In this paper, we show that God is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible and in the Rabbinic literature—some of the very Hebrew texts that have influenced the three major world religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—as One who can be argued with and even changes his mind. Contrary to fundamentalist positions, in the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish texts God is omniscient but enjoys good, playful argumentation, broadening the possibilities for reasoning and reasonability. Arguing with God has also had a profound influence upon Jewish humor, demonstrating that humans can joke with God. More specifically, we find in Jewish literature that humor’s capacity to bisociate between different domains of human experience can share a symbiotic relationship with argumentation’s emphasis on producing multiple, contested perspectives. Overall, once mortals realize that figures such as God can accept many perspectives through humor, teasing, arguing, criticism, and in at least one case, even lawsuits, a critical point emerges: citizens should learn to live, laugh, and reason with others with whom they disagree.
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Although there are not many studies of argumentation in Judaic religious texts, Jacobs also focused on the use of the kal va-chomer (a fortiori argument, i.e., “all the more so”) and its use in the Hebrew Bible. The kal va-chomer is one of the thirteen principles of logic used in rabbinic exegesis and in Jewish law. According to the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 92:7), this type of logical argumentation is used ten times in the Hebrew Bible.
While not considering the specific mechanisms by which humor and argument can interact, philosopher Ted Cohen also speculates that Jewish historical emphases upon critical reasoning and logic likely share a relationship with Jewish jokes (65). Cohen states that: “A person in this tradition does not only learn and memorize the conclusions reached, although he [sic] must do some of that. Rather, he joins this study: he argues, debates, contests, criticizes, and learns; and he does not stop” (66)—a point aligning with our analysis.
We follow Berger’s (The Heretical) definition of “fundamentalism.” In a world in which “choice” among many available options is a defining feature of faith communities, Berger outlines three modern approaches to religion, one of which is “deductive” fundamentalist approaches that simply affirm inviolable traditions or tenets in ways that are impervious to incoming information or further reasoning.
An unpublished working paper upon which this essay is based can be found at Friedman and Friedman.
Please note that translations of the Hebrew Bible and other religious texts in this analysis are the authors’ own.
The Talmud also describes a situation in which God admitted that He made a “mistake.” In response to Moses’ inquiry into God’s name, the text explains the meaning of God’s reply in Exodus as “I Will Be What I Will Be” (Exodus 3:14). (Note: most translators translate this name as “I Am Who I Am,” even although, grammatically, the words that make up the name are in the future tense—Ehyeh means “I will be”). God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites, “I shall be with them in this servitude just as I will be with them in other servitudes.” Moses hence told God: “They have enough troubles now; you do not have to tell them about future troubles.” God agreed with Moses’ argument and subsequently instructed him to tell the Israelites (Exodus 3:14): “I Will Be has sent me” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 9b).
Maimonides, who wrote the encyclopedic compilation of Talmudic law, can also be found disagreeing with God (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Leprosy 2:9).
For an extended treatment of this topic, see Kidder.
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Waisanen, D., Friedman, H.H. & Friedman, L.W. What’s So Funny About Arguing with God? A Case for Playful Argumentation from Jewish Literature. Argumentation 29, 57–80 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10503-014-9316-4
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