Putting God first by putting God second

'Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself' by Rabbi Hartman
'Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself' by Rabbi Hartman

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat, folio 31a, recounts the story of a man who approached Shammai with a peculiar appeal. “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot,” he requested. Shammai immediately sent him away. Next, the man approached Hillel, Shammai’s famed sparring partner, with the same plea. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour,” Hillel replied, quoting Leviticus. “That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”


That story captures the essence of a new book by Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. In Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, Rabbi Hartman argues that “a life of faith, while obligating moral sensitivity, also very often activates a critical flaw that supports and encourages immoral impulses.” He diagnoses this condition as “religion’s autoimmune disease.”

This disease has two manifestations: “God intoxication,” in which “the awareness of living in the presence of the one transcendent God demands an all-consuming attention that can exhaust one’s ability to see the needs of other human beings”; and “God manipulation,” characterized by a “sinful impulse to control the transcendent” that “extends a blanket exemption from truly seeing anyone outside our religious community.”

To be sure, Rabbi Hartman insists that Jewish history and its system of laws offer pointed examples of how to avoid religion’s autoimmune disease. He cites Abraham’s defence of Sodom, Rebecca, who helped a stranger in need, and Moses’ act of generosity to the daughters of Midian, along with the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) and biblical laws of the shmittah (sabbatical) year as examples of a Judaism focused on human non-indifference.

And yet, despite the lessons of our forefathers and mothers, and despite numerous reminders from the Torah that “faith in God is not meant merely to inspire one to worship but to change those who worship, and to be a force for generating care and concern for all of God’s creatures,” Judaism’s autoimmune disease persists. Rabbi Hartman cites more than a few examples of this malady at work, including what he calls “religiously endorsed injustice” when it comes to the morality of war.

But perhaps the most poignant illustration comes in a discussion of the laws of kilayim – the biblical prohibition against wearing clothes made of a blend of linen and cotton. He quotes the Talmud, Tractate Berachot, folio 19b, wherein the rabbis rule that one is required to strip his clothes off immediately upon learning they contain kilayim, even if the realization occurs in public. This ruling, Rabbi Hartman argues, “presents a model of faithfulness to God whose intent and effect are to blind us from shame, self-interest, social conventions and ethical instincts that might interfere with our unhesitating submission to God’s demands.”


Rabbi Hartman’s thesis – as he puts it, “putting God first by putting God second” – is not necessarily a revelation, but it is an important reminder, especially coming from an Orthodox authority. As Hillel suggests, the Golden Rule is a fundamentally simple idea, but applying it to a religious life requires two feet firmly planted on the ground.