretation and application of Scripture and of the nature of a truly religious life in ways that can be applied to any set of beliefs.
Anyone concerned about the role of religion in society should find this book interesting.
According to the author, who writes from a Jewish perspective, all three major monotheistic religions suffer from a form of moral blindness that can value piety over core value of the religion to care for others. He states that people who put God first can suffer from God Infatuation or God Manipulation. God Infatuation allows someone to step over a homeless person on the way to Church. God Manipulation allows someone to justify their actions by invoking God. In either case, God’s charge to humans to treat each other as we want to be treated is not followed. Therefore, to put God second is to put God’s will first, which is never to be indifferent to humanity.
This book contains a lot of good content that is really thought provoking. It is courageous for the author to examine his religion so critically. I wish the other two major monotheistic religions would undertake such an examination.
I like the author's
This discussion cannot just be -about- religion; it must be created with the participation of religious people. Rabbi Hartman has offered valuable insights and contributions to the discussion that we all need to have.