(Christianity) Talmud and the Impotence of God (Petrus Alfonsi)

Petrus Alfonsi was a Jewish convert to Christianity who grew up in an Iberian-Islamic milieu in Huesca, which became the capital of Aragon atthe time of the Christian reconquest. While it goes unnamed as such, his Dialogus contra Iudaeos (ca. 1109) was the first anti-Jewish Christian polemic to touch upon the Talmud. The protagonists to the dialogue are Petrus (Alfonsi’s Christian name) and Moses (his old or dead Jewish name). The long, rambling dialogue is informed by the author’s interest in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.  The Dialogue Against the Jews is composed of familiar polemics concerning the correct reading of Hebrew Scripture sitting side by side with a new polemic directed at rabbinic lore or Aggadah, referred to as the “teaching of your sages” (doctrina doctorum vestrorum) (translator’s intro, p.32).  The dialogue more or less confirms the scholarly view that Christian anti-Jewish polemics say more about Christian doubt as they do about Judaism. In the case of Alfonsi, who knew more than a thing or two about Judaism, Christianity and Judaism are very much in the mirror of each other.

The common thread to the Dialogue Against the Jews is arguably about power. For Alfonsi, the big frame is cosmo-theological. Brought to bear against the Jews are the panoply of astronomy, creation, the boundary of the body as a composite substance, the power of creation, the power of created souls, especially in relation to the body, the power of the messiah, especially vis-à-vis earthly kings, the power of animals to generate offspring and humans to beget children, the  power of the Holy Spirit overpowering Mary to beget without a human father, the power of the crucified Christ to free from the devil’s captivity the human beings under his power. More than the powerlessness of the Jews in exile, what Alfonsi notes over against this mighty array under the majesty of God is the imputation of divine impotence and the imputation of powers to the rabbis in rabbinic aggadah.

The proemium sets the tone of the dialogue before the omnipotence of God. Alfonsi’s own cosmic consciousness. It reads, “THE PROEMIUM OF Petrus Alfonsi, an illustrious man and [converted to] a Catholic Christian from a Jew, begins. To the one and first eternal omnipotent creator of all things who is without beginning and without end, knowing all, who accomplishes all that he wills, who placed humankind, endowed with reason and wisdom, above every animal, so that with these two powers he may desire with understanding things that are just and flee from those that are contrary to salvation, [to him be] honor and glory, and may his marvelous name be blessed forever and ever. Amen.” And in the prologue, Alfonsi starts by saying that it was “The Omnipotent One has inspired us with his spirit and led me on the correct path,” revealing to him the “halls of the prophets” and secret palatial places (p.39). At the same time, he demands from “Moses,” “Are you not mindful of your teachers who wrote your teaching, on which your entire law relies, according to you, how they claim that God has a form and a body, and they attribute such things to his ineffable majesty as it is wicked to believe and absurd to hear, seeing that they are not based on reason?” (p.46).

Set in the dialogue against the vast order of the created world is tractate Berachot. What offends Alfonsi there is not just the anthropomorphism, but the attribution of behaviors that do not comport with the idea of an omnipotent God. In the Talmudic legends  cited by Alfonsi, God wears tefillin, God inhabits a finite  locus, God gets angry, God weeps. Unlike modern readers, Alfonsi has no truck with poetic or allegorical whimsy in religion. While one should not overstate this difference, it is worth noting that his approach to meaning in theological discourse is literalist, whereas rabbinic lore, it has been argued, was originally the mark of a more playful disposition.

Alfonsi is indubitably correct when he says that Talmud is the firm basis that most finally separates Christians from Jews. Alfonsi has his “Moses” confess, that he, “Moses,” now sees “how much my understanding,” by which he means Talmud, “is opposed to the Scriptures, and the extent to which it departs from reason” (pp.74-5). Arguably, Talmud is indeed distant from Scripture in so many respects relating especially to the power of God and to the power of the sages. The God at the Red Sea and at Sinai represent avatars very unlike the avatar of God who inhabits more modestly the four cubits of Torah. For Alfonsi, whose conception of the created universe is big, the idea that God dons phylacteries that carry verses which praise Israel is an offense to the omnipotence of God. The Omnipotent One who inspired Alfonsi with His spirit would not pray, roar, shake, or weep, or laugh. “Petrus” wants incredulously to know if God is impotent, unable to save the Jews or does the fault of the exile lie solely with the people and their sages. He asks about the sages if they indeed have the power to conquer angels and outwit God. About the legendary R. Joshua ben Levi who sneaks into paradise without having to die, Alfonsi asks, “Should we say that it was the impotency of a God that was only able to expel him from paradise by a deception?” Underscoring the impotence of God, Alfonsi contends that these are “nothing but the words of little boys making jokes in school, or of women telling old wives’ tales in the streets” (p.96, see p.46).

Alfonsi was no fan of what in modern times is called folklore. But he was on to at least a little something about jokes, so-called old wives’ tales, and the power of God in the Babylonian Talmud. At the start of the second chapter-titulus, “Moses” is again forced to confess to “Petrus,” this time saying, “you have demonstrated by the light of incontestable arguments that whatever our sages apply, unworthily, to the divine majesty cannot stand either on the authority of Scripture or on the power of any sort of reason” (p.97). Attribution of qualities to God is key here. About “unworthy” attributions to divine majesty, it must have taken a particularly acute Christian sensibility to discern the figure of divine “impotency” in Talmudic lore and to call such caustic attention to it. That he did so in no little bad faith is beside the point. More to the point is that the impotence of God in Talmud is nothing but a mirror image to the incarnation and crucifixion in Christian theology. With their own eye on Hebrew Scripture, it was this very same powerlessness that offended medieval Jewish readers in respect to their own understanding of the power of God. The “twists and turns” that “Petrus” wants to remove from the breast of “Moses” belong to the very structure undergirding this type of close, inter-religious and intra-psychic conflict (p.71).

[For a long quote by Alfonsi on the impotence of God in Talmud, continue below]

Impotence of God

(I’m quoting below from a long discourse on tractate Berachot, breaking the long paragraph up into separate paragraphs for ease of reading)

“If you want to know where it is written: [it is] in the first part of your teaching, whose name is Benedictions. Then, if you want to know how: they have said that God has a head and arms and wears a little box tied by a band on the hair; that the knot of this same band is made fast from the rear part of the head under the skull; that within the box there are four parchments that contain praises of the Jews; that on the upper part of the left arm, moreover, he wears another box bound in a similar fashion by a band, and that there is a parchment there that contains all the praises which are said to be written in the four previously mentioned. Do you admit that all these things are thought to be written in this manner in the place I have mentioned? [48-9]


Nor is it enough for them to say this about God, but they also say that he cries once each day, every day, and they say that two tears coming from his eyes fall into the great sea, and they assert that these tears are that brightness [fulgur] that seems to fall from the stars at night. This argument, however, shows that God is composed of the four elements. For tears only occur from an abundance of moisture descending from the head. If, then, this is so, then the elements are the matter of God. For all matter is prior to and simpler than form. Therefore, these tears, too, are prior to and simpler than God, which is a wicked thing to believe. Therefore, if God is such as you say he is, since he enjoys neither food nor drink, and yet daily he emits tears from himself, then it is necessary that he suffer decrease, unless perhaps he continually imbibes of the waters that are above the heavens. One understands, then, from their words, that they do not know what that brightness is.



They also say that the cause of this weeping, which they unworthily ascribe to God, is the Jews’ captivity. Moreover, they assert that, on account of grief, he roars like a lion three times a day and that in so doing he strikes the heavens with his feet in the manner of someone treading in a [wine] press,49 [and] that like a dove he makes a cooing sound, and moves his head from side to side and says, with a voice like one grieving: “Woe is me, woe is me! that I have reduced my house to a desert, and burned my temple, and removed my children to the gentiles. Alas for the father who has removed his children, and alas for the children who have been removed from the table of their father.”50 Moreover, they say that one of your sages heard this voice in a certain place of ruins. In addition, they say that he rubs the feet together as if they were itching, and just like one who is grieving he claps the hands together, and that he prays daily that his mercy would rise above his anger and that he would come upon his people in mercy.

“Tell me, O Moses, when God prays, I ask whom does he worship—himself, or another? If another, then the one he worships is more powerful than he. If he worships himself, either he has power over that for which he prays, or he is impotent. If he is impotent, he worships himself in vain. Whereas if he has power, either he wills that for which he prays, or he does not will it. If he does not will it, then he prays for nothing. If, however, he wills it, then it is not necessary to pray. You see then, O Moses, how this people is altogether estranged from divine knowledge. Therefore, if it is true that God cries for you, that he roars like a lion, strikes the heaven with [his] feet, laments like a dove, moves his head, calls out “woe is me” on account of too much grief, and that in addition he rubs [his] feet together and claps [his] hands together and prays each day to have mercy on you, what then prevents you from being freed from your captivity? Does this delay stem from you or from him? For if it is from him, then you show that his power is inadequate to fulfill his will, since you affirm that he weeps like a child from being unable to complete something he wills.

If, then, he is impotent now, tell me whether he will have the power in the future or not? If he will never have it, then both his grief and yours will be without end and your prayer empty and your hope null. Whereas if he will have the power, either he has not had it yet but will have it at a certain and predetermined time at which, when he has it, he will free you from captivity. Or he has already had it, but he lost it by the intervention of some accidents, and then when these have been removed, once again he will recover the power and lead you forth from captivity. If, however, he will have it at a certain time, it remains for you to say what it is that prevents him from having it now, namely, whether you impute this to his youthfulness, or the weakness of his members, or to an obstacle of any type whatsoever from which he cannot be defended. But it is wicked to believe this of God.

For we read in the sacred Scriptures, to which you entrust faith together with us, that God performed miracles in ancient times greater than would be required to free you from captivity, as when he struck Egypt with the ten plagues and led you out from there with a strong hand, and divided the Red Sea, in which he drowned Pharaoh and his army, and also fed you in the desert with manna and quail from heaven, and fixed the waters of the Jordan in one place resembling a mountain,  and fixed [in one place] the sun and the moon in response to Joshua’s prayers and caused 175,000 to be slain from the army of Sennacherib in one night. In the days of Ezekiel, he commanded the sun to go back 10 degrees and freed Daniel from the lion’s den. He freed Ananias, Misael, and Azariah from fire and freed you from the Babylonian captivity, and performed many other miracles too many to enumerate. Therefore you cannot say that he was not powerful in ancient days.

If, however, you concede that he was powerful, as is proper, but say that he was made impotent by the intervention of other accidents, after whose departure you believe that he will recover his power, then it is necessary that you confess one of two things: either that accidents existed outside of him or in him, as an illness that befalls a human being checks the effectiveness of his will until he convalesces, or that these are imposed on him by another, as captivity imposed on anyone by the king deprives him of the power of his own will, until, when freedom arrives, it withdraws. If you say that they were outside of him and in him, then you say that God has a body, which is susceptible to contraries, which it is not fit to think about God. Whereas if you say that they are imposed upon him by another, you demonstrate that that one who imposed them is more powerful than God, which is not less inappropriate. If, however, you delay your freedom, not with that intention, but with the intention that he free you by willing it, you oppose his will through pertinacity, with the inevitable result that, because he cast you into captivity, from contrariness you will remain in this captivity longer than he wills. Therefore, he ought to satisfy your will and not burden himself continually with so much grief, or it would be fitting for him to spare you and not to make you so sorrowful. But this cannot stand at all since daily you pray to him to snatch you from captivity. Therefore, I beg you, Moses, to remove such twists and turns from your breast.”


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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