The Hartman family in Israel is a fascinating entity. First there was Rabbi David Hartman who was Open Orthodox way before Rabbi Avi Weiss ever coined the term. Despite professing fealty to Orthodox Judaism, which is presumably synonymous with Torah observance, he advanced many ideas that, like the later ones of the YCT gang, were non-Orthodox while pretending that he wasn't actually crossing any lines. At one point he ran a rabbinical school open to all, including women who were Reform converts. He may have advertised himself as Orthodox but no one actually Orthodox actually considered him to be.
On the other side of the coin, however, there is his massive record of kindness and humanitarianism to be reckoned with. How many stories of his decency are out there for the telling? How can one ignore that?
It is with that legacy in mind that his son, Donniel, also professing to be an Orthodox rabbi like the YCT folks do, has put out a new book that has raised ire in Orthodox circles. In Putting God Second Hartman seems to argue that doing just that is what's needed to save Orthodoxy from itself and make it a relevant force in the world today. As he notes, our obsession with God is harming our performance as decent human beings. Modern religion almost seems to force the choice on us: be a God-fearing person or be a good one. Faced with that dichotomy, Hartman chooses the latter.
And you know, I'm not sure if he's wrong.
In the article, for example, he waxes about making Israel a more Jewish state not in legal values but in ethical ones. This is an amazing concept. Imagine an Israel where Shabbos is not an official day of rest and where politicians keep their promises, the police and army have no corruption in their ranks and tzedakah and chesed are national values uniting all citizens. Imagine a Western Wall plaza with mixed groups praying together instead of angry mobs of men throwing dirty diapers and chairs while screaming obscenities at their ideological opponents. In short, imagine a state where the first priority of each citizen was the well-being of his fellow citizens, not pushing people out of line in order to beat the rush for the most mehudar esrog.
There is also a precedent in Jewish lore for Hartman's position. Chazal tell us that derech eretz preceded Torah by thousands of generations. Perhaps that's because while Torah is relatively laid out in terms of obligations, derech eretz is far more nebulous and complex in its implementation. There's a tractate on property laws in the Talmud, none on treating one's fellow decently. No book could have enough pages.
The words of the Navi, noting that given a choice between a quarrelsome but God-aware society and one in which idols are worshipped but people get along with one another, the Creator prefers the latter. What did the Talmud say was the reason Achav haMelech always won his wars again?
That's what makes Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein's pompous criticism of Hartman's book so grating. While he reminds us that God must be the centre of our lives he too easily dismisses Hartman's position on religious ethics as the base for behaviour. He brings a list of failed attempts as a weak proof that there's no point to an ethics-centred religion. He misuses the verse "I have put God before me always" to make his point. However, he correctly notes that the main problem with Hartman's idea is that his derech eretz is informed not by the Torah but by secular liberal values. But the core idea gets thrown out with the ill-founded corollaries.
What both men get wrong is that they accept the dichotomy - either fear of God or human decency. Hartman is comfortable with an abandonment of halacha in the name of decency. Adlerstein's definition of decency is almost strictly God-based. What neither seem to intuit is that the dichotomy is forced.
It is easy to see, from looking around, that God-based Judaism is having its problems. There is a scandal right now across the Jewish blogosphere involving a prolific maggid shiur with a website containing a revolutionary new way of learning Talmud and 1000's of his lectures on-line. The scandal is in his abusive relationships with young women under his tutelage over the years. How is such a thing possible? No one is questioning that the man is a talmid chacham. In all his learning, how is it that he could lapse so egregiously in ethical behaviour?
A while back I published an acclaimed series entitled "Ritual Uber Alles". In that series of posts I detailed various scandals du jour and how their occurrence carried a single theme: they were carried out by men intoxicated with bein adam l'Makom while totally in disregard of bein adam l'Chaveiro.
Accepting the dichotomy, Hartman makes what I think is the logical choice. Would one rather live among decent, honest people or amongst duplicitous thieving halachic Jews? An honest reading of the sources would suggest God Himself would rather that we live in peace and quiet even if it meant we weren't constantly thinking of Him.
The real answer lies in a synthesis of the two positions and challenges us to maintain a delicate balance. "I have put God before me always" should inform our interactions with Him and our fellow man but putting God before us means using the common sense He did gift us with. One limitation with bringing God into inter-personal relationships is that it sometimes makes us see the other person as an object with utility in our mitzvah observance. For example, I'm not visiting you in hospital because you're sick and lonely and it's the decent thing to do because God said so. I'm visiting you because I want to score the mitzvah point! This is a failure of the concept, simply moving Ritual Uber Alles into a new area.
Instead we must remember that we are capable of ethical behaviour within the bounds of halacha. We can set limits without being abusive of those. We can be godly through following God's examples. We can, as Hartman wants, create a decent and ethical society without, as Adlerstein insists, setting halacha as a secondary priority to secular values.