To the Editor:
Although Abraham Kaplan’s article, “The Jewish Argument with God” [October 1980], is an adequate introductory survey, it misses several of the key underlying concepts, primarily as a result of Mr. Kaplan’s universalistic and ahistorical tendencies.
As Mr. Kaplan notes, the tradition of arguing with God is uniquely Jewish, yet all too often his frame of reference is “man” instead of “Jew,” “relationship with God” instead of “Covenant.” Argument with God is integrally related to the concept of the Covenant (Brit) which God established first with the Patriarchs and later reconfirmed with Israel at Sinai. Since the Covenant is actually a form of contract according to which both Israel and God have obligations to fulfill, there must be some provision and some means of redress should either party breach its terms. Arguing with God—called the “law-court pattern of prayer” by biblical and liturgical scholars—is the Jewish mode of appealing to God the Chief Justice against God the Partner. Since Jewish history has been long and uncommonly tragic, the “law-court” pattern of prayer, and/or the motif of argument with God, is found in every situation in which the Jewish people have experienced suffering and injustice.
Mr. Kaplan’s lack of historicity in his study of the motif shows the dangers inherent in the study of any subject without reference to its historical context. If one is to generalize (or philosophize) on a motif as long-lived as “arguing with God,” one should only do so with due regard for its previous manifestations in a variety of historical situations. The point is that different generations of Jews have made use of the argument motif to address their own unique problems and needs. In the Bible, the arguments have a didactic intent: to reinforce the teaching of monotheism, to refute the dual or multi-divinity religions of the ancient Near East, or to emphasize specific attributes of the Jewish God. Thus, for example, in order to stress that God is truly just and merciful, Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and “convinces” God to spare the cities for the sake of ten righteous individuals. God not only agrees to Abraham’s terms, but when His messengers fail to find the saving ten, He saves the few righteous individuals (Lot and his family) who do reside there.
In the rabbinic period, argument with God is found primarily in the Midrashim (or stories) which the rabbis created to clarify biblical arguments. The didactic intent is even more pronounced here. Through the words they set in the mouths of biblical figures, the rabbis sought not only to counter the threats of Gnosticism and Christianity and to advance their own interpretation of Judaism, but also to comfort and reassure the people. The rabbis also used the “law-court” pattern as a personal mode of prayer in times of emergency and communal distress.
Argument with God continued in the piyyutim (liturgical poetry) of the Middle Ages and in the hasidic tales; it survives today in post-Holocaust Yiddish poetry and in the works of such authors as Elie Wiesel and Zvi Kolitz (the author of Yossel Rackover’s Appeal to God). One generalization that does apply to the medieval and modern arguments is that in large measure they focus on the singular problem of Israel’s suffering in the Exile and God’s apparent indifference and inactivity. What differentiates the two periods is the issue of faith and belief in God.
Argument with God is indeed a long-standing and time-honored Jewish way of relating to God, but it is only one aspect of that relationship. The important thing to keep in mind in our human-rights and protest-oriented era is that in the past Jewish defiance has coexisted with submission to God’s will, anger has been coeval with love, and rejection with attraction. If today many Jews have trouble relating to God it is in part due to the “canonization” of the prayer-book, i.e., the exclusion of those contemporary poets who have voiced the anguish, doubts, and yearning of our generation, as earlier poets did for theirs (at the time of the Crusades, for example). As modern Jews struggle to articulate and express a relationship with God capable of including the trauma of the Shoah (the Holocaust), we would do well to heed the example of past generations in allowing the contemporary cry of protest and outrage to assume its rightful place alongside the many prayers of praise and petition.
[Rabbi] Anson Laytner
Larchmont, New York
Abraham Kaplan writes:
Rabbi Laytner’s insistence that one should philosophize only with due regard to the variety of historical situations hardly goes far enough. Due regard must also be given to the variety within any single historical situation, including our own. Today there are extremists of Reform who deny virtually the whole of Halakhah and Orthodox extremists who deny Jewish identity to all but themselves. Without prior commitment one must begin with the premise that there are as many Judaisms as there are Jews.
That different generations of Jews have argued with God so as to address their own unique problems is a truism. The question is not whether the problems of Jews vary but whether there are significant commonalities in how Jews cope with their unique problems.
There is here a basic issue of method, reflected in the perennial opposition in philosophy between time and eternity, history and timeless patterns. That one method or another seems to us called for may reflect the trained incapacity which is the price of professionalism. Understandably, a rabbi, guardian of tradition, is responsive to history, while a philosopher aspires, with Spinoza, to see all things in the light of eternity.
For this reason it is ironic that Rabbi Laytner assumes a professorial stance: “An adequate introductory survey [which] misses several of the key underlying concepts” sounds to my ears like a Cminus; I suppose I should be glad to have passed.
Less patronizing is Rabbi Laytner’s criticism of my “ahistorical tendencies.” I applaud his sense of history: the capacity to see the past in the present. I do not find in his letter a commensurate historical sense: the capacity to see the present as history in the making. I, too, use the motif of the argument with God as a way of addressing our own unique problems and needs. I welcome his support for my view that the contemporary cry of protest and outrage should be given its rightful place in Judaism.
What divides us, I think, is not that he feels that I have left something out (a ploy of criticism which does not call for a reply), but that I have included something not altogether palatable to him, what he identifies as my “universalistic” tendencies. All too often, he says, I speak of “man” instead of “Jew.” The polarity between universalism and particularism is as perennial an issue in Judaism as the opposition of time and eternity is in philosophy. Appropriately enough, the fullest statement in Judaism of the argument with God—the book of Job—is expressed in universalistic idioms. The central character is introduced with the words, “There was a man in the land of Uz,” not, like Mordechai in the book of Esther, “There was a Jew.” But, of course, books like Job have not appeared too often.
In our time there are Jews who are particularists with regard to Jewish teaching and universalists only in politics. I cannot agree with them, in either respect. For my part, Jewish thought is a particular expression of universal modes of coping with the human condition. This circumstance does not deny us the right to our own independent existence, the right to define for ourselves how our common humanity is to be uniquely expressed.
Rabbi Laytner urges that the important thing to keep in mind is that Jewish defiance has coexisted with submission, love, and attraction to God. I am afraid he misses my key underlying concept: God is not only an object of worship but a point of reference by which the Jew defines his own identity as a moral agent. Thus it is that Abram becomes Abraham and Jacob, Israel, and thus Jewish thinkers from Saadya to Buber have explicated how man becomes an “I” through the “Thou.” What exactly enters into Jewish identity has always been problematic.
For the Jew, “I beg to differ” has been an enduring tactic of achieving and affirming identity. The Jew has addressed the same caveat to God—not in self-contradiction, but in a dialectic aiming at attainment of fuller realization of who he is, as Jew and as human being. Rabbi Laytner’s determination to differ with me puts him on my side after all.