Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, may be a modern Orthodox rabbi, but his recent book, Putting God Second, is also an argument for non-Orthodox Judaism, suggesting that timeless human ethics, not archaic “divine” teachings, must shape our belief in and commitment to God.
‘Your prayer and fasting are worthless to me as long as there are hungry, poor, homeless and naked people suffering’
He writes: “We come close to God by putting God second, precisely as God has commanded us to do. Thus, to truly walk with God is to walk with human beings through all of our shared struggles and needs. When the ethical becomes the primary sphere of Jewish spiritual striving and the dominant focus of our religious culture, theology and practice, we create a space for the divine to rest within our communities.”
The Bible has many teachings of that ilk also relevant to the High Holidays. Thus the Haftorah read in synagogues on Yom Kippur culminates in a passionate call by the prophet Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen to unlock the shackles of injustice, to loosen the ropes of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to tear every yoke apart? Surely it is to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, never withdrawing yourself from your own kin” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Rabbi Hartman elaborates: “Your prayer and fasting are worthless to me as long as there are hungry, poor, homeless and naked people suffering just outside the walls of your religious sanctuary.”
The real test of our religious commitment isn’t in the meticulous performance of rituals, but the way we treat God’s creatures on Earth.
The biblical Abraham argued along similar lines when he challenged God’s decree to destroy Sodom: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
But the Bible also tells of what Rabbi Hartman describes as “God-intoxication.” Take the account of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac in ostensible obedience of God’s command. According to Rabbi Hartman, the episode “devalues the human enterprise and consequently the significance of human ethical responsibility.” Therefore, you may wish to reflect when you hear the story of the Akedah read from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah.
The traditional Jewish way of dealing with sacred texts that offend our ethical sensibilities is through interpretation. Rabbi Hartman writes: “In our desire to understand the will of God, the construction of coherency through interpretation and selection are inevitable and necessary.”
As a liberal Jew, I find interpretation of texts essential but, alas, insufficient. I turn to history for help. Changed circumstances have rendered much of tradition irrelevant. Thus, for example, sacrificing animals may have once been the acceptable way of worship, but is no longer so. No amount of interpretation can justify the slaughter of animals in praise of God, and to suggest that in messianic times the Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt and the sacrificial system reinstated is to endanger the very existence of the Jewish state and the Jewish faith.
However, I can still read the account about Abraham’s intention to sacrifice his son because of the conclusion of the tale, when God intervenes to prevent the filicide by speaking through an angel: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him” (Genesis 22:12).
Jewish tradition also points to the permanent damage that Abraham’s God-intoxication wrought: Isaac never speaks to his father again and Sarah, who apparently only found out what might have happened after the event, dies in the very next chapter.