Saving Religion from Itself by Putting God Second (Book Review)

If the mid-20th century was a time for global conflict because of secular concerns and ideologies, the early 21st century is shaping up to be a time of strife dominated by religious ideologies and competing theologies. There are multiple battlefronts in this new conflict, both internal conflicts for the soul of each faith and external wars being committed by the faithful. The return to a time of violence motivated and fueled by religious fervor is not new. Indeed, the world is soaked in the blood of the countless victims of religious violence throughout the ages. Why do the same world religions that call upon their followers to live ethically and righteously also produce people indifferent to the pain of others, and even more so, inspire the death of people who are different?

This is the question that Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem tackles in his new provocative book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (2016, Beacon Press). Rabbi Hartman offers a diagnosis of the blind spots that monotheistic faiths have and a compelling framework for addressing them. His frame of reference is Judaism, but his intention is to inspire thinkers in other faiths to embark on a similar project to reclaim their faith from the problems plaguing it.

Within the Jewish context, Rabbi Hartman builds his argument from the earliest sources within the tradition to demonstrate a way forward. For example, the Hebrew Bible commands the death of the wayward and rebellious son who fails to heed his parents (Deuteronomy 21). The Talmudic rabbis faced with this ethical challenge powerfully teach that there never was such a case and there never would be (Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a). Why then is this challenging commandment left in the Bible, if it was never meant to be practiced? In order to study it, the rabbis explain. Rabbi Hartman asks what are we meant to learn from this episode that was so important that it merited a place in the Bible, even if it was non-applicable and ethically challenging? The lesson we are meant to learn, that every generation is meant to learn, is that there must be an external ethic applied to the tradition that holds it accountable and keeps it within the highest standards of moral excellence.

From where does this external ethic come from? Is not God and God’s revealed word through Scripture the highest form of “the good” available to humanity? How could we possibly conceive of an ethic that could hold sacred scriptures and the faith traditions accountable? Rabbi Hartman delves into these questions at great length in the book with many proof texts. One classic Biblical example of this would be none other than the story of Abraham challenging God’s decision to annihilate the city of Sodom (Genesis 18). The challenge that Abraham brings to God, “will not the Judge of the whole earth act justly?” is an argument that presupposes the notion that the tradition, indeed even God, could be viewed in light of an external ethic. How else could Abraham challenge God? If there was not an external ethic than certainly God’s decision to wipe out Sodom was good, because anything God would choose to do had to be good. Only an external system could hold a mirror up to the tradition and to the text and demand that the Judge of the whole earth act with justice.

One may not agree with every detail of either the diagnosis of the problem or its solution offered in this book, but this book and works like it are critically necessary. All faiths require this sort of introspection and thoughtful analysis during this time. Rabbi Hartman’s thesis may not be acceptable to everyone, but it will undoubtedly inspire many and lead them to a more ethical, more considerate and less indifferent way of life.

What is truly important about this work is it is written in the language of the religious. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks made the same point in an interview with NPR about his book on a similar subject, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (2015, Penguin Random House). Unfortunately, the discourse that is critical of religion today is dominated by two opposing extreme views. On one hand, are the people who claim that for the good of humanity all religion must be discarded and, on the other hand, are those who say religion has nothing to learn from “the outside” and shun all serious introspective work.

It is a balanced perspective that both Rabbi Hartman and Rabbi Sacks bring in their respective works. A perspective that acknowledges the crucial and positive place faith occupies in the minds and hearts of billions of people throughout the world while also understanding it can grow and learn from the wisdom of others. Both of these books deserve a place on your bookshelf, and more importantly, deserve to be studied and reflected upon not only to save religion from itself, but primarily to save humanity. 

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