Saturday, July 2, 2016

R D Hartman: "God must not be our top priority" - rebuttal by Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein

update: Donniel Hartman Is So…Yesterday!
Cross-Currents by Rav Adlerstein

In a new twist on the old “Jews to the back of the bus” routine, Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wants the Jewish G-d to take a back seat as well. In an extensive interview in the Times of Israel, Hartman explains the thesis of his new book, Putting G-d Second. The purpose of religion ought to be the creation of the ethical personality.[...]

Hartman sees this preoccupation with G-d as blinding us to the plight of Palestinians and migrants seeking entry to Israel. He notes that in all of Israel’s wars, it was religious MKs who pushed for pushing on in battle while their more secular colleagues wanted to call it quits.

Religion gets in the way of what should be our real focus: inculcating ethical values in our personalities, and democratic processes in our societies.

He does not want to do away with religion as we know it. He wishes for G-d to be number two, not to disappear, or even show up as number twenty. Two can’t be so bad, he says. Religion is a “powerful vehicle” for making ethics central to our lives. And while the violation of the ethical renders all other attempts at spirituality meaningless, there are spiritual dimensions that are valuable if the ethical is there, front and center. Religion can transmit them. Moreover, religion helps create community, which banishes loneliness. So we ought not to discard or minimize religious practice – as long as it does not interfere with the primary goal of ethical development. (He therefore mocks the notion of an Orthodox woman at Bar Ilan not singing at a Holocaust commemoration, in deference to the halachah of kol ishah, which interferes with our ethical sense of egalitarianism. And he tells baalei teshuvah that if they refuse to eat at their non-observant parents’ home, they can stop calling themselves his students.) To the contrary, Hartman wishes that Israel firmly embrace a Judaism whose first passion is the ethical, and bringing its values to the rest of the world.

None of this is particularly new. It is rather old and tired. The derogation of the ritual and ceremonial in favor of the ethical has a storied past, all of it ending the same way. More religious denominations than we can easily keep track of – Jewish and otherwise – hoped to revitalize interest by accentuating good character, or (more recently) good deeds. Think, in modern times, of Felix Adler’s (said to having been inspired by a Berlin lecture by Rav Yisroel Salanter) Ethical Culture, and what is left of it. Consider the attempts by the mainline Protestant denominations move towards social justice as their primary concerns. Or the elevation of so-called tikun olam as the only principle of faith of the Jewish heterodox movements. What they all share is younger people stampeding out the door, fossilizing those who remain behind. Without coupling character and social action with responsibility to a personal Creator, too many give up on the entire enterprise of religion. We have very little reason to believe that all those who have fled from religion are better people, or have succeeded in making ours a better world. Meanwhile, the only group within Judaism that is growing is Orthodoxy, with its insistence on G-d centeredness. And in the Christian world, the fastest growing group are Pentacostals, who distinguish themselves for seeking an immediate, strong connection with G-d.

Hartman is also so….incredibly wrong on the intellectual level. The words that stood and stand before the baal tefilah for centuries – שויתי ה לנגדי תמיד (Tehillim 16:8) cannot possibly be rendered, “I have set Hashem before me some of the time.” Hartman would certainly cheer Rambam (Shemonah Perakim), who insisted that the development of an ethical character should optimally become a natural part of one’s personality, rather than a response to Divine command. The same Rambam, however, wrote (Hilchos Teshuvah 10:3)

What is the proper love of Hashem? It is that a person should love Hashem with an extraordinarily great, strong love, so that his soul is connected to Him through love, to the point that he is preoccupied with Him at all times…

Hardly a second-place finish.

Is ethical development really the summa bonum of Yiddishkeit? When the Khazar king argues something similar to the chaver (pointing to the same lines from the prophet that Hartman does, expressing Hashem’s preference for proper character over a surfeit of Temple offerings), the latter explains that Judaism has two chief goals. The first, earlier goal that must be achieved is the creation of the ethical individual. Having attained that goal, the Jew is then positioned to achieve the next goal: becoming more G-d-like, through the performance of myriad mitzvos.

For good measure, we’ll throw in the Ibn Ezra to Tehillim 84:6, “Praiseworthy …[are] those with paths in their hearts,” who explains that those paths focus on a single goal – getting close to Hashem.[...]


Donniel Hartman, the head of an educational powerhouse, argues heretically that the great monotheistic religions are fatally flawed — by an obsessive focus on God that overwhelms what should be our prime imperative, to live decent, moral lives. [...]

Hartman argues that ethics — living honestly and decently — should be the first priority of the religious human being, of all human beings. Most of us would agree with that.

He laments that in Judaism, as in all the great monotheistic religions, the obsession with God has been allowed to take intolerable precedence over that prime ethical imperative. Many of us would agree with that, too.

Most controversially, however, he asserts that the exaggerated, over-elevated focus on God in religion is actually not the fault of the religious, the practitioners, but of monotheism itself. “I go further than most critics of religion,” Hartman acknowledges, setting out his challenge during a heartfelt interview in his office at the institute, “because most critics of religion say that the problem is religious people who distort it. I don’t think that’s the case. I think there is an auto-immune disease embedded in religion. There’s something flawed in the system that the system doesn’t fully understand. I don’t think religion understands God’s impact on people.”

So, no, Donniel Hartman insists his resonant call to put God second isn’t some superficial provocation. Rather, it’s issued out of a conviction that “the more we put ethics first, the more I am a religious person” and the less that God is “a destructive force in our lives.”

Does that make him a heretic? Maybe, he allows, if it’s heretical to admit “that religion has flaws, and that religion can fail.”

He’s not calling to close down religion; far from it. Like the subtitle says, he’s trying “to save religion.” But, again, “if criticism is heretical, which it can become, then yes, I’m proud to be a heretic,” says Hartman. “But in our tradition, criticism is the greatest sign of love.” [...]

I think God wants to be second, or at least one reading of Judaism wants God to be second. God didn’t come into this world for self-aggrandizement. It was in order to create a different type of human being, in order to elevate this world. But unfortunately, through God intoxication and God manipulation, the idea of God becomes a catalyst for evil. God intoxication is where our devotion to God is so all consuming that we no longer hear or see the needs of others. God manipulation is where we transform God into the private advocate for our particular needs and agenda. The devil quotes scripture. It’s there. It’s embedded. I’ve grown up witnessing how the devil’s chapters impact people.

Then it is heretical, your book. You’re saying the flaw is in the religion. I have a very close relative who is very Orthodox, very sincere, who always says it’s not the religion that’s to blame. The religion is wonderful. Religion is a code of life that, if people followed it, the world would be a wonderful place. It’s the people who are distorting and unbalancing. That’s her view. But you’re saying, No. You’re saying that built into what the religious think they should be doing is a tendency, a focus, that will make them bad.

That’s correct. There are really two religions. And we have to make a choice between the two. And part of what this book is about is forming a narrative for the religious life which places ethical responsibility at the center. That’s why I quote so many sources. There are two narratives. Narrative A starts with the Akeda (the Binding of Isaac) or starts with Lech Lecha, where it says, If you want to walk with me, you have to disassociate from anything that you care about. Anything. That a love of God is all-intoxicating. And God wants to see: Are you willing to fundamentally submit everything that you care about, that you love, that you think is good, to Me? Kill your son. Discriminate against a non-Jew. And I’m on your side because you’re the chosen ones. It goes on. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai exits out of the cave and says to people that all they should be doing is loving God, thinking about God, reflecting on God’s word. What do you mean, you’re working the field? When he sees farmers, he destroys them in the name of God. That is God intoxication.  [...]

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