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Bridging the Jewish Secular-Religious Divide

June 22, 2016

by Lawrence Bush

Discussed in this essay: Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, by Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Beacon Press, 2016, 180 pages.

ADONAI smaller jpegAS THE EDITOR of Jewish Currents, which tags itself on the cover as a “secular, progressive voice,” I am occasionally invited to synagogues to speak about secular Jewish identity. I admire those rabbis who invite me, for their willingness to acknowledge the presence of agnostic and even atheist Jews in their congregations — and for permitting me to stand at the bimah and challenge what goes on in synagogue services.

Early this month I had such an opportunity at Temple Israel in Duluth, Minnesota, a small, heymish community led by a thoughtful, easygoing Reconstructionist rabbi, David Steinberg. I won’t try to summarize here what I covered over the course of four talks, but the essential challenge I offered ran something like this: Whereas once there was a very lively Jewish secular institutional network, today the synagogue is the central address, very nearly the only address, of American Jewish life. Notwithstanding some diversity in their programming, however, synagogues are perceived by non-theistic Jews as “the place where Jews go to pray” -- and, in fact, an inordinate amount of time in shul is consumed by prayer, featuring liturgy steeped in “God is great” language that fills many, many Jews with ambivalence. So why do we spend all of our precious time together engaged in an activity that makes so many of us uneasy, or bored, or uncertain? Why do we do this, especially, in a post-shtetl, post-Jewish-neighborhood era when most Jews do not know each other outside the synagogue walls? Why do we not, instead, spend our time together building our peoplehood and getting to know and care about one another directly, through creative activity and facilitated conversation that deals with Jewish ethics and values and the moral decisions of daily life?

There’s a tension that I note between comfort and creativity when it comes to synagogue services. If the rabbi were, one Saturday morning, to open the ark and take out an Earth ball instead of the Torah, or a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights instead of the Torah, or a recording of the song of the humpback whale instead of the Torah, some in the congregation would say, My, that’s interesting! and enjoy having an expanded sense of what constitutes Torah — but the bulk of the congregation would probably protest, Wait a minute, where’s my Torah? I want to read the Torah, I want to do what we did LAST Saturday morning (and what my grandparents did on Saturday in 1953) -- that’s why I’m here!

So there you have the secular-religious divide: For those of us not raised within a synagogue tradition and not dedicated to the proposition that there’s a God in our universe, liturgy is boring, and prayer seems an awful waste of our time together, addressing the You when we want to be addressing the We — while for Jews who love Judaism the religion and feel drawn to the liturgy, prayer is spiritually uplifting, comforting and nostalgic. To build a bridge across this divide, there has to be compromise — more creativity, less comfort.

IN TRUTH, while I enjoy the intense discussion that usually follow my presentations, I despair of having any real impact when it comes to the secular-religious divide. To my left, I see secular Jews having less and less connection with the Jewish tradition, out of ignorance, indifference, anti-religious bias, and more — and they’re not about to set foot in synagogue no matter what I say. To my right, I see religious Jews engrossed in their individualistic “spirituality” and unwilling to compromise their comfort in order to build a fuller-bodied community.

My discouragement was somewhat assuaged, however, by Rabbi Donniel Hartman, a leading educator in Israel, who has written an honest and provocative book about the need to place humanism ahead of God in modern Judaism. Putting God Second is a bridge-building work that deserves both a secular and religious readership — not only for its humanistic orientation, but because of the educational way Hartman plays with classical Jewish texts.

Putting God Second identifies two “auto-immune diseases” within Judaism that threaten its relevance and its communal health: “God Intoxication” and “God Manipulation.” The first is exemplified in the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yokhai’s exile in a cave, where he hides (with his son) as a fugitive from the Romans for some dozen years. After being immersed for all that time in prayer and meditation, Shimon emerges and finds the mundanity of everyday life so deeply offensive that he literally incinerates farmers with his thoughts — until God sends him back into his cave to get straightened out. The story (in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b) is “a testimony,” writes Hartman, “to the powerful attraction, and the misguided destructiveness, of God Intoxication,” which leaves “those who pursue the most intense and consuming intimacy with God . . . least able to hear God’s voice.”

It’s surprisingly that Hartman fails note that Shimon Bar Yokhai was attributed authorship of the Zohar, the central text of kabbalistic mysticism (though the book was actually written in the 13th century, whereas Shimon lived in the 2nd). The omission left me wondering if Hartman was simply unwilling to alienate modern practitioners of Jewish mysticism, from the khasidic world to the world of Jewish Renewal, by associating them directly with the “God Intoxication” that he critiques. Be that as it may, he offers numerous other examples from the tradition of religious figures who are so intent on devoting themselves wholeheartedly to discerning God’s will that they neglect the well-being and the dignity of human beings. Hartman repeatedly quotes from Isaiah’s denunciation of the ritually obsessed Jews of his time: “Is such the fast I desire,/A day for men to starve their bodies?/ Is it bowing the head like a bulrush/And lying in sackcloth and ashes? . . . No, this is the fast I desire:/To unlock the fetters of wickedness,/ And untie the cords of the yoke. . .”

If “God Intoxication” is fundamentally a disease of self-abnegation (God is everything, we must submit to God’s service at all times), the second disease associated with Judaism, “God Manipulation,” is one of arrogance, in which God is invoked, Hartman writes, “in the service of our own interests, while [we] simultaneously [are] waving the banner of divine approval.” The symptoms of this disease include a belief in Jewish chosenness, a moral double-standard for the non-Jewish world, and an exaltation of the “Warrior God” who leads the conquest of “the Promised Land.” “For those who claim to own God,” Hartman observes, “there is no sin that cannot be purified, sanctified, and ultimately transformed into a virtue.” Having fought in the IDF, he is especially disturbed when the unavoidable dehumanization of the enemy that accompanies war becomes “koshered” through the claim that God is on “our” side.

THE FAMOUS STORY of Hillel summarizing Judaism “while standing on one foot” is full of significance for Hartman, who notes that Hillel’s summation of “the whole Torah” -- “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others” -- is not even a quote from the Torah. Rather, Hillel is here testifying to an obligation to be ethically sensitive to other human beings that is not God-dependent, according to Hartman. Humans have “the intrinsic capacity to discern the good,” he argues, and only when “the autonomy of the ethical . . . is established and embraced will monotheistic religion become immune from God Manipulation.” This is a radical stance, especially for religious people who almost invariably ask me, skeptically, how atheists can be moral without God. Hartman stands that dilemma on its head: “Only when religious people can point to a standard of right and good and just, grounded in an independent moral conscience,” he believes, “can we prevent the systemic, pseudo-pious violation of basic morality toward others that has been such a prominent and persistent feature of religious life.”

The basic intent, then, of Putting God Second is to redeem Judaism’s sacred humanism from either mystical or triumphalist God-rapture, as expressed in the book’s opening epigraph, from the Midrash, in which Rav Huna quotes God’s voice from the book of Jeremiah: “They deserted Me and did not Keep My instructions.” “If only,” Rav Huna continues, “they had deserted Me but kept My instructions.” Religion, Hartman argues, “must live up to the standards of the good and the reasonable that stand outside it, continually subjecting itself to the evaluation and approval” of human beings. “Only when religious discourse meets this open, independent standard do we sanctify God’s name and avoid its desecration.”

BUT HERE THE ATHEIST rises to make an objection: If we admit to a “natural morality,” even a common-sense morality that human beings are constituted to be able to intuit without resort to theism, why mess with the metaphor of God at all? Given the large potential for abuse that the God-concept incurs, why not live as godless humanists? Hartman fails to convince me, in fact, when he argues for God as being “a crucial ally in improving our world” and “empowering people to live conscious, courageous, meaningful lives.” Yet I recognize that his arguments on God’s behalf are carefully tailored to believers, the already-religious, to convince them that a lurch towards humanism is a lurch towards God, not away. I don’t need to argue with him about that.

I am not so quick, moreover, to dismiss his commitment to the God-metaphor as a tool for an aspirational life, for deep conversation, for contemplation of life’s absolutes and vicissitudes, and for keeping human beings disciplined and focused on being conscious, communally-oriented, and self-aware beings. While my own talks in synagogue aim at shoving God out of the doorway and letting secularists in, a larger part of my work aims at cultivating the interest of secular Jews in the what’s behind those doors: the depths of the Jewish tradition, the many psychological and spiritual tools offered by the Jewish holidays and calendar, and the opportunity to explore Jewish ethical values through study and discussion. Those are the experiences that religion — with our without God — uniquely offers, and by removing ourselves from participation, by allowing the Big Daddy God to block access, we secular Jews may be spiritually and philosophically diminished.

Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents and the author of Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist.