Pious Irreverence

Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism

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Dov Weiss
Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , July
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Pious Irreverence is highly recommended for readers interested in Jewish theology, midrash, and the boundaries of authoritative religious stances. Dov Weiss opens the book by observing that Judaism is commonly known as a religion that values argument with God, and his research centers on late midrashic sources in which this argument is highly prominent. By examining a textual corpus, Weiss provides a valuable study of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu midrashic literature, a late and refined type of midrash, which adds to our understanding of the historical development of rabbinic sources. This facet of the book contributes to the response to Rachel Anisfeld’s call for “a literary history of rabbinic literature or of rabbinic midrash,” extending in time beyond her treatment of Amoraic sources of the third and fourth centuries CE (Sustain Me With Raison-Cakes: Pesikta deRav Kahana and the Popularization of Rabbinic Judaism, Brill, 2009, 10).

Thematically, Weiss writes that his “criteria for inclusion” of sources includes a range of types of confrontation, including “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” (3).

Textually, Tanhuma-Yelammedenu literature “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” (11). This literature is notable in part because it “tends to integrate the [biblical] passage and its interpretation into its own retelling of the biblical narrative” (13). Weiss’s study covers sources up through the Amoraic period as predecessors of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu literature, and then he focuses on this midrashic literature from the sixth to the ninth centuries CE (14). A key point in Weiss’s argument regarding rabbinic theology is that the “sages in the late rabbinic period” did not assume that God was morally perfect: “While fundamentally good, God, like His human creations, does not always make the correct ethical choice.” Addressing protest toward God, then, “could propel God to recognize His ethical shortcomings” (16-17).

In Weiss’s book, chapter 1 presents rabbinic prohibitions against theological protest; chapter 2 upholds the legitimacy of such protest; and chapters 3-6 examine the nuances in the intermediate position that some types of challenges to God are permitted, while others are not. Weiss also considers sources beyond rabbinic midrash, such as philosophical reflections in Greco-Roman literature (88-89). A particularly interesting component of Weiss’s analysis is his “map” of “the variety of confrontational types in rabbinic literature.” He shows that “theological protest” was “a veritable speech act embarked on by the rabbis” (104) that includes the forms of a lawsuit, a prayer, and a parable. Weiss’s argument regarding the form of the lawsuit, for example, is that the courtroom setting “sanctions or legitimizes the right of the confronter to challenge God, …as courtroom procedure provides claimants with a validating structure and safe space to express their opinions.” At the same time, the courtroom imagery upholds God as “judge alone” who “determines the verdict” (109). More generally, the use of lawsuits, prayers, and parables as forms of protest against God—in Tanhuma-Yelammedu midrash and its precedents—“intensifies the challenge” by giving legitimacy to “the daring speech.” These forms also present the protests in ways that reinforce piety (119).

Weiss’s study offers insights regarding the history of rabbinic theology. Three examples illustrate these contributions. First, Weiss presents and analyzes sources that show that “in many instances Jewish ethical sensibilities emerge out of a profound moral crisis with the biblical God” (148). Second, in some midrashic accounts of rabbinic protest against God, the deity “is subject to the Jewish law; because of that, God is at times accused of hypocritically violating the Torah. This theological notion that God abides by his own mitzvot is not found in Scripture” (155). Third, “challenges against God for breaking halakha most often appear in relation to interpersonal laws” (159). In sum, Tanhuma-Yelammedenu midrashic literature presents a “striking vision of God” as “a human-like deity who welcomes confrontation and at times revises His past ethical decisions” (182). Both historians of rabbinic culture and those interested in Jewish theology broadly construed will find useful translations and analyses that support these and related observations.

Pious Irreverence is clearly written, with many translations of original sources as well as insightful expositions, and the late midrash is productively situated both in relation to earlier midrashic texts and to sources from beyond Judaism. Prior scholarship is summarized effectively, and Weiss’s distinct stances are presented explicitly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Schofer is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dov Weiss teaches religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.




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