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.
In this accessible exploration of how faith in God can determine and influence personality, Hartman (The Boundaries of Judaism) successfully engages with what he believes to be the most fundamental question of our time. He notes that the causes of the world s great conflicts have begun to shift from national and secular politics to religious ones. Given this, Hartman wonders whether religion actually makes believers treat others with more compassion and kindness. Despite his own deep commitment to Judaism, the rabbi does not flinch from exposing many examples, including some from the Bible, that argue against the idea of religion as a force for good. Using his own religion as his lens, Hartman analyzes the phenomena he labels God Intoxication and God Manipulation; in the former, obsession with paying attention to the divine leaves less room... to be aware of the human condition, and in the latter, God is drafted in the service of human self-interest to advance an individual s personal interests and agendas. Hartman makes a powerful case that believers should both judge the word of God and be inspired and instructed by it, and that putting people first is the real way to follow the divine will.