In the Pulitzer prize winning book God: A Biography (1996) by Jack Miles, he presents the different personalities of God depicted in the Bible ranging from the God who walks in the garden to the God who makes promises of universal redemption. Miles’ work went beyond images of God to actually discuss God’s biography, His nature, motivation and changes over time. But what if we carried the discussion further into the Rabbinic period? What would be a biography of God in Midrash?
To answer these questions, we can now turn to the important new book by Dov Weiss, Pious Irreverence Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism (University of Penn Press, 2016). Weiss is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He completed his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School and has rabbinic ordination from RIETS. The book Pious Irreverence is a wonderful addition to works on Rabbinic thought, both thoughtful and well thought through study showing the biography of God in Midrashic literature from the early Midrash of the tannaim to the late midrash of the Tanhuma, from a perfect deity with whom one cannot protest to one who is close to humans, accepts protest from those wronged, and acknowledges mistakes. Throughout the book, Weiss adeptly compares the rabbinic material to the contemporary Christian works. His answers in the interview below are one of the best of anyone I have interviewed in terms of clarity and fullness of answer to the questions.
Weiss’s work focusses on the later Midrashic Tanhuma-Yelamdanu literature, which is found in the various works called Tanhuma and in other works such as Numbers Rabbah, Deuteronomy Rabbah, and Pesikta Rabbati. These works offer a different Rabbinic voice on many issues than that other midrashim.
Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu texts generally commence with a halakhic proem that poses a simple question of Jewish law, often introduced with the phrase “Let our master teach us (רבנו ילמדנו) “(Yelammedenu). These teachings often cite Rabbi Tanhuma, a fourth-century sage, they are also designated as the Tanhuma midrashim.
Contemporary scholarship generally follows the form critical conclusions of Marc Bregman, who argues that the Tanhuma_Yelammedanu literature developed in several developmental strata. (1) An early 5th century Palestine stratum that contains a large amount of Galilean Aramaic as well as Greek and Latin loan words, and is roughly contemporaneous with the Jerusalem Talmud and the classical midrashim such as Leviticus Rabbah and Genesis Rabbah. (2) A 6th-7th century stratum from the end of Byzantine rule in Palestine. Unlike the early stratum, it avoids Galilean Aramaic wherever possible, replacing it with Hebrew. (3) A stratum added after the Islamic conquest, which eliminated much of the Greek and Latin loan words. TY texts of this period consist of the standard edition of Midrash Tanḥuma (probably redacted in Babylonia), and the Buber edition of Midrash Tanḥuma (probably redacted in Europe).
Another repository of these traditions Numbers Rabbah, has been extensively studied by Hananel Mack who dates the work to the early medieval era in Provence contemporaneous with the germination of Kabbalistic Midrash. Tanhuma literature also marks the beginning of the rabbinic “rewritten Bible” genre that finds its apogee in the 8th century Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer. Weiss clearly goes beyond these concerns of form and history in order to carving out a separate space for the unique images and theology of the Tanhuma-Yelammedanu literature.
The early days of this blog circa 2009-2010, when my posts were short 200 words observations of life and liturgy, had many posts on Jewish theology of the era of 600-1000 CE. I did this partially because much of the holiday liturgy, the avodah of Yom Kippur, and the piyyutim of Kallir are part of this era, partially because of the rich alternative theology these texts offer to many current views, and partially because much of this theology is proto-Zohar. If one cannot discuss the strata of the book Tanhuma, then one cannot begin to discuss the formation of the Zohar.
Weiss shows that God in the Tanhuma-Yelammedanu literature becomes humanized and shares a life of Torah with Jews. God even goes into exile with the Jewish people, and needs redemption by Israel and through history. God recognizes that His past act or decision does not comport with the moral ideal and makes a concession of his fault; God is able to concede and thereby acknowledge faults and mistakes. In the book, Weiss astutely connects the ability to argue with God with the Greek philosophic concept of parrhesia, the task to speak out openly and frankly, as presented by Foucault.
As a surprise results, Weiss shows that the early Christian God, despite the Incarnation, is less “human” and more incorporeal and perfect than the humanized rabbinic God who imitates the life of His people.
The humanized Rabbinic God fills multiple roles within society at once. Thus, God is the metaphorical slave owner, king, father, mother, judge, husband, wife, friend, and sibling. Unlike Hellenistic religions that posit a system of “polytheistic anthropomorphism,” where each god assumes a distinct role within society, in Rabbinic thought the various persona of God are all attached to a single God, a “monotheistic anthropomorphism.” Rabbinic texts depict a polymorphous God: for example, appearing to Israel as a “warrior doing battle” at the Red Sea and an “old man full of mercy” at Sinai, this corpus makes these depictions even more human and diverse.
Weiss acknowledges that the original theological problem which bothered him was that of God’s justice and arguing with God in 20th century thought. The theology of arguing with God was widespread in late 20th Century Post-Holocaust Judaism, which often celebrates arguments with God. This contemporary concern led Weiss back to the roots of this concept in Tanhuma. After all his research, in the interview below Weiss distances the Tanhuma from the 20th century version. In the Tanhuma those who argued with God felt close to a humanized God who lives among them and thought the arguments were part of the Biblical tradition, while the 20th versions feel themselves distant from God, and feel that they live in a fractured world alienated from God. Personally, I think that some elements of the 20th century versions have more elements common to the hatred of God, the misotheism of the pagan critics of the Jewish God than a continuity of the Tanhuma.
Weiss’ work is deeply indebted to the rich theology of Michael Fishbane, his doctoral adviser, who moved from his earlier decades of historical studies in Bible and Midrash to his recent articulation of explicit theological concerns. (See our interview with Fishbane here.) Specifically, Weiss himself oscillates between both sides of Fishbane’s long career. The opening of the book frames the topic within the 20th century post-holocaust theological topic of arguing with God, then Weiss spends the majority of the book on the historic-literary topic of arguing with God in prior rabbinic writings, and from there broadens out into the rhetorical analysis and theology of God in the Tanhuma-Yelammedanu literature. The moral concern becomes historic and literary then returns as theology. The book could easily be complemented by another work focused on a philosophic-theological analysis of the humanized God in comparison to other conceptions of God.
If we look to earlier theological approaches, we find that Abraham Joshua Heschel already cited and developed some of this material, calling God “a most moved mover”. Heschel wrote theological works advocating this humanized God, or at least that Rabbi Akiva’s approach would view God this way. Heschel used many of these Tanhuma-Yelammedanu texts to argue that the Jewish approach to God is a God of pathos, but Heschel was more than reluctant to argue with God or assign fault to God, even after the Holocaust. Heschel was also not interested in differentiating separating out different historical periods.
Arthur Marmorstein’s studies of rabbinic thought argued for the importance of Divine immanence, but argued that the tannaim had to defend the existence of an ethically infallible God to counter the Marcionite heresy that viewed the Hebrew Bible’s God as ruthless and unjust. Ephraim Urbach preferred a rational view of God and rereads much of this material to fit his preconceived ideas of a rational and ethical transcendent God.
Most dissertations turned into a book spend many pages reviewing the prior literature, Weiss’ book is so rich and full that he does not feel the need for this convention. Yet, as I read Weiss’ book, I kept thinking that I would have wanted it twenty pages longer through the inclusion of three pages in each chapter summarizing what past luminaries in the study of Rabbinic thought wrote so as to highlight his own innovations as well as making the book a better teaching tool.
In sum, Pious Irreverence Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism is a pioneering work presenting a excellent historic-literary exposition of the theology of Tanhuma-Yelammdenu and will greatly contribute to discussions of Jewish thought. Jack Miles actually adds Midrash and Maimonides to his syllabus for his course based on his book: God: A Biography. The exposition of Midrashic material collected in this book would significantly enhance his course and our our courses.
I now await someone to devote books to other topics in the remarkable Tanhuma-Yelammedanu literature such as mitzvot and ritual, the body and asceticism, the exile of God, as well as the proto-kabbalistic elements.
- Why did you choose this topic?
I have been interested in the topic of protesting God for many years. In my twenties, Torah stories about God troubled me. In the holiest of Jewish texts, God is at times portrayed as a hateful, wrathful and unethical character. I had many sleepless nights wondering: how could God kill almost every human life in Noah’s generation? How could God demand that the Israelites annihilate every person – including women and children –of the seven indigenous nations living in the Land of Israel? How could God declare in the Ten Commandments that He would punish children for the sins of the parents? In short, how could I worship such a God? I could not raise these types of questions at Yeshiva University because, there, criticizing God was deemed an act of heresy. I subsequently studied Midrash (late antique Jewish interpretation of the Torah) at the University of Chicago and was amazed at the audacity of the rabbis from late antiquity.
In roughly one hundred and fifty instances, the pious rabbis irreverently challenged God. I finally felt comforted; I was not alone. The ancient rabbis were also struggling with what they read in the Torah, and many of them legitimized — and sometimes even celebrated — the act of theological protest. When encountering these daring rabbinic texts and recognizing the paucity of scholarship on this material, I knew that I had found the topic of my first book.
- What is the innovation of the book?
Pious Irreverence is the first academic book to comprehensively treat the topic of protesting God and it opposition in ancient Judaism.
The book traces and explains, for the first time, the emergence of anti-protest traditions in both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. I argue that rabbinic and early Christian anti-protestors adopted different ways to explain how heroic biblical protestors such as Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Job launched their protests of God with seeming impunity.
Second, the book isolates the emergence of pro-protest Jewish traditions in the third-century, and offers explanations as to why a similar pro-protest position never surfaces in early Christianity. The six and seventh-century rabbinic Midrashim called “Tanhuma-Yelammedenu” radicalize earlier pro-protest traditions, and then I offer historical, cultural, and literary reasons to account for this intensification.
Third, and most controversially, Pious Irreverence argues that many of these rabbinic protests — particularly in Tanhuma-Yelammedenu texts –rely on the theological premise that God is not morally perfect and, thus, God’s goodness does not necessarily need to be defended in the face of biblical accounts of unethical divine action.
- Why did you choose to work in the Tanhuma literature?
I began studying Midrash — book by book in historical sequence. During this time, I encountered pre-Tanhuma rabbinic teachings in Genesis Rabbah and Lamentations Rabbah that were theologically bold, but none of them compared to the daring encounters between biblical characters and God portrayed in the Tanhuma-Yelammedenu (TY) Midrashim. In these texts, the theme of theological protest takes center stage, and God is said, at times, to admit His moral failures. I quickly realized that nothing had been written on the distinctive theological features of Tanhuma Midrash, as scholars had focuses exclusively on questions of Tanhuma form rather than content.
I rely on the findings of Prof Marc Bregman who dates the majority of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu material to the sixth or seventh century CE, allowing me to successfully highlight the distinctiveness of the Tanhuma Midrashim by comparing them to earlier pre-Tanhuma texts.
- Is God morally perfect?
Late Antique Christian theology (second to fifth century CE) reflects a high degree of cultural integration between early Christianity and Greco-Roman philosophy. As a result, in early Christian thought, God (the Father) is not only conceived of as unchanging and incorporeal, but also as morally perfect. Any biblical text to the contrary must be reinterpreted. And, although the tannaim (early rabbis ca. second-century CE) were not culturally integrated in Greco-Roman philosophy, they too were also adamant that God is infallible and morally perfect. As a result, both groups declared that it would be entirely absurd — and sinful — to argue with God.
The bold notion that God is fallible and not morally-perfect — and therefore protesting God might be legitimate — surfaces in amoraic literature (fifth century CE), and appears most starkly in post-amoraic rabbinic literature (sixth-seventh century CE). In these latter texts, we read of biblical heroes teaching or counseling God to adopt a more ethical approach to governing the world. Strikingly, God accedes to these moral critiques and challenges, declaring that the contentious encounter has caused Him to adopt a new moral position. In these midrashim, God’s apparent capitulation is transformative and substantial, expressing an essential change in God’s moral compass. They reflect an ongoing and fundamental change in God’s attitude toward His governance of the world, rather than a one-time concessional act of divine mercy as we have in the Hebrew Bible or earlier rabbinic texts.
5) How do you build upon the work of Moshe Halbertal?
Moshe Halbertal in his Interpretive Revolutions in the Making: Values as Factors in the Halakhic Midrashim (Hebrew) argues that many second- and third-century sages consciously drew on their (own) ethical values as a guide when interpreting, or better put, reinterpreting Torah law. Through this process, they neutralized morally problematic divine decrees. The rabbis assumed that God – the author of biblical law – is perfectly moral and righteous, therefore, every Biblical law must reflect a sound moral position. According to Halbertal, these rabbis believed that human moral intuition, with the help of other Torah texts, could access that perfect divine morality. Thus, the rabbis did not see themselves as imposing their own values upon biblical law, but rather imposing the perfect moral values of a just and moral God who authored the Torah laws.
Halbertal’s work focuses on exegetical laws, while my work treats exegetical narratives. This shift of genre, from law to narrative, is necessary as the legal material does not fully open up the depth of the rabbinic ethical and interpretive universe.
Aggadah, presents a different type of rabbinic response. Instead of defending God’s actions or laws (as Halbertal’s rabbis do), other sages — particularly in the late rabbinic period — challenge problematic divine actions and laws by placing an ethical critique of God into the mouth of biblical characters. Rather than assuming a morally perfect God and, because of it, embarking on a charitable reinterpretation, this alternate midrashic approach questions the very assumption that God conforms to the ethical ideal. This radical ancient Jewish approach is reflected not in rabbinic law, but in a number of rabbinic retellings of biblical stories where the rabbis generate a protest to express their discomfort with a divine action. Although not always solving the moral-theological dilemma, it allows the rabbis to freely voice their frustrations, ambivalences and uncertainties.
6) How are the Rabbis both in favor and against protest?
The idea of debating God was itself a matter of debate in the rabbinic period.
The early rabbis (also known as “the tannaim”), Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eleazer chief among them, explicitly prohibited Jews from critiquing or challenging God. These voices emphasize the absurdity of challenging a morally perfect deity or, alternatively, decry the disrespect shown to the Creator with such a defiant act.
By contrast, some rabbis beginning in the post-tannaitic period validated or even encouraged arguing with God. Their support, however, is generally not explicit. They do not use their own voices to express their views. Rather, they place complaints and accusations against God into the mouths of biblical figures in their literary elaborations on the biblical narrative. Later rabbinic works contain over one hundred and fifty such instances (especially in the Tanhuma Midrashim). In the majority of these instances, the rabbis do not portray God admonishing the challenger. Indeed, at times God even welcomes the challenge, implying that these late rabbis sanction such daring confrontations.
We also have a third, mediating, rabbinic position: some types of challenges to God are permitted, others prohibited. For example, one sage distinguishes between different tones of the challenge: Was the challenge articulated as a question, suggestion, or accusation? Other rabbis distinguish between different topics of the protest: Was the protest waged for the sake of the protester herself or a third party? And, finally, some rabbis distinguish between the religious standing of the protestor: does he or she have a privileged and close relationship with God, akin to a family member or friend, or not?
7) What is the role of court room scenes, prayers and parables in these protests?
The rabbis often use lawsuits, prayers, or parables to frame their exegetical protests. These literary contexts accomplish two things. First, it intensifies the challenge. Labeling the protest as a “prayer” or a “legal defense” legitimates the daring speech, thereby granting greater flexibility and leeway for the challenger to radicalize his formulations. Parables, too, as David Stern has argued, have the rhetorical force of heightening the complaint as they draw on real-life imagery. Conversely, these literary framings and contexts also provide religious shelter for the irreverent content. Prayers are conceived as pious acts; courtroom procedures grant litigants greater freedom to offer up their best defense. And parables provide sufficient textual distancing when their sharpest critiques only appear in the mashal (the fictional referent) proper.
8) How do the rabbis respond the critiques of the Biblical God by anti-Biblical Christians and pagans?
“Heretical” Christian groups, such as the Marcionites and select Gnostics – as well as pagan intellectuals, waged attacks against the Old Testament and the Old Testament God in the first centuries of the Common Era. Specifically, the second-century Christian dualist Marcion of Sinope (85–160 ce) and his followers critiqued the God of the Hebrew Bible for His anger, hubris, a penchant for war. Some Gnostics, like the authors of Testimony of Truth, The Secret Book According to John and the Revelation of Adam, similarly sought to denigrate the Old Testament God by highlighting His injustices, such as punishing children for the sins of the parents. In these works, God is described as a “malicious envier,” or “Saklas” (Satan). Other Gnostics, more moderately, such as Ptolemy in his Letter to Flora, describe the God of the Hebrew Bible as “imperfect” for commanding an imperfect law. Around the same time, the pagan Platonist Celsus, criticized the Hebrew Bible for its all-too-human and childish depiction of God, and for God’s arrogance, God’s problematic decision to imbue humanity with the Evil Inclination, and God’s “arbitrary destruction of the world.” In the third and fourth centuries, similar critiques were leveled against the Old Testament God from the pagan philosopher Porphyry (234–305), the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate (331-363), and from the Manicheans, a neo-Gnostic group with whom Augustine spent so much ink refuting in his commentary to Genesis.
The rabbis responded to these types of ethical critiques of the biblical God in one of three ways. 1) They could ignore the specific moral problem and simply prohibit Jews from expressing critiques towards God. The logic here is that any admission or hint of divine error or injustice would only bolster the audacious charges of the “heretics”. This position, championed by Rabbi Akiva, adamantly re-affirmed that God is morally perfect. 2) They could consciously reinterpret the problematic biblical verse(s) so as to align the Torah with moral sensibilities. Moshe Halbertal highlighted this rabbinic response.3) The rabbis could place challenges or critiques of God into the mouth of a biblical character — when they retell the biblical story — to express their own struggles, ambivalences, and discomforts with morally troubling divine acts.
Indeed, this response provides a literary safe space for the sages to express their frustrations with God who, at times, acts capriciously, arbitrarily, and without due mercy. This act of ventriloquism does not solve the moral problem, but it does provide a cathartic outlet for the sages to work through their theological-moral anxieties. In fact, many of the specific moral critiques launched by Marcion, Celsus, and Porphyry reappear with striking similarity in late midrashic texts. This third response occupies center stage in my book.
9) How is God humanized in Rabbinic Literature?
In Scripture, YHWH is conceived as having humanlike limbs and organs such as arms, eyes, and legs, and humanlike emotions such as love, anger, regret, and jealousy. Rabbinic literature expands the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic field by having God assume humanlike roles.
In the Hebrew Bible, God only saves or punishes Israel. Rabbi Akiva and other sages, by contrast, also imagine God, the shekhinah, to be “in exile” with His people and also, until the redemptive moment, in physical bondage with them. As the Israelites experience suffering, so does the rabbinic God. Similarly, post-tannaitic sages imagine God as lamenting uncontrollably over Israel’s exile and the Temple’s destruction. Here, the rabbis anchor this striking divine image by reading Scripture counterintuitively and decontextually, transforming the crying figure of a human prophet, such as Jeremiah, or a personified figure, such as Zion, into God.
Other examples of rabbinic humanization include God laughing, dancing with sages, studying and teaching Torah in the house of study, observing halakhah, engaging in matchmaking, and spending His free time playing with mythic sea-monsters. We also have dozens of midrashic texts detailing God’s physical features, such as His clothing and crown. God even rides a horse and kisses the walls of the Temple and His most beloved human followers.
What function did this anthropomorphic intensification serve the rabbis? It would be fair to conjecture that, in the context of Judaism in late antiquity, where Jews had neither the Temple nor political power, the rabbis were driven to emphasize the intimate bond that God continues to have with Israel. To humanize God was to make God “disarmingly familiar” (a term taken from David Stern), to feel His closeness, and to impress upon Israel that, appearances to the contrary, God had not abandoned them. Put simply, by intensifying and radicalizing the anthropomorphic biblical imagery, the rabbis effectively minimized the divide between God and humanity. God was, indeed, one of them.
This increased intimacy between God and humanity provided fertile theological grounds for the rabbis to support and generate protests against God. For in this context, protest would not disrupt or disrespect the human-divine hierarchical structure.
As a central expression of this hierarchical flattening, many midrashim depict God as Israel’s “brother” or “friend.” In these relational analogies, the vertical hierarchy between God and humanity is downplayed, and the horizontal relationship between God and humanity is accentuated. And, as Moshe Halbertal has demonstrated, the rabbinic God at times assumes a weaker position in the human-divine imagery. Halbertal notes: “The singular contribution that the midrash makes to textual anthropomorphic theology is through the depiction of social spaces in which the accepted biblical authority relationships are reversed and in which God takes the place expected of man. God is the slave, the student, the judged, the wife, and the one who is redeemed from suffering.”
Conversely, humans assume, at times, the more powerful role of husband, parent, creditor, judge, and master. In these moments, the sages boldly invert the traditional and standard biblical analogy between God and humanity in which God assumes the superior position in the relational hierarchy.
Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that critiques of God in late rabbinic culture were not deemed, at least by many, as an act of irreverence or as a threat to Jewish piety and worship. If anything, the very production of these confrontations might function as a method by which the rabbis demonstrate and reconfirm God’s unique intimacy with Israel and its treasured leaders.
10) What is the doctrine of divine concession to His own mistakes?
Late rabbinic literature tends to be more open to the bold notion that God makes mistakes. In many Tanhuma-Yelammedenu texts, while God is portrayed as fundamentally good and just, He does not always make the correct ethical choice.
To be sure, the authors of these late midrashim do not proclaim the imperfection of God as a maxim or normative teaching (e.g., “Rabbi X says: God sometimes does not judge or act appropriately”). Such a blatant statement would be too radical and subversive for any pious Jew to make. Yet this theological assumption—of divine moral imperfection—could be accessed by analyzing how some late sages depict God in their numerous retellings of select biblical narratives. More specifically, the notion that God is morally imperfect at times can be assumed when late midrashim have God regret a decision or when they have God concede an ethical critique leveled by a biblical hero. In both these instances—whether unprovoked regret or a provoked concession, God recognizes that His past act or decision does not comport with the moral ideal. It is thus within exegetical narratives—rather than doctrinal maxims—that we can unearth the living theology of the late rabbis. In these texts, the humanization of God reaches its most extreme expression: God is human-like with regard to His moral character. As human beings regret and err, so does God.
In late rabbinic tradition, conceptions of God are presented in narrative form and show the interpretive imagination of their authors. Indeed, the living theological voice of the rabbis emerges more through rewritten biblical narratives than through normative or propositional formulations. While these unsystematic theologies are significant, they likely were not constructed for the purposes of theology. Other pedagogical, textual, cultural, or literary dimensions and pressures might have fueled the production of these remarkable narratives, such as the wish to communicate divine love, humility, and intimacy; the need to solve scriptural problems; the development of literary forms; or the desire to produce dramatic and entertaining narratives for the synagogue crowds.
As the character of God would have been treated with utmost seriousness, these depictions of the divine should not be regarded as mere literary conceits but as reflecting a bold religious sensibility. The authors of these aggadot would not have sacrificed their foundational religious commitments—their conceptions of God—on the altar of literary form, rhetorical drama, or exegetical cohesiveness.
11) How are you indebted to Michael Fishbane’s work?
If I may, let me begin to answer this question with a personal note: At Yeshiva University’s seminary (RIETS), I studied rabbinics with great minds, but their dogmatic inflexibility and circumscribed methodology — focusing exclusively on Jewish law and relying solely on the anti-historical Brisker approach – ultimately left me spiritually and intellectually unfulfilled. Prof. Michael Fishbane, my PhD advisor, opened up new vistas of Torah scholarship: the recognition that Judaism has evolved over time – in content and form; the central place of Jewish myth and mythmaking in our sacred literature; and, most importantly, how Judaism is fundamentally an interpretive tradition – that is, everything is grounded in a reading, or re-reading, of the Hebrew Bible. There is no doubt that Fishbane’s influence pervades much of Pious Irreverence, probably more than I am even aware.
Fishbane sought to break Maimonides’ philosophical hold on rabbinic theology. Reading talmudic and midrashic texts without the guiding hand of Maimonides, he has shown that many rabbis of old conceived of God as an changing, mythical, and corporeal deity who is a player in the world’s events rather than merely its determiner. In these moments of divine transformation, God not only affects humans via His decisions but, like the mythic gods of antiquity, God is also deeply affected by the actions of humans. Fishbane has shown that the rabbinic God is not an unchanging, transcendent, and omnipotent being like the God of Maimonides, but a highly protean and vulnerable God who seeks and yearns for acts of human righteousness to solidify His power.
12) Why did confrontation become a legitimate way to approach God in Judaism, but not in Christianity?
Johann Baptist Metz (1928–), a German Catholic theologian, places the blame squarely on Augustine of Hippo (354–430). According to Metz, Marcion’s penchant critiques of the creator-God drove Augustine to adopt a theology that exonerated the creator-God from all human suffering. Augustine accomplished this, for Metz, with his theology of original sin. By attributing world suffering to humanity’s inherent sinfulness, Augustine “silenced” the “theodicy question” and subsequently “anaesthetized” the “eschatological questioning of God.” No guilt whatsoever could be placed on God, as “guilty humanity alone” ought to be viewed as “responsible for this history of suffering.” Departing from Augustine, Metz expresses hope that the Christian community could return to embrace the aggressive prayers of Israel as found in Job, the Psalms, and Lamentations.
In addition, three factors ought to be considered when reflecting on this Jewish-Christian divide. First, at the core of Christian theology is the image of Christ suffering on the cross. Here, divine suffering is not merely one theological dictum out of many, as in early rabbinic literature, but an image that stands at the center of Christian thought. Accordingly, the motif of challenging God in response to human suffering would naturally seem strange and out of place. Indeed, for many Christian thinkers, experiencing pain is not a theological problem but an experiential ideal.
Second, the rabbinic openness to challenging God is fueled and nurtured by their humanization of God. For many sages, not only does God have body, but God is also morally imperfect and bound by Jewish law. By contrast, in early Christian thought, the humanization of God is, counterintuitively, less intense. The Christian God, of course, becomes incarnate in human flesh, however, the Christian God, in most respects, is less “human” than the rabbinic God. Specifically, in patristic thought, God the Father is incorporeal, morally perfect and, as lawmaker, not bound by any laws. These theological contrasts, I would argue, are a direct result of the different degrees of cultural integration with Greco-Roman philosophy. One could argue that, contra the early Church, the rabbinic rejection of philosophy ultimately paved the way for the rabbinic endorsement of theological protest.
Third, it would not be an overgeneralization to state that, throughout the generations, Jews have suffered at the hands of their enemies more than Christians have (notwithstanding early Christian persecution under the Roman Empire). As a consequence, Jewish powerlessness and victimization naturally played a role in igniting the flames of the protest motif within the Jewish tradition. In addition, as a people with no political power, Jews could more easily critique power.
13) How is the approach of the Tanhuma literature different than the 20th century ideas of arguing with God?
Three key differences:
- The authors of Tanhuma Midrashim who challenge God do not do so in their own name. Rather, after “discovering” textual support within the words of Torah itself, they place critiques of God into the mouths of biblical heroes. Twentieth-century protest theologians, by contrast, typically protest God directly and explicitly.
- In the Tanhuma confrontational texts, God responds to the critiques because the encounter occurs in “biblical” prophetic times (according to the rabbis). God can thus be portrayed as responding and conceding error. By contrast, twentieth-centuries protest theologians, such as David Blumenthal and Elie Wiesel, are not privy to the divine response.
- In the Tanhuma confrontational texts, the authors are driven by an ethically problematic divine action or command within the Torah narrative. By contrast, twentieth-century theologians are typically driven to protest by the reality of a fractured world and the traumatic events happening in their own day, most prominently the Holocaust.
14) What is your next project?
I am writing a book on the Jewish (and Christian) reception of the famous – and morally problematic – maxim in the Ten Commandments that “God visits the sins of the parents onto the children…until the fourth generation.” [Exodus 20:5] This doctrine has posed an obvious moral dilemma: Why should one person suffer for the sins committed by another? Are children not independent from their parents? Does this method of divine providence correspond with a loving, fair and just deity?