January 19, 2020

Pious Irreverence: When Should We Confront God?

The specter of theodicy, or explaining the lack of a Divine presence during times of adversity, has long stymied theologians, philosophers, and lay people alike. In the Bible, there are many instances of seemingly senseless cruelty and abandonment: Cain murdering Abel, Hagar, and Ishmael left to die in the desert, Pharaoh enslaving entire generations of innocent Hebrews, the tribulations of Job; the list could go on. Indeed, looking to our generation, we can shout to the heavens: Where was God during the Holocaust? Where was God to liberate the ghettos and stop the pogroms? With the pervasiveness of injustice and oppression in the world, what should our response to God’s silence and inaction be? Where was God when I needed the Divine presence in my life?

And, most importantly, how can there be a benevolent omnipotent God at all, while so much suffering the world still festers unattended like a wound upon all of humanity?

These questions, while elementary, speak to the deeper notion of how the immortal, eternal Divine interacts with the gossamer reality of human existence. Surely, that which proclaims Itself a protector of all should keep all from harm?

On the subject, biblical scholar Yochanan Muffs 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. Ezek. 22:3).

In this way, protest theology has been vastly under-explored in more modern Jewish academic literature. This is a shame because these are not heretical questions but deeply religious inquiries. They are of upmost importance. Rabbi Dr. Dov Weiss has written a new masterwork of religious literature with Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism (University of Pennsylvania Press) that will help readers succinctly but lucidly navigate these questions with an approachable, but scholarly tome.

Interestingly, using a crucial scene from the “Two Cathedrals” episode of the political television drama The West Wing as internal bookends, Rabbi Weiss demonstrates the mainstream approach that God is perfect, humans are imperfect, and a bold protest against God’s actions is ignorant, immoral, and childish. But he shows the richness of the alternative view as well: that protesting God is not futile but a deeply religious and moral act. Indeed, there are strands of rabbinic thought that not only permit but even celebrate human confrontation with God. It is not only some of the sages that embrace this theology but perhaps God as well. After listing a series of challenges, protests and confrontations with God, Weiss notes that “After none of these challenges does God castigate or punish the challenger.”

Dr. Weiss demonstrates how a theology of protest extends even toward the heavens. In showing the rabbinic exploration of the parameters of the manifestations of God’s benevolence and moral perfection, he teaches us more about humanity than about Divinity.

In confronting the awesomeness of God’s deeds, humanity is also able to construct a “fallible God” and a God that “recognizes His [own] limitations and fallibility” (182). In fact, how are we to relate to an imperfect world or an imperfect relationship to the Divine? We can recognize that none of us is born perfect. Every breath is but another opportunity, another chance, to improve our tangible being in this world.

Rabbi Weiss’s new work is a worthy addition to the pantheon of modern Jewish philosophical texts. It will no doubt open a novel exploration for many readers interested in learning the multiple spiritual dimensions of Judaism, and the Abrahamic religious experiment writ large. He certainly will open many eyes to a contemporary approach to ancient Jewish theology which has too often been dormant. This is not only an advancement of Jewish scholarship but a profound contribution to all those who struggle with religious faith, the existence of theodicy and lingering questions about the exceptional and elusive composition of the soul. There are no easy answers to difficult questions. It should remain that way.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.