Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism

Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism

Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism

Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism


Judaism is often described as a religion that tolerates, even celebrates arguments with God. Unlike Christianity and Islam, it is said, Judaism endorses a tradition of protest as first expressed in the biblical stories of Abraham, Job, and Jeremiah. In Pious Irreverence, Dov Weiss has written the first scholarly study of the premodern roots of this distinctively Jewish theology of protest, examining its origins and development in the rabbinic age.

Weiss argues that this particular Jewish relationship to the divine is rooted in the most canonical of rabbinic texts even as he demonstrates that in ancient Judaism the idea of debating God was itself a matter of debate. By elucidating competing views and exploring their theological assumptions, the book challenges the scholarly claim that the early rabbis conceived of God as a morally perfect being whose goodness had to be defended in the face of biblical accounts of unethical divine action. Pious Irreverence examines the ways in which the rabbis searched the words of the Torah for hidden meanings that could grant them the moral authority to express doubt about, and frustration with, the biblical God. Using characters from the Bible as their mouthpieces, they often challenged God's behavior, even in a few remarkable instances, envisioning God conceding error, declaring to the protestor, "You have taught Me something; I will nullify My decree and accept your word."


She bought her first new car and You hit her with a drunk driver.
What, was that supposed to be funny? … What did I ever do to
[Your Son] except praise His glory and praise His name? … Have I
displeased You, You feckless thug? …

haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito? cruciatus in crucem!
tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci. cruciatus in crucem.
eas in crucem [should I believe that these things are from a benevo
lent God, from a just God, from a knowing God?? To hell with
Your torments (lit., crucifixions)! On earth, I was your servant, your
messenger; I did my duty. To hell with Your torments. To hell with
you (lit., may You go to the cross)].

—President Josiah Bartlett, “Two Cathedrals”
(episode 44, May 16, 2001), The West Wing

Described as “one of the best episodes in the history of American television,” the finale of the second season of The West Wing revolves around the tragic and untimely death of Mrs. Landingham, the personal secretary of President Bartlett (Martin Sheen). After the funeral, the president emptied the church of his security personnel and, approaching the altar, angrily rebukes God: “cruciatus in crucem. eas in crucem.” (To hell with Your torments. To hell with You). This unexpected and irreverent diatribe from America’s most beloved fictional president stunned West Wing viewers. How could the hit tv show portray a highly ethical and faithful Christian castigating God in such brazen fashion? Noting that the episode’s writer, Aaron Sorkin, is Jewish, one . . .

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