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Putting God Second, Putting You First

By Rabbi Andrew Straus~ Yom Kippur Sermon 2016 / 5777
If religion is so great, why does it so often fail to do its job of forming good people? Look at some of the people who claim to be religious. Throughout the world, people are killing in the name of God. People are raping in the name of God. People are blowing up other people’s homes, shops and cars in the name of God. People are hating in the name of God. People are discriminating in the name of God.
Well, I have a suggestion. If we are going to save religion, then it is time that we put God second. Yes, you heard me right, your Rabbi, your spiritual leader, just said that if we are going to redeem religion, then it is time for us to put God second. Now second isn’t bad - it’s not 10th or 22nd. Second is a very honorable place. God agrees that God should be second, and has taught us just that.
Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t believe in God, nor am I suggesting that a belief in God is not essential for a spiritual life. Nor am I in way in any way suggesting that religion or religious ritual is bad. I believe that religion can be a force for good in our society and in the world. I believe in God, and know that my belief in God has led me to be a better person and strive to act in God-like ways. All I am suggesting is that if we want to save religion from itself, then we need to put God second. We need to pay attention to life, morality and ethics.
The story is told of the Hassidic Rebbe who was walking through the village one day. He heard a baby crying and followed the sound into the home of one of his students, where he saw his student enraptured in prayer while his baby daughter was crying. The Rebbe, lovingly picked up the baby and comforted it. When the student finished his prayers he turned and suddenly saw the Rebbe, “Rebbe, what are you doing here?” he exclaimed. “I was walking in the street when I heard a cry – so I followed it and found her alone.” Embarrassed the student said, “Rebbe, I was so engrossed in my prayers, I did not hear her.” “My dear student,” the Rebbe replied, “If praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer.”
Rabbi Donniel Hartman is a modern Orthodox Rabbi who lives in Jerusalem and is the Director of the Hartman Institute where I and many of my colleagues have studied. In his brilliant new book, Putting God Second, Rabbi Hartman has written: “Religion’s 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, Hartman writes, that a life of faith, while obligating moral sensitivity, also very often activates a critical flaw that supports and encourages immoral impulses. ” At times, it seems, the most religious people become morally blind.
We can all think of numerous instances of moral blindness. Just to mention a few – the religiously motivated suicide bomber, the religious motivated abortion clinic bomber, the religiously motivated radical Islamic terrorist, Boko Haram, the awful tactics of ISIS… But these are just the most obscene. How about the religious motivated hatred of the LGBTQ community, or the religious person who firebombs a Palestinian home. Or think of the family tensions caused by religion – a parent who stops talking to a child over a marriage, or Balei Teshuva, newly orthodox children who won’t eat in their parents’ home. Yes, sadly religious moral blindness comes from all religious communities.
How is it possible for a person who is religious to be morally blind? As Hartman argues, it is because they are “God intoxicated,” which is a dangerous condition.
As Rabbi Hartman sees it, too many people are so enraptured by God’s presence that they forget everything else — including other people and the ethical demands of religious life. For them, “the awareness of living in the presence of the one transcendent God demands an all-consuming attention that can exhaust one’s ability to see the needs of other human beings. The more he or she focuses on God, the less room he or she has to be aware of the human condition and the suffering of other people. Consequently, moral sensibilities become diminished. One who is “God intoxicated” puts their complete devotion to God and God’s commands, before every other competing consideration.”
Even in the Torah we see some of our greatest heroes affected by this disease. In the Akedah, our Torah reading last week, Abraham is so “drunk” on God that Abraham, Hartman argues, is willing to sacrifice, to kill his son, his only son, the one whom he loves, in the name of God. At that moment it is as if Abraham can see nothing else, his whole vision is filled with God. He loses his connection to humanity, and no longer acts in a rational, thoughtful, humane manner. God intoxication has blinded him to his own son. According to this reading of the text, (and certainly it is not the only reading of the text) Abraham failed the test. And notice after the binding of Isaac, God never speaks to Abraham again.
Abraham is also one of the best teachers of putting God second.
You know this story too. It is found in the Torah just 4 chapters earlier, in Genesis 18. When God threatens to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues and demands that God, the Judge of all the earth act justly and righteously. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous people within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it? Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And then God said, “If I find fifty righteous in the Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” As you know, Abraham continues to argue with God until God agrees that if there are only 10 righteous people in the those great cities, then God will spare them. Abraham had no need to stand up, these were not his people. And even more so, if God wants to execute justice against Sodom and Gomorrah, who is Abraham to argue? Abraham is a man of faith, a religious person who knew that at its core Judaism is a system that commands ethics, morality and justice in our world. This is the Abraham that I am proud of, the Abraham who inspires me, the Abraham who puts God second and puts morality and humanity first -- which is exactly what God wants us to.
Just ask Hillel. A non-Jew comes to ask Hillel to convert him, to teach him all of Judaism while he stands on one foot. Other great Rabbis of his day rejected the man. But Hillel accepted the challenge. He told the man to stand up on one foot and Hillel said to him “What is hateful to yourself do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” Notice what Hillel said. Judaism’s essential core teaching is all about ethics and how we treat our fellow human beings. Notice what he left out. Hillel’s essential teaching of Judaism does not mention God, theology or belief. Devotion to God can never override our commitment to our fellow human beings. Judaism is ultimately a religion of deed, not creed. Judaism cares much more about what you do than what you claim to believe.
Perhaps today’s Haftarah says it best. I love that the rabbis chose this reading for today. We might expect a prophetic reading that stresses the importance of Teshuva or of worshipping God. But instead we get a stunning condemnation by Isaiah of ritual done without meaning:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loosen the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
I cannot think of a more powerful statement. On this the holiest of days, Isaiah is questioning the very meaning and purpose of religious ritual. He is reminding us the ritual is meant to lead to action.
So, I am sure that many of you are thinking, “Rabbi, if what you say is true, why believe in God at all, why come to synagogue? You just told me that being a good person is what it is all about.” Not so quick!
As Rabbi Donniel Hartman writes “When religion is doing its job it serves as a moral mentor reminding and cajoling us and yes even at times threatening us to check our self-interest and become the people we are meant to be, people who cannot remain indifferent and people who define their religious identities as agents of moral good.” “Its function is to remind us what we already know- but often forget. Its function is to help us overcome not a lack of knowledge but rather a weakness of character.”
Ritual is not an end in and of itself. Prayer reminds us of how we are to act. Prayer and ritual help us review and affirm our highest ideals and dreams. When we pray the ma’ariv aravim we are reminded of our awe and appreciation of the wonder of nature and how it is our responsibility and obligation as a Jew to care for and protect nature. When we pray the mi chamocah, we are reminded of our responsibility and obligation to work for those who are still oppressed and enslaved. When we pray the gevurot, we are reminded that just as God is a hero, we too can act in heroic God-like ways. Prayer reminds us of our values and ideals which, in the day to day grind, we can easily forget.
But if I am putting God second, do I need God at all to be a good Jew? Now this is really three questions:
1. to be a Jew do you need to believe in God?
2. To be a good person do you need to be Jewish?
3. To be a good Jew do you need to believe in God?
And now I will add one extra question: to be a great Jew do you need to believe in God?
Now here comes the shock: to be a Jew you do not have to believe in God. Judaism started with Genesis Judaism which is all about “ethnic identity”. Genesis Judaism, the Judaism of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and his children are all about the family and the tribe. “You are a Jew because you are part of this family.” You know the classic definition of a Jew: “a Jew is one born to a Jewish mother”, which the Reform movement over 35 years ago amended to say a “Jew is one born to a Jewish parent or one who chooses to convert to Judaism.” And let’s be honest, we all know of many Jews who claim that they do not believe in God, but yet still celebrate Passover and Hanukah and support Israel, and if asked are proud to be a Jew. Genesis Judaism teaches us we don’t need to believe or do anything and we will still be Jewish. At least on one level, Judaism is ethnic or tribal – but purly ethnic Judasim- Judaism based on ethnicity without action, values, and meaning is a short-lived Judaism – with the power to last for one or maybe two generations at best.
Do we have to believe in God to be good? Certainly not. Just open up the newspaper and you will read about how many god fearing believing people are doing awful things and you will also read stories of people of no faith who are doing amazingly good things. Doing good things is by no means dependent on faith. We can all think of good people who have never walked into a church, synagogue or mosque.
So to be a good Jew do I need to believe in God? This certainly seems to be the claim of the Ten Commandments: the first three or four (depending on how you count Shabbat) are all about faith in God, while the second five are about moral responsibilities. And certainly there is much in Jewish tradition that says that a good Jew acts in God-like ways and that a good Jew prays on a regular basis; a good Jew is in relationship with God and proudly declares Shema Yisrael twice a day.
But remember Hillel and the essence of Torah? What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor… So once again, the answer is no, Judaism is a religion of deed not creed.
But to be a great Jew, Hartman teaches, one does need to believe or at least participate with an open mind. And let us be clear there are many Jewish understanding of God. Faith is about our aspirations, our dreams, and our hopes. Faith is about pushing ourselves beyond mediocrity. Religion and faith move us from mediocrity to good, from good to great. Faith in God helps us realize that we are all connected, that we are all created in God’s image that above all of us is God. Faith in God moves us from my narrow self-interest to doing for others. God helps us know that in spite of the chaos, there is order and meaning in our world.
Belief in God reminds us that “Kiddoshim tihiyu, you shall be holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” This ideal of being in God’s image, of striving to be God-like is more than just clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. It is about my moral and spiritual being. Striving for holiness requires a constant striving, a perpetual spiritual and ethical journey to be more. My relationship with God reminds me that it is not for me to complete the task, but neither am I free to desist from it. Holiness is not a state of being but a goal.
Therefore, let us all put God second; let us always remember that God does not want us to be God intoxicated, but to live moral, ethical lives. God wants us to walk in God-like ways, clothing the naked, freeing the captive, and not doing to others what is hateful to ourselves. That we are created in God’s image is not merely a value statement; it is also a charge to engage in tikkun olam, to live purposeful lives. And God wants us to pray, so that we can overcome not a lack of knowledge but rather a weakness of character.” A belief in God gives us the strength to build a life of meaning in the midst of the valley of death; God inspires us to embark on an unending journey of spiritual and moral improvement. A life with God can make the limited time that we are given here on earth more… more meaningful, more powerful and more awesome. Without God, we can be good. But with God we can make religion great again. So when we put God second, we are ultimately putting God first.
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