Judaism Unbound Episode 131: Protesting God - Dov Weiss


As we launch a series of episodes on the subject of God, Dan and Lex are joined by Dov Weiss, associate professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism[1] In their conversation, they look at how ideas of God have changed over the course of Jewish history, discuss the Jewish tradition of disputing its God, complicate the idea that God has always been understood as perfect, and explore a concept Weiss dubs "protest ventriloquism."

(0:01 - 13:23): To begin the episode, Weiss looks at back on how Jews of different eras have conceptualized God, arguing that Jewish understandings of God over time have changed not merely incrementally, but drastically. He introduces the core concept of his book Pious Irreverence -- protest against God. [2] Weiss asserts that, contrary to what many may have been taught, protests against divine action can be found all over the Bible and Rabbinic literature, and the idea that God is infallible, or perfect, does not present itself until much later. Weiss emphasizes the shift, in Medieval times, from understandings of God as a person-like character to the idea that God is a concept. [3]

(13:24 - 29:18): Weiss explores the idea of a God that suffers, a conception espoused by Rabbi Akiva within the Jewish tradition, and one that is central to Christianity. He argues that a conception of a suffering God correlates negatively with critique of, or protest against, God, for a variety of reasons. He then introduces the subject of "protest ventriloquism," whereby rabbis obscure their own struggles and critiques by ascribing them to famous heroes from the Bible. Weiss considers early Christian debates surrounding the morality of the "Old Testament's" God (and whether that God even is God at all) [4] and circles back to provide an example of how protest ventriloquism plays out in the Talmud. Weiss then outlines why, when discussing God, he uses "He" and "Him" pronouns, connecting his answer to broader questions about the existence (or not) of a personal God. [5]

(29:19 - 47:27): As the definition of God has changed throughout Jewish history, Weiss argues, so too has the definition of monotheism. More than that, Weiss critiques the idea that there has been one eternal, essential Judaism, which has remained largely unchanged from the Bible until present day. He then looks back at his own personal journey, highlighting his departure from Orthodoxy and entry into the academic study of Judaism. In this telling, he highlights how seeing the Torah as written by human beings, and not by God, actually helped make the text more meaningful for him. [5] To close, Weiss offers up ways in which his book can be utilized by those looking to think expansively about the concept of protest not only with respect to God, but in our personal relationships and societies. [6]

[1] Dov Weiss's bio can be accessed by clicking here.

[2] Click here to purchase Pious Irreverence. Learn more about it by checking out this article, or listening to his guest appearance on the New Books in Jewish Studies podcast.

[3] Weiss discusses the philosophy of Maimonides (also known as Rambam) in this section. To learn more, especially around the ways in which Maimonides draws from the ideas of Aristotle, click here.

[4] One of the key figures in these Christian debates was Marcion of Sinope, who argued that the Old Testament's god, filled with wrath, was not equal to the New Testament's god of love and mercy. Learn more about Marcionism by clicking here.

[5] For more on the human authorship of the Bible, see Episode 27: Who Wrote the Bible? - Richard Elliott Friedman.

[6] Weiss briefly mentions the Greek concept of parrhesia, related to Jewish ideas of protest and rebuke that he discusses in more detail. For an article on how the idea of parrhesia, and its relevance to political theology, click here. Michel Foucault also wrote about the topic of parrhesia, and a 1983 lecture of his can be found here.