In the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King

Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from being with Hashem, our G-d …. And it will be that when he hears the words of this imprecation, he will bless himself in his heart, saying, “Peace will be with me, though I walk as my heart sees fit.”… Hashem will not be willing to forgive him.  (Deut. 29:17-19)

Not long ago I went to lunch with a well-known non-Orthodox, north side- Chicago rabbi. While I very much like him as a person, I often disagree with his political views and take issue with his penchant for expressing them from his pulpit.  And so a while back, I wrote a commentary criticizing a number of statements he had made.  Noticeably refusing to talk to me for a while, he finally told me how upset he was, and asked me to meet him for lunch.

During our conversation, he asked in a most sincere tone, “Why do you always have to embarrass people publicly?” An honest question, it deserved an honest answer:  “What good would it do to embarrass people privately?” I have always based any criticism of a person on his or her own words and I’ve never been called out for inaccuracy.  If the person was embarrassed, it was as a result of his own words.  I explained that if he didn’t want to be criticized about his philosophy, then perhaps he should be more careful about what he says.

“As a senior rabbi,” I continued, “you can say things to low-information Jews who often will take your statements at face value because of your standing.  But I’m sure you remember the Torah’s prohibition against putting a stumbling block in front of the blind.  That is what you did, and that is what I objected to.”  He leaned back to digest my words, and thankfully the food arrived.  He ended our lunch with a request that if I take exception to something he says or writes, I should call him and we could talk about it before I write about it. I, in turn, suggested that if he wanted to publicly express his political positions, perhaps he should allow for other opinions – sorta like Hillel and Shammai.

But “fair and balanced” can be uncomfortable for those wading in the shallow end of the think tank. Such was the situation when Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the liberal Hartman Institute in Jerusalem came to Chicago to tout his new book, Putting God Second – a strange premise coming from a self-described Modern Orthodox rabbi. The sheer chutzpah of the title is enough to classify it as secular humanism, but I attended his presentation out of curiosity, wondering if he was just being provocative. Sadly, he was serious. Thankfully, rather than spend about thirty dollars on the book, I found a used copy online for five dollars – a deal. The book is small in size, apropos of the small thoughts inside. I’ve been going to Hartman Institute for about five years, believing that you learn from people you agree with, but you can also learn from those you don’t agree with, which is why I follow Hartman’s blog on The Times of Israel.

In September 2014, Hartman wrote an opinion piece titled, “To Be a Peaceaholic:  A New Year’s Resolution,” in which he admits to an obsession: “I am a peaceaholic. There has never been a peace initiative that I haven’t endorsed … When peace is not part of our political discourse … I experience a profound sense of withdrawal.” His words reminded me of something Martin Buber wrote to Mahatma Gandhi in 1939:  “Peace is the aim of all the world and justice is the way to attain it.” When you admit to having an addictive personality with “an obsessive need for something,” other obsessions can easily sneak into a person’s personality—and unabashedly putting G-d second and man first in our Jewish theological dialogue may be indicative of an underlying obsession with “political correctness” as well as a dysfunctional relationship with G-d altogether. The “obsession” theme of his book is the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the notion being that the subjective morality of man takes precedence over the morality instructed by G-d in the Torah. Also problematic is his premise that religion is often the cause of conflict, while some Torah commandments impinge on the dignity of man. So the declaration our people made 3,300 years ago at Sinai, Na’aseh V’nishma, “We will do and we will hear,” no longer holds the primacy it once had, replaced by man and his moral subjectivity of the moment.

Hartman asks, “Is my primary loyalty to G-d or to human dignity?” (p. 50).  “G-d’s closeness to prior generations stemmed from their willingness to sacrifice the dignity of others on the altar of the sanctification of G-d’s name.  They lived by the creed that if a conflict arises between G-d’s honor and any human value, the former takes precedence.”  (p. 52)   Diagnosing the obeying of G-d’s commandments as “G-d Intoxication,” Hartman’s fourth chapter recommends “Immunizing Against G-d Manipulation.”  (p. 89)  Not really radical if you’re a Reconstructionist. Commandments as manipulation?

Yet, since Hartman “religiously” quotes the Talmud and various rabbis and commentators, his quarrel  often seems to be less with G-d and Torah and more with the interpreters and commentators. That aside, his premise is that moral relativism (aka political correctness), as determined by man, should be the societal norm and it is man that must serve as arbiter in order to relieve the cognitive dissonance of G-d Intoxication. – Erase from your memory that you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might… “This is scary!” quipped the person sitting next to me.

Hartman’s philosophy replaces the golden calf with man, and Hillel’s “golden rule” becomes the abridged version of Judaism.  Which man, he doesn’t say.  A world where anything goes!  I’ve always been a fan of Shammai, believing our Torah’s literacy should be taken seriously.  In Hillel we have a cropped, Cliffs Notes version of Judaism which shares a certain commonality with Christianity based on a pathology of looking for a “quickie.”  Doesn’t our unique historic experience of revelation at Sinai – our receiving of Torah as G-d’s eternal gift to us, as he declared us His treasured people – deserve better?

There is a story often told by Rabbi Noah Weinberg z”l of Aish HaTorah:

Many years ago, as a 15-year-old yeshiva boy sits in an Israeli hospital waiting room while his mother is having an operation, he recites Tehillim (Psalms) as a source of merit for his mother and to give calm to his own worried soul. In walks an old kibbutznik (a member of pioneering, largely anti-religious collectives) wearing his kova tembel (kibbutz hat), work shorts and sandals. The kibbutznik walks straight to the yeshiva boy and asks accusingly, “What are you doing?” The yeshiva boy is shocked and scared, and answers, “I am saying Tehillim – my mother is having an operation.” The kibbutznik berates the boy, “Tehillim?  Is that why we fought for this country? So that a young fellow like you could continue these medieval practices? You need to get rid of your superstitions!  Live in the real world. Take that book and throw it out the window!”

The boy is stunned.  Finally, he asks, “What are you doing here?”  The kibbutznik replies, “I’ve come to take home the body of my son. The doctors are operating, but they have no hope.  He’s going to die!”  The boy is incredulous.  “Are you crazy?  Take this Tehillim!  Pray!”  And the kibbutznik responds, “Keep that superstitious book away from me!” An hour later, the doctor comes out of the operating room and says to the kibbutznik, “The operation was a success.  Your son will live!”  What does the old kibbutznik do?  He stands up, reaches his hands toward heaven and cries out, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad !                                  

 What possibly possessed the kibbutznik to cry out the proclamation of the Jewish people’s belief in G-d from the time of our patriarchs?  We know the answer – “ma’aminim, b’nei ma’aminim” – believers, the children of believers. You can take the Jew out of the Torah … but you can’t take the belief in G-d out of the Jew!

While the discussion of Hartman’s book was one topic of the Shabbaton, I found a second topic much more relevant:  the evolving separation between Israeli Jewry and American non-Orthodox Jewry. Hartman disagreed with  Elliot Abrams’ and Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ opinion that the reason North American Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel lies “not in the political makeup and policies of the current Israeli government,” but in contemporary American Jewish life being “less religious, less observant, less knowledgeable, less committed, and more intermarried.  Consequently, if anything is to be ‘blamed’ for the increasing estrangement, it is not what Israel is doing or not doing, but rather the fundamental deterioration in American Jewish identity.”  Hartman noted that “their analysis leaves both of them profoundly pessimistic.” (“The ‘Israel Problem,’ ” The Times of Israel, 04/14/16). Truth can be painful.

While sitting at a program at a north side Conservative synagogue, I made the same point.  One of the people at my table, a Harvard Law graduate, took offense, demanding to know if I was calling him “ignorant on Israel.”  Not knowing his background on current events in Israel, I asked, “Why don’t you tell me your thoughts on what’s going on between Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Liberman and how it affects the current makeup of the Knesset?” Mr. Harvard Law was silent, seemingly overwhelmed by the question.  Following up, I asked when the last time he went to Israel was.  His answer – that it was 10 or 12 years ago – compelled me to put an end to the nonsense. I spoke slowly so he might understand:  “So what gives you the right to have an opinion on the ‘peace process’ and whether Israel should give up land, in a two-state paradigm, to a bunch of terrorist thugs creating a welfare state that America would have to fund with your tax dollars?  Why should Israel take your opinion seriously when you don’t know anything about the situation?”  Mr. Harvard Law turned away without responding.  In fact, he didn’t say anything else until we were walking out, when he quietly murmured, “You’re right.” His honesty was impressive.

Hartman’s article continues, “The Israel I love is the place where Jewish values meet the pavement.”  The question is:  Whose Jewish values?  His value – that puts G-d second?  And to confuse the issue, he explains that “Israel is not a museum honoring our commitment to utopian principles but rather a living reality struggling to…stand for our values in the midst of danger.  To compromise in an unredeemed world without losing our core mission ‘to walk in the way of the L-rd by doing what is just and right.’ (Genesis 18)”  Doing what is “just and right” according to G-d’s Torah sounds like putting G-d first!  Which is it?    G-d chose a people who for the most part have stuck with the program, for better or worse, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health – beneficiaries of miracles the likes of which no other people on the planet have experienced.  And don’t listen to the nonsense fed to the blind and the ignorant by the non-Orthodox rabbis and the Israel bashers.  Let’s step back and face what is really “just and right” – that Israel, with all its craziness, is the envy of the entire world, including the folks at Apple, who are still trying to figure out how an Israeli company cracked a terrorist’s iPhone after the American FBI tried for over six months.  Does Israel have issues?  With over 6.5 million Jews, how could it not?  But Israel is not the problem—Israel is the solution.  Reflecting on the first words to our first patriarch, “Get thee from thy father’s house,” how popular do you think Abraham was back then in Ur?  You heard a voice??  You’re going where??  He probably had them rolling in the aisles – but he believed.  Look what he started 4,000 years ago, and he did it by putting G-d first.  The perversity of putting G-d second had me smiling.  May Donniel continue to “experience a profound sense of withdrawal” in his years to come.