The Great, Mighty, and Awesome God Isn’t What S/He Used to Be Parashat Eikev 5781

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Our parashah contains a praise of God which the Talmud considers the crowning title of the Deity: “For the Lord Your God is the God of Gods and the Lord of Lords, the God Who is Great, Mighty, and Awesome, who favors no person and will take no bribes” (Deuteronomy 10:17). This title will be familiar to Jews who pray, because it is invoked to describe God in the opening blessing of the Amidah,1 the central prayer in the Rabbinic tradition. In the Bible, this refers to God’s complete control of history. However, since Rabbinic Judaism’s understanding of God’s activity in the world is fundamentally different, the Rabbis who placed this description in the Amidah actually reversed the meaning of the biblical words. Exploring this shift can help us understand the remarkable continuity of our covenant mission, combined with the profound transformation in our religious roles and responsibilities over the centuries.2

The biblical celebration of God’s greatness, might, and awesomeness in this verse reflects the biblical view, that the Creator of the Universe—of a vast but impersonal Nature—is also a caring God, a God who wants to turn this planet into a paradise but, out of love, engages human beings as partners in this covenant of tikkun olam. In this biblical phase, God is All Powerful and very controlling. Although God self-limits in establishing a natural order with its operative laws, God dominates human life and tightly regulates human behavior; God holds all the reins in divine hands. For example, when the Israelite slaves in Egypt despair and basically accept their fate,3 God sends Moses and Aaron to arouse them and liberate them. When Pharaoh pursues the Israelites to re-enslave them, God intervenes with visible miracles that shatter the superior Egyptian army.

Throughout the Bible, when the Israelites are faithful to God, the Lord redeems them and assures their victory, even over superior armies. God gives directions for policy and guidance for living, in revelation from heaven and through prophets who bring divine instructions at key policy turning points. The Israelites have only to obey—and/or repent for backsliding—and God will take care of the rest. There is no force that can stand up to the Lord. Therefore, as long as the Israelites do God’s will, they are assured of victory, of homeland, of security.4

This period ends in a catastrophe—the Destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile—because the Israelites betrayed the covenant. They pursued foreign religious worship, they cheated and oppressed their fellow Jews, and—to make matters worse—thought that they could buy off God by bringing sacrifices to the Temple. The prophets warned them that God cannot be bribed, but the Israelites were blinded by greed and selfishness. They were led astray by the neighboring religious regimes which assured them that the divine favor could be bought. In Babylonia, many of the Israelites repented and returned to the prophetic faith. In return, God sent Cyrus, the head of the ascendant Persian Empire, to free the Israelites, allowing them to return to the Land of Israel and to rebuild their Temple and community.5

In the Rabbinic view, the covenant in this period was not a carbon copy of the arrangement during the First Temple period. Yes, covenant was renewed, but the Divine self-limited in the act of reentering the pact. God chose to be less controlling, and invited humans to take on new responsibility in the partnership. This was the beginning of the Rabbinic era. There were no further revelations from the heavenly realm. The age of prophecy ended as the people—led by the emerging Rabbis’ cadre—took charge of developing Torah (in Oral and Written form) further in the new era.

How would people know what God wants of them in the new circumstances? By studying the past record of revelation in the Bible and the oral tradition, and using their intellect to appropriately apply those values and guidelines to the present realities. The greater human role meant that, in many cases, more than one view or judgment of what God wanted from us emerged. Since God was more hidden and not speaking out as obviously as in the past, the Rabbis intensified Torah study for all people, to train them to pick up more subtle divine signs and messages. The rabbis went on to create schools where they learned to analyze and debate, and to follow majority judgment in coming to conclusions.

In political life also, the Divine self-limited to call humans to take up more responsibility to build their own society. The Israelites had to learn how to negotiate with neighbors and to navigate between the world powers. In the new era, human political decisions and behaviors became decisive in deciding the outcome. “Being right with God” was no longer the dominant cause of the Judean political landscape.

When the Talmud describes the final period of Roman domination of Judea, it describes the judgments and failures in policy that led to the exile and destruction. The rebels against Rome had good intentions: for example, they wanted to remove Roman standards and impurities from the Temple. But they were guilty of mistreatment of fellow Jews (who turned to the Romans with their grievances). They acted recklessly in clashing with the Roman Empire and in rebelling. They aggravated the situation by following sectarian policies and by terror tactics against their compatriots who disagreed with them.6

These zealots refused to accept Rabbinic advice to negotiate, to submit—at least temporarily—to the Roman Empire’s military superiority, and to come to some understanding so that the Romans would let the Jews pursue their culture peacefully, as they allowed many of the other (non-rebellious) nations in their Empire. Given the greater autonomy and authority extended to humans by God, these policies ran their course—and brought disaster. The Lord did not intervene with visible miracles to offset Roman power. The destruction of the Temple and the great exile followed, despite the fanatic dedication of the rebels to the Jewish tradition.

This brings me back to the Rabbis’ understanding of God’s new self-limitation in the covenant. The Talmud (Yoma 69b) suggests that one cannot go on speaking of God as all powerful—as great, mighty, and awesome—in a world where humans (including the enemies of Jewry) are operating freely. As Rabbi Joshua ben Levi relates, Moses could rightly call God great, mighty, and awesome. But, when the prophet Jeremiah saw non-Jews trampling God’s sanctuary—that is, the First Temple in ruins—he concluded: where is God’s awesomeness? Jeremiah therefore spoke of God as not awesome.7 Then came the prophet Daniel, who saw non-Jews enslaving God’s children. He similarly concluded: where is God’s might? Daniel therefore spoke of God as not mighty.8

It is not possible, says the Talmud, to simply quote or make biblical references without taking into account our actual experiences in history. For a time, then, it was inappropriate to speak of God as great, mighty, and awesome. People know of God in the world through the Divine presence and through the teachings of Jewry. When Jewry is devastated and the Land of Israel is in ruins, one must speak more modestly (and non-biblically) of God.

This is not the end of the story: The Men of the Great Assembly9 restored God’s crowning name to its original luster. In the Book of Nehemiah and the Amidah—both of which are traditionally ascribed to these leaders—they used Moses’ turn of phrase in full, saying: “Great, mighty, and awesome.” But although they used the ancient words, they understood them completely differently.

After all, in the new age, God’s might is demonstrated by divine self-control and self-limitation, and not direct and thunderous interventions. The biblical God would have wiped out the Romans. In the Rabbinic era—in accordance with the principle “Who is mighty? One who controls his urges/temper” (Mishnah Avot 4:1)10—God allows human freedom to operate. The Roman triumph reflects this reality of divine self-limitation and human misuse of freedom and power, as does the Nazis’ successful genocide in the Holocaust. We should understand that in praying to a mighty God in our time, we are not asking for a miraculous intervention to overturn the natural order. We are instead asking for God to stand by us and inspire us, in order that we can exercise best human judgment and organize the power of the Jews and all humans to assure the victory of the good. This includes an obligation to responsible self-defense. For Zionists, this means that if our prayers are serious and sincere, we will serve in the IDF, organize American support for Israel, or support Jewish security in other ways we see and understand, to assure that Iran or any other malign force does not destroy the State of Israel.

This creates a new problem for the Talmud. If God does not demonstratively intervene to defeat evil, and since evil reigns from time to time in many countries, how do we know that there is a God? The Talmud answers: the proof is in the survival of the Jewish people. Were it not for God’s awesome power—hidden completely, but reflected in the survival of Jewry—how would this one people persevere, surrounded by hostile nations and dangerous, armed enemies? Jewry’s ongoing existence validates calling God awesome in the Amidah.

The lessons of the Rabbinic insight of God’s further self-limitation have vital implications. For one, it means that our prayers are not credible unless they are matched by our actions as a people to fight evil, and to take effective political and military action to secure the good and protect evil’s potential victims, including the Jews. For two, one of the chief validations of the presence of God in the world is the security and flourishing of Jewry. In this Rabbinic view, all Jews who support Israel, who build its economy and fight for its political and military security, are fighting in the front line of religion, and giving testimony to a world about God and covenant.

The people who fail this test of credible belief in an ethical and limited God include the enemies of Israel and the resurgent anti-Semites around the world—and also, I believe, those religious Jews who claim that they are exempt from army and national service, or from building a vibrant society in Israel and the Diaspora. Some haredim justify themselves by appealing to the biblical God, that if they study Torah and do mitzvot, then the Lord will protect and save Israel. This is as it was in biblical times—but it clearly does not reflect the shift the Rabbis saw in God’s role and humanity’s role in the covenant.

As to those who speak of God as the Warrior who fights for us, as if the biblical world were unchanged, the Rabbis said that such descriptions of old style great, mighty, and awesome were quite simply lies.11 Furthermore, the Rabbis added: God is the God of truth. God does not want empty, old style pious praises. In our circumstances, these pious words are lies because we are called to act instead: to protect the vulnerable, to protect Jewry and Israel as the covenantal people, and to defeat evil forces. Our deeds tell the truth about the presence of God and the nature of the world we live in.

1 This silent standing prayer, also known as the Shemoneh Esrei, starts “You are blessed O God, our Lord and Lord of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, the God Who is Great, Mighty and Awesome…” Koren Siddur, p. 109.

2 This treatment of the text is primarily based on the treatment in Babylonian Talmud Yoma 69b, starting with the words: “But Rav Matanah said the great mighty and awesome God” (citing Nehemiah 9:32 as restoring this phrase, after Jeremiah and Daniel had deleted part of the title; see below). The broader issue—that the Jewish covenant operates in stages and that human responsibility and accountability increases at every stage (Biblical, to Rabbinic, to Current)—is argued at length in my forthcoming book, The Triumph of Life.

3 Not literally. The Torah says that the passive unresisting Israelites nevertheless cry to God out of their hard labor and suffering. This evokes God’s care for them and the divine promise to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob to redeem their children from slavery (Exodus 2:23-25).

4 See the patterns in the Five Books of Moses, and in the early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

5 See the books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel in particular.

6 See the account of this period and the destruction process in Gittin 55-56.

7 “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts is His name” (Jeremiah 32:18).

8 “The great and awesome God” (Daniel 9:4).

9 The exact identity of this body is not clear, but they seem to be the chain of covenant transmission leaders between the end of prophecy and the clear emergence of Rabbinic leadership.

10 Based on Proverbs 16:32.

11 See the discussion in Babylonian Talmud Yoma 69b.

Texts Cited

(יז) כִּ֚י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם ה֚וּא אֱלֹהֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וַאֲדֹנֵ֖י הָאֲדֹנִ֑ים הָאֵ֨ל הַגָּדֹ֤ל הַגִּבֹּר֙ וְהַנּוֹרָ֔א אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹא־יִשָּׂ֣א פָנִ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יִקַּ֖ח שֹֽׁחַד׃
(17) For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe,

(א) בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט) מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי כִּי עֵדְוֹתֶיךָ שִׂיחָה לִּי. אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי טז) טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם מִגִּבּוֹר וּמשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קכח) יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ, בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. וְטוֹב לָךְ, לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמואל א ב) כִּי מְכַבְּדַי אֲכַבֵּד וּבֹזַי יֵקָלּוּ:

(1) Ben Zoma said:Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding” (Psalms 119:99). Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper” (Psalms 128:2) “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come. Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings as it is said: “For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored” (I Samuel 2:30).

וְהָא דְּרַב מַתְנָא מָטְיָיא לִדְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי. דְּאָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: לָמָּה נִקְרָא שְׁמָן אַנְשֵׁי כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה — שֶׁהֶחְזִירוּ עֲטָרָה לְיוֹשְׁנָהּ. אֲתָא מֹשֶׁה, אָמַר: ״הָאֵל הַגָּדוֹל הַגִּבּוֹר וְהַנּוֹרָא״. אֲתָא יִרְמְיָה וַאֲמַר: גּוֹיִם מְקַרְקְרִין בְּהֵיכָלוֹ, אַיֵּה נוֹרְאוֹתָיו? לָא אֲמַר ״נוֹרָא״. אֲתָא דָּנִיאֵל אֲמַר: גּוֹיִם מִשְׁתַּעְבְּדִים בְּבָנָיו, אַיֵּה גְּבוּרוֹתָיו? לָא אֲמַר ״גִּבּוֹר״. אֲתוֹ אִינְהוּ וְאָמְרוּ: אַדְּרַבָּה, זוֹ הִיא (גְּבוּרַת) גְּבוּרָתוֹ: שֶׁכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ — שֶׁנּוֹתֵן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם לָרְשָׁעִים. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן נוֹרְאוֹתָיו — שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא הֵיאַךְ אוּמָּה אַחַת יְכוֹלָה לְהִתְקַיֵּים בֵּין הָאוּמּוֹת? וְרַבָּנַן: הֵיכִי עָבְדִי הָכִי וְעָקְרִי תַּקַּנְתָּא דְּתַקֵּין מֹשֶׁה? אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: מִתּוֹךְ שֶׁיּוֹדְעִין בְּהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶׁאֲמִתִּי הוּא, לְפִיכָךְ לֹא כִּיזְּבוּ בּוֹ.
The Gemara comments: This interpretation that Rav Mattana said leans to, i.e., is consonant with, the exposition of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. As Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the Sages of those generations called the members of the Great Assembly? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to its former glory. How so? Moses came and said in his prayer: “The great, the mighty, and the awesomeGod” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Jeremiah the prophet came and said: Gentiles, i.e., the minions of Nebuchadnezzar, are carousing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say awesome in his prayer: “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts, is His name” (Jeremiah 32:18). Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children; where is His might? Therefore he did not say mighty in his prayer: “The great and awesome God” (Daniel 9:4). The members of the Great Assembly came and said: On the contrary, this is the might of His might, i.e., this is the fullest expression of it, that He conquers His inclination in that He exercises patience toward the wicked. God’s anger is flared by the gentile nations’ enslavement of His people, yet He expresses tremendous might by suppressing His anger and holding back from punishing them immediately. Therefore, it is still appropriate to refer to God as mighty. And these acts also express His awesomeness: Were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, how could one people, i.e., the Jewish people, who are alone and hated by the gentile nations, survive among the nations? The Gemara asks: And the Rabbis, i.e., Jeremiah and Daniel, how could they do this and uproot an ordinance instituted by Moses, the greatest teacher, who instituted the mention of these attributes in prayer? Rabbi Elazar said: They did so because they knew of the Holy One Blessed be He, that He is truthful and hates a lie. Consequently, they did not speak falsely about Him. Since they did not perceive His attributes of might and awesomeness, they did not refer to them; therefore, they cannot be criticized for doing so.
(לב) וְעַתָּ֣ה אֱ֠לֹהֵ֠ינוּ הָאֵ֨ל הַגָּד֜וֹל הַגִּבּ֣וֹר וְהַנּוֹרָא֮ שׁוֹמֵ֣ר הַבְּרִ֣ית וְהַחֶ֒סֶד֒ אַל־יִמְעַ֣ט לְפָנֶ֡יךָ אֵ֣ת כׇּל־הַתְּלָאָ֣ה אֲֽשֶׁר־מְ֠צָאַ֠תְנוּ לִמְלָכֵ֨ינוּ לְשָׂרֵ֧ינוּ וּלְכֹהֲנֵ֛ינוּ וְלִנְבִיאֵ֥ינוּ וְלַאֲבֹתֵ֖ינוּ וּלְכׇל־עַמֶּ֑ךָ מִימֵי֙ מַלְכֵ֣י אַשּׁ֔וּר עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
(32) “And now, our God, great, mighty, and awesome God, who stays faithful to His covenant, do not treat lightly all the suffering that has overtaken us—our kings, our officers, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all Your people—from the time of the Assyrian kings to this day.
(כג) וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מׇת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃ (כד) וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ (כה) וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃ {ס}
(23) A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. (24) God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. (25) God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
(יח) עֹ֤שֶׂה חֶ֙סֶד֙ לַֽאֲלָפִ֔ים וּמְשַׁלֵּם֙ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֔וֹת אֶל־חֵ֥יק בְּנֵיהֶ֖ם אַחֲרֵיהֶ֑ם הָאֵ֤ל הַגָּדוֹל֙ הַגִּבּ֔וֹר יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת שְׁמֽוֹ׃
(18) You show kindness to the thousandth generation, but visit the guilt of the fathers upon their children after them. O great and mighty God whose name is LORD of Hosts,
(ד) וָֽאֶתְפַּֽלְלָ֛ה לַיהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהַ֖י וָאֶתְוַדֶּ֑ה וָאֹֽמְרָ֗ה אָנָּ֤א אֲדֹנָי֙ הָאֵ֤ל הַגָּדוֹל֙ וְהַנּוֹרָ֔א שֹׁמֵ֤ר הַבְּרִית֙ וְֽהַחֶ֔סֶד לְאֹהֲבָ֖יו וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֺתָֽיו׃
(4) I prayed to the LORD my God, making confession thus: “O Lord, great and awesome God, who stays faithful to His covenant with those who love Him and keep His commandments!
(לב) ט֤וֹב אֶ֣רֶךְ אַ֭פַּיִם מִגִּבּ֑וֹר וּמֹשֵׁ֥ל בְּ֝רוּח֗וֹ מִלֹּכֵ֥ד עִֽיר׃
(32) Better to be forbearing than mighty, To have self-control than to conquer a city.