God must not be our top priority, says Orthodox rabbinical revolutionary
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Analysis'Of course there's Muslim terror. And Jewish terror. And Christian terror. And it's inspired and guided by religion'

God must not be our top priority, says Orthodox rabbinical revolutionary

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. Here, he explains how we need to fight back

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, dean of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute)
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, dean of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute)

‘Putting God Second.” The very title of Donniel Hartman’s new book sounds sacrilegious, heretical, an assault on the Divine and on faith in the Divine.

But of course, it can’t possibly be that, can it? It’s written, after all, by an Orthodox rabbi. By the president of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, an educational powerhouse dedicated to invigorating Judaism.

The Hartman Institute, situated on a large, airy campus around the corner from the Jerusalem Theater, employs 300-plus people whose shared purpose, says Hartman, is to “elevate the ideas and educational programs in Jewish life, so as to create a meaningful and powerful Judaism for the modern world.” It runs programs in 130 secular Israeli high schools, and a gap year for Israelis and North Americans; it has trained over 1,000 rabbis in North America; it co-runs a new Israeli rabbinic school for men and women of all denominations; it has provided curricula for Hillel educators at dozens of US college campuses; 1,000 senior Israeli army officers a year have studied at the institute, which also hosts two Orthodox high schools — one for girls, one for boys — with 700 students. Thousands of lay leaders across North America study in its seminars. It runs extensive programs for Christian and Muslim leaders in North America and for Arab educators in Israel. On the day I visited, a group of key Israeli security officials were in a nearby classroom, for a program on the significance of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem High School students take their matriculation exams in mathematics (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Hartman High School students take their matriculation exams in mathematics (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

And the head of this Jewish research and educational juggernaut is telling us we need to put God second? Well, yes he is.

He admits to having had “a lot of debates” about what to call the book, whose subtitle — “How to Save Religion from Itself” — hammers home the goal.

He insists he’s not trying “to be provocative. I’m an educator. I’m not looking for attention.”

But he is most emphatically a religious revolutionary.

‘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’

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.”

What follows is an edited transcript of our interview.

The Times of Israel: Before we get onto the book, tell me a little about what you and the institute do.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman (Courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute)
Rabbi Donniel Hartman (Courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute)

Donniel Hartman: The Hartman Institute attempts to elevate Jewish discourse, elevate the ideas and educational programs in Jewish life, so as to create a meaningful and powerful Judaism for the modern world. This institution is founded on the belief that Jewish continuity is dependent on content and on the quality of our ideas and of our moral values. We’re not a policy think tank which has a prescription. The Jewish people walks on its ideas; let’s produce those ideas, let’s get them out into the field.

The uniqueness of the institute is that we take responsibility for developing these ideas and then translating them into scale-able programs. Our size is between ten to a hundred times the size of the average Jewish renewal educational institution in Israel. They range in budget from $250,000 to $2.5 million. Our budget is $25 million. We have 300-400 employees. We can, and we do, bring Jewish studies to Israeli society in a way that’s pluralistic, that’s democratic, that’s liberal. So we now are in 130 schools, a third of all the secular high schools in the country.

In what grades, doing what exactly?

Seven through 12. We’ve trained principals, we’ve trained hundreds of teachers, written curricula. We have 40 advisers who work in the school system implementing what’s known as Tarbut Yisraelit (Israeli culture). We’re the ones who developed this curriculum.

And for the Diaspora?

Hundreds of rabbis. Lay people. Hillel educators. We’re on 55 campuses.

What do you mean “on” 55 campuses?

We’ve worked in partnership with senior Hillel educators. And we’ve provided them with curricula. And we continue to work with them. And now we’re creating a program within (what is called the) “iEngage” (framework) which will involve 200 to 300 college students annually from all over the US. They’ll study for the year with the Hillel educator and, in the middle, come here for a 10 day seminar.

In addition, “iEngage” has been running for years now in 400 synagogues and organizations.

“iEngage” involves what?

It’s an educational program which works to develop a Jewish values narrative around (the subject of) Israel — a way to think and talk about the challenges of sovereignty. Nothing to do with your political position. How do we understand the meaning of this country? And can we create a conversation which transcends the divides that are making Israel such a toxic conversation in America?

One year’s curriculum was on “The Tribes of Israel, a shared homeland for a divided people,” which focused on the issue of religion and state. How do we even talk about religion and state? The next one is on Jewish values in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The New York Federation is funding it in 75 synagogues; Los Angeles — 20. The program is being studied citywide in San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Toronto, Boston… It’s in hundreds of synagogues, federations, campuses. It’s the most widely used Jewish educational curriculum now in America. And it’s growing exponentially.

The Hartman Institute in Jerusalem (Courtesy)
The Hartman Institute in Jerusalem (Courtesy)

We’ve trained over a thousand rabbis over the years. We’re starting an “iEngage” curriculum for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. We’re going to have six Arab research fellows, together with six Jewish research fellows, talking about what does a Jewish civil society mean, what does a homeland of the Jewish people mean, when 20 percent of our society is not Jewish.

1,000 of the senior officers of the Israeli army from the rank of lieutenant-colonel and colonel come here annually. Right now, the whole leadership of a key part of Israel’s security apparatus is sitting downstairs. Literally. They’re all here. They’re studying what does Jerusalem mean. They’re trying to understand the conflict around Jerusalem.

Everybody has an opinion. People don’t necessarily have knowledge.

So, what are you teaching them…?

We actually partnered on this with the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. We’re teaching them about some of the ideological meanings of Jerusalem, because you can’t understand Israeli society without understanding what Jerusalem means in the Jewish tradition; why are people running to go up on Temple Mount. Why are so many Jews, religious and secular, so united around the centrality of a unified Jerusalem?

‘We can’t count on anti-Semitism to keep us going, to keep us unified, to keep Jews inside’

One last project I should mention. This is going to be our largest project. We’ve come up with a model for the first serious scale-able lay leadership program in Israel. North American Jewry is filled with lay leadership programs. The gold standard is Wexner. Now we’ve come up with a model for Israel. A unique feature of Israeli society is that we have college students between the ages of 25 to 28, 29. The students all study three days, and work two days. We’re going to “buy” a day a week with top students for two years — 45 hours a month for two years. Top students in law, business, sciences, arts, be they Orthodox, secular, Haredi, right-wing, left-wing, Jew, non-Jew. We’re going to build eight groups: two in Jerusalem, two in Haifa, two in Tel Aviv and two in Beersheba. Thursday afternoon-evening and Friday morning. We’re going to give them a 15,000 shekel grant. We piloted the program this year in Jerusalem. We announced it at the end of October. Within 10 days we had 200 applicants for 20 places. In the future, there are going to be 400 people studying in this program each year. We’re going to be graduating 200 a year — so, in 10 years, 2,000 people. Then we’ll create an alumni program.

The curriculum is: what is a Jewish democracy, what is a modern Judaism, what is religious pluralism, what ought to be the relationship between Israel and world Jewry? How do we develop the ideas that will sustain this tradition for the next generation?

This is what we do. We can’t count on anti-Semitism to keep us going, to keep us unified, to keep Jews inside. We have to fight in the open marketplace of ideas. The institute is about developing those ideas and then putting them out there.

I want to fight for the Israel that I want. Each program is like the size of one of the other institutes. I don’t want to do any quarter million dollar programs, I want to do large, scalable programs… I want to make a difference.

And the Israel that you want to fight for is what?

It’s an Israel that is simultaneously more democratic and more Jewish — more Jewish not in terms of its official laws, but in its ethics, its values, its culture, and in the identity of its Jewish citizens. It’s an Israel where democracy is a Jewish value, where the quality and moral values of what happens within society are seen as being as existentially important as the external boundaries and borders of the country; where religious freedom and where human rights define our society; where Judaism is vibrant and re-interpreted in multiple different ways; where Israeli society desires a deep, strategic relationship with world Jewry, not merely because they’re going to fund or support us but because it’s a Judaism that we can learn from. And where Orthodox and secular and traditional learn from each other and respect each other. This is the Israel that I want.

Thousands gather at the Western Well for the annual Sukkot priestly blessing ceremony, September 30, 2015. (Photo by Flash90)
Thousands gather at the Western Well for the annual Sukkot priestly blessing ceremony, September 30, 2015. (Photo by Flash90)

That sounds like a modern Israel that has never been, as opposed to a modern Israel that lost it. I mean it was never that.

What happened is that modernity hit the Jewish people. And the state of Israel took only a part of that modernity. Modernity in Israel took two primary features. One was the embracing of power, the rejection of the Diasporic powerlessness. And the other one was the deep secular instinct, that I don’t want to live in an exclusively Jewish universe. I want to live in a larger universe and cultural context.

But the dialogue between Judaism and modernity, which has defined North American Judaism, for example, really didn’t define Israeli Judaism. The only place where it does is in the modern Orthodox community. And now it’s coming to the Haredi community: They’re actually feeling that modernity is “something I have to talk to.” It’s out there. We actually even have a small Haredi research group (here at Hartman).

Can you give me some examples of that, of how ultra-Orthodox Israelis are internalizing modernity?

Modernity is a problem that they have to think about. Their ghetto walls are falling down. The outside world is secular Israeli society. Fifty percent are now working. They’re not anti-Zionist. There are almost no anti-Zionists any more in the Haredi world. They’re maybe not Zionists, but they’re not anti-Zionists. So they’re asking: How do I live in the state, what does it mean? How do I internalize issues of gender…?

We all know that the greatest assimilation in Jewish history, it always happens from the Haredi community. The two greatest assimilation moments in Jewish history: At the end of the 18th, beginning of the nineteenth and the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, where millions assimilated, it was always from Haredi Judaism. So the notion that Haredi Judaism is sustaining Judaism is historically simply false. They accuse the Reform movement of intermarriage. But of course there’s no intermarriage in the ultra-Orthodox community, because when you do, you leave. You’re not part of it.

So, we’re seeing these conversations. We had a group of Haredim come to us and asking.

Asking what?

How do I remain a faithful Haredi and be a part of modern Israel? A person committed to halacha and a Haredi way of life, and still live in the world. Unlike Israel in its early years, the country is no longer a melting pot with a singular notion of what it means to be a “real Israeli.” The Haredi community is here to stay and is at the table, shaping the future of the country. Israel needs a Haredi community capable of taking part in that conversation.

And they’re asking you that because…

They’re not asking me. They’re asking themselves.

And they think you can help because?

Our specialty is the intersection between Judaism, tradition and modernity. (They want) to find out what that means, and how to build a meaningful Jewish life in dialogue with it. This boogie man that’s out there…

Ultra-Orthodox Jews on the phone in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem (Serge Attal / FLASH90
Ultra-Orthodox Jews on the phone in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem (Serge Attal / FLASH90

This world that they’ve grown up trying to shut themselves off from…

Yes. An example: They’re told they’re not allowed to have a phone, so many have two phones. They have the phone that they carry in public and they have the other phone that they have in private. (This meeting with modernity) is happening, whether the (older generation) likes it or not. Their kids are out there.

The phone they’re allowed to carry…?

It has no internet… In private they have the smart phone.

And the people from the Haredi community who come to you are asking what?

How does religion accommodate, how does faith in God accommodate (to modernity)? Can we be Haredi, but understand that…?

That not all of modern life is toxic?

That’s what they’re trying to explore. Now, I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I know that this conversation is happening. The system cannot sustain itself in its present form. The ideology of, I have to keep you in yeshiva until you’re 25-30 to shut down the autonomous rebellion… It’s not working.

What do you mean by autonomy? Individualism?

Individualism. Freedom of choice. Giving weight and value to what you think and like.

I remember when I grew up in Netiv Meir (an Orthodox yeshiva high school in Jerusalem), nobody ever asked me, Do you like Gemara? You studied Gemara seven hours a day and that was it. Nobody ever asked whether you enjoyed studying this or that tractate. Religious Zionism, by the way, was also unprepared for the (push for) autonomy — hence the whole “Datlash” (formerly Orthodox) phenomenon.

And so, regardless of the spectrum, there are real challenges we have to face in Israeli Judaism. Religious Zionism was (trying to grapple with this), but then shut down as a result of Gush Emunim (the messianic right-wing settlement movement), where all of its creative spirit was directed towards foreign policy. Still, even within the religious Zionist community, you do see transformations on gender, transformations on issues of homosexuality and lesbianism, you actually see some interesting changes.

In a liberal direction or the opposite?

You see both. But at least there is some conversation in that community.

Who’s winning this battle? On the way here I was listening to a Bar Ilan University student who was told that she couldn’t sing at the university’s Holocaust Day ceremony. Bar Ilan, the Orthodox university.

There are all these paradoxes taking place at the same time. And as (senior, conservative) people get more nervous (about greater individualism), they’re shutting it down. The religious Zionist community is suffering from the fact that it didn’t develop its modern identity. It was doing that, but then it stopped and it went to Gush Emunim. From the mid-70s, there has been almost no innovative thought within the religious Zionist community. All the energy got drained by Eretz Yisrael conversations.

Where you do see some interesting changes is within the educational system. Religious Zionist institutions are educationally very creative. They’re asking, how do I teach Gemara in a way that students will want, how do I teach prayer in a way that students will want?

Modernity is in everybody’s family. It’s in your household, so how do you deal with it? For example on gay/lesbian, the whole notion of this being “the worst abomination,” by and large that’s already broken in the religious Zionist community. Gender equality within learning is far more advanced here than in Orthodox circles in America. They’re pushing the envelope. But I don’t claim we’re winning.

But what you’re trying to facilitate is…

Innovative ideas and innovative educational programming, because nothing stays the same. When tradition stays exactly the same, it becomes mediocre.

In Israel and in America, I believe, we have a profound cultural war going on, over who we’re going to be. There are very different agendas and what one community needs is not the same as what another community needs. Forty percent of our work is in North America, 60 percent here in Israel.

And so now you’ve written this book which, if I wanted to be devil’s advocate, I would say is a heretical assault on religion, but it really isn’t. It’s an assault on the use that is made of religion, and an attempt to suggest how the abuse of religion happens and can be avoided. Is that fair?

Yes, it’s trying to save religion from itself. Not just from the religious. I go further than most religious critics of religion. Because most critics of religion say that the problem is certain 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. And I don’t think religion understands God’s impact on people. That’s basically what the prophets said.

In Isaiah, God turns to the Jewish people and pleads with them to stop coming to the Temple on every holiday and new moon with their sacrifices. God says: “Who asked this of you?” But the truth is that God, it was You! Haven’t You read the book of Leviticus? Half of the 613 commandments in the Torah pertained to Temple worship? Half of them!

‘I’m not saying act like an atheist and get rid of God. I’m not saying put God 14th. I’m saying put God second. Second is not bad’

So I’ve tried to write a deeply religious book which is offering an alternative narrative about what it means to be religious. An alternative narrative of how you read our tradition. It really is trying to save religion from a certain type of religion which I don’t believe is a distortion. I think it’s authentic. I think it’s in Judaism. It’s in Christianity. It’s in Islam. I just speak about my religion. But I think it’s in there (in all three).

You called it “Putting God Second” because first needs to come ethics, needs to come behaving decently?

That’s correct. Decency. Take Hillel seriously. “What’s hateful to you, don’t do unto others. That’s the whole Torah.”

I’m not saying act like an atheist and get rid of God. I’m not saying put God 14th. I’m saying put God second. Second is not bad.

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.

Putting God Second, by Rabbi Donniel Hartman
Putting God Second, by Rabbi Donniel Hartman

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.

And that’s the path that has given us what?

That’s the path where we don’t see our moral responsibilities towards other human beings.

And therefore specifically has given us what? Caused what?

Racism. Xenophobia. Discrimination. An emphasis on ritual over the ethical. It’s there. It’s been there since the prophets. The prophets themselves were talking about, Why are you doing the ritual and not the ethical?

Whereas, the other path…

The other says, like Abraham in Sodom, that the definition of being a Jew is to walk in the way of God, by doing what is just and right. That’s where it starts: To be a Jew is to see other people, and to feel responsible to their needs, and this defines at the core what it means to be a Jew. I’m not reducing religion to the ethical, but the ethical is the test of the value of what religion is doing. (That narrative) goes on to Hillel, who doesn’t mention God in his definition of Judaism’s core, who doesn’t mention God. And to Shimon Ben Shetach

Back up a second: Hillel doesn’t mention God?

When the potential convert comes to him, asking that he convert him on condition that Hillel teach him the whole Torah while he stands on one foot, Hillel converts him and then says, “What’s hateful to you, do not do unto others. That’s the whole Torah.” Hillel says the essence of Judaism is about human beings’ dealings with their fellow human beings.

If ethics is determined by religion, we’re lost. We’re just lost. There’s no way out

My whole book aims to tell that narrative, and to tell how it can heal our religious consciousness, and so it is heretical in a sense. If admitting that religion has flaws and that religion can fail is heretical, then this is heretical. But it’s not heretical in the new atheist sense. I’m not arguing that we have to close down religion. It’s trying to save religion.

If criticism is heretical, which it can become, then yes, I’m proud to be a heretic. But in our tradition, criticism is the greatest sign of love. This is a book which criticizes religion’s potential for failure and tries to offer a narrative on how we can save ourselves. It’s a different plan for how you build a religious life. I am arguing for a religious system which does not determine the good, but must follow a notion of the good which is independent from it. If ethics is determined by religion, we’re lost. We’re just lost. There’s no way out. No place for a corrective moral voice. You have a closed system which can be capable of commanding anything and committing atrocities.

Apply what you consider the correct use of religion as a code of life to some of the dilemmas that we grapple with in Israel today, and contrast it with what “religious people” claim they are required to do.

I’ll give you numerous examples. Let’s take the war in Gaza (in 2014). How was God used and religion used in the war in Gaza?

When I come to evaluating the war in Gaza, when I believe that ethics comes first, part of my moral responsibility is self-preservation. The war in Gaza was a just war. One of the simplest just wars, actually. Your civilian population is being attacked. Of course you have a right to defend yourself. In any just war theory, this is one of the easiest wars to justify. An independent ethic would justify that war. God doesn’t come into it. I have a moral responsibility. My moral responsibility includes protecting myself.

An injured Israeli soldier is evacuated by helicopter from near the Israeli border with Gaza Strip on July 28, 2014, (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An injured Israeli soldier is evacuated by helicopter from near the Israeli border with Gaza Strip on July 28, 2014, (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I also have moral responsibilities to others. So I engage in the conversation: How do I fight a just war justly? And if I use religion, I use it to remind me that all human beings are created in the image of God. I use it to remind myself to ask, What is going through their head (on the other side of the conflict)? What are the stories that they’re telling? Part of the way you live a moral life is to hear somebody else.

And then I fight that war. And I do the best of my ability to limit civilian casualties. As by and large Israel did. And that’s it. That’s one story. Religion has nothing to do with that war. It’s a case of a basic moral right to self-defense and my responsibility to fight a just war justly, within the parameters as defined by our military code of ethics. If God comes in, it’s to remind me to be a sane person, to look after “my brother” — the brotherhood, sisterhood of humankind. That’ll be one way of looking at that war.

IDF Givate Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter (Photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
IDF Givate Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter (Photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)

Another way of looking at the war is through the eyes of God-manipulation. Part of (Givati brigade commander Ofer) Winter’s claim — not all of it, conceivably — was, Here we are going to war. Don’t worry because God is fighting with us. What does that mean, God is fighting with you? Why is God fighting with you? Because God loves you best. And if God loves you best, then you don’t have to see the other. And then you have the debate between Asa Kasher (co-author of the former IDF Code of Ethics) and the current authors of the new Code of Ethics, on what does it mean to do everything in your power to avoid civilian casualties. According to the code of ethics as it stands, that includes endangering your own life. I grew up in an army that believed we should always do that. When I went to war in Lebanon, we did it. Of course you did that. It was a fundamental principle. We will take casualties to ensure that we don’t have unnecessary civilian casualties on the other side. It’s the core principle of Israel’s code of ethics. But if God comes in, then there’s no equivalence. God is on my side now.

And in that conception, we need have no regard for fatalities on the other side?

(In that conception), I only have to do what is in my interest to do.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (center) and then defense minister Moshe Yaalon (right) in southern Israel on July 21, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (center) and then defense minister Moshe Yaalon (right) in southern Israel on July 21, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

In addition, every time a war has to come to an end, it’s religious figures in Israel who are telling us: fight on. (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and (then-defense minister Moshe) “Bogie” Yaalon, both of them, were telling us: It’s time to declare victory and stop the war. Who opposed them? Religious leaders. It’s fascinating. Why is it that those who speak in the name of religion (push for more force)? (The political leadership was taking the decision not to go further) either for moral reasons or for political reasons. And religion comes in and tells people, If God’s on your side, number 1, you don’t have to worry about realpolitik, and number 2, what do I care about casualties on the other side?

You’re invoking religion here only in a negative context.

No, I said, if religion comes in. Remember, I am arguing for the primacy, for the independence, of the good. In doing so, when I live in accordance with the principles of moral justice, then I am living a religious life. I’m saying that when God comes in, it must be to empower me to live that religious life which gives primacy to my moral responsibilities.

God is the one that commands me to live in accordance with my moral conscience, not to circumvent it.

Another great example would be refugees in Israel. Israel has 43,000 refugees. There are 60 million refugees in the world. We have 43,000. That’s our share. There was a serious debate in Israel when 10-20,000 were coming in annually. What would be a sustainable number? It’s a legitimate question and there is a flaw in the international charter because it has no redistribution at the end of each year and whichever country gets stuck can end up with a number that it cannot sustain. The international charter doesn’t say, Ok, we have x number left, let’s divide it up equally. And so Israel had every right to be worried.

Children from families of African migrants gather at a so-called day-care center in southern Tel Aviv, on May 28, 2015. Characterised by filth and squalor, they have been uniformly denounced by both rights groups and the media as "baby warehouses." The faces of the children were blurred to protect their identities. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Children from families of African migrants gather at a so-called day-care center in southern Tel Aviv, on May 28, 2015. Characterised by filth and squalor, they have been uniformly denounced by both rights groups and the media as “baby warehouses.” The faces of the children were blurred to protect their identities. (Jack Guez/AFP)

But now the border is closed and only between 100 and 200 can get through Sinai (into Israel each year). That means we have no more influx. There’s 43,000 from Sudan and from Eritrea. I’m not saying all of them are refugees. So let’s check.

One version would be that we, as Jews, have a responsibility for other people, and that Israel is more Jewish the more we integrate refugees whose lives are in danger. In integrating them, I am walking in the way of God by doing what is just and right. I am a religious person when I care about somebody else. That would be like Abraham caring about Sodom.

South Tel Aviv residents protest the presence of illegal immigrants in May. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
South Tel Aviv residents protest the influx of migrants in their neighborhoods in May 2012. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

(But) the conversation in Israel is often that the more religious you are, the more the refugees are regarded as a danger to the Jewishness of the state of Israel. Every non-Jew is somehow hurting the Jewishness of Israel. And we’ve convinced people of this, by sticking them as a group in southern Tel Aviv, making it as if this is a demographic problem. 43,000 is nothing for us to absorb. But how is religion used? To justify a policy of exclusion. ‘They’re not Jews. God loves us. Why are you helping them? Have you first helped all the Jews in need. To be a Jew is to care only about us.’ It categorizes the refugees as a danger to the Jewishness of Israel. So these are the two approaches.

Let’s turn to the Hebron soldier. (Elor Azaria, 19, on trial for manslaughter for allegedly killing a Palestinian assailant who had been disarmed and was lying wounded in the West Bank city in March.)

The Hebron soldier is the same thing. Sixty percent of Israeli society said he shouldn’t be tried. Why shouldn’t he be tried? I’m not saying he’s guilty. Because I saw a video, I know that he’s guilty? No. I don’t want to pre-judge him. I have no idea. Let a judge adjudicate the case. But 60 something percent say that he shouldn’t be tried.

Where is that coming from? What is our role? Where does religion come into the conversation?

IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, accused of killing a disarmed Palestinian attacker in Hebron, during a hearing at Jaffa Military Court, May 9, 2016. (Flash90)
IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, accused of killing a disarmed Palestinian attacker in Hebron, during a hearing at Jaffa Military Court, May 9, 2016. (Flash90)

Part of it is that when there’s an us/them situation, you feel your responsibility is only to us. You see God-manipulation going on in Israeli society all the time. (Yeshayahu) Leibowitz was right. He was worried about religion becoming the maidservant of nationalism, and that’s what God-manipulation does. A religious ideology which serves nationalist agendas.

An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot an apparently unarmed, prone Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B'Tselem)
An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot an apparently unarmed, prone Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B’Tselem)

According to polls, the more religious you are, the more you tend to unequivocally support every war that we fight. You’re against human rights. You’re against democracy. You believe that Arabs should be second class citizens and not have a right to vote. The more religious you are, the more you say, he (Azaria) shouldn’t be tried. That’s a Judaism which I believe does not deserve to survive.

Now I know that that is one form of Judaism. That’s where I’m different. I’m not saying that they’re distorting Judaism. I know too well. I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life studying these sources. I know. It’s true. It’s there. It’s there. I can tell you all the sources, (where it is argued that the Arabs) are not human beings. I specify in this book, just enough not to make you too upset.

I want a different Judaism. And I know it exists. I think of Hillel. And I love Shimon Ben Shetach. I don’t know if you remember the story. Back then (more than 2,000 years ago), rabbis weren’t allowed to receive money for being a rabbi, so he worked as a trader of flax. His students want to spend more time with him, so they buy him a donkey. On the donkey there is this precious stone, and they say to him, You never have to work anymore. You know all the great Hassidic stories of the pious fishermen who just before shabbes finds a fish with a ruby in it. We never ask, Who did this ruby belong to? You don’t even see who lost it. It’s as if they don’t exist. They just exist to serve us. But Shimon Ben Shetach asks his students: Whose donkey was it? Whose ruby? The students say, It’s this idolator’s.

Detail of the Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem: Hillel the Elder teaching a man the meaning of the whole Torah while he stands on one foot (Deror Avi / Wikipedia)
Detail of the Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem: Hillel the Elder teaching a man the meaning of the whole Torah while he stands on one foot (Deror Avi / Wikipedia)

Shimon Ben Shetach asks: Does he know about it? The student says, No, he doesn’t know about it. Shimon Ben Shetach says: Give it back. The student says, Why should I give it back? Under Jewish law we don’t have to return lost property to non-Jews. We don’t have to see their needs and care for them.

The core Jewish commandment of not remaining indifferent to the needs of others (is being undermined).

Shimon Ben Shetach adds, What, I’m a barbarian? You think I’m not a civilized human being? That’s part of what it means to be a religious person. What do you think, I’m a barbarian?

(Hartman switches suddenly back to the specifics of the Hebron killing.) We didn’t even bring a medic (to treat the assailant, in the minutes where he lay wounded on the ground before Azaria shot him)? We didn’t bring a medic for 11 minutes?

Religion could be a force for good. It can remind you that human beings are created in the image of God. Or it could shut it down, to believe that only you are created in the image of God. I know which type of Judaism I want.

All the battles within Orthodoxy, I mean like I mentioned just now, the woman singing at the Holocaust Day ceremony, where do they fit in your battle of Jewish narratives?

This is about gender equality. We now know something we didn’t know in the past: that half the world is equal to men. A hundred years ago, women weren’t allowed to vote. We had a distorted perspective, just like we had a distorted perspective on blacks. We’ve been enlightened, our eyes have been opened and we’ve expanded the parameters of who we believe we’re responsible for. So now, how do we create a society where women feel dignified, where women feel that their voices are heard, that their voices are shaping the public sphere on every level. ‘Loving your neighbor like yourself’ applies to women too! ‘What’s hateful unto you do not do unto others.’ But through God-intoxication, it’s like, what do you mean? I don’t even see the person who I’ve humiliated. My religious fervor makes me immune to self-reflection, criticism and moral growth.

The newly Orthodox who won’t eat in the parents’ home…

When I was teaching in various places I felt, especially in America, that kashrut was a key to creating a Jewish identity. But I always told my classes: You will stop being my student the minute you don’t eat in your parents’ home.

And what of the ostensible religious ‘impossibility’ of relinquishing divinely promised territory?

That would be an exact example (of the abuse I’m highlighting). Not all of those (who insist we must not relinquish territory) are suffering from God-intoxication. A person can hold to a moral position which wants to retain the whole Land of Israel (from the river to the sea) because they believe that the Palestinians do not want peace. But you can’t (base your claim) on your own private narrative in which this (land) is yours and consequently you don’t have to feel any moral responsibility to anyone else.

‘Religion is increasingly serving, not as a catalyst for moral sensitivity, but as a catalyst for national self-righteousness. And for isolationism. We are now a country which increasingly rejects and refuses to hear external criticism, where criticism is often branded as anti-Semitic’

It used to be in Israel that the people on the political right were the ones who often had the most serious conversations about what are my moral responsibilities to minorities. Menachem Begin was the first political leader to recognize their rights, to recognize that when you’re looking at the whole Land of Israel you actually have a problem: There’s another people here. (The Palestinians.) The left didn’t feel a need to deal with that, because their argument was, We’re going to give it back one day.

All that has shifted. And religion is increasingly serving, not as a catalyst for moral sensitivity, but as a catalyst for national self-righteousness. And for isolationism. We are now a country which increasingly rejects and refuses to hear external criticism, where criticism is often branded as anti-Semitic. We have shut down.

These are two Judaisms. The (other one is) a Judaism which celebrates criticism, because I want to live according to what’s just and right, and if someone has something to say, of course I want to hear it. I need the outside critic. I need that voice. I want to hear. Not that I necessarily will agree with it, but if I don’t hear it, the chances are that I’m going to fall on the slippery slope of God-manipulation.

Some of the critics are wrong…

I’m not saying that all the criticism is legitimate and that I have to heed all of it. But I have to listen. There are two sayings widely heard (in today’s Israel): “Nobody is going to teach us morality.” And, “The IDF is the most moral army in the world.” I teach about this all the time. And I ask, Why (do we feel we can make these automatic claims to morality), because we were their victims in the Holocaust?

Naftali Bennett in a new Jewish Home party campaign video (photo credit: YouTube)
Naftali Bennett in a Jewish Home party campaign video ahead of the March 2015 elections (photo credit: YouTube)

Now, when your religion determines the good, of course no one can teach you ethics. Because you’re The Chosen and your tradition is always right. But the essence of the religion I am advocating for is to recognize that who you are is not who you ought to be. What was the (Orthodox-nationalist) Jewish Home party’s slogan in the last election? “Enough apologizing.” That’s a religious ideology? When the essence of every religion’s tradition is that even the most righteous man has sinned. I’m attacking the arrogance of this type of God-manipulation.

But we might be the most moral army in the world. What you’re saying is, let’s not assume it?

We might be. But did anybody check Finland, for example. We have a lot of army officers coming through here. There was a whole officers’ corps of an IDF reserves division who came in, and it was really very interesting. Usually I teach more senior officers. This was a younger group, bigger. I was challenging them. I said, Where does this come from, this declaration that the IDF is the world’s most moral army? By definition?

I said, I think our army is great. But are we the most wonderful? Let’s talk about it. Let’s see. I said, what about Finland? Oh, you can’t compare it to Finland, they said. They’re not fighting any real war. They said: No army in the world is willing to endanger its soldiers to decrease civilian casualties. I said, Really? Did you check? America. England. Canada? Australia. You’ve checked? They have no such doctrine?

You think there are in the world more moral armies?

I don’t know. But there are other armies that also worry about civilian casualties. It’s in the core principles of every Western democracy’s army. It’s there. It’s one of the fundamental principles of fighting a just war justly, to determine who’s a civilian and to face consequences when you just carpet bomb regardless. But again, he proclaims us as the most moral army.

Who’s the ‘he’?

An officer in that group we had here. And I just said, It’s not a status that you earn by definition.

There could be an interesting conversation on whether the Hannibal Protocol violates (moral principles). It’s interesting, the army itself has now repealed the Hannibal Protocol. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is those who speak in the name of religion who are against this type of so called secular, ethical discussion. That’s what I want to change. I want Judaism to be a part of a different conversation.

Why do I need Judaism at all? If the blind obedience and unfounded invocation is just damaging me, and all I need is ethics…?

You need Judaism for three reasons.

The first is, 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 Jewish calendar encompasses two hundred and seventy something days a year. It’s basically a calendar not of historical events, but of values that we want you to think about. If you do Shabbat right, according to Deuteronomy 5, Shabbat will be a day in which everybody is equal. Because God took the Jewish people out of Egypt, this is the day that those who work for you should be treated equally. Shabbat is the day where I realize that to have more, doesn’t mean to be more, and that the value of life is not judged by how much I have. Here it is, every 7 days.

Thousands gather at the Western Well for the annual Sukkot priestly blessing ceremony, September 30, 2015. (Photo by Flash90)
Thousands gather at the Western Well for the annual Sukkot priestly blessing ceremony, September 30, 2015. (Photo by Flash90)

Sukkot, Pessah, Shavuot. Each one of them carries values. We institute value-reminders. Our calendar has these pop-ups, which ask us to look at who we ought to be.

So, what do you need religion for? You don’t need it to be a good person. You can be a good person without being a Jew. And you can be a good person without believing in God. But religion can be a powerful vehicle for reminding you to bring ethics into the center of your life.

The second reason why 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 aren’t just 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. So religion could be a force for good there too.

But as I write in the introduction to the book, I know why I want religion, and what religion could do, but either way, religion is here. The conversation on whether you need religion or not is by and large irrelevant.

So the task is to make the best of it…

Exactly. Time Magazine in 1966 had a cover story on ‘Is God Dead?’ In the middle of the 20th century, there really was this question: Is this a story that’s just about over? Now, in 2016, the answer is clear. It’s not over.

So Time recently called me to comment on it. And I said, Now the question is no longer whether God is dead. The only interesting question is whether God should be dead, or what God being alive could mean, because God is here.

‘Of course there’s Muslim terror. And of course there’s Jewish terror. And of course there’s Christian terror. And it’s motivated and inspired by and guided by religion’

I didn’t write this book in response to Islamic terror. It was growing out of an inner Jewish conversation, and I hope Muslims and Christians will write their books. But I see the discourse around the question of, Is there such as thing as Islamic terror? And the argument that there is no Islamic terror; there’s just people who are terrorists who happen to be Muslim. That’s the kind of dishonesty that I’m trying to fight in this book.

I believe that when you talk that way, you’re not confronting the cancer which is eating at your base. You’re claiming everything is fine, if only you could be more religious. No. Often those who become more religious get it even worse. They have to be differently religious.

So when we claim that there is no Muslim terror? Of course there’s Muslim terror. And of course there’s Jewish terror. And of course there’s Christian terror. Of course there is. And it’s motivated and inspired by and guided by religion. And when we recognize it, then there’s a chance to engage in a cultural war to fight against it and determine which religion we’re going to have. But when you say it’s not about religion, they just look at you and laugh.

Who’s the ‘they’?

The fundamentalists of the world.

Time magazine, April 1966
Time magazine, April 1966

And by and large I know that I’m not going to change the fundamentalists. I don’t believe that by writing my book, the fundamentalists are all of a sudden going to be enlightened. But there are two groups who I’m trying to fight for. And you don’t have to win everybody. One of the things we learned from the Haredi parties in Israel is that if you get 10 percent, you can shape the national discourse. A prime minister of Israel, if he gets 25 percent, he’s prime minister forever. If I have 20 percent, I can shape the discourse. I don’t have to get everybody.

There’s two groups that I want to reach. Number one, there are people who are deeply committed religiously and they can go in one of two directions. If we provide an alternative position of religious life, we can win x percentage of that group.

Then there is an even larger group: Those who are shaped, who are defined by the fundamentalists, not to become fundamentalists, but to leave religion altogether, and then to allow fundamentalists to monopolize the religious discourse. That’s one of the greatest tragedies of fundamentalism: One of its greatest impacts is on those who walk out (on religion because of it), because that is perceived as the authentic religion.

When we have people fighting for a different sense of what Judaism is, then the ability of fundamentalists to clean up, to define the conversation, gets diminished. So if I can get 20-30 percent of people with this religious consciousness, and half or even a third of religious people who aren’t in their core instincts fundamentalists, and who have a strong moral sense – if I could give them a religious language, then we have a chance.

As things are now, too many believe that the authentic religious person is the fundamentalist. Therefore some become fundamentalists and some walk away. I want to carve out a third way.

You want to keep them in and you want them to be ethical?

In the name of God and in the name of religion.

‘The only thing that a Muslim cannot say is ‘put God second’. In Islam, it’s going to have to come in a different language’

You say this book is written about Judaism, but you need people like you in Islam, too. Are there such people? I assume the same elements are there in Islam that can guide one to an ethical…?

Of course. It’s there. In every tradition. It depends on how you interpret it and what you do with it. But it’s not a simple fight in any of our religions. Is the Islamic tradition conceptually worse off than Judaism? I can tell you, no.

What do you mean by worse off?

In other words, is its tradition by definition more inclined to fundamentalism than our tradition? The answer is no.

In other words, what you consider to be the correct narrative is there in Islam as well?

The only thing that a Muslim cannot say is ‘put God second’. In Islam, it’s going to have to come in a different language.

How might they be able to say it?

In Islam, the obligation and primacy of the ethical will have to be discussed as representative of the will of God who is always first. In Judaism, the language can, and I believe ought to be, putting God second… This language gives us a better chance to change the nature of our religious life.

Well, that’s deliberately provocative, right?

People don’t believe me; I don’t want to be provocative. I’m an educator. I’m not looking for attention.

I had a lot of debates with people about whether we’d give the book this title. And it’s intentional. “Putting God Second” has an echo in a Midrash that I quote in the first line of the book (from Midrash Eikhah Rabbah Ptikha). A very famous midrash — “if only they had deserted Me but kept My instructions.” In Islam you can’t say that. But in Judaism, I think we have to.

The reason why I did this is not to provoke. It’s because I want to push this idea that the more I put ethics first, the more I am a religious person. Then I hope that God won’t be a destructive force in our lives.

Many religious liberals dance around the issue. If we avoid facing the depth of the problem, we’re just going to get these sappy, reassuring voices which will tell us that the fundamentalists are simply distorting religion, and that everything in religion is just fine, God is the Godly within you commanding only the good, and all that stuff. We’re not recognizing that there’s a real danger in religion itself. I think you have to recognize that danger.

I had an auto-immune disease in my life — Myasthenia Gravis. And I know the feeling of being attacked from within. I couldn’t hold my hand up to brush my teeth. Literally. I couldn’t hold my pen. I couldn’t keep my eyelids open. You’re technically not supposed to be healed from it. But I was, through alternative medicine.

But it was like, what’s going on here? When you know that there’s something in our system that’s inciting against you, you begin to be on the path to healing it. You know that it’s there. Then you can possibly do something.

I wrote this book because I love Judaism and have dedicated my life to strengthening it. We have to teach our children something different. What does it mean to love God? Does that mean to put God first? Or to put God second. And that’s why the last line of the book is, when we put God second, “we put God’s will first.” It’s not to provoke, it’s to push the envelope. And it’s getting harder.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman speaks at the Hartman Institute (Courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute)
Rabbi Donniel Hartman speaks at the Hartman Institute (Courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute)
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