‘Pious Irreverence’

‘Pious Irreverence’

They dared challenge God

Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.

Professor Dov Weiss adds new context to the voices of ancient rabbis.
Professor Dov Weiss adds new context to the voices of ancient rabbis.

What might it mean to file a grievance against God?

For the ancient rabbis who lived through the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent persecution at the hands of foreign oppressors, this question became the basis of a uniquely Jewish theology of confronting the Divine over the incomprehensible injustices they experienced in their world.

Professor Dov Weiss’ “Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism” traces this development from its talmudic beginnings into medieval times, focusing on a particular midrashic collection, Tanhuma-Yelammedu, that until recently has received little academic attention.

Weiss demonstrates how these rabbis, perhaps aware of how radical their ideas were, composed midrashic interpretations that placed their arguments into the mouths of Biblical heroes instead of just saying them directly. Audaciously, the rabbis sometimes put responses into the mouth of God. Sometimes, and even more audaciously, the rabbis imagine God conceding the argument by admitting mistakes. In other words, instead of fleshing out their theology and theodicy in abstract, philosophical terms, the rabbis continued the biblical tradition of interacting with God as a character in an ever-developing narrative.

At the same time, though, Weiss tracks an opposing tradition that insisted, in correspondingly ever-harsher tones, that it is heresy to deny that God’s outcomes reflect infallible supreme justice. The most influential proponent of this position was the famous Rabbi Akiva, who was executed by the Romans in 135 CE and whose last words were a declaration of faith. The midrashic and liturgical accounts of his martyrdom, including one that remains an emotional highlight of the Yom Kippur service, emphasize the obligation to accept God’s verdicts as just, no matter the circumstances.

Weiss does not address the politics of these schools directly, but it is worth noting that the more infallible God is, the more that God tends to uphold the status quo. For example, one rabbinic tradition describes Moses challenging God for allowing Rabbi Akiva’s gruesome death — and, more broadly, the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt — to which God unsatisfyingly responds, “So has it been decreed before Me.” Other traditions ascribe particular sins to Rabbi Akiva or his followers, though it is hard to imagine they were, on balance, worse than the Hadrianic persecutions that prompted the Bar Kokhba revolt in the first place. In either case, God essentially is on the side of the Romans, and against the Judean rebels.

In contrast, a tradition within which the rabbis challenge God also is a tradition that refuses to accept the status quo. This school of thought does not seek to understand why the world is as it is, but spends more of its efforts demanding that it be something better.

A2-L-pious-irreverenceAs the rabbinic tradition developed into the Middle Ages, the notion of God making a mistake would have been just as nonsensical as God creating an unliftable rock. Many medieval rabbis were students of neoclassical philosophy who developed the conception of the perfect, immutable, and generally indescribable God with which we are more familiar. That God, by definition, cannot have a change of mind, nor can that God possibly make a mistake.

Those who take this approach generally do not take narrative descriptions of God at face value, understanding them instead as metaphors or allegories for abstract philosophic concepts. Most of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, for example, is the decoding of scriptural and rabbinic narratives into the philosophical language he was more comfortable with.

This approach, essentially an attempt to understand God in the context of objective reality, is severely limited. As Yoram Hazony wrote in 2012, “Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God’s supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it’s reasonably clear that this can’t be done. In fact, part of the reason God-bashers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are so influential… is their insistence that the doctrine of God’s perfections makes no sense, and that the idealized ‘being’ it tells us about doesn’t resemble the biblical God at all.”

Weiss, though, does take these biblical and rabbinic texts at face value. It turns out, then, that when they used God-language the rabbis really were trying to describe how the world felt to them. A narrative God, as opposed to a philosophic God, was their way to create a framework for living life. In the words of Donald Harmarn Akenson as cited by Hazony, the biblical God was, for the Israelites, an “embodiment of what is, of reality.” Weiss tells us that the rabbis took a similar approach. Their God was how they focused prayers, gave thanks, expressed wonder, articulated hopes — and mourned and voiced grievances.

To many contemporary minds, this may be inconceivable because it implies that an entire school of classical rabbis did not necessarily “believe” in God in the sense of a distinct Being (or non-Being) with definable attributes and ascribable actions. Instead, it sounds very much like J. R. Tolkien’s insightful description of his fantasies as “True Myth,” explaining that something could still be true, even if it never actually happened. The rabbis’ narrative God was true because it reflected their reality, battles and all.

In addition, specifically by being fallible, a narrative God also was uniquely empowering. By calling God to account, the rabbis also were challenging themselves to develop the sharply honed moral sense that allowed them to issue those challenges in the first place. If the rabbis could tell God that the world contains injustice, it was because they had developed an idealistic vision of how the world should be. Finally, if God is fallible, then the rabbis could not count on God to repair the injustices they noticed; they would have to build idealistic, values-based communities to do the work themselves.

Weiss describes the dynamic between man and the rabbinic narrative God as analogous to partners in a long-term relationship, bound together, despite the occasional missteps and injuries, by love, accountability, and mutual growth. Another term for it, one that arises directly from scripture itself and is used by contemporaries including Rabbis David Hartman and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, is “covenant.”

A well-developed protest theology, Weiss notes, is unique to the Jewish tradition. Christianity and Islam, each enjoying long periods of success and hegemony, did not really need one. Faith in God worked well enough for them that there really was nothing to protest. In contrast, the overarching Jewish experiences of suffering, persecution, and exile provided plenty of questions for believers, and many turned them heavenward.

Finally, Weiss’ analysis has contemporary relevance in the wake of a bitter American presidential campaign, which often was cast in explicitly religious terms. The evangelical community, led by preachers like Franklin Graham and politicians like Mike Pence, who speak confidently about what God wants and does not want for America, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. In contrast, when Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine spoke of their faith, which both did often, it was more in terms of being called to a life of responsibility, service, and good works. If Graham and Pence emphasized submission to God and a restoration of sepia-toned glories, Clinton and Kaine emphasized covenant with God and the possibility of forward progress.

As sociologists and political scientists debate the rise of a new American “Christian Left” that, along with a still-liberal Jewish community, is trying to find its footing in a new political reality, Weiss demonstrates how the rabbinic tradition offers the language not only to make progressive demands of policymakers, but to make moral demands of the cosmos as well. After all, demanding justice from a fallible God is accepting both the brokenness of the world and the responsibility to making it better. That is a theology of protest tailor-made for those taking to the streets in the Trump era.

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