Sunday 16 April 2023

425) Challenging G-d in rabbinic writings


Tanchuma-Yelammedeinu named after the common phrase Yelamedeinu rabbeinu: "Let our master teach us." 


This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Dov Wiess[1] and discusses the changing rabbinic perspectives on the permissibility, or otherwise, of arguing with, or challenging G-d. The Torah is replete with references to Avraham, Moshe, Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk and even some Psalms challenging and protesting various actions of G-d. Talmudic and Midrashic literature followed on a similar path by an expansion of this style of protest writing, where the rabbis placed additional confrontational words into the mouths of the biblical characters they commented upon. Thus, biblical and rabbinic literature is overwhelmingly in favour of humans directing challenges to G-d when they feel they have been unjustly treated. These bold and challenging rabbinic texts flourish and peak particularly at the end of the Talmudic period (around the seventh century). 

However, Weiss points that that a significant body of rabbinic literature does not follow this pattern and, instead, sharply condemns the act of challenging G-d. While clearly not the widely held nor the majority view, these condemnations of critiquing G-d begin to appear in the literature during a much earlier era, around the Mishnaic period of the first and second centuries. These anti-protest rabbinic writings have often been ignored in favour of the more popular and widespread pro-protest writings, although both theological positions did overlap and existed side by side. 

Weiss has collected and analysed this less-known anti-protest genre of rabbinical writings and has made some fascinating observations regarding the timing of its emergence on the stage of history. 

Weiss also notes that as we move towards the end of the Talmudic period and even beyond into the post-amoraic (post-Talmudic) writings, both genres the popular pro-protest and the less-known anti-protest rabbinic writings become correspondingly more radicalised. In other words, the protests against G-d become far more dramatised than the way they were depicted earlier, and the conservative anti-protest writings not only condemn those who dare to challenge G-d,  but begin to ascribe harsh punishments for those who do so. 

Later post-Talmudic pro-protest texts 

An example of the ‘radicalisation’ of the mainstream pro-protest literature from the later post-Talmudic texts can be found in the audacious challenge to G-d, where the rabbis conceptualise Moshe as criticising G-d’s notion of punishing the descendants of a sinner. This rabbinic criticism is so sharp that it does not shy away from challenging a statement in the Ten Commandments that G-d punishes children for the sins of the parents (Exodus 20:5). In Tanchuma-Yelamedeinu[2] texts (around the seventh century and beyond), Moshe is said to have challenged G-d on this matter because it is unjust and unfair. Nowhere is the objection raised of Moshe’s audacity to challenge G-d. On the contrary, in these later seventh-century texts, G-d is said to have lauded Moshe and is depicted as admitting to His mistake: 

“You have taught me something [למדתני] I will nullify my words and establish your words” (Bamidbar Rabbah II, 19:33). 

Although this is pro-protest literature in the extreme, it does represent the overwhelming rabbinic attitude which very at home with the notion of confronting G-d. 

By contrast, let us now turn to examples of the  more conservative and anti-protest literature. 

Earlier anti-protest writings from the third century 

Here are two examples of texts from the earlier Mishanic period (around the second and third centuries) which in contradistinction particularly to the later pro-protest texts strongly condemn those who challenge G-d’s ways: 

Example 1)

 “The Rock [הצור] [Deuteronomy 32:4]— [i.e., G-d]—His deeds are perfect [תמים פעלו] [ibid.]: His actions in regard to all creatures of the world are perfect; one should not murmur against His actions [ואין להרהר אחר מעשיו] None of them can look at Him and say: Why should the generation of the Flood have been swept away? Why should the people of the tower [of Babel] have been scattered from one end of the earth to the other? Why should the people of Sodom have been swept away by fire and brimstone? Why should Aaron have assumed the priesthood? Why should David have assumed the kingship? Why should Korah and his followers have been swallowed up by the earth? Therefore the verse goes on to say: Yea, all His ways are justice [כי כל דרכיו משפט] [ibid.]—He sits in judgment [בדין] on everyone and dispenses to each what is appropriate for him” (Sifrei Devarim, Haʾazinu, 307). 

It is interesting to note that the original biblical text: “The Rock’s [i.e., G-d’s] deeds are perfect, all His ways are justice” (Deuteronomy 32:4), upon which this early Midrash elaborates, has no reference to challenging G-d yet it expounds on the ‘prohibition’ to protest or “murmur against His actions [ואין להרהר אחר מעשיו],” even in instances where G-d’s action may seem unfair to us, like the flood etc. 

Example 2): 

“He is one; who can dissuade him? [והוא באחד ומי ישיבנו] Whatever he desires, he does [ונפשו אותה ויעש] [ Job 23:13]: … [Interpreting this verse, Rabbi Akiva] said: One should not challenge [אין להשיב] the words of Him who spoke and the world came into being, for every word is in accordance with truth [אמת] and every decision in accordance with justice [בדין]” (Mechilta deRabbi Yishmael, Beshalach, Exodus 15:19). 

Both these examples of anti-protest texts (from the Sifrei and Mechilta) stem from around the earlier Mishnaic period and are third-century Midrashic commentaries. 

In the second example, the Mechilta quotes Rabbi Akiva who lived during the second century. His commentary is surprising because he bases himself on a verse from the Book of Job which is the most pro-protest biblical work − the exemplar of biblical protest literature where Job challenges G-d for never changing His mind no matter whether for good or for bad. Yet Rabbi Akiva seems to invert the entire tenor of the Book of Job by declaring that one should not challenge or protest the ways of G-d [אין להשיב]! Weiss remarks: 

“Remarkably, a biblical passage that critiques God becomes the very source of its prohibition!... These early rabbinic voices of opposition to confronting God stand in stark contrast to the Hebrew Bible[3] and Second Temple literature, where theological protest is not foreclosed as a legitimate response to suffering or unethical divine behavior” (Weiss 2015:371). 

Weiss cites Yochanan Muffs[4] who writes: 

“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. Ezekiel 22:3)” Muffs 2005:184). 

Weiss reiterates that: 

“the tannaitic [Mishnaic] texts of Sifrei Devarim and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael [in the two abovementioned examples][5] signal a new moment in the history of Jewish theology. Their explicit and unequivocal opposition to an individual confronting God stands in sharp contrast to virtually everything we encounter in the Hebrew Bible” (Weiss 2015:372). 

A historical context for this dramatic shift in protest ideology? 

Weiss then turns to what he describes as a “crucial historical question” which is why the overt pro-protest literature so characteristic of the Tanach (and even the apocryphal works)[6] suddenly changed to a profound anti-protest position during Mishnaic times in the early centuries of the common era? 

Here Weiss, drawing on the scholarship of Arthur Marmorstein (1882-1946),[7] provides a possible historical context which may explain why the rabbis of the early centuries of the common era made such a drastic departure from what should have been their precedent based on the pro-protest style of the Tanach. 

Marcion, Gnostics, Platonists and Pagan 

Historically, the pivot point seems to have been the second century. The Christian dualist Marcion of Sinope (85-160) directed some harsh theological criticisms at Judaism and the Jewish G-d. He is known as a dualist (as opposed to a monotheist) because he spoke of two gods and some of this thought was aligned with Gnosticism.[8] One was the higher transcendent G-d of Christianity and the New Testament, while the other was the lower Demiurge or the ‘worker G-d’ which was the G-d of the Jews and the Old Testament. The Jewish G-d was jealous, liked wars, preoccupied with laws and punishment. This Demiurge inhabited a physical body, had physical attributes and walked in the Garden of Eden looking for Adam, indicating that he had no universal knowledge like the superior G-d of the Christians. Christianity was therefore something completely new and was not a continuation of Judaism. Marcion spoke of the evil Jewish G-d which was the antithesis of the Good Lord of the New Testament, and enumerated thirty-one fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity. 

Marcion was deemed too radical, even by the church, and he had his share of Christian detractors like the early church fathers including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian who declared Marcion to be a heretic of the church. Weiss points out that proto-Orthodox Christians were defending: 

“the sanctity of the Old Testament and the righteousness of the Old Testament God against the attacks waged by select gnostics as well as by pagan intellectuals who denied the divinity and authority of Old Testament” (Weiss 2015:273). 

The writings against the ‘inferior’ Jewish G-d 

This was a time when charges and attacks against the authority of the Old Testament were hurled at the Jews from many sectors of the population. A Coptic Gnostic text (ironically similar to the later Tanchuma-Yelamedeinu literature also) criticises the Old Testament’s notion of the Decalogue’s prescription for intergenerational punishment, and described it as a “malicious envier.” A Gnostic text referred to the Jewish G-d as evil as ”Saklas” (Satan). The more generous texts referred to the Jewish G-d as “imperfect.” 

The second-century Greek philosopher, Middle Platonist and opponent of early Christianity, Celsus, similarly criticised the Hebrew Bible saying it was childlike, with references to G-d resting, retracting and speaking in anger. 

It must be noted that these attacks proved just as problematic for the proto-Orthodox Christians as for the Jews. Thus, Christian thinkers like Origen produced works such as Contra Celsum, and Tertullian produced his Against Marcion. 

A rabbinic response? 

While all this disruption, undermining, charges against and counter-charges in defence of the fundamentals of Judaism and its Torah and its G-d were taking place at that crucial juncture of the second century, it is difficult to imagine that the Jewish world would just have sat silently by. If there was a pronounced proto-Orthodox Christian response in defence of the Jewish G-d, surely there must have been a rabbinic response as well. Weiss, in concert with Marmorstein, therefore suggests that these theological attacks against the Jewish G-d: 

“must have reached the ancient rabbis. Like the proto-Orthodox Christian theologians, R. Akiva and other Tannaim responded to these heretical claims by proclaiming a morally perfect and just God. Any admission or hint of divine error would only bolster the audacious charges of these Marcionites, gnostics, and pagans” (Weiss 2015:373). 

Weiss cautions us not to overly rely on notions of “influence” because in recent times scholars have questioned the absolute reliability of reconstructing “the precise historical context in which rabbinic theology was produced” (Weiss 2015:3740. Nevertheless, it still seems reasonable to assume that these vicious attacks against Jews, Judaism and their G-d must have evoked some form of response from the Mishnaic rabbis. 

It is against this backdrop that one might be able to view emerging anti-protest statements like the two examples from the Sifrei and Mechilta (mentioned above) which suddenly go completely against the ethos of all the pro-protest biblical and post-biblical literature that came before. It seems logical that this new rabbinic genre of anti-protest writings developed during the same second-century period when the fundamentals of an ethical Jewish G-d were under scrutiny and attack. This might explain why there was suddenly this paradigm shift and a total reworking of some of the difficult biblical narratives and ideas. 

To be the Jewish counter-voice to the likes of Marcion, Celsus, Gnostics, Platonists and Pagans who had minimised the Jewish G-d, the rabbis from that era had to proclaim that G-d was indeed just, truthful and perfect. They would even go one step further, and because of the controversy of the times, they would indeed prohibit the very notion of questioning, challenging and protesting the deeds and commandments of the Jewish G-d. The Jewish G-d was the epitome of Temimut, perfection, and not subject to challenges, critiques, questions or suggestions. 

A third-century commentary entitled Midrash Tannaim, seems to exemplify this very notion: 

“You shall be perfect [תמים] before God [Deut 18:13]: Rabbi Eliezer the son of Jacob said: You shall not critique [God] [תהרהר] after [receiving] afflictions, and so did David say, “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor do I have a haughty look. I do not have great aspirations, or concern myself with things that are beyond me” [Psalms 131:1]—for I did not critique [הרהרתי] my Maker” (Midrash Tannaim to Deuteronomy 18:13). 

In this Midrash, just like the second-century Rabbi Akiva inverted the Book of Job from pro-protest to anti-protest literature, here too Rabbi Eliezer take the Books of Psalms, and a verse promoting basic humility according to its simple meaning, and turns it into a proclamation against challenging G-d. This becomes our third example of this new and emerging genre of anti-protest rabbinic writings form that same second and third-century Mishnaic period.

These statements then reverberated within some later rabbinic texts as well. Thus, we find that the Talmud similarly declares: 

“Rava said: ‘Dust should be put in the mouth of Job, because he makes himself the colleague of heaven [חברותא כלפי שמיא].’

Rav [further] said: ‘Dust should be placed in the mouth of Job: is there a slave who rebukes his master [כלום יש עבד שמוכיח את רבו]?’” (Bava Batra 16a). 

In a similar fashion, a telling fifth-century Midrash from Bereishit Rabbah, based on the verse referring to the flood: “I will blot out [אמחה] from the earth the men whom I created” (Genesis 6:7), comments: 

“I [God] can protest [ממחה] my creatures, but my creatures cannot protest me.” 

Once again, an anti-protest interpretation is taken out of its simple meaning and context (and anachronistically read as an Aramaic word [מחי] which means ‘protest’ not ‘blot out’ as originally intended). 

Weiss suggests that the reason this anachronistic and out-of-context interpretation is used here, is because it is a verse relating to the flood an act of G-d that attracted much criticism for its ethics and morality, and the Midrash used it as another appropriate opportunity to present an anti-protest stance before the question of ethics can even be raised. 

Weiss observes: 

“the rabbinic authors warn their readers to ignore or bracket the problem, to refrain from judging God. Quite cleverly, they do so not by basing these sentiments on their own authority, but by reading these sentiments back into the problematic textual passages themselves. The words of Scripture that communicate the problem on a surface level also communicate its appropriate religious response” (Weiss 2015:379). 

Radicalisation over time of both pro and anti-protest approaches 

While Rabbi Akiva and some of the other Mishnaic rabbis we have discussed, all prohibit the act of protesting G-d, they are relatively moderate in that they do not prescribe any punishment for challenging G-d. However, as we move toward the end of the Talmudic period and beyond, the views become more radicalised, as punishments are now attached as a consequence of challenging G-d. 

David Kraemer[9] reminds us that despite all the anti-protest texts we have seen here, the dominant rabbinic view continued to follow the biblical model encouraging the protest and questioning of G-d. Our anti-protest texts highlighted in this article are significant but do not reflect the overriding mainstream rabbinic approach permitting protest. Weiss maintains that specifically because the pro-protest (majority) camp had ultimately maintained its ground in rabbinic thought, the anti-protest (minority) camp could only fight their opposition by radicalising their position and instituting on the notion of severe punishments for those who dare to question G-d. 

An example of this form of punishment can be seen in a teaching of R. Elazar ben Perat (who Weiss suggests succeeded R. Akiva in the conservative camp): 

“Levi ordained a fast but no rain fell. He thereupon exclaimed: ‘Master of the Universe, you did go up and take your seat on high, but you have no mercy upon your children.’ Rain fell, but he became lame. R. Elazar [the son of Pedat] said: ‘Let a man never address himself in a reproachful manner towards God [lit. hurl words heavenwards] [אל יטיח אדם דברים כלפי מעלה], seeing that one great man did so and he became lame’” (b. Taanit 25a). 

Weiss sums up his findings as follows: 

“This intensified opposition should be seen as occurring in parallel with the emerging celebration of protest in the late rabbinic period, and further underscores how questions surrounding theological protest were of central importance to late rabbinic culture” (Weiss 2015:392). 

The differences between early conservative Christian and early conservative rabbinic anti-protest literature 

A very interesting observation that Weiss makes is that there is an important difference between the early conservative rabbinic scholars and the early conservative Christian scholars when it comes to anti-protest biblical texts. The early conservative Christian scholars often deny that protests ever took place in biblical literature and they rework the biblical narratives to maintain this position. 

For example, the Latin church father Tertullian (160–225 CE) writes concerning Job: 

“By all [Job’s] pains he was not drawn away from his reverence for God; but he has been set up as an example and testimony to us, for the thorough accomplishment of patience … What a bier for the devil God erected in the person of that hero! What a banner did he rear over the enemy of his glory, when, at every bitter message, that man uttered nothing out of his mouth but thanks to God.”[10] 

However, as we have seen, the conservative anti-protest rabbinic scholars do not generally deny that biblical characters protested G-d, but they criticised the biblical figures for doing so, even though no such criticism appears in the Torah. On the other hand, Christian scholars were “hesitant to critique biblical heroes…by denying that protests against God ever took place” (Weiss 2015:392). 


I always read Professor Dov Weiss’ writing with great interest. What strikes me about the matter of the sudden and counterintuitive emergence of a body of anti-protest literature which seems to go absolutely against the grain of everything we read from biblical and post-biblical sources, is that it is not sufficient just to say “the Midrash says,” or “the Mishna tells us,” without also trying to understand the context behind the Midrash or Mishna. Without a context, these rabbinic writings would appear rather haphazard and without a consistent direction. Context matters; and a text void of context leaves the student poorer.

[1] Weiss, D., 2015, ‘The Sin of Protesting God in Rabbinic and Patristic Literature’, AJS Review, 39:2, 367–392.

[2] Tanchuma-Yelamedeinu literature includes, Midrash Tachuma (to the entire Pentateuch), large sections of Shemot Rabbah, Bamidbar Rabbah, Devarim Rabbah and Pesikta Rabbati (some material can also be found in Bereishit Rabbah and Pesikta deRav Kahana). This literature is written in late Rabbinic Hebrew, with little Aramaic. It is called Tanchuma-Yelamedeinu because the expression yelammedenu rabbenu "Let our master teach us" is frequently used. It is difficult to date theses texts accurately but Tanchuma-Yelammedenu literature is generally considered to have developed toward the end of the Byzantine period in Palestine (fifth–seventh century), although it continued to evolve and spread throughout the Diaspora well into the middle ages, sometimes developing different recensions of a common text. (See,

[3] The only real example of biblical text denying the right of an individual to challenge God is found in Isaiah where G-d is to have castigated those who were upset with Him for bringing about Israel’s redemption through the nonconventional means of a gentile king: “Shame on him who asks his father, ‘What are you begetting?’” (Isaiah 45:9–10).

[4] Yochanan Muffs, Y., 2005, ‘The Personhood of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith, and the Divine Image’, Jewish Lights, Woodstock.

[5] Square brackets are mine.

[6] Such as 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra.

[7] Arthur Marmorstein, A., 1929, ‘The Background of the Haggadah’, Hebrew Union College Annual 6, 141–53.

[8] Technically, Marcion was not a true Gnostic because Gnostics believed that humans had a piece or ‘spark’ of G-d within them and thus G-d and humanity and creation were inseparable. Marcion, on the other hand maintained that the Christian G-d was completely removed from creation and totally transcendent.

[9] David Charles Kraemer, D. C., 1995, Responses to Suffering in Classical Rabbinic Literature, Oxford University Press, New York, 150-71.

[10] Alexander Roberts et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885), 3:707.

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