Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition

As an old proverb puts it, “Two Jews, three opinions.” In the long, rich, tumultuous history of the Jewish people, this characteristic contentiousness has often been extended even unto Heaven.

It is a tradition that originated in the biblical period itself. Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and others all petitioned for divine intervention in their lives, or appealed forcefully to God to alter His proposed decree. Other biblical arguments focused on personal or communal suffering and anger: Jeremiah, Job, and certain Psalms and Lamentations.  To these, later generations of Jews added their own protests against perceived divine apathy and injustice.

The name Israel literally denotes one who “wrestles with God.” And, from Jacob’s battle with the angel to Elie Wiesel’s haunting questions about the Holocaust that hang in the air like still smoke over our own age, Rabbi Laytner admirably details Judaism’s rich and pervasive tradition of calling God to task over human suffering and experienced injustice.

Arguing with God is a highly original and utterly absorbing study that skates along the edge of this theological thin ice—at times verging dangerously close to blasphemy—yet also a source of some of the most poignant and deeply soulful expressions of human anguish and yearning.

Interview with Jewish Book News, 1990.

JBN: Where, in your opinion, does Judaism draw the line between acceptable argument with God and outright blasphemy?         

Laytner: The first thing I would note is that you really can’t talk about what Judaism says, you have to say Judaisms, because there have always been different philosophies and interpretations. This is one of the points that I try to bring out in my book–that these contradictory attitudes toward God have always for coexisted. At some point or another in different times and different places, different forms of Judaism have drawn a hard line against arguing with God and at other times, it’s been very welcome. I think the real line gets drawn when one either argues with God from within the fold, or whether one throws up one’s hands and says “That’s it!”  A good example of this is post-Holocaust poet Kadia Molodowsky who wrote, “God of mercy, we have no more prayers. Take back Your covenant . . .” and all this kind of rhetoric, but in fact, her poem is still addressed to this God for Whom she doesn’t have any more prayers. I think that’s where the line is drawn. No matter how strong your doubts or how angry or rejecting you are, if you do it from within the fold of the Jewish people and within the fold of the relationship ship with God, then you’re part of the continuum.

 JBN: In your own life, when have you been most at odds with God?

Laytner: It’s curious, because I think that my life has been very uneventful, healthy, and happy. I don’t know why or how I ended up focusing on arguing with God. I do know that when I studied Jewish history, I would become enraged that the God of our ancestors, who is supposed to have redeemed us from Egyptian bondage and many other things since then, did not do anything for these other generations. One of the things that I have found through my study of arguing with God is that the question is a very historic one. Generations upon generations of Jews have asked exactly these questions: Where are Your miracles? How can You let this happen to us? Half jokingly, I thought of compiling a list of grievances or complaints about the world to take to God – everything from the common cold to cancer – you name it – and to make a whole list and then somehow send it to God. I really don’t have any personal complaints. My life has been rosy.

 JBN: Elie Wiesel has said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Would you agree that this idea comes close to the heart of your book?

Laytner: One of the thrusts of my book is to say to the modern reader, if you have questions about God, you’re not the first to have these questions. What’s important is that you find the place and the vehicle to ask your questions and that you stay involved and engaged. There is another post-Holocaust poet, Aharon Zeitlin, who has a poem that goes something like this: “Praise me,” says God, “I will know that you love me. Curse me,” says God, “I will know that you love me.” Then the poet goes on to say, but if you look at the stars and yawn, if you’re totally indifferent to the world around you, then I’ll know that you don’t care.  That’s one of the thrusts of my book. Love and anger are two sides of the coin of the relationship we have with God. The thing that I’m trying to fight is indifference. People don’t know you can argue with God.

 JBN: You note that this Jewish tradition of calling God to account for human suffering and perceived injustice is unique among the world’s religions. Why do you think that is so?

Laytner: The basis of it has to do with the idea of the covenant, which is really a contract between God and the Jewish people. Because of that contract, both sides have obligations and responsibilities, starting from the biblical tradition itself. There is the expectation that if the Jewish people do certain things, then God is expected to do certain things also. Actually, it’s not just the Jewish people, it’s all humanity. We are all expected to act morally and decently and so is God. In the generation of Noah, or the tower of Babel, or Sodom and Gomorrah–those are cases where people did not act decently, and God exacted justice. This same idea runs through Jewish history as well. Since the Jewish people have been given certain commandments to follow, the expectation is there that if we follow those commandments to the best of our abilities, however we interpret them, then God should also fulfill His side of the bargain. God is expected to act justly toward His people. That idea is unique, because by the time it moved into Christianity, that contractual element had been softened. The same is true with Islam, where the relationship is much more of parent and child. This is also present in the Jewish tradition, but only as one of a number of model relationships. In Islam and Christianity, there is more of the sense of submission to God and God as all-powerful and human beings as nothing, whereas in Judaism, at least one of the traditions says there is not an equality, but a relative power.

 JBN: As a rabbi, you are probably often put in the role of God’s earthly representative. Can you tell us about any memorable instances in your own life when people argued back to you?

Laytner: I purposely have chosen not to become a rabbi in the congregational field, because my concerns and my questions about what I would be asked to do were so severe. I did not know how on earth I would be able to handle all the questions. For example, if a child is struck down by some terrible disease, how could I then as a rabbi get up in front of the mourning family and friends and utter platitudes praising God? It was just inconceivable to me, and rather than take a position with a congregation that would force me to be untrue to my own feelings about the world and God, I’ve gone into a different line of work.

I don’t think we rabbis have any business being God’s earthly representatives. I think rather we should be our people’s representatives, and if that means talking back to God, if it means calling God to account, then that’s what we should do. I would prefer to turn the role of the rabbi around so that we become the people’s advocates and not God’s advocate. Maybe if some day there is a group of people who would prefer that kind of honesty rather than traditional liturgy and piety that it imposes upon us, then I might be inclined to switch jobs.

JBN: What do you hope people will get out of this book?        

Laytner: The most important thing is that people who read this book who may have questions about God based on their own experience, based on the difference between what they have read about God in the Bible, for example, and what thy have observed through history, that those people don’t use the God’s inactivity as an excuse for being uninvolved. That is basically what I am trying to say to them. Indirectly, it doesn’t matter what God is or isn’t doing. We have a world here that needs work and you need to be involved and engaged. You need to live the values of your religious tradition.

Going back to the comment about Elie Wiesel, I’m trying to fight against indifference and un-involvement, and part of that means we need to try to get our relationship with God to be whole. Most people, when they pray to God, offer words of praise and thanksgiving, and I’m suggesting that we also need to bring back into our prayers any arguments, feelings of anger, and hostility and rejection that we feel. It doesn’t matter why God is silent or if God is hidden, but for our own sense of well being, to the degree that we want to communicate with God, we have to start expressing some of our anger, over the Holocaust, for example.

There’s an old midrash that if all the Jews they have observed Shabbat once, that Messiah would come. I have a slightly different twist to that. I imagine that if all the Jews in the world were to go out on their balconies, like in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, and at the same time say we are mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore, that something might happen.


Anson Laytner has explored the anguish of the believer with moving eloquence and passion.
— Elie Wiesel

In this age after the Holocaust, Anson Laytner’s book speaks with extraordinary force. This survey of the tradition of ‘arguing with God,’ one of the most distinctive and inspiring elements in Jewish faith, covers a wealth of neglected or undiscussed sources. He shows clearly that this unique perspective runs through the seams of Jewish religion and history from the Bible down to today. Written with scholarship, sensitivity, and even humor, this book will richly reward all its readers.
— Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg

This is a book that needed to be written. Anson Laytner has brought together familiar and unfamiliar material and analyzed it historically and theologically. The sources that Laytner has assembled have a power and a relevance that leap out from the page.
— Modern Judaism

Rare is the book that can be enjoyed by both the scholar and causal reader.  A delicate balance of in-depth research and lively writing style keeps both parties involved.  In Arguing with God, Laytner achieves this with aplomb…a thoughtful and often understated deliberation.  In itself, it is a book that deserves our study.
‑‑ National Jewish Post and Opinion