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Pious Irreverence

Judaism is often described as a religion that tolerates, even celebrates arguments with God. In Pious Irreverence, Dov Weiss has written the first scholarly study of the premodern roots of this distinctively Jewish theology of protest, examining its origins and development in the rabbinic age (70 CE-800 CE).

Pious Irreverence
Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism

Dov Weiss

2016 | 304 pages | Cloth $75.00
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Confrontation as Sin
Chapter 2. From Sin to Virtue
Chapter 3. Varieties of Confrontation
Chapter 4. Confrontation as Ethics
Chapter 5. The Humanization of God
Chapter 6. Divine Concessions


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


She bought her first new car and You hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that supposed to be funny? . . . What did I ever do to [Your Son] except praise His glory and praise His name? . . . Have I displeased You, You feckless thug? . . .
haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito?cruciatus in crucem tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci. cruciatus in crucem eas in crucem [should I believe that these things are from a benevolent God, from a just God, from a knowing God? To hell with Your torments (lit., crucifixions)! On earth, I was your servant, your messenger. I did my duty. To hell with Your torments. To hell with you (lit. may You go to the cross)].
—President Josiah Bartlett, "Two Cathedrals" (episode 44, May 16, 2001), The West Wing
Described as "one of the best episodes in the history of American television," the finale of the second season of The West Wing revolves around the tragic and untimely death of Mrs. Landingham, the personal secretary of President Bartlett (Martin Sheen). After the funeral, the president emptied the church of his security personnel and, approaching the altar, angrily rebukes God: "cruciatus in crucem. eas in crucem!" (To hell with Your torments. To hell with You). This unexpected and irreverent diatribe from America's most beloved fictional president stunned West Wing viewers. How could the hit TV show portray a highly ethical and faithful Christian castigating God in such brazen fashion? Noting that the episode's writer, Aaron Sorkin, is Jewish, one TV analyst offered this explanation: "Sure, [the scene] was in a church, the actor and characters were both Catholic, and the final words were in Latin. But it was a uniquely Jewish religious experience . . . . This may have been the most Jewish scene ever written (mostly) in English."

Scholars often describe Judaism as a religion that tolerates, even celebrates, arguing with God. Unlike Christianity and Islam, it is said, Judaism endorses the tradition of protest as first expressed in the biblical stories of Abraham, Job, and Jeremiah. Bible scholar Carol Newsom, for example, argues that "[while] both Judaism and Christianity have retained the notion of a personal God . . . only Judaism has developed the Joban piety of argument with God." Similarly, literary scholar Bernard Schweitzer notes that "what sets Judaism apart is the liberty with which Jews express their doubts, their quarrels, and their rebellions against God." And, in light of the horrors of the twentieth century, progressive theologians Johann Baptist Metz and John K. Roth have called on the Christian community to affirm the distinctively Jewish "theodicies of protest."

Surprisingly, however, despite its centrality in contemporary Jewish thought, no work has comprehensively analyzed the ancient roots of this Jewish protest theology. While scholars have treated such expression as it emerged in Hasidic thought and the post-Holocaust theology of Elie Wiesel, little has been done to trace the origins and development of this distinctive feature of Judaism. In fact, Ephraim Urbach, Arthur Marmorstein, and Max Kadushin, the leading scholars of rabbinic theology of the past generation, ignore the theme of protest altogether in their books on ancient Jewish theology. Indeed, as we shall see, when these scholars discuss theological protest they do so only as it relates to other topics such as prayer, parables, or suffering; because of their circumscribed focus, they do not analyze this religious expression in depth. Consequently, the tradition of arguing with God is often assumed in contemporary literature without understanding and appreciating its roots in the rabbinic age (70 ce-800 ce). This neglect is due in part to the unsystematic and fragmentary nature of its earliest expressions in the foundational texts of Judaism—the works of Midrash and Talmud—which were produced by rabbis in Hebrew and Aramaic more than fifteen hundred years ago. Without careful consideration of the complex history of the confrontational idea in these formative religious documents, however, simplistic celebrations of the "Jewish protest tradition" are of limited value. Utilizing diverse lenses, including the conceptual, historical, ethical, and theological, this study produces a comprehensive analysis of this bold religious tradition. In doing so, it provides greater nuance and sheds crucial light on an understudied yet central theme in Judaism. Most significantly, it demonstrates that the Jewish protest tradition is not simply the result of horrific recent historical events but is rooted in the most canonical of Jewish works: Midrash and Talmud.

Defining Confrontation

Before I present the major themes and arguments of this work and provide a brief chapter overview, our topic needs to be defined. The criteria of inclusion are quite flexible and broad in this study, incorporating all sorts of thinking, verbal and demonstrative communications, and expressions with or about the divine that highlight a moral or rational problem with God's conduct or lack of conduct. This entails moderate challenges to God, including simple questions, as well as more radical expressions of protest, such as critiquing God's past actions, whether directly communicated to God or to a third party. It also includes future-oriented challenges or aggressive demands that seek to have God reverse His prior decisions. Of course, since we have only a written record of these protest expressions it is often difficult to ascertain whether the author imagined a submissive or aggressive tone to the confronter's challenge. Thus, I have adopted a maximal definition of "confrontation."

For the sake of literary flow, I use a number of words to denote confrontation with God, such as "complaint," "protest," "critique," "challenge," "rebuke," and "confrontation." As these terms are fluid in the English language, I use them interchangeably. That said, on occasion, when seeking to distinguish between various types of confrontation (as I do in Chapter 3), I alert the reader that I am deliberately using a specific English term over another one. This decision — to adopt an expansive and non-rigid definition toward the category of confrontation—is borne out of a conceptual concern to test the relational contours of the human-divine dynamic. In this regard, all types of bold communication with or toward God can be instructive. And the decision to use confrontational English terms interchangeably is informed by the fact that the rabbis themselves—from the early tannaitic period onward—employ a variety of Hebrew terms to denote challenge or critique without defining them or distinguishing between them. In my research, I have not found any cogent explanation to account for why, in specific contexts, the rabbis employ certain words over others. The most common rabbinic verbs used to denote protests against God are leharher (to criticize; lit., to think), lehashiv (to challenge; lit., to respond), limḥot (to protest), lekro tagar (to reproach; lit., to call out as partial), and lehatiaḥ devarim (to hurl words). The rabbis also at times use biblical nouns to denote a challenge to God such as tokheḥah (rebuke) and riv (argument). I should also note that I include within this study any rabbinic narrative that uses these protest terms even if the details of the human-divine communication reflect a slightly different concern.

Theological Protest in Pre-Rabbinic Literature

Rabbinic endorsement of theological protest is, of course, informed by many passages in the Hebrew Bible where challenging God is not foreclosed as a legitimate response to suffering or unethical divine behavior. Alongside moments of pious submission to the divine will, such as the story of Abraham and the aqedah (Genesis 22), biblical texts are replete with instances in which individuals protest against God without any repercussions. The motif appears in the Pentateuchal narratives (Abraham regarding Sodom and Gomorrah; and Moses in Egypt, at Mount Sinai, and in the Wilderness), the prophetic writings (Jeremiah and Habakkuk), and wisdom literature (Job and numerous Psalms). After none of these challenges does God castigate or punish the challenger. Regarding Jeremiah's rhetorical lawsuits against God, B. Gemser remarks: "The fact that Jeremiah has allowed, or even caused, these most intimate and intrepid disputes with God to be put in writing and preserved for posterity reveals the prophet's . . . innermost conviction that Godfinally does not reject but tolerates and vindicates even his 'revolting prophets.'" Similarly, Yochanan Muffs posits that "biblical religion does not seem to require the man of faith to repress his doubts in silent resignation. Abraham, Jeremiah and Job, all men who question God's ways, are hardly numbered among the wicked. There is even some evidence that God demands such criticism, at least from His prophets (cf. Ezek. 22:3)."

Despite my general agreement with these sentiments, Muffs's description of Job as a "man of faith" whose religion does not require him to "repress his doubts" should be qualified. To be sure, Muffs bases his view on the following points: God praises Job's speeches at the book's close, declaring that, contrary to his friends, only Job has "spoken the truth" (42:7). Moreover, God doubles Job's fortunes that he had lost (42:10). And, as the book concludes with divine praise and reward, one gets the impression that Job's protests are not regarded by God as "sinful" or "rebellious." However, Muffs and other scholars ignore chapter 38 where God reprimands Job for his protests: "Who is this who darkens counsel speaking without knowledge? ... Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Speak if you have understanding" (Job 38:2, 4). Following these verses, God cites numerous examples of His unparalleled knowledge and awesome power. These are invoked to strengthen God's primary claim that Job's accusations lack foundation because human beings have insufficient knowledge of the world; Job's challenge to the divine is by its very nature deficient and thus unacceptable. Job, in return, concedes his error, telling God: "Indeed I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I did not know. . . . Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes" (Job 42:3, 6). Read plainly, then, God's attitude toward Job's protests is inconsistent: God both reprimands (chapter 38) and defends (chapter 42) Job's challenges. Naturally, later exegetes and scholars will have to reconcile this seeming inconsistency.

The only biblical text that unequivocally opposes the right of an individual to challenge God is found in Deutero-Isaiah. After God tells the Persian king, Cyrus, that his victories are for the purposes of bringing the Israelites back to Zion, God laments those who would critique Him for bringing about Israel's redemption through the nonconventional means of a gentile king. God proclaims: "Shame on him who argues with his Maker. Though naught but a potsherd of earth! Shall the clay say to the potter, 'What are you doing? Your work has no handles?' Shame on him who asks his father, 'What are you bearing?'" (Isaiah 45:9-10). As it would be absurd for clay to critique its potter, so too would it be absurd for a human to critique his Maker. Hence, with the exception of Isaiah 45 (and possibly Job 38), the authors of the Hebrew Bible legitimize individual challenges leveled at God.

Relatedly, not only does the character of God in the biblical narratives tolerate irreverent acts of protest, but biblical law does as well. Although Scripture prohibits cursing God (Leviticus 24:13-16) and mentioning God's name in vain (Exodus 20:7), it never proscribes challenging or critiquing the divine. Even the opposition found in Isaiah 45 is only formulated as a lament ("shame,"), rather than a proscription. While never stated explicitly, individual complaints against God appear in Scripture as a legitimate method to communicate with the creator of the world. Not surprisingly, as we shall see, these narratives occupy a central place in the debate between anti-protest and proprotest rabbis (and church fathers).

Following the biblical view, some of the writings of the (nonbiblical) Second Temple literature depict confronting God as a legitimate, if not virtuous, human act in response to a perceived divine injustice. In the immediate aftermath of the Second Temple's destruction, the apocryphal works 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra contain Baruch and Ezra's protests against God. In these narratives, the protagonists are not chastised for violating any theological principle. We also have a few protests in the genre of rewritten Bibles of the period, such as in Pseudo-Philo's Liber antiquitatum biblicarum (LAB), the Genesis Apocryphon from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the pseudepigrahic work Joseph and Aseneth. And, as we shall soon see, Philo of Alexandria (20 bce-40 ce) celebrates, albeit under strict conditions, the act of challenging God.

Biblical Virtue of Tokheḥah

In the aforementioned biblical narratives, challenging God emerges, for the most part, as a legitimate method to engage the divine. But could one go further and even regard theological protest as a positive expression? In both ancient Israel and in the Greco-Roman world, critiquing a friend was deemed a virtue. To denote this act, the Bible frequently uses the term tokheḥah ("rebuke") while Greco-Roman writings tend to use the term parrhesia ("frank speech"). Accordingly, one question posed by this study is whether, and to what extent, these positive and meritorious dimensions of "rebuke" or "frank speech" might still be relevant when applied to God. I propose that the answer to this question depends on a variety of issues, most prominently what one's conception is of (1) God, (2) the appropriate relationship between God and humanity, and (3) the nature of "critique" itself.

While the first two issues are dealt with at length in the body of the book, I touch on the last issue now: the nature of critique. The classical Jewish tradition provides two basic models to understand the obligation of tokheḥah. The first one emerges from a simple reading of Leviticus 19:17: "You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him." As many scholars have noted, Leviticus here connects the commandment to "reprove your kinsman" with the commandment not to hate: if one has been offended by another, he should not allow negative feelings (for the offender) to fester, but rather openly confront the offender as a method to expunge hatred from his or her heart. Given this linkage, the purpose of rebuke (for Leviticus 19) seems to be driven by an interpersonal concern. According to Zvi Zohar, this view regards "repressed hostility and hatred" as a "recipe for interpersonal disaster. . . . The Torah . . . [is concerned with] the emotional quality of immediate interpersonal relationships . . . [and regards] suppressed hatred/enmity [as possibly leading] to serious social problems."

In this dimension of rebuke, what some have coined the "interpersonal" approach, the aim of rebuke is to improve relations between members of society. And, according to Leviticus 19, rebuke serves, more specifically, as a method to remove hatred from the offended parties' heart. However, there is no claim, at least from Leviticus 19, that critiquing another would, in a positive fashion, engender feelings of love. This more ambitious claim for the powers of critique appears in Proverbs 9:8: "Reprove a wise man, and he will love you." But note that in this passage the positive emotional affects of rebuke occur to the reproached, and not to the reproacher (as in Leviticus 19). Apparently, this passage from Proverbs posits that as long those who are reproached are wise they will recognize the advantages of being critiqued.

Connected to the interpersonal element but distinct from it is the pedagogical dimension, which, in most discussions of the biblical notion of tokheḥah, assumes center stage. According to this model, the purpose of critique is primarily to teach and to persuade the one reproached to change her or his ways. In other words, the object of the act is not conceived as strengthening an interpersonal bond or as inducing greater intimacy, as in our last model, but as a method to discourage others from sinning. Zvi Zohar calls this the "intrapersonal" dimension of rebuke. This responsibility, to educate the other, is often assumed by a loving superior who has greater knowledge and authority, as is the case in Proverbs 3:11-12: "Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son; Do not abhor His rebuke. For whom the Lord loves He rebukes, as a father the son whom he favors." A father rebukes a child in order to educate him in the proper path, just as God rebukes Israel to help her do the same. According to this approach, rebuke is regarded not as a means to achieve love (or remove enmity), as love is already present, but rebuke is now an expression of that abiding and unconditional love. When you love someone, you want to help that person make the correct choices. And, contrary to Leviticus 19, its virtue no longer primarily resides in its capacity to remove hatred or, as in Proverbs 9, to intensify love, but in its ability to steer the other in the right direction.

Notwithstanding the plain reading of Leviticus 19 and Proverbs 3, the notion that the biblical command of rebuke applies even outside a distinct relationship—whether this be fractured, neutral, or loving—emerges explicitly in the Babylonian Talmud. Here, the obligation to rebuke another applies not only to offenses against the rebuker himself (as Leviticus 19 suggests) but to all types of offenses, even those perpetrated against God. In other words, the rebuker need not be the offended party. Hence, the primary aim of rebuke is not to strengthen the interpersonal ties between members of society, but to help "bring the erring person back to the right path." It is a religioeducational act, not a social one. Along these lines, Proverbs 25:12 conceives "rebuke" as a method to impart, more specifically, wisdom: "Like a ring of gold, a golden ornament, is a wise man's reproof in a receptive ear." Because rebuke aims to educate, it should be embraced so long as the rebuker is wise and his teachings are sound. Thus, whereas for the first model rebuke serves to repair or strengthen a relationship, for the second model it serves to repair error.

Will the rabbis apply either of these positive dimensions of tokheḥah to the human-divine realm? Would having an open and even critical dialogue with God repair a fractured relationship as Leviticus 19 seems to posit, or lead to greater love from God, the reproached, as Proverbs 9:8 suggests? Could human beings really serve as God's pedagogues? Would admonishing God steer God in the right direction and correct His mistakes? These are some of the questions the present work seeks to answer.

Philo of Alexandria and Theological Parrhesia

In addition to the biblical commandment of tokheḥah, the rabbis were likely aware of the classical Greco-Roman virtue of parrhesia (lit., all speech), which, in late antiquity, referred to speaking frankly and candidly toward others. The notion is prominently found in a number of ancient Greek texts, including the writings of the rhetorician Isocrates (436-338 bce) and the cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (410-323 bce). But as Arnold Momigliano has shown, this usage of the term parrhesia was rare at that time (the fifth and fourth centuries bce), as it then primarily, but not exclusively, carried a public and political sense: every Greek citizen in a democracy should have the freedom to express his opinions. By the turn of the millennium, however, the term carried more of a personal and moral connotation: it expressed the virtuous idea that a person should be frank and honest with a friend, even to the point of criticism. Here, the act of parrhesia expressed and defined a relationship of privileged intimacy and true friendship. As a result, in Greek culture, flatterers and sycophants were avoided, and those embodying parrhesia were sought. Most famously, in this period, the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus (110-40 bce) authored an entire book on the subject, On Frank Criticism, and Plutarch, the well-known Middle Platonist (46-120 ce), devoted thirteen chapters of his magnum opus Moralia to the proper way to admonish others.

Tellingly, these secular Greek thinkers do not valorize the exercise of parrhesia—in the sense of "critique"—in relation to God; the virtue only appears in the context of interhuman relations. By contrast, Jewish-Hellenistic sources appropriate the term in relation to God. For example, the Septuagint uses the term parrhesia when referring to a human-divine encounter (Job 22:26). This source, however, is not particularly relevant for us as the term in that context connotes a sense of confidence and joy rather than critique or challenge. Parrhesia before God also appears a few times in the New Testament (e.g., in 1 John and Hebrews), but, as in the Septuagint, these examples are not relevant to the issue of challenging God: the term is stripped of its aggressive or critical valence and describes, as Stanley Marrow puts it, nothing more than an "inner disposition" of Christian confidence and "ready access" to God through the blood of Christ.

The first Jewish-Hellenistic source to use the virtuous term parrhesia both in the sense of challenge or critique and also in the context of a human-divine encounter is the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 bce-40 ce). Predictably, Philo synthesizes elements of both the philosophical as well as Jewish traditions. On the one hand, echoing the Septuagint, he uses the term in the context of a human-divine encounter, and, on the other hand, echoing Philodemus, he uses parrhesia in the sense of a complaint or challenge (and not merely speaking with "confidence" or "without fear"). Interestingly, no previous Greek source used parrhesia in both senses. Philo, however, limits the applicability of this bold act by placing specific conditions on who can exercise theological parrhesia:

When therefore is it proper for the servant of God to use freedom of speech to the ruler and master of himself, and of the whole word [i.e., God]? Is it not when he is free from all sins, and is aware in his conscience that he loves his master, feeling more joy at the fact of being a servant of God, than he would if he were sovereign over the whole race of mankind, and were invested without any effort on his part with the supreme authority over land and sea.
Philo posits that one can speak frankly with God only when the following conditions are met: a person (1) is free from sin, (2) loves God, and (3) would rather be a servant of God than rule the whole world. Later in that section, Philo adds another condition: (4) the confronter must be counted among "the wise." These requirements emphasize the confronter's unique qualities in the realm of action, emotion, and intellect. For Philo, Moses is the quintessential biblical personality who embodies these admirable traits and, thus, has the right, or even privilege, to confront God. This allows Moses, like other virtuous biblical characters, to use "freedom of speech not only to speak and cry out [toward God], but even to bring charges or complain (to Him) with true confidence and courageous feeling." According to Philo, Moses uses parrhesia toward God for the first time in Exodus 5:22-23 when Moses calls out: "Lord, why have you afflicted this people [Israel]? Why have you sent me? From the time that I went forth to speak to Pharaoh in your name, he has [only] afflicted the people. You have not delivered you people."

Notwithstanding the aforementioned conditions, with Philo we encounter something new and bold within the Greco-Roman world: an explicit monotheistic endorsement of questioning or challenging God. While the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple literature envision theological protest in most circumstances as a justified response to problematic divine behavior, we do not witness this level of explicit celebration as we have in Philo's writings. Notably, following Philo, Josephus of Flavius (35-70 ce) also applies the Greco-Roman virtue of parrhesia to biblical characters who challenge God.

Rabbinic Debate over Debating God

We have no evidence that the rabbis were aware of Philo; in fact, this famous Greek Jew is never mentioned in rabbinic literature. As contemporary scholars of Judaism have noticed, that did not prevent many rabbis—probably unknowingly—from supporting Philo's general positive view toward confronting God. Most of these same scholars, however, have ignored or not given sufficient attention to the fact that in rabbinic Judaism the idea of debating God was itself a matter of debate: not every rabbi embraced this theological expression. As this book argues, during the early rabbinic period (often referred to as the tannaitic period, the second and third centuries ce) the sages explicitly opposed challenging God. Some late rabbinic passages even accompany this proscription with specific punishments, such as lashes or excommunication, should a Jew defy this ban. Describing the biblical character of Job as a sinner for his brazenness toward 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.

In contrast to these explicit rabbinic denunciations against arguing with God, rabbis in the post-tannaitic period validated or even encouraged arguing with God. Their support, unlike Philo, is generally not explicit at all. They do not use their own voices to express their views. Rather, they use biblical characters to camouflage their arguments. It is well known that the Jewish sages retold biblical stories in the Talmud and Midrash. But scholars have largely overlooked the rabbinic tendency, widespread by the late rabbinic period, to put complaints against God into the mouths of biblical figures in their literary elaborations. Later rabbinic works contain over one hundred and fifty such instances. 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 the rabbis sanction such daring confrontations. This act of ventriloquism provides a safe space for the rabbis to generate their critiques with impunity as they present themselves not as originators of the confrontation but only as their transmitters. Moreover, the sages did not base their expanded narratives of theological protest upon their own human authority. Rather, they claimed that these bold scenes had long been hidden within the "divine" words of the Torah. As good exegetes, they were merely discovering them. In this way, the rabbis cleverly justified an innovative and religiously risky project.

As I show throughout this book, this late rabbinic legitimation of confrontation intensifies over time. Whereas pro-protest traditions begin to emerge in amoraic texts, such as Genesis Rabbah and Lamentations Rabbah (Palestine, ca. fifth century), and are intensified in the post-amoraic writings of the Babylonian Talmud (ca. seventh century), they reach their fullest expression in the midrashim of Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu (ca. seventh century).

The Midrashim of Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu

Because texts from the Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu (TY) literature appear prominently in this book and are less known even to scholars of Midrash who tend to focus on the earlier tannaitic and amoraic strata of rabbinic literature, an introduction to this literary family is in order. The term Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu should best be understood as a genre or group of rabbinic texts that share the same general form and characteristics, rather than as referring to a specific set of books. Texts from this genre can be found in the following midrashic works: (1) Midrash Tanḥuma, both the standard and Buber editions; (2) Exodus Rabbah II, chapters 15-52; (3) Numbers Rabbah II, chapters 15-23; (4) Deuteronomy Rabbah, both the standard and Lieberman editions; (5) Pesiqta Rabbati, chapters 1-14, 19, 25, 29, 31, 33, 38-45, 47, and supplements 1 and 2; and (6) hundreds of TY fragments found in the Cairo Genizah. Indeed, the plethora of TY texts and manuscripts testifies to its popularity in late antique Palestine of the Common Era—and explains why so few Midrash scholars have dared to produce a critical edition.

In the past, scholars have dated TY literature from as early as the fourth century ce to as late as the ninth century. Most contemporary scholars, however, rely on the recent findings of Marc Bregman, who argues for a more complex dating of the TY corpus. According to him, we can divide the TY midrashic material into several developmental strata:

  1. The early stratum of TY, produced in Palestine around the fifth century ce, 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. The middle stratum developed toward the end of Byzantine rule in Palestine (sixth and early seventh century) and represents the vast majority of the TY material we have today. Unlike the early stratum, it avoids Galilean Aramaic wherever possible, replacing it with Hebrew. TY works produced in this period include Exodus Rabbah II, Numbers Rabbah II, both versions of Deuteronomy Rabbah, and portions of Pesiqta Rabbati.

  3. The late stratum includes minor accretions to the TY material added after the Islamic conquest. In contrast to the earlier strata, it seeks to eliminate all 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).

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." (Yelammedenu is Hebrew for "let teach us." Since these teachings often cite Rabbi Tanhuma, a fourth-century sage, they are also designated as the Tanhuma midrashim.) A TY midrash will typically begin the answer with the statement "thus have our rabbis taught us" or "thus have the sages taught us." After the specific query has been solved by quoting a tannaitic legal text, the midrash connects the legal issue to a nonlegal teaching and then links the entire discussion to a verse from the beginning of the weekly Torah portion. Usually, the legal proem is followed by one or more nonlegal proems, similar to those found in the earlier fifth-century homiletical midrashim, such as Leviticus Rabbah and Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana. These nonlegal proems begin by citing a remote passage from the Hagiographa and then creatively connecting it again to a local passage from the weekly Torah lection. Finally, the peroration usually contains a statement about the redemption and the coming of the Messiah.

One of the ways that the TY midrashim differ from the earlier homiletical amoraic midrashim (ca. fifth century ce) is in their choice of language. Whereas earlier texts like Leviticus Rabbah and Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana contain "a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic with a sprinkling of Greek terms," TY texts tend to use Hebrew. Furthermore, Leopold Zunz recognized already in 1832 that TY midrashim have the tendency to record teachings anonymously by dropping the name of the tradent, or sometimes even "forging the names of certain earlier sages." Marc Bregman has also shown that TY texts tend to add "honorific titles, such as 'Ha-Levi' and 'Be-rabbi' to the names of sages." These characteristics seemingly express a desire on the part of the TY authors to present their work as an earlier rabbinic commentary.

In recent years, scholars have noticed that the literary style of the TY represents a watershed moment in the history of rabbinic literature. Whereas early Midrash tends to designate a biblical passage and then comment on it, late Midrash, beginning with the TY, tends to integrate the passage and its interpretation into its own retelling of the biblical narrative. In these texts, there is little to no transition between the biblical passage and its interpretation, as the biblical passage is often embedded within the interpretation. At times, the biblical proof text is even omitted altogether. In other words, while early Midrash presents itself as an explicit commentary on the Bible, late Midrash is an attempt to re-narrate the Bible, blending together biblical verses and interpretation. TY literature thus marks the beginning of the rabbinic "rewritten Bible" genre that reaches its apex with the writing of Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer (ca. eighth century). In their retellings, the TY's authors tend to combine many prior exegetical comments found in the classical midrashim (like Genesis Rabbah or Leviticus Rabbah) and weave them into one long and continuous narrative. In addition, to achieve this quality of a "rewritten Bible," TY midrashim generally do not present multiple interpretations of a biblical verse, as earlier midrashic texts do, but rather give only one interpretation—even though this reading draws, sometimes problematically, from the multiple interpretations of earlier rabbinic texts.

While they usually do not mark their sources, TY texts often rely upon—or at least are aware of—earlier rabbinic traditions. Consequently, to fully appreciate the distinctiveness of the TY midrashim and the ways in which they were historically constructed, this study often identifies their textual parallels in pre-TY texts. Relying on Bregman's findings, extant TY texts were redacted either at the end of the Byzantine period in Palestine (the middle stratum, sixth or early seventh century) or soon after the Islamic conquest (the late stratum, eighth or ninth century). They thus, in their final form, postdate the tannaitic works, such as the Mishnah, Tosefta, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Sifre Numbers, and Sifre Deuteronomy (edited ca. third century), and also generally postdate the amoraic texts, such as the Jerusalem Talmud, Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, and Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana (redacted ca. fifth century). Thus, when contemporary Midrash scholars notice differences between TY and pre-TY texts, they typically assume that TY authors are reworking pre-TY texts rather than the other way around. While it is possible that in rare and isolated cases TY midrashim preserve, in full, teachings that predate or are contemporaneous with its amoraic parallels (i.e., they comprise the earliest stratum of Bregman's three-fold division), the fact that TY redactors in these instances decided to preserve specific earlier teachings still exposes something about the TY authors and their exegetical-ideological orientation.

As this study shows, TY texts sometimes produce new exegetical teachings not recorded in any prior rabbinic work. In these instances, one could reasonably assume that the TY author was aware of the earlier traditions and decided to take a new path. This approach implies a conscious privileging of one scriptural reading over another. Alternatively, even if we reject that assumption and argue that the TY's author was unaware of the prior tradition, contrasting the exegeses provides a crucial way to highlight the distinctiveness of the TY.

Exegetical Ethics

As noted above, the sages in the late rabbinic period—most notably in the Babylonian Talmud and the Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu literature—did not base their narratives of theological protest upon their own human authority. Rather, they claimed that these bold scenes had long been hidden within the "divine" words of the Torah. As good exegetes, they were merely discovering them. In this way, the rabbis cleverly justified an innovative and religiously risky project. From a scholarly perspective, however, I argue that such exegetical literature opened a space for Jewish interpreters of that period to express their own personal moral discomfort with specific divine acts found in Scripture. The rabbis' own claims notwithstanding, this boldness tells us less about the Bible than it does about the rabbis' own theology and ethical intuitions.

Consequently, in this study, rabbinic biblical interpretation is used as a tool to reveal rabbinic ethics. As such, the study builds on, but also diverges from, the work of Moshe Halbertal, who, in his book Interpretive Revolutions in the Making, emphasizes the centrality of biblical interpretation for rabbinic ethics. For Halbertal, many sages used their own moral intuitions to guide their interpretation of biblical law. As a result, they neutralized morally troubling divine decrees. Like Halbertal, this study also extracts rabbinic ethics from rabbinic biblical exegesis. But unlike Halbertal, who treats only legal (halakhic) texts, nonlegal (aggadic) texts are dealt with here. 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. In Halbertal's rabbinic texts, the sages interpret biblical dicta through a moral lens to produce a perfect and righteous lawgiver. This type of strategy was also developed by Philo and early Christian exegetes such as Origen (184-253) and Augustine (354-430).

However, this study traces a different and underappreciated reaction to the problematic image of God. Instead of dogmatically defending every divine action or law, even the troubling ones, as the early rabbis and church fathers had done, some sages from the late rabbinic period acknowledged the moral-theological irritant through an act of what I call "protest ventriloquism." In effect, they called attention to the theological problem without resolving it by putting protests into the mouths of biblical heroes. These ancient Jewish devotees of Scripture thus remained in a state of ambivalence or unease with regard to a particular divine action. In the arena of divine law with which Halbertal deals, the dilemma is not just theoretical, but practical, demanding an actual solution. The arena of problematic divine action, on the other hand, reflects a theoretical problem that does not always require an immediate solution. While many aggadot still find ways to resolve the theological crisis, many do not. Accordingly, this study focuses on rabbinic voices that occupy a middle ground on the ethical-exegetical continuum. Rather than responding to troubling passages about God through charitable apologetics and reinterpretation (like Halbertal's texts and those of the church fathers) or, on the other extreme, assuming an evil Old Testament God (like Marcion, for example), this late rabbinic response simply voices its ethical reservations by reimagining the speeches of biblical heroes. It allows the protest to remain standing and God to be left in a state of ethical impunity.

Rabbinic Theology

The dearth of scholarship on the confrontational theme reflects a general scholarly disregard for rabbinic theology. While there is a plethora of works treating nontheological rabbinic subfields such as history, culture, law, literature, and biblical interpretation, the unsystematic theological writings of the sages, with some notable exceptions, have been largely neglected. In fact, the last scholarly book in English focusing exclusively on the rabbinic God appeared over twenty-five years ago. With this in mind, this book examines expressions of theological protest in aggadic sources to highlight, in part, the uniqueness of the rabbinic God in relation to later Jewish conceptions—both philosophical and mystical. I argue that the rabbinic acceptance of confrontation was, in part, fueled by a radical conception of God that was distinctive of the late rabbinic period. Assuming a humanlike body and emotions, the rabbinic God was not understood to be an unapproachable being, but a relational character who participates as a member in society, albeit a privileged one. Indeed, the divine is not reflected upon in isolation as in medieval Jewish philosophy or mysticism, but rather characterized as an entity yearning to be in direct relation to others. Going beyond the moderate anthropomorphism of the Hebrew Bible, the rabbinic God suffers, laughs, cries, kisses people, studies Torah in a yeshiva, follows the commandments (mitzvot), and even spends His time matchmaking and sporting with Leviathan, the monster of the sea. In short, this study proposes that the late rabbinic valorization of theological protest is animated by a distinctive rabbinic theology that reflects the heightened humanity and personality assumed by the rabbinic God.

Finally, this book posits that some sages in the late rabbinic period took the theology of divine humanization to its extreme. They did not automatically assume a morally perfect deity. While fundamentally good, God, like His human creations, does not always make the correct ethical choice. Hence, the act of protest was not deemed a futile expression but one that, in the imagined biblical period at least, could propel God to recognize His ethical shortcomings. Indeed, the widespread motif of divine moral concessions, particularly in the midrashim of Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu , suggests that scholars ought to consider modifying and nuancing their assumption that the sages always imagined God to be morally perfect. For example, in the first half of the twentieth century, Arthur Marmorstein argued that the tannaim (early rabbis) adamantly defended the existence of an ethically infallible God to counter the Marcionite heresy that viewed the Hebrew Bible's God as ruthless and unjust. Here, Marmorstein does not take into account the possibility that this rigid Jewish attitude may have waned over time. Similarly, David Weiss Halivni asserts that the rabbis never consciously set their own sense of morality above a straightforward reading of a "difficult" biblical law since that would have implied that God's morality was in error—and the "Perfect Law Giver" could never err. And, as noted above, Halbertal has argued that the ancient rabbis conceived of God in perfectly righteous terms. For Halbertal, even those early sages who granted interpretive weight to their own moral convictions did so only because they confidently believed their ethical values intuited God's perfect morality.

However, as some late rabbinic passages show God acquiescing to a number of moral critiques, they present a radically different conception of God from the rabbinic texts adduced by Marmorstein, Halivni, and Halbertal. Constructing a "human" God who is not morally perfect, these images sharply contrast with the unchanging and morally infallible God championed by much of ancient Greek philosophy, early Christian thought, and medieval Jewish philosophy. In some aggadot, although God is concerned with and committed to justice and morality, He also recognizes His limitations and fallibility. Most radically, in some of these aggadot, God is willing to reform His methods of governing the world after receiving human input. Thus, in this study, I suggest that, unlike the image of God presented throughout most of the Bible, this late rabbinic God is not the ultimate moral sovereign. Rather than imitating God's own actions, the rules of ethical conduct now emerge through dialogues between God and various biblical heroes. In addition, while these texts imply a profound lesson about divine morality and the possibility of change, they also point, in accordance with the thinking of the late religious humanist David Hartman, to human dignity and empowerment. God, according to some rabbis, reaches the pinnacle of ethical action through His dialogues with mortals. In this way, they grant significant religious value to human moral sensibilities.

Chapter Overview

In its broadest structure, the book is divided into two halves. The first half traces various rabbinic attitudes toward challenging God. It asks: did the sages permit or prohibit it? Did they deem it a vice or virtue? The second half of the book shifts its gaze from the rabbis as evaluators of theological protest to looking at them as its practitioners. Here, I explicate actual critiques of God generated by the rabbis themselves.

Breaking it down more specifically, Chapter 1, "Confrontation as Sin," examines anti-protest traditions found in the Talmud and Midrash—a topic that has been largely ignored by scholars of religion. I argue that early rabbinic opposition to theological protest marks a new moment in the history of Jewish theology. After theorizing why this prohibition emerges at this point, the chapter explicates its exegetical and conceptual basis: why did these tannaim prohibit challenging God, and where in Scripture do they find "clues" to hang this prohibition? The second half of the chapter makes two central arguments. First, I posit that later rabbinic anti-protest texts intensify or radicalize their opposition. While early anti-protest traditions merely prohibit one from challenging God, later aggadot tend to attach harsh punishments to that prohibition. Second, from a comparative perspective, I contend that rabbinic anti-protest sentiments diverge from similar sentiments voiced by the church fathers. While both critique the act of protest on exegetical and (similar) conceptual grounds, they have different ways of reconciling their stringent attitudes with a biblical tradition that seems to tolerate, if not valorize, confronting God. More specifically, I demonstrate that whereas the rabbinic position typically retells the biblical confrontation by having God castigate or punish the protester, early Christian thinkers tend to reject the literal reading of Scripture altogether: any apparent protest by a biblical hero is deemed a dangerous misreading. The chapter concludes by offering possible reasons to account for this difference.

Chapter 2, "From Sin to Virtue," turns to the more lenient rabbinic view as it examines late rabbinic ambivalence toward—or outright endorsement of—the bold act of protest. I argue that this more open attitude surfaces in amoraic literature and intensifies in the late midrashic texts of Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu and the Babylonian Talmud. This parallel development of an "ideological intensification"—on both sides of the protest issue, whether permissive or prohibitive—is not coincidental. It reveals that the question over the legitimacy of challenging God played a central role within late rabbinic culture (fifth to seventh century). To highlight the uniqueness of the rabbinic position that celebrates theological protest, the chapter contrasts rabbinic and early Christian readings on the clay-potter parable found in Isaiah and Jeremiah. This parable, the reader may recall, is of crucial importance to our topic as it was appropriated by the author of Deutero-Isaiah to chastise those who question God. We shall see that, unlike the rabbis, this passage was invoked by the church fathers to quash those who challenge God's ways. The chapter concludes by situating the rabbinic pro-protest phenomenon historically, and speculating as to why these permissive sentiments surface only in late rather than early rabbinic literature. As part of this discussion, the chapter engages with recent scholarship on the relationship between the two late rabbinic corpora of late antiquity: the Babylonian Talmud and the TY midrashim.

Chapter 3, "Varieties of Confrontation," explores different types of theological protest and their implications. The first half of the chapter traces rare moments of rabbinic self-reflection. In them, the rabbis present a third approach to theological protest: some challenges are permitted and some are prohibited. In this regard, three basic types of distinctions are presented, relating to (1) the tone of the critique, (2) the topic of the critique, and (3) the person expressing the critique. To illuminate these discussions, the chapter draws from the philosophical reflections on parrhesia that appear in the Greco-Roman writings of Philodemus (110-40 bce), Philo (20 bce-40 ce), and Plutarch (46-120 ce).

Marking the book's transition from "rabbis on protest" to "rabbis of protest," the second half of the chapter explores the variety of literary contexts and genres used by the sages to situate their own remonstrations. These include (1) courtroom lawsuits, (2) prayers, and (3) parables. This section seeks to understand how these diverse framings affect the nature of the challenge. That is, what function or purpose do these tropes serve the rabbis? Do they intensify the critique or, alternatively, justify it?

Chapter 4, "Confrontation as Ethics," examines the possible factors that motivated the rabbis to produce their protests. After noting their hermeneutical and rhetorical value, the crux of the chapter is devoted to highlighting the ethical dimension. Here, I argue that placing critiques into the mouths of biblical heroes provided the sages with a method to work through their own misgivings and anxieties about problematic divine behavior. In addition, the exegetical dimension provided a safe space for the sages to express their concerns without taking formal responsibility for these irreverent expressions. This rabbinic reflex to challenge God in the face of the theological-moral problem developed on a spectrum between those anti-YHWH thinkers in the pagan, Zoroastrian, and Gnostic world who sought to erode the Old Testament's authority by accentuating God's immoral behavior, and, on the other extreme, early Christian and rabbinic thinkers who dogmatically defended YHWH's ethical perfection at all costs through radical reinterpretation. To make its case, the chapter presents select rabbinic responses to four well-known biblical narratives: (1) The generation of the Flood, (2) Phineas's zealotry, (3) Moses and the Promised Land, and (4) Sarai in Pharaoh's palace. The chapter concludes with a survey of nonrabbinic critiques of the Old Testament God from the second to the ninth century.

Chapter 5, "The Humanization of God," argues that the intensification of divine anthropomorphism in rabbinic thought allowed for, and fueled, the production of these theological protests. After highlighting the ways in which this rabbinic conception of God differs from earlier biblical conceptions, and even more radically from later medieval conceptions (both philosophical and mystical), the chapter argues that many sages did not consider protest to be disrespectful of the human-divine hierarchy because God's human-like personality and striking relational informality with Israel forestalled that concern. There was no ontological divide that required preservation. Arguments with God could be freely expressed just as one argues with a friend. Furthermore, the chapter showcases how the rabbinic humanization of God provided the sages with a mechanism to anchor their confrontations. In a number of late rabbinic passages God is described as being subject to the dictates of Jewish law: just as humanity must follow God's commands, so too God must follow His own commands. With this theological assumption, found nowhere in Scripture, the rabbis acquired a standard by which God's actions could be judged.

Chapter 6, "Divine Concessions," presents the boldest thesis of the book: some late rabbis did not consider God to be morally perfect. To defend this idea, the chapter explores moments in rabbinic (and biblical) literature where God morally retracts from His prior point of view, and moments in rabbinic (and biblical) literature where God ethically concedes error in response to a human critique. I argue that whereas divine retractions and concessions can be found in biblical and amoraic rabbinic literature, these depictions of God reach their most radical articulations and expressions in the writings of the Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu . To illustrate TY's distinctiveness in this area, the chapter presents three case studies: (1) the dictum of transgenerational punishment (Exod. 20:5), (2) the Israelite war against Sihon (Num. 21:21-35), and (3) the laws of the cities of refuge (Num. 35:9-34).

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