God is ALWAYS First! (A Response to Rabbi Hartman)

In an interview with the Times of Israel, Rabbi Donniel Hartman claims (based on his new book) that to save religion from itself, one must place God SECOND and live an ethical life first. Some have called it heresy. Some have called it a non-Orthodox approach to Judaism.

I call it just plain WRONG. While Rabbi Hartman may have a lot going for him in the Hartman Institute, this approach is not one of those things.
If we begin with one statement he makes, we can see fairly quickly, the fallacy of his thesis. He states in his interview:

In Isaiah, God turns to the Jewish people and pleads with them to stop coming to the Temple on every holiday and new moon with their sacrifices. God says: “Who asked this of you?” But the truth is that God, it was You! Haven’t You read the book of Leviticus? Half of the 613 commandments in the Torah pertained to Temple worship? Half of them!

He uses this argument (among others) to say that even God Himself isn’t interested in our worship of Him. However, if we put it into context of the Book of Yeshayahu, it changes the entire meaning of the Pasuk that he is quoting.

At the beginning of the Book, Yeshayahu is castigating the Jewish people for having cast off proper service of God. He adds that in spite of not being “good people” they continue to come to the Temple and offer sacrifices. To this the prophet (in the name of God) says in a rhetorical way: WHAT DO I NEED ALL YOUR SACRIFICES FOR? Who asked you for them? The meaning is that how dare you bring sacrifices to God and yet lead an immoral life; a life that goes against the wishes and desires of God.

If the ideal would be to be a good person and live an ethical life, then we would not “need” the 613 Mitzvot from God. We would be able to be told a single statement that we are to live an ethical life and that would be sufficient. Yet, to lead an ethical life and leave God to Number Two runs counter to our mission here on this Earth.

God put us here on Earth to be His servants; to live life according to the Torah; to weave into the fabric of our lives our complete subservience to HIS will. Yes, of course, we must lead ethical lives and must be good people! But that is a SUB-SET of the entire worship of God and the service of God. They are indeed inseparable, as we see at the beginning of Sefer Yeshayahu. However, once you move God to the backseat and make Him SECOND, you have dismissed your mission on Earth.

Listen to the word of God as found in Devarim 10:12
וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ וְלַעֲבֹד אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.

(“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”)

What is יראת השם (“fear of Hashem/God”)? It has the meaning of “fear” in that we fear Him as our King. It has the meaning of “awareness” in that we have a constant awareness of God in our lives through His Mitzvot. It also has the meaning of “seeing God,” in that we see Him in every aspect of our lives and the lives of others.

How in the world is that God asking us to place Him SECOND? Rabbi Hartman: I suggest that you have a sit-down with yourself and re-think your position.

God was, is and always will be FIRST and the TOP priority in life!


About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.