BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A special relationship with what?

This was a book I got via the's “Early Reviewer” program … which is almost always a bit of a “pig in a poke” situation in that one puts in requests for books based on a paragraph or so of copy from the publisher, and pretty much have to go with “sounds good” or not. Frankly, I had anticipated a more “general” or “global” look at the subject. However, Rabbi Donniel Hartman's Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself stays fairly tightly bound to a Jewish context, making it far more parochial than I expected (and/or hoped). Once again, I suspect that what “faked me out” was a subtitle foisted on the book by the marketing department, a complaint that regular readers of this space are all too familiar with my airing when the book I wanted to read was what the subtitle promised.

This starts out well enough, early in the introduction (“Religion's Autoimmune Disease”, which takes up 10% of the pagecount) Hartman namechecks (if in a context of arguments that are unlikely “to move the person of faith”) Dawkins' The God Delusion and Hitchens' God Is Not Great (which also appear as 2 of the 16 listed reference works he cites), and comes up with some pretty solid salvos at religion, such as:
… As these religions entered the world stage, alongside their charge to love God and love humanity, they began to wage war with those who preceded or followed them. Wherever monotheism developed, it was accompanied by the belief that the one God could be truly represented or correctly understood by only one faith community. Love of God, or more accurately being loved by God, was perceived to be a zero-sum game – the more one was loved, the less another could be.
      And so, together with the love of neighbor came the hatred of the other. Together with kindness to those in need came the murder of those who disagreed. Monotheism became a mixed blessing and a double-edged sword.
I have to admit that three of the key concepts that the author posits in the book sort of flew by me … while they're defined in the text, they just didn't have enough connection (to my mind) to really serve as useful models. The first of these is that “autoimmune disease” from the introduction's title. While he specifically addresses this a paragraph or two on (in terms of individual believers), I think the following is better at summing up this idea:
The central argument of this book is that religion's (and religions') spotty moral track record cannot be written off to either a core corruption in human nature or an inherently corrupt scripture. Rather it is my contention that a life of faith, while obligating moral sensitivity, also very often activates a critical flaw that supports and encourages immoral impulses. These impulses, given free rein to flourish under the cloak of religious piety, undermine the ultimate moral agendas of religions and the types of communities and societies they aspire to build.
The other two are “God Intoxication” and “God Manipulation” … which I'll get to in a bit. None of these three coinages of the author particularly grabbed me as solid representations of the related concepts (especially when the book delves deeply into Jewish extra-biblical sources), and suggest that he'd come up with them, thought they'd be popular/useful, and tried to make them fit the details. As is often the case, this may “just be me”, but it's my review, and you're getting my take on things.

Again, I wish they'd have been more upfront about the angle of the book … as this isn't a book about or advocating non-belief (which, obviously, was what I was hoping I was getting into), and it is firmly embedded in the deep and ancient traditions of the Jewish faith. Hartman proposes Judaism as an “ideal patient” to study his posited “autoimmune disease”, and gives his rational for this (which would have been helpful in the promotional material in LTER) here:
… my choice of Judaism as a case study does not stem merely from proficiency therein, nor from my belief that traditions are best critiqued by their insiders. I chose Judaism because as a member of this faith, I have a personal investment in exposing its shortcomings for the sake of attempting to heal them – offering a narrative of what my tradition can and ought to stand for. In truth, I am trying to save my own religion from itself.
Now, as a religion major, I certainly found the journey through the texts here interesting, but, honestly, taking Judaism as the “model patient” for the failings of the major monotheisms (à la this) is sort of like studying the Dalai Lama when what you're really addressing is the sort of Asian head of state like Pol Pot or Hirohito. While the Palestinians may disagree, the Jews are by far the least aggressive of the monotheistic faiths … at least in the post-biblical millennia (there is, of course, a great deal of bloodshed and carnage in the Old Testament, and the author presents a long litany of these at one point – but I'm sparing you the blockquote).

The problem here is that most of the book is dealing with the finer details of Jewish faith/philosophy, with only a general gesture to making the arguments framed in those texts and traditions applicable to the far more prone-to-violence religions. On the positive side, there is a lot of material here that I found fascinating … assorted rules that have long centuries of debate and adjustments, plus tales of some the leading lights of Jewish thought over the ages … and there are some fascinating personal reminiscences from the author's life – including being a religious student in Israel and serving as a tank commander in the IDF. I'd love to spew out a bunch of this stuff here, but it doesn't seem much to the point (given the narrow scope), so I'm going to focus on what got a bookmark while reading this, and trying to covey those key points noted above.

I really had to dig to get even reasonably straight-forward definitions of Hartman's “God Intoxication” and “God Manipulation” … he has chapters in this which give a vague description and then launch into examples from the tradition or his experiences, which is probably why these seem so hazy to me. However, there are two chapters that deal with “theological remedies” for these, and their introductory paragraphs have about as concise looks at these concepts as I was able to find …
God Intoxication, as we have learned, distorts monotheistic religion by defining religious piety exclusively in terms of immersion in God-centered ritual and consciousness. This consuming focus on a God who demands exclusive attention at all times and at all costs extracts a heavy price in the sphere of the ethical. God Intoxication devalues the human enterprise and consequently the significance of human ethical responsibility.
In terms of a “global” focus, this next bit certainly is the theme of way too many headlines these days … if more to-the-point for Christianity and Islam than Judaism:
… a primary cause of the spiritual autoimmune disease that can plague monotheistic religions comes directly from the potential for God and religion to be manipulated in a way that quiets the voices of moral conscience, draping self-interest in a cloak of pious devotion and stripping those defined as “other” of moral status. God Manipulation, the condition that sanctions such self-interest with the stamp of divine and religious approval, has proven a pervasive and perilous symptom of monotheism throughout the history of human social life. To protect humanity from this perversion of God's image, and immunize religion from itself, is an existential need of the utmost urgency.
As noted, there is a goodly amount of text/tradition support for the various aspects of these … but not presented in a way that lends itself to easy extraction here. There is one piece that I do want to pass on, and it's discussed in the delightfully titled chapter “When Scripture Is the Problem”, although more fully detailed in an earlier chapter. This deals with Hillel the Elder (who taught in the first century BCE), who was approached by a person who wished to convert, but only if he can be converted “while standing on one foot” – that is, in a short period of time. Hillel consents and comes up with one of the great phrasings in all of religious history:
      Judaism's hundreds of biblical commandments and thousands of rabbinic interpretations result in a sea of rules and norms in which it is easy for core religious priorities and goals to get lost. From this perspective, the convert's question reflects a legitimate spiritual desire to know the essential principles and values informing and animating the intricate structures of religious life. For without this essence, religion is just that, a set of empty structures devoid of any underlying meaning or truth.
      Hillel's answer, in any event, provides the potential convert, and all subsequent rabbinic tradition, with an encapsulation of Judaism's core values. “What is hateful to you,” Hillel states, “do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary [upon this principle]; go and learn it.”
Needless to say, Hillel's encapsulation is an excellent place to start for finding a religious expression which is not dependent on all the vileness exhibited by religion in general, and the major monotheisms in particular (be that expressed in Christians trying to ban contraceptives or “gay cakes”, or Muslims cutting off heads on video or burning children alive). And, of course, I would have liked to have much more of that “post religion” thinking (heck, like this) than the in-tradition navel-gazing.

To reiterate, I was (among other things) a comparative religion major, so the trek through the philosophical history of Judaism (and if nothing else, this could be seen as an easy introduction to all of that) was no doubt more engaging for me than it would have been for many others (especially if they came to this thinking it was going to be an anti-religion broadside). While being frustrated that Putting God Second wasn't the book I thought it was when putting in the request for an LTER review copy, I found it interesting in its own right. As far recommending it, this is deep into that “your mileage may vary” territory … it certainly would be more useful for “believers” than the agnostic/atheist crowd!

This just came out a few months ago, so should be available generally (if possibly needing to be ordered in by the brick-and-mortar book vendors), and the online big boys presently have it at about a third off of cover price. If questions of religion (and the Jewish tradition in particular) are of interest to you, this will be a nice addition to your library.

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Tags: book review
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