Sunday 28 June 2020


For a CAD -Tour of the Second Temple by Rabbi Boruch Clinton, see here.


A common thread in many of the articles on KotzkBlog is the multiplicity of rabbinical views on ideas which are today often presented from one side only. 

In this article, drawn from the research of Professor David Stern[1] of Harvard University, we will examine two early rabbinical texts which portray two very different perspectives of G-d.

Professor Stern translated two texts from Eicha Rabba, which is a Midrashic commentary on Eicha (Lamentations) originating around the Talmudic or Amoraic period (somewhere between 400-700 CE). 

This book is one of the oldest Midrashic works and although it is sometimes ascribed to Rav Kahana, Stern is not certain about the authorship and simply refers to an ‘anonymous’ writer.
This Midrashic work was apparently part of a Petichta or Introduction to the synagogue service on the Ninth of Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of both First and Second Temples.


Our two texts deal with G-d’s alleged reaction to the destruction of the Temples – and they differ dramatically from each other.  The first text has G-d emotionally devastated in the aftermath of the destruction, while the second text depicts G-d as aloof and distant.

Essentially the texts put forth two diverse worldviews on G-d and His interaction with, and intervention in the affairs of humankind.

Stern writes:

“[T]he portraits of God in the two narratives are so entirely different as to be almost incompatible. In the first narrative, God identifies Himself so totally with the Jew’s catastrophe that, by the narrative’s conclusion, He virtually claims to be its sole victim as well as chief mourner.

In the second narrative, by contrast, He is portrayed as a distant, even indifferent, judge, who is moved to show compassion to the Jews only when the matriarch Rachel persuades Him that His motives are petty ones, unworthy of God...

Their characterizations of God are at once extreme and compelling, and highly problematic for any normative conception of divinity.”

What is significant and noteworthy about our two narratives is the very generous use of anthropomorphisms (describing G-d in detailed emotional, mundane and human terms).
In order not to fatigue the Reader with constant technical references to prophetic biblical verses, I have summarized the salient points of the narratives as follows:


In this narrative, G-d is portrayed as empathic, emotional and intertwined within the destiny of the people:

When the Holy One...sought to destroy the Temple, He said, “All the time that I am inside it, the nations of the world cannot harm the Temple. But now I will turn my eyes aside and take a vow not to live in it until the end time. Let the enemies come and destroy the Temple!”...
It was at that time that the enemy entered the sanctuary and burned it...

Once it burned down, the Holy One...said, “I no longer have a residence on earth. I will remove My Presence...and ascend to my original habitation...”

Note how G-d is now depicted as changing his mind:

At that time, the Holy One...broke into weeping. He said, “Woe to Me! What have I done? I caused My Shekhina to dwell below for Israel’s sake, and now that they have sinned, I have returned to My original place.

Banish the thought!
I would have become a laughing stock for the gentiles, a thing of ridicule to human beings!”

Now the angel Metatron, (who features often, particularly in early mystical literature) enters the narrative:

At that moment, Metatron came and fell on his face, and said, “Master of the Universe! Allow me to weep! But You – do not weep!”

The Holy One said to him, “If you do not leave Me alone to weep now, I will take Myself to a place that you have no permission to enter, and there I will weep...”

G-d is now described as summoning the angels to visit the place of destruction:

The Holy One...said to the ministering angels, “Come! Let us go, you and I, and see what the enemies have done in My house.”

Immediately the angelic host and the Holy One...went, and Jeremiah went in front of Him.
As soon as the Holy One...saw the Temple, He said, “Yes indeed! This is My house...The enemy came and did to it as it wished.”

At that time, the Holy One...began to weep, saying, “Woe to Me for My house. My children, where are you? My priests, where are you? My lovers, where are you?... I warned you but you did not repent.

Then G-d asks Jeremiah to call the Forefathers:

“The Holy One addressed Jeremiah, “I am like a man who had a single son for whom he built a wedding chamber, and the son died inside it. And yet you [Jeremiah] feel no hurt for Me, and none for my son!?

Go! Summon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and Moses from their graves – they know how to weep!”

Jeremiah said, “Master of the universe! I do not know where Moses is buried.”
The Holy One...replied, “Go stand on the banks of the Jordan, raise your voice, and shout, Ben Amram...Arise! And behold your flock whom the enemy has consumed.”

Jeremiah immediately went to the Cave of Machpelah and said to the patriarchs. “Arise! The time has come when your presence is required before the Holy One...”
“Why? They asked.
“ I don’t know,” he replied – because he was afraid that they would say, It was in your days that this happened to our children!

Jeremiah left them, and stood on the banks of the Jordan, and called out: “Ben Amram...Arise! The time has come when your presence is requested before the Holy One...”
Moses asked, “Why today is my presence requested before the Holy One...?”
“I don’t know, ”Jeremiah answered.

Moses left Jeremiah and went off to the ministering angels, for he knew them from the time of the giving of the Torah. “Heavenly attendants!” he said to them, “Do you have any idea why my presence is requested before the Holy One...?”

“Ben Amram!” they said, “Don’t you know that the Temple has been destroyed and the Israelites exiled?”

Moses cried out aloud, and he wept until he reached the patriarchs, and they too ripped their garments in mourning. They placed their hands upon their heads, and they cried out and wept all the way to the gates of the Temple.

As soon as the Holy One...saw them, then immediately “the Lord God of hosts summoned on that day to weeping and lamenting...”(Isaiah 22:12) If it [the idea that G-d cried][2] were not explicitly written in Scripture it would be impossible to say it.

They went weeping from one gate to the next, like a man whose deceased kin lies before him [Onen[3]] and the Holy One lamented saying, “Woe to that king who triumphed in his youth, and who failed in his own age.”

According to this narrative, G-d, the angels, the patriarchs and Moshe are all crying over the destruction of the Temple, with the apparent exception of Jeremiah.


In the second narrative, however, G-d is portrayed as somewhat aloof, distant and to an extent unmoved by the vicissitudes of the people:

Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman said: When the Temple was destroyed, Abraham came before the Holy One...weeping, tearing at his beard, pulling out the hair on his head, beating his face, ripping his garments, ash upon his head.

He paced about the Temple, lamenting and crying out, and said to the Holy One...”Why am I different from every other nation...that I have come to such shame and disgrace!?”
When the ministering angels saw Abraham, they too joined in lament...

The ministering angels said to the Holy One...”You did not even give the people of Israel the same consideration You gave the generation of Enosh, who were the first to worship idols!”
It was then that the Holy One...turned to the ministering angels and asked them, “What are you doing, composing laments on this matter and standing in rows?”

This is the point where the second narrative changes dramatically from the first. G-d is no longer trying to get an emotional response from man and He cannot understand why man is making such a fuss and adopting such severe mourning practices.

“They replied, “Master of the universe! It is on account of Abraham, your loving friend, who has come to Your House and lamented and wept! Why have You paid no attention to him?
The Holy One replied, “Since the time my friend left Me to go to his eternal resting-place, he has not visited My house. And now, ‘why should my beloved be in My house?” (Jeremiah 11:15).”

Abraham addressed the Holy One...”Master of the universe! Why have you exiled my children and handed them over to the nations who murdered them in all kinds of horrible deaths?

G-d’s response here is depicted as completely unemotional and, simply, matter-of-fact:

“Your children sinned by transgressing against the entire Torah, against all twenty-two letters of the alphabet, of which the Torah is composed...”

Abraham said to the Holy One...”Who will offer testimony against Israel that they transgressed against Your Torah?”

[God] replied. “Let the Torah come and testify against Israel.”
The Torah immediately came to be a witness against them. Abraham said to the Torah, “My daughter, are you really going to testify against Israel that they transgressed your commandments? Have you no shame in my presence? 

Remember the day that the Holy One...took you around to every nation and people, but no one wished to accept you – until my people came to Mount Sinai and accepted you and honoured you. And now, you are about to testify against them on the day of your misfortune!?”
When the Torah heard this, she stepped to the side and did not testify against them.

A few other ‘witnesses’ are brought (such as the twenty-two letters of the alphabet, the letters bet and gimmel) and Avraham reminds G-d that he was prepared to offer his son “And will You not remember this for my sake and have mercy on my children?

But G-d remains unmoved.

Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe also come pleading for G-d’s compassion and bewildered as to why G-d allowed such destruction. And G-d remains unmoved.

Eventually, Moshe says to Jeremiah:

“Lead me! I will go and gather them [the exiles][4] back.”

G-d was so aloof that Moshe wanted to act for G-d and show some interest and compassion.

 Jeremiah replied, “It is impossible to walk on the road because of the dead.” Moses said, “Let us go nonetheless.”

Immediately Moses went, with Jeremiah before him, until they reached the rivers of Babylon. When the Jews saw Moses, they said to each other, “Moses has risen from his grave to redeem us from the hands of our enemies.”

Note again that it is Moshe and not G-d, who is taking the initiative, until:

A heavenly voice called out, saying, “This exile has been decreed by Me!”  Moses immediately said to the Israelites, “It is impossible to restore you...” And then he left them.
Moses returned to the patriarchs...Immediately they all began to weep and lament...

Contrast this with the emotional and caring G-d of the first narrative who couldn’t get Jeremiah to cry with Him. In this narrative, they cry, but G-d remains unmoved. In fact, Moshe has to assume the role of a caring G-d:

“And again, Moses opened and said, “O captors! By your lives! If you come to kill, do not murder cruelly. Do not annihilate them entirely. Do not slay a son in his father’s presence, or a daughter in her mother’s...” 

But the wicked Chaldeans [the Neo-Babylonians who destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE] did not act as he requested. They set a child before its mother and then told the father, “Arise! Slay him.”

The mother wept. Her tears fell upon the child, and the father hung his head.
Again, Moses said before Him, “Master of the universe!...they have killed countless mothers with their children, and You have remained silent!

The narrative concludes with Rachel arriving on the scene and convincing G-d to promise a future redemption. Rachel pleads:

“Jacob your servant loved me exceptionally, and on my behalf he slaved seven years for my father. When those seven years were father plotted to switch me with someone else for my sister’s sake...Feeling compassion for my sister, that she not be disgraced, I suppressed my desires.   That night they substituted my sister for me and presented her to my husband in my place...

What’s more, I hid beneath the bed where he lay with my sister, and when he spoke to her, she was silent and I replied to his every word, so that he never recognized my sister’s voice...and I did not permit her to be disgraced or shamed.

But You!... Why are You jealous of idols that are without substance? Why have you exiled my children, to be slain by the sword and to be abused as the enemy has wished?”

It was only when Rachel called G-d out on the issue of Him standing back and being indifferent and unemotional, that suddenly we see a turnabout in G-d’s reaction:

“Immediately, the compassion of the Holy One...was aroused. He said, “For your sake Rachel, I will restore Israel to its place [in the time of the future redemption].”

And even this ‘turn-about’ was not a ‘real’ change in nature of G-d, but a concession only for Rachel. Thus, according to this second narrative, G-d essentially remains aloof, distant, transcendent and not easily persuaded even by Moshe and the Forefathers to take an active role in worldly affairs. 


This particular style of older rabbinic writing does not sit easily on the modern ear. The idea of G-d possessing emotions and conversing like a human was common during the Talmudic period but later rabbis like Maimonides (1135-1204) were critical of it.

Howard Kreisel writes:

 “Maimonides explicitly rejects the notion that God possesses character traits, together with any other attribute characterizing corporeal entities, a notion which in all probability does not underlie his rabbinic sources.”[5]

But, putting aside the ancient style and anthropomorphic nature of both our narratives, the interesting notion emerges that there may have been two very different approaches to the understanding, and the definition, of G-d.

The first narrative describes G-d as personal, caring and even emotional. The second describes G-d as unknowable, distant, and transcendent of the affairs of this world.

The fist view does not come as a surprise. That view has been adopted by the mainstream and continues to be the dominant position today. The second view does come as a surprise especially for such early rabbinic writing.

The idea of a transcendent, unmovable and unknowable G-d, is something we have come to expect from the writings of Maimonides[6] (who is even wary of the effectiveness of human prayer and intervention in matters relating to G-d[7]) – but not from earlier rabbinic sources.

From our narratives, it seems that these rabbinic debates on the nature of G-d may have been going on much earlier - and may have been more fundamental than we would have imagined. 

Could Maimonides have based himself on such early rabbinical thought? If so, his bold ideology in this regard may not have been such a philosophical ‘chiddush’ or novelty.


[1] David Stern and Mark J. Mirsky, Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature. 2. Two Narratives About God. (Petichta 24.)
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] An Onen is one whose family member has passed away but not yet buried. This is the most intense period of grief.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Howard Kreisel, Imitatio Dei in Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed.”
[6] According to Maimonides “one must believe in a timeless, changeless, immaterial deity who is one in every respect and unlike anything in the created order. A person who fails to recognize such a deity is accorded the status of an idolater no matter how many other commandments [s]he may fulfil or how fervently [s]he may fulfil them. Simply put, to worship God under a false description is not to worship God at all. 
And According to Maimonides, all of Jewish law aims at two things: the improvement of the body and the improvement of the soul. The former is in every case a means to the latter. The soul is improved by acquiring correct opinions and eventually knowledge on everything humans are capable of knowing. The more knowledge the soul acquires, the more it is able to fulfill the commandment (Deuteronomy 6:5) to love God. The biggest stumbling block to love of God is the belief that the only way to remain true to the Bible is to interpret it literally. The result of literal interpretation is a material conception of God, which, in Maimonides’ opinion, amounts to idolatry.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)   Square parentheses mine.
[7] In Maimonides’ view, G-d is sometimes is more interested in Hashgacha Kelalit (where the species is kept in balance but not necessarily the individual entities within the whole) rather than Hashgacha Peratit (where each and every entity and being is individually sustained).


  1. Fascinating. I was familiar with these Midrashim from the Tzeno Ureno (the Artscroll translation) - but that merges them into one narrative! I had no idea they were originally two separate Midrashim.

  2. Yes, I have also seen the two blended into one single story. I think that's how they are usually presented.

  3. shouldnt we consider the possibility that the divergent midrashim are split not on the nature of God, but on the appropriate reaction to the churban

  4. We could. But I don't see how we can get away from the idea that G-d is still depicted in two very different lights in each version. It was, after all, the same churban that G-d was reacting to but portrayed in different ways.