Thursday, June 30, 2016

Good Intentions – Bad Idea

Rabbi Doniel Hartman
I’m not a fan of Rabbi Doniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute. And his latest book, Putting God Second  is one reason why. The very title is problematic in that it says that we should put God second in all of our undertakings.

I think I understand his motivation in making this claim. One can point to mountains of misdeeds done in the name of God. The best example of which is ISIS… or any Islamic Jihadist that commits heinous acts in the name of God. We see this almost every day now. And history is replete with such thinking - from the Crusades to the Inquisition. People were murdered and tortured in the name of God.

Such thinking is not the exclusive domain of non Jewish religions. Is there any question that mass murderer Baruch Goldstein and Rabin assassin Yigal Amir were acting on what they believed was God’s will – all based on the Hashkafos they followed?

And then there are lesser acts done be other Orthodox groups that are nevertheless pretty disgusting. Like the violence that takes place during riots protesting government policies; beating up women in busses for ‘not sitting where they belong’; throwing rocks at people that violate Shabbos; or yelling and screaming at a 7 year old girl - calling her a prostitute during a demonstration in Bet Shemesh.  I could go on, but there are far too many incidents like that to include in a relatively short essay.

So I get what Rabbi Hartman is trying to say. We should be looking at ethical behavior first, and at God second. 

The problem with this kind of thinking is that God is the center of all our actions, including ethical behavior. Rabbi Hartman ignores the Bein Adam L’Makom (man’s interaction with God) in favor of Bein Adam L’Chavero (man’s interaction with man). 

But God mandates both for us. He doesn’t just mandate one. Of course ethics are important. But ethics are as much a part of God’s mandate for us as is ritual behavior. To say that God should be second to ethics denies that God even has a part in that. Had he said that God places more value on the latter than the former would have been one thing. But putting God outside of ethics is to deny an essential attribute of God Himself.

That there are ethics outside of the Torah (God’s blueprint for all behavior – both spiritual and interpersonal) may be true. But beside the point.  The point is that when it comes to ethical behavior we are commanded by God to have it.  God is therefore not secondary, but primary.  

That said, I agree that a lot of bad behavior is based on doing what people think is God’s will - as I illustrated above. I have said this many times. But that kind of thinking is just a distortion of God’s will. While it is true that some Orthodox Jews tend to ignore ethical behavior and focus mostly on ritual that is not because the Torah does not require it. So I agree that many of us in Orthodoxy need to readjust our thinking along more ethical lines But that is precisely because of God’s will, not because God doesn’t care as much about it. That is pure Apikursus. 

And another thing. By focusing on ethics Rabbi Hartman falls into the same trap  that the Reform Movement did. Their founding fathers defined Judaism as ethical behavior – claiming that ritual behavior doesn’t matter anymore. They believed that all ritual behavior in the Torah was designed to produce ethical behavior anyway so now that a more enlightened mankind knows that – ritual is no longer needed.

That is a prescription for extinction. It took them awhile but they now realize this. Ethical behavior is not the sole domain of Judaism. So that there ceases to be any difference between Jews and non Jews as long as they both behave in ethical ways. Which is why the Reform Movement now encourages ritual observance (although they do not require it). They now understand that in order to retain our identity we need to be different.

Now I’m sure that Rabbi Hartman does not mean that we should abandon ritual observance. I’m sure he agrees that the Torah requires it of us and that he is observant. But by putting God second he minimizes its importance – thus inviting a lot of people to minimize it or simply ignore it. Since ethical behavior is so much more important, that is what people will put all of their energies into. A very slippery slope if you ask me.