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
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.
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.