A feature which has typified Jews’ relationships to God from as far back as Abraham and Moses is that God can be argued with and persuaded to change his mind.
The selichot petitionary prayers recited at this time of year, in addition to expressing a contrite recognition of our sinfulness and powerlessness before God’s will, are often characterized by an aggressive “bargaining” posture. The authors “remind” God of the suffering to which we have been subjected and of the merits earned by our righteous ancestors, and ask that these factors be counted to our credit.
This pious familiarity before God, who is perceived not only as a judge but also as a patient and forgiving father, was taken to extremes by the famous Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.
Known as the “Sanegor of Israel” for his insistence on always seeing his fellow Jews in a favourable light, Levi Yitzhak is said to have challenged God one Rosh Hashanah to a lawsuit–a din Torah. God, he argued, had no right to prolong Israel’s exile when other more sinful nations were allowed to live in peace and prosperity.
A grim variation on this story is recounted by Elie Wiesel in his Holocaust memoir Night, and later formed the basis for his play “The Trial of God.” On Rosh Hashanah, from the depths of their sorrow and despair, the inmates of Auschwitz called God to judgement and condemned him for allowing such evil and suffering in His world.
Both stories, that of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev and that of the Auschwitz inmates, end in the same way. After declaring God’s guilt the accusers rise to recite the Kaddish–the proclamation of God’s sovereignty over the universe.
The point is a profound one: For the Jew, it is possible to argue against God, but not to live without him.