/ articles for review

‘Putting God Second’ Challenges Us to Think Critically About Tradition

Donniel Hartman challenges all of us to live a life of ethics, morality, and humility, motivated by a belief in God which ennobles our lives and those around us
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the


I am very pleased to have been asked to review this book written by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, as it asks some very significant questions. Especially as we prepare for the High Holy Days , some of his issues should intrigue us. We may not agree with all of the solutions that Rabbi Hartman professes, but there is no doubt he will make us think and that is worthwhile in and of itself.

I am a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in that I studied in a three-year program at the Institute in Jerusalem with the scholars there, as well as taking online courses while I was here in Chicago. Currently, Rabbi Schwab is on the same path and I wish him well. It was a very special experience. The Shalom Hartman Institute originally established by Donniel’s father, Rabbi David Hartman, of blessed memory, conducts a number of programs for rabbis, for Christian Jewish study, Jewish Muslim study, mostly in Jerusalem.

It also is involved in leadership training, as well as the training of senior officers in the Israel Army, and runs a number of high school programs throughout Israel. I had the unique opportunity to study with the scholars of the Hartman Institute as they bring to bear both Torah study and academic schlarship. This is what is at the forefront of the vision of Rabbi Donniel Hartman as the Institute trains the next generation of Jewish leadership both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Donniel, himself, studied both in Israel and in the United States. He has worked both in Israel and the United States and as such understands pluralism not merely in the Israeli context, but most importantly in the North American context. He both agrees with and rebels against the views of his father, perhaps a sign of differentiation, as he reacts to the realities of Jewish identity in the modern State of Israel and in the Diaspora.

The book, itself, is very much dependent upon the Hartman DVD series which we have hosted here in the congregation for the last five or six years. Once a month we get together to do some text study, watch a DVD of a lecture from the Hartman scholars, and then have an opportunity to discuss what they are saying and what we are learning. As such, as I read the book, having studied with Donniel, I knew what sources he would cite, what comments he would make, what points he would elaborate upon, and what conclusions he would come to.

There are a number of very important rabbinic sources that are part of his thinking and that frame his entire mode of thought and they are mentioned throughout this book.

In fact, one of the major chapters entitled “Do I Have to Believe in God to be a Good Jew?” is a session on one of our DVD programs, and I have used its sources and lecture with my students at Spertus Institute for Learning and Leadership in addition to viewing it here at the congregation. Thus, the book itself and its conclusions do not surprise me. The manner in which Donniel puts his thoughts together may be at some times be a little unexpected, but as I read and reread the book his conclusions were much in line with his current thinking, as I know it.

Put Ethics First, Donniel Hartman Says

In an interview in the Times of Israel by David Horovitz on June 28, 2016, Rabbi Hartman stated that his book is “trying to save religion from itself.” He states, “I go further than most critics of religion, because most critics of religion say that the problem is that certain religious people distort it. I don’t think that’s the case. I think there is an auto-immune disease embedded in religion. There is something flawed in the system that the system doesn’t fully understand. I don’t think religion understands G-d’s impact on people.”

He then goes on to state that he has tried to write a deeply religious book which is offering an alternative narrative of what it means to be religious. He writes that he is trying to save religion from a certain type of religious thought which he doesn’t believe is a distortion. It is in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Hartman’s thesis is that we must put ethics before anything else. He relies on the prophetic tradition and some rabbinic stories from the Talmud to stress this point over and over again. The central argument of the book is that religion’s spotty moral track record cannot be written off to a core corruption in either nature or an inherently corrupt scripture. Many times a life of faith, Hartman suggests, activates a critical flaw of its importance in the concept of chosenness which can lead people astray and be given free reign to flourish under a cloak of religious piety, undermining the moral agenda of religions and a sense of tolerance for others.

Hartman, in his book, talks of two diseases: God Intoxication and God Manipulation. For the God Intoxicated person, the awareness of living in the presence of God demands an all consuming attention that exhausts his ability to see the needs of other human beings. The more we walk with God, the less room we have to be aware of other human beings and the human condition in general. Therefore, our moral sensibilities are not fully developed. God Manipulation aligns our identity and the will of God with the interests and agendas of those who make claim to God’s special love. It allows individuals who wish to be loved by God to be able to dismiss certain types of conduct which in a normal case we would consider to be immoral and just plain wrong. This is manifested in the worst way in the manner in which God is drafted into the service of human self-interest.

Hartman attempts to show through Biblical and Rabbinic stories, that this type of attitude is dangerous. He is upset with Abraham for accepting God’s demand to sacrifice his son. He is not pleased with the story of Rabbi Akiva, who when he gives up his life as a martyr, states that he now knows what it means to give his soul unto God. He does not feel comfortable with the stories of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai who lived much of his life in a cave with his son studying the tradition and had no interest whatsoever in partaking of the real world. And, when he did so, he could not understand how people could survive in the presence of G-d without living a life totally devoted to Him.

From this foundation, Hartman attempts to show a better side of the Biblical story and rabbinic anecdotes. He feels good about Abraham for telling God that He is not justified in killing the people of Sodom and Gomorrah if there are more than ten righteous people. He is very proud of Hillel as an exemplar of the type of attitude he wishes to foster and is extremely fond of a story about Hillel which is quoted a number of times in the book, was quoted many times during our studies at Hartman, and is a major story used in the Hartman videos that we have viewed.

The Babylonian Talmud in the tractate of Shabbat has a number of stories of a certain heathen who came to both Shammai and Hillel and asked them questions. The anecdote that stands at the central point of Hartman’s thesis states that “on one occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him: “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Thereupon, Shammai repulsed him with the builder’s cubit, which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”

It is Hartman’s contention that, according to Hillel, the main component of Jewish life, and he would suggest of all religious life, is morality and ethics. That is the central tenent that is a sine qua non of a religious tradition and a pious person. The rest is commentary suggests everything that surrounds Jewish tradition is somewhat secondary to the major statement used in the Book of Leviticus in a positive sense, “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” By saying, “Go and learn it,” Hillel suggests that Judaism cannot simply be reduced to ethical practices alone; but the whole system, ethical and ritual life as well, must be governed by the highest ethical standards. While it is not simply an ethical system, it is the basis of everything else.

Follow the Law, or Instincts?

For Hartman, this is the central story of Rabbinic Judaism. It follows up on the prophetic idea and, using other Biblical and Rabbinic stories, as well as medieval commentators such as the Ramban, he suggests that we intuitively know what is right and good and must follow through on that knowledge. Religion and a belief in God will support those decisions but we must learn to follow those ethical inclinations in our own actions.

He is very fond of quoting another story found in the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Baba Metziah 2:5: Shimon Ben Shatah traded in cotton. His students said to him, “Master allow us to buy you a donkey so that you will not have to labor so much.” They went and bought him a donkey from a certain non-Jew, and found upon it a precious stone. They came and told him: “Now you need not labor ever again.” Said he, “Why so?” They replied: “We bought you a donkey from a certain non-Jew, and found upon it a precious stone.” He asked, “Does he know of it?” They replied, “No.” He told them, “Go and return it.” But, they responded, “did Rav Huma b. Gozlan say quoting the Rav: It was stated in the presence of Rabbi , even according to the view that stealing from a heathen is forbidden, appropriating his lost property is permitted.’” He responded, “What, do you think Shimon ben Shatah is a barbarian?”

This is a very well-used passage by Hartman to show that Shimon ben Shatah could have followed the law and kept the precious stone and lived a life of luxury. Instead, he followed his instincts. He knew how to act, and was concerned about the name of his religion and his people. Therefore, he taught his students an important lesson. Ethics and morality one ups even Jewish law. The ethical and moral person is the goal of religious belief and spiritual piety and sometimes we must go even beyond the law in order to accomplish that.

In a very interesting chapter, especially for an Orthodox rabbi, entitled "When Scripture is the Problem," Hartman looks at the Bible, not from a fundamentalist point of view, but much more from a modern literary Biblical criticism point of view. On Shavuot, I spoke about the book by Benjamin Sommer entitled Revelation and Authority – Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. Sommer is a professor of the Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I think he could write many of the words of Hartman’s chapter and feel comfortable with them.

Hartman suggests that Scripture is a divine response, in human language, to the deep spiritual yearning of God and humanity to live in a relationship with each other. Thus, sacred Scripture, while purporting to provide for humankind a window into the will of God, at its core is an anthropocentric endeavor. Scripture must be capable of speaking a language human beings can understand and, therefore, human effort is critical for scriptural understanding. It is thus a compromise between divine will and human limitation. Therefore, there are times that we don’t totally understand Scripture and must attempt comprehend it in our own limited fashion with the methodologies that are open to us.

In a remarkable passage Hartman suggests that those Scriptural passages that fall short of embodying the moral good of our era may reflect the capacities and needs of a people at a different stage of moral and spiritual evolution. Some we have outgrown and some were never meant to be implemented in the first place. As we progress and evolve so does the moral standard required of us by the Divine educator.

Though labeled Orthodox, I have always felt that Donniel Hartman, and even his father David, are very much in line with traditional Conservative understanding of Scripture, law, ritual practice, and the relationship among them all. I believe Sommer would be very pleased with this type of definition of Scripture and our modern understanding of it. Therefore, the Hartmans, both father and son, have not been totally accepted within the Orthodox framework. Students at Yeshiva University do not attend their classes and lectures and, to a large extent, except for a small group of open Orthodox lay leaders, rabbinical students and Rabbis, most of their audience, at least in the Diaspora, are of the liberal traditions – Conservative and Reform.

In his chapter concerning whether a belief in God is necessary to be a good Jew, Hartman comes to the conclusion that it is not. However, to be a better Jew, or a great Jew, as he calls it, faith is an essential component of Judaism’s aspirations for the Jewish people. With the religious person, Hartman suggests, God is both transcendent and imminently ever present – and both of these aspects of the Divine play key roles in empowering people to live concentious , courageous, and meaningful lives. Walking with God is not limited to doing what is just and right, but it enables the opening of one’s soul to the infinite.

In short, Hartman has attempted to teach us the importance of ethics within religion and outside of religion. One does not need to be religious, or even believe in God, to be a good person. However, to be spiritually pious and ethically just is the desideratum of the Torah, the prophets, and Rabbinic Judaism. If one can put them all together, then one lives at a higher plane of life.

Donniel Hartman Challenges Us to Think Critically

Hartman’s views are rather radical at face value. However, when one sits down and reads the book they do seem to flow. The problem both with his thinking and the manner of study at the Hartman Institute is that everything seems to fit into neat little boxes. Sources that agree with their mode of thinking are used, while others are discarded. It must be stated that everyone does the same. There is no objectivity in scholarship or in scientific endeavor. It is not merely the sources or the data we select, it is also what we do not pay attention to that matters. After studying with the Hartman scholars for a long period of time one recognizes that everything is open for critical study provided it meets their methodology and leads to the goal of the final outcome.

As usual, Donniel challenges us to think in a critical manner about our tradition. He pulls together Biblical, rabbinic, and modern sources, as well as some modern political scholarship. While the thesis seems to be so easy and correct, putting it into action is not so. All we have to do is look around the world and see Jewish, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalism and we know of the problem. That is what Hartman is trying to encounter and ultimately defeat. He sees it as the enemy of God and religion as the perpetrators of this type of thinking become God intoxicated and manipulate God for their own purposes.

In the interview with Horovitz, he suggests that we need Judaism for three reasons: the first is that one of the jobs of religion is not to teach you the good, but to remind you of the good. A religious system, when it works correctly, is a very powerful force to remind you of the good. The second reason you need religion is that life is not just the ethical. Ethics have to be at the end, the test; if you violate it, your spiritual life loses all value, and your life of transcendence is meaningless. Nonetheless, there are multiple other dimensions to a human life, such as spirituality and an aspiration to a relationship with the transcendent that are not expressed through the ethical. Religion provides a window into these critical experiences. And third, religion is also a very profound and powerful force to create community, to overcome the loneliness, to which we as human beings are prone. Religion can be a force of good there, too.

These are the reasons that Hartman suggests that we need to bore down to the very core of Judaism, raise it up, but not throw away all of the rest. Hillel may have been correct in that the ethical is at the core, but he then states that the rest is commentary and we must go learn it. Hartman would never suggest that ritual, Jewish study, and all that is part of Jewish life is meaningless. What he would suggest is that without ethics it just doesn’t come to a meaningful way of life.

This short book and the thinking that Donniel has put into it does challenge us. Are we prepared to live our lives on an ethical plane? Can we take into consideration not only ourselves, but those around us, those who we know and those we don’t? Are we prepared to seek the face of God in the other? Are we then prepared to allow our faith to be professed in a manner in which Judaism truly becomes ennobled through our actions as the face of God is sanctified in our very being? Can we live up to the behavior of Shimon ben Shatah – going beyond the law and maintaining our good reputation and that of the Jewish people? Are we prepared to be the Abraham confronting God about Sodom and Gomorrah and the righteous individuals who may live there? Are we prepared to be as welcoming as Hillel to those who may initially be attempting to enrage us?

Hartman suggests in his conclusion that “we must allow the totality of the idea of a God who precedes creation and the totality of the idea of a God who creates to permeate our imaginations, our values, and our choices. The power of faith as a force for good can be fulfilled only through an internalization of each of these ideas. The challenge of religious life is to ensure that each serves as the counterpoint and corrective to the other, consistently probing it and holding it to account.”

Studying with Donniel Hartman, reading his works, dialoguing with him as I have in the past, and listening to his lectures on our DVD’s, has truly ennobled my life as a Jew and as a rabbi and has challenged me to live up to the high ideals to which he professes we must aspire.

On the eve of the High Holy Days he challenges all of us to live a life of ethics, morality, and humility, motivated by a belief in God which ennobles our lives and those around us.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, and a Hartman Institute Senior Rabbinic Fellow, delivered this review of Putting God Second on September 10, 2016, at his synagogue. ^

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics