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Hartman’s twist: Putting God first by putting ‘God’ second

My close friend and colleague, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, has boldly plunged into this mess. In his eminently readable, constructively controversial and profoundly spiritual new book, Putting God Second, he promises in the subtitle to show “How to Save Religion from Itself.”

The ancient breakthrough of praying to one universal God made extremist Jews, Christians and Muslims surprisingly chauvinistic.

“Love of God, or more accurately, being loved by God,” became “a zero-sum game,” Hartman writes. “And so, together with the love of neighbor came the hatred of the other. Together with kindness to those in need came the murder of those who disagreed.” To avoid accusations of bigotry, Hartman uses Judaism as his test case.

I usually dodge such theological mysteries.

Historians writing about God and faith are like computer programmers trying to fix typewriters; we are taught to view these phenomena as outdated, irrelevant and incomprehensible. But Hartman skillfully makes this compelling spiritual puzzle accessible to all.

Hartman diagnoses religion’s “autoimmune disease,” the way religions “so often undermine their own deepest values and attack their professed goals.” Justifying his brazen title, he blames God, saying: “While God obligates the good and calls us into its service, God simultaneously and inadvertently makes us morally blind.” He warns that “religion’s record of moral mediocrity” will persist “as long as communities of faith fail to recognize the ways in which our faith itself is working against us.”

This book is not for the spiritually faint-hearted, who only tolerate “God is good” talk. They will prove Hartman’s point by accusing him of heresy. Hartman opposes such “God intoxication” and “God manipulation,” trying to rescue God from the God-fearing. He takes religion too seriously to allow zealots to define God so rigidly or so perversely – ruining God for everyone else.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of learning from or with Hartman will recognize his method. Rather than heavy-handedly deploying religious texts as soldiers in God’s Army to prove The Truth, he approaches texts creatively, as close friends, ready to teach, entertain, contradict, challenge.

Iconoclastic but not bombastic, he seeks to educate, often by defying the conventional wisdom and deviating from the usual orthodoxies.

With his textual virtuosity and intellectual dexterity, this master teacher defeats the religious fanatics on their own turf.

Like Harry Potter confronting Voldemort, Hartman turns the extremists’ negative energy against them. Ultimately, we realize that Hartman isn’t quarreling with the Creator but with a human creation, the popular conception of “God.” The book defends true faith as the foundation of human ethics. Similarly, even while criticizing religion in general and Judaism in particular, Hartman celebrates both – at their best.

Hartman’s assault against conventional perceptions of God stems from his longstanding mission to move from “Genesis Judaism” to “Exodus Judaism.” Genesis Judaism is one “of ethnic identity, of being rather than doing or believing,” of simply belonging to “the Children of Israel.” Exodus Judaism fills the hardware of belonging with the software of meaning-seeking.

After the revelation at Sinai, “Jewishness” became “a way of believing and acting.”

This more mature “Judaism of aspiration and obligation” is not just “an identity that is inherited but one that is earned.”

This liberal-sounding book builds toward its conservative message – in the word’s truest sense – defending God and godliness as spawning goodness. While offering lovely rituals and warm commitments, religious life teaches Hartman “the responsibility and the discipline” to “integrate…

my ethics…into my daily life through rigorous, ongoing, self-reflection.”

Religion, like nationalism, can be good or bad. Noting that the godless committed the 20th century’s greatest evils, Hartman trusts “God’s radical uniqueness…as the ultimate antidote to human arrogance.”

Faith, he teaches, “can be a quality that moves a religious person from good to great. For religion can be a system that, while not defining the good, can push, prod, remind, teach and enable its implementation by addressing our all-too-common deficits.” Avoiding a theology that is too utilitarian, too blurred with moralism, he insists, “Walking with God is not limited to doing what is just and right, but enables the opening of one’s soul to the infinite.”

It becomes clear by the book’s conclusion that mischievously putting “God” second really entails putting God, godliness and goodness first, crediting God with humanity’s best impulses. Islamic State beware.

Hartman denounces those who call themselves “devoted to God without being equally devoted to the humanity that God created,” those who think they “see God while remaining oblivious and indifferent to the needs of others.” Thus Hartman’s message rebukes all zealots who murder brutally in God’s name, along with those who reject the God the fanatics define falsely.

In the Jewish world, Hartman’s message could humble those on the Rigid Right who are too willing to sacrifice lives for land, making “God” the world’s harshest real estate agent, as well as those who squelch necessary political debate over complicated dilemmas with sweeping absolutes, making “God” the world’s most simplistic politician. Hartman’s message also challenges the Lazy Left to stop dismissing Judaism as backwards or childish and start engaging our tradition as multidimensional, forward-thinking and profound.

Hartman has provided an important service.

In developing a language for redeeming religion, for saving religion from itself and its fanatics, he returns it to the rest of us. He demonstrates how much all could gain by being truly religious: more open, flexible, humble, humane – and thus more godly.