God is in the argument

Today I have been reading in Introduction to World Religions, consulting the sections on African traditional religions for this week’s sermon. But while I was having tea this afternoon, I flipped to the section on Judaism, and read this:

The Talmud is at pains to blur any distinction between holy and profane. Even more striking is that it is not concerned with answers. It is far more concerned with the process of answering them. One of its most celebrated passages captures this tendency and is worth citing at length:

On that day, Rabbi Eliezer put forward all the arguments in the world, but the sages did not accept them. Finally, he said to them, ‘If the halakah is according to me, let that carob-tree prove it.’

He pointed to a nearby carobtree, which then moved from its place a hundred cubits. They said to him, ‘One cannot bring a proof from the moving of a carob-tree.’… [Two more miracles were performed by Rabbi Eliezer in a bid to have his argument accepted.]

Then said Rabbi Eliezer to the sages, ‘If the halakah is according to me, may a proof come from heaven.’ Then a heavenly voice went forth, and said, ‘What have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakah is according to him in every place.’

Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said, ‘It is not in the heavens….’ [Deuteronomy 30.12. Rabbi Joshua goes on to explain that since the Torah has already been given on Sinai, we do not need to pay attention to a heavenly voice.]

Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah. He asked him, ‘What was the Holy One, blessed be he, doing in that hour?’

Said Elijah, ‘He was laughing, and saying, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” ‘

Talmud, Bava Metsia 59B

In other words, God’s children are grown up enough to argue with him. For the rabbi it is even a responsibility. In this sense, the Talmud captures something essential not just of the historical period, but also of the ongoing life of Judaism: God is in the argument, and he [sic] may well be found in the delight of vigorous human discourse.

pp. 285-286, Introduction to World Religions, Christopher Partridge, general editor (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2005; U.S. edition of The New Lion Handbook: The World’s Religions, 3rd edition).

“God is in the argument.” I can agree with that, although I’d argue with the Talmud about the reason for agreeing: I don’t feel the need to accept that because the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, we can therefore ignore a heavenly voice; I’m happy simply to challenge the notion of God’s omniscience, and to advocate for the possibility that humanity has matured enough to be able to argue with God. Nor is saying “God is in the argument” sufficient; there’s more to religion, and humanity, and divinity, than argument. Nonetheless, I find myself convinced by the idea that God is in the argument.