Accounting for God’s Silence

Beshallah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 22, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

In his utterly engrossing autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which came out in Hebrew in 2002, Amos Oz describes the elderly maidservant in the home of his maternal grandparents in Ukraine as being stone deaf. To make the point, he cites in Hebrew, a version of the Yiddish, bon mot deaf as ten walls (in Yiddish actually one wall is enough – toyb vie die vandt). And then he adds in parentheses that sometimes they said of her that “she is even more deaf than God himself in all his glory” (Hebrew edition, 182).

It is the second bon mot with its bitter irony that interests me. The first is vivid but muted; the second turns anguish into blasphemy. Is the provenance of the second also the Yiddish speaking world of Eastern Europe, the folk wisdom of a beleaguered society writhing in the rift between theology and reality? Surprisingly, it is a far older, an adage, coined by the founders of rabbinic Judaism, that expresses the candid sentiment of a religious elite. The view that God is all too often deaf to the cries of human suffering, finds its origin in our parashah on a daring word play in a well-known verse.

Two-thirds of the way through his Song at the Sea (az yashir Moshe), Moses halts his poetic rendition of Pharoah and his army perishing in the rushing waters of the Sea of Reeds with an exultation: “Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials (ba-eilim); who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders!” (15:11). If the verse is familiar to you, it should be. We recite it thrice daily, twice in the morning service and once in the evening.

But familiarity can obscure a difficulty. To whom exactly is Moses comparing God? Does the exultation reflect a pre-monotheistic stage in which the world still abounds with gods, though Israel worships only its own? The Jewish Publication Society translation of “celestials” fudges their identity, implying either other gods or the celestial retinue of the one and only God. In truth, the Hebrew word eilim is the plural of the noun for god, eil, though in Psalm 29:1 (sung on Saturday morning as we return the Torah to the ark), the phrase b’nei eilim seems to refer merely to the host of heaven.

The oldest Aramaic translation of the Torah, Targum Onkelos, dating from the early centuries of the Common Era, seeks to disabuse us of the notion that there may be other gods to whom Israel’s God could be compared: “There is none other than You. For You are the Lord Adonai. There is no one but You.” To Onkelos it was inadmissible to imagine that the Torah would confer the status of divinity to the multiple deities of the polytheists of its time.

More pliant, is the oldest rabbinic commentary on Exodus, the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, which dates from the same era. It offers several interpretations. For example, the verse is to be understood as the exultation of the gentile nations who heard of the miracle at the Sea of Reeds. In praising Israel’s God as unique, they naturally refer to their own deities as gods. Or the word eilim might be understood as those mighty beings capable of performing miracles. Then we can revert back to the line of Moses, who is simply singling out God from this class as incomparable. Or the comparison could also be rendered as alluding to those like Pharaoh who claimed to be divine.

One interpretation, however, does more than vitiate the implicit polytheism of the verse. It repunctuates the noun eilim to rebuke God’s intolerable silence in periods of persecution. Remember, the Torah scroll contains only consonants. The vowels are assigned by tradition, but omitted. Hence, without changing a consonant the word eilim could be read as eeleim, i.e.,, someone who is mute. Making it plural we get ilmim, meaning, “Who is like You, O Lord, among the mute?” The author of this interpretation elaborates – “beholding the humiliation of Your children yet keeping silent.” The barb is palpable. God’s patience is beyond human endurance. How much savagery is God prepared to tolerate? This interpretation changes Moses’s exultation into a lament. God’s past intervention into the course of human events provides no assurance for the future (Horovitz and Rabin eds., 142).

In the Mekhilta, this radical reading is left unapplied. Several hundred years later, the Talmud marshalls it in the midst of a lengthy discourse on the reasons for and the consequences of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE When the Roman general, Titus, assumed command of the legions besieging Jerusalem after Vespasian became emperor, the Talmud recounts, he proceeded to desecrate the Temple as well as burn it. He entered the Holy of Holies brazenly with a prostitute on his arm. Once inside he removed the Torah scroll from its ark, rolled it out on the floor and had sex with his consort upon it. God’s inaction shook faith to the core. Two verses capture the sense of betrayal and outrage. The first from Psalm 89:9, “O Lord, God of hosts, who is mighty like You, O’ Lord?” That is, reading against the grain, who could match Your self-control, to witness such sacrilege without erupting in righteous indignation? The second is our verse from Exodus 15:11, “Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials?” That is, who is like You among the mute ones? The second proof text is preferable, because derived from the Torah, it bears a higher order of sanctity. Though left unexplained, its import is bitterly clear. To be long-suffering can often manifest itself as callous indifference (B.T. Gittin 56b).

From these desperate literary sources, the interchangeability of eilim and ilmim, of celestials and those who neither hear nor speak, became the currency of protest and lament. In the Hebrew elegies composed in Ashkenazi after the First and Second Crusades and recited in the synagogue, the accusatory query resurfaces. Indeed, these poems are fraught with many other expressions of doubt and dismay. When history challenged faith, Judaism sanctioned calling God to account. A genuine covenant needs to be observed by both partners. To dispute with God is a sign of a living relationship. The incidental bon mot cited by Amos Oz is testimony to the degree to which history has imprinted itself into the daily fabric of Jewish life.

But when God falls silent, we must do more than dispute and decry. We must fill the void. Witness this tender Yiddish poem entitled “Help” by the young Abraham Joshua Heschel, which foreshadows so much of his later life:

Set me at the head of all the dying
with a greeting, a message from You.
The desolate call to You, and You don’t come.
So send me, and any others You might choose.

I cannot curse as justly as did Jeremiah.
People are poor, weak; and it seems to me
that their guilt is Yours;
their sins, Your crimes.

You are meant to help here, Oh God!
But You are silent, while needs shriek.
So help me to help! I’ll fulfill Your duty,
pay Your debts.

“The Ineffable Name of God,” trans. by Morton M. Leifman,
Continuum: 2005, 33

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’shallah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.