Donniel Hartman: Judaism Unbound Episode 135 - Putting God Second


Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute[1] joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about religion's "auto-immune disease," the concept of "God-intoxication," and other key ideas from his book Putting God Second. [2]

 Image Credit: Jewish Broadcasting Service

Image Credit: Jewish Broadcasting Service

(0:01 - 14:46): To begin the episode, Hartman lays out his framing question: rather than asking what (or who) God is, he asks "What does God do to a religious person who says 'I believe?'" He argues that, in many cases, God-belief can be analogous to an "auto-immune disease," causing people to disregard their fellow human beings, in favor of the divine. He then contrasts on the one hand, those who see God as provoking entirely negative actions by individuals and groups (such as the New Atheists), and those who understand God as only a positive force in the world. He claims that those in this latter category suffer from "God-intoxication." Hartman explores how an auto-immune disease that he himself had affected the lens through which he sees God and religion.

(14:47 - 33:16): Hartman provides three key examples of God-intoxication from the Jewish textual tradition -- Abraham and his binding of Isaac, [3] Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his cave, [4] and the death of Rabbi Akiva. [5] He questions the widespread idea that human history consistently marches forward, arguing that in many eras humanity has regressed. He then explains why he chose the title "Putting God Second" for his book, distinguishing it from the idea of "putting God first," but also from the conception of "putting God 130th." Hartman also explores his own personal theology, asserting that for him there really is a God who created the universe and cares about human beings.

(33:17 - 47:12): Responding to Lex's proposal that Judaism is, today, better described as "ambitheistic" (ambiguous/ambivalent about God-belief" than as monotheistic, Hartman considers the questions of whether and how one who does not believe in God could still be a "good Jew." Shifting gears, he then outlines his framework of "Genesis Jews" and "Exodus Jews." [6] Relatedly, he argues that we could learn a great deal from the Bible's 12 tribes, which simultaneously allowed for a sense of unity (among all the Israelites) and diversity (due to the distinctions between tribes). To close the episode, Hartman calls on all of us to avoid wallowing in our failures, but instead to ask "Who should I be?" [7]

[1] Read Donniel Hartman's bio by clicking here. Learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute by visiting Hartman.org.il.

[2] Click here to purchase Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself.

[3] Hear Dan and Lex's takes on the binding of Isaac by listening to Bonus Episode: Rosh Hashanah Unbound - Day 2 Torah Reading.

[4] Explore the story of Shimon Bar Yochai and the cave in-depth, with the full text of the story and questions for discussion, by clicking here.

[5] For the Talmudic story of Rabbi Akiva's death, and his excitement to be able to sacrifice his life for God, click here.

[6] Explore the idea of Genesis and Exodus Jews further by listening to Episode 41: History and Memory - Yehuda Kurtzer (Kurtzer is the President of the North American branch of the Shalom Hartman Institute).