Jewish Scholar Laments Bad Scholarship on Ancient Israelite Theology

Dov Weiss writes on Jewish scholarly containment of ancient embarrassing depictions of God:

The scholarly neglect of the protest material in the rabbinic period is due in part to the unsystematic and fragmentary nature of its earliest expressions in the foundational texts of Judaism—the works of Midrash and Talmud—which were produced by rabbis in Hebrew and Aramaic more than fifteen hundred years ago. More importantly, this lacuna should also be attributed to the field’s biases. While there are an abundance of scholarly works treating non-theological rabbinic sub-fields– such as history, law, literature and biblical interpretation — rabbinic theology has been a neglected area. In fact, the last scholarly original English book on the rabbinic conception of God appeared in 1988 (Jacob Neusner’s Incarnation of God). This reality, of course, begs the question: why have scholars of the Talmud and Midrash shied away from investigating theological matters? Part of the answer relates to an old problem – the “embarrassing” depictions of God found in these sacred texts. The divine in the rabbinic documents is not presented as a transcendent, omnipotent or omniscient being, but a complicated, embodied, and fallible deity who evinces greater continuities with the capricious gods of Greco-Roman mythology than the incorporeal, unchanging Christian God of Augustine, Maimonides or Aquinas.

Rather than defend these odd and “embarrassing” anthropomorphic depictions of God as genuine expressions of the rabbinic imagination, the standard traditional Jewish response — from Moses Maimonides and on — was to neutralize the problem by adopting various strategies of containment. These apologetic maneuvers included de-canonizing or devaluing the non-legal sections of the Talmud and Midrash; seeing these strange divine images as mere “poetic conceits” for the uneducated masses; or embarking on various forms of allegorical reinterpretation that expose the deeper “spiritual kernel” of the rabbinic depiction.

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