CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If God is seen as infallible and morally perfect, how can that view be reconciled with the portrayals of a wrathful God in the Old Testament? The rabbis of ancient Judaism expressed their uncertainty by arguing with God.
A new book, “Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism,” by University of Illinois religion professor Dov Weiss, is the first comprehensive academic look at the Jewish tradition of protest and of expressing doubt about and frustration with God. Weiss writes about rabbinic texts of the 6th and 7th centuries in which rabbis protested and debated against God.
In his youth, Weiss himself struggled with what he read about the actions of God that seemed unfair, and with “how to maintain a commitment to one’s own sense of morality, but at the same time wanting to be part of a religious tradition.” For example, Weiss points out the Bible passage indicating that God can punish children for the sins of their parents.
“That’s obviously very problematic for American ideals of individual responsibility,” he said.
He opens his book with a scene from the TV show “The West Wing,” in which the fictional President Bartlet, a devout Catholic, is alone in a church, castigating God for taking the life of a staff member. Most religious traditions don’t leave room for such anger at and questioning of God.
But the Jewish rabbis also struggled with questions about God, and they protested, Weiss said. They weren’t free to question God themselves, so they did so in their writings by putting the words of protest into the mouths of biblical characters in their retelling of biblical stories. They went so far as to search the Bible for any word they could construe to support their version of how Moses, Jeremiah or Abraham challenged God.
“They were using that as shelter for their radical ideas,” said Weiss, who calls the strategy “protest ventriloquism.”
The book shares passages in the rabbis’ writings in which they show biblical characters challenging God, and even some instances in which they write that God acknowledges that those challenging him are right and that he has erred.
“Many of them saw (protesting) as a sinful act, but many saw it as an act of love. They felt it was morally compelled. If you love somebody and trust somebody, you can engage in critique,” Weiss said.
There were other ways the rabbis challenged God in a permissible way, Weiss said. Challenges by those with a very close relationship with God were accepted, while those with a more distant relationship were not, for example. A protest made in the interests of others rather than in self-interest was acceptable, as was a challenge made in a questioning, rather than critical, tone.
Sometimes protests against God were set in the context of a divine courtroom where God is judge, but in which he is actually on trial. Challenges also came in the forms of prayers or parables.
Weiss discusses why the tradition of protest is particular to the Jewish faith and did not arise in Christianity or Islam.
“In Christianity, from the beginning there is a very strong penetration of philosophy, Greco-Roman thought, that the highest being is perfect,” Weiss said. “There was really no room for protest in the early (Christian) church.”
In order to reconcile the notion that God is morally perfect with biblical stories that indicate otherwise, early Christians would reinterpret the stories as allegories that reveal that God is fully good.
But many rabbis rejected the notion of God being perfect and unchanging, Weiss said. Ancient Judaism had a more mythic conception of God, and the rabbis humanized God far more than other religions.
At the time of the rabbinic protests, a parallel concept had arisen in Greek culture – that of “parrhesia,” or the virtue of speaking frankly and openly to power.
Weiss believes factors that contributed to the Jewish protest theology include the victimization of Jews and their lack of power, and their desire to believe that God was loving and would not abandon them, leading to a view of a more humanized God.
He said protest theology emerged again in Hasidic literature and then after the Holocaust, with Elie Wiesel and other modern Jewish theologians continuing the tradition of protest.
“It’s a radical book,” Weiss said, explaining that some branches of Judaism see protest against God as heresy. “This book is going to raise some eyebrows in the Jewish world.”