Talking To and About God

Talking To and About God

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Ari Lamm

Modern Orthodox Judaism, one often hears, has a God problem. That is, while Modern Orthodoxy has doubled down - successfully or not - on intellectualism, frank talk about God has become almost passé. This account is appealing in part because it seems easy to explain how Modern Orthodoxy got this way. At least since William James, American philosophers of religion have felt less than comfortable talking about God directly. They have preferred instead simply to ask what the practical ramifications might be if God were to exist: How should religious people behave? What texts should religious people study? Should religious people build institutions, and if so, what should they look like? In other words, what values do (or should) religious communities embody, once they already posit “God”? In this sense, Modern Orthodox thought is just part of a larger, pragmatic trend in American religious thinking. And it certainly is tempting to view Modern Orthodox curricula as having by and large adopted something like this approach in the past.

Should we be concerned about this?

Well, I suppose that depends on one’s point of view.

But let’s even assume for a moment that we should desire a more direct conversation about God. What would that sort of conversation look like? Upon what sort of sources would it draw? Perhaps one natural place to begin might be with a discussion of the bat kol: the sole manner in which rabbinic literature envisions God continuing to communicate directly with humanity. After all, as the Tosefta (Lieberman ed.) relates:


משמתו נביאים הראשונים חגי זכריה ומלאכי פסקה רוח הקודש מישראל. ואע'פ-כן היו משמיעין להן על בת קול.


When the early prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – died, the holy spirit ceased from Israel. However, they (He?) still communicated with them via bat kol. (t. Sotah 13:3)

So what lessons, if any, might we draw from an understanding of the bat kol?

Early Sources

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Kaufmann Kohler and Ludwig Blau - writing in the Jewish Encyclopedia - proposed the following definition of bat kol:


A heavenly or divine voice which proclaims God's will or judgment, His deeds and His commandments to individuals or to a number of persons, to rulers, communities, and even to whole nations.

This probably reflects the current conventional wisdom about the bat kol’s character. In a similar vein, Kristen Lindbeck, professor of Jewish Studies at Florida Atlantic University, memorably described the bat kol as “God’s words filtered through an angelic or cosmic loudspeaker” (Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology, 55). But do these descriptions suffice to account for the ways in which the term “bat kol” is used in our sources? The answer, in fact, is no, at least with respect to the earliest evidence. Indeed, the first confirmed appearance of the term bat kol is not even in rabbinic literature. It is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in a text written around the turn of the era called 4Q186 (Ma’agarim ed.):[1]

[ע]ניו בינ שחורות וב[ינ מ]נמריות וזקנו ממ[... ] והואה תרגל ובת קול[ו] עניה ושניו דקות ויושבות על סרכמה

[His eye]s are between black and spotted, and his beard is (?)...and curly, and the sound of his voice is simple, and his teeth are fine and properly arranged.

In this peculiar text - probably describing some sort of dream or apparition - the term bat kol refers to the sound of any voice, not specifically God’s. This actually comports with the usage found in several places in the Mishnah. Take the following example (cited according to the Kaufmann manuscript):


מעידין לאור הנר ולאור הלבנה ומשיאין על פי בת קול. מעשה באחד שעמד על ראש ההר ואמ'. איש פלוני בן איש פלוני ממקום פלוני מת. והלכו ולא מצאו שם אדם והשיאו את אשתו


We admit testimony [even] by [witnesses who only saw a woman’s husband’s corpse] by the light of a candle, or by the light of the moon, and we certify [that woman’s] remarriage even on account of a bat kol. An incident occurred in which someone stood atop a mountain and cried “So-and-so, son of so-and-so, from such-a-place is dead.” [Those who heard] went to investigate, but they found no one. And nonetheless they certified [so-and-so’s] wife's remarriage. (m. Yevamot 16:6)

This mishnah responds to the general question of how much evidence is required to certify remarriage by a woman whose husband may or may not be alive, and who therefore may or may not still be married. The mishnah affirms that some lower standard of testimony is sufficient for these purposes. So even if witnesses only saw the husband’s corpse in a poorly lit place, or only know of the husband’s death via a bat kol, they may testify on the wife’s behalf.

You may be asking yourself: what does the mishnah mean by ‘knowing about the husband’s death via a bat kol’? To this, the mishnah answers with the story in its second half about the voice on the mountaintop. And in this story, interestingly enough, the voice announcing the husband’s death - the bat kol - appears not to be a divine voice at all, but a human voice. That is, since no one actually saw the person who made this announcement, all the witnesses have to go on is his “bat kol” - the sound of his voice. This is indeed precisely how the term bat kol was used in 4Q186. The term bat kol on its own, therefore, does not appear in the earliest sources to be a technical term of art for God’s voice. It is rather a general term for the disembodied sound of a person’s voice, especially in the event that the actual source of that voice is nowhere to be found.

One question to which I’ll return later is this: If later sources do use “bat kol” as a term to describe God’s expressed will, why was this particular metaphor - the disembodied voice - selected for that purpose? In the meantime, however, let’s take a look at some of those later sources.

The term bat kol in reference to God can indeed be found elsewhere in Tannaitic literature. Here’s one representative example from Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (cited according to the Oxford 151 manuscript, with an addition from the Munich 117 manuscript):

מעשה באחד שאמ' קרבן מבני שותה מים היום ויצתה בת קול מבית קודשי הקדשים ואמרה מי שקיבל את [קרבנותיהם במדבר הוא יקבל] קרבנותיכם בשעה הזאת

An incident occurred in which a person said, “There is a sacrifice from the sons of the water drinkers today.” A bat kol went out from the Holy of Holies and said, “The one who accepted their sacrifices in the desert will be the one who accepts your sacrifices at this moment.” (Amalek 4)

The context here is as follows: The midrash claims that the Rechabites – a little-known family appearing in the Bible (e.g. Jeremiah 35) – had converted to Judaism. The midrash attempts to illustrate their successful conversion with this vignette, in which a bat kol compares the Rechabites’ sacrifice to the Israelites’ sacrifices in the desert. Here, the bat kol is undoubtedly divine, emerging as it does from the Holy of Holies.

But how does the bat kol function in this story?

Well, first of all, the bat kol doesn’t appear to change anything. There is no indication that anyone (either in the story or the midrash’s larger context) disputed the Rechabites identity, nor - even if anyone did - that anyone’s mind was changed as a result. In fact, it’s not even clear that anyone even heard the bat kol! Indeed, Jacob Z. Lauterbach - a renowned talmudist of the early 20th century who, among other things, translated the Mekhilta into English[2] - seemed to have been bothered by this, which is why he translated the beginning of the story as follows: “It happened once that one said [mockingly]...” The addition of the word in brackets makes it seem as if the Rechabites’ status was under attack from fellow Jews, motivating a response by God through the bat kol. In Lauterbach’s view, then, “sons of water drinkers” is an ethnic slur of sorts. The problem with this, however, is that the characteristic to which this epithet refers - namely, that the Rechabites drank only water, not wine - the Bible saw as wholly positive. In other words, if anything, “sons of water drinkers” is a compliment. The Rechabites were not under assault.

So what, exactly, does the bat kol do in this source? The answer appears to be that it’s not supposed to do anything, at least in the sense of altering the status quo, commanding people, or even prompting people to respond. The bat kol, for the Mekhilta, just represents a literarily elegant way of lending God’s stamp of approval to reality. In this case, the midrash asserts that the Rechabites are Jewish, and colorfully illustrates this by reference to a divine declaration to this effect.

This constricted understanding of the divine bat kol is typical of Tannaitic sources. The Tannaim use it to punctuate declarative statements in a spiritually meaningful way: X is true! Let the Heavens proclaim it!

There is one exception to this in Tannaitic sources, and that is in the Tosefta I mentioned earlier. I’ve quoted it here in full:


משמתו נביאים הראשונים חגי זכריה ומלאכי פסקה רוח הקודש מישראל. ואע'פ-כן היו משמיעין להן על בת קול. מעשה שנתכנסו חכמים לעליית בית גוריה ביריחו ויצתה בת קול ואמרה להן. יש כן אדם ביניכם שראוי לרוח הקדש אלא שאין דורו זכיי לכך. נתנו עיניהם בהלל הזקן. וכשמת אמרו עליו. הא עניו הא חסיד תלמידו של עזרא


When the early prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – died, the holy spirit ceased from Israel. However, they (He?) still communicated with them via bat kol. An incident occurred in which the sages gathered into the upper chamber of the house of Guriah in Jericho, and a bat kol went out and said to them: “There is a person among you who is suitable to receive the holy spirit [but will not] because the current generation is unworthy of [having a prophet].” [The sages] cast their eyes upon Hillel the Elder. When he died, they said of him: “Behold this humble and kind person, a disciple of Ezra.” (t. Sotah 13:3).

Here, too, the bat kol describes a divine voice. But in contrast to what we’ve seen so far, people actually hear the bat kol and respond accordingly. In this case, the bat kol singles out someone among this gathering of sages as especially righteous. Those gathered take note of this and, collectively assuming that this person is Hillel, shift their attention towards him. This is the most active role yet assumed by the bat kol, and it is unique in Tannaitic sources.

But even so, notice what the bat kol doesn’t do? It doesn’t alter the status quo. It doesn’t settle a dispute. And those who presumably hear it aren’t even certain what it means. The bat kol doesn’t positively identify Hillel as its target, and the gathered sages are left to guess. In other words, while this source does demonstrate that the Tannaim were able to conceive of the bat kol as communicating with humanity, it still describes a rather restrained divine bat kol that is standard throughout Tannaitic literature.

Later Sources

This brings us to the Amoraim. In Amoraic literature we will find two divergent models for how the bat kol works - one expansive and one restrictive. And as we shall see, these two models are in conversation with each other.

Our first stop will be the following passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi. The text that concerns us possesses a parallel in the Tosefta. We will analyze them side by side:

T. Yevamot 1:13 (Lieberman ed.)

Y. Berakhot 1:3, 3b (Leiden manuscript)

לעולם הלכה כדברי בית הלל

הרוצה להחמיר על עצמו לנהוג כדברי בית שמיי וכדברי בית הלל על זה נאמ' הכסיל בחשך ילך התופס קולי בית שמיי וקולי בית הלל רשע אלא אם כדברי בית שמיי כקוליהן וכחומריהון אם כדברי בית הלל כקוליהון וכחומריהון

כל הרוצה להחמיר על עצמו ולנהוג כחומרי בית שמי וכחומרי בית הלל על זה נאמ' הכסיל בחושך הולך. כקולי אילו ואילו נקרא רשע. אלא אי כקולי וכחומרי דדין. אי כקולי וכחומרי דדין

הדין דתימ' עד שלא יצאת בת קול. אבל משיצאת בת קול לעולם הלכה כדברי בית הלל. וכל העובר על דברי בית הלל חייב מיתה. תני, יצאת בת קול ואמרה. אילו [ואילו] דברי אלהים חיים אבל הל' כדברי בית הלל.

The law always follows the rulings of the House of Hillel

About one who wishes to act according to both the stringencies of the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, the verse says, “The fool walks in darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:14). [Conversely,] one who grabs the leniencies of both the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel is an evildoer. Rather, either follow both the leniencies and stringencies of [one or the other].


About anyone who wishes to act according to the stringencies of both the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, the verse says, “The fool walks in darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:14). [Conversely, anyone who acts] according to the leniencies of both is called an evildoer. Rather, [act] according to both the leniencies and stringencies of either.

This was said before the bat kol went out, but once the bat kol went out, the law always follows the rulings of the House of Hillel. And any who transgresses the rulings of the House of Hillel is worthy of death. It was taught: A bat kol went out and said, “These and these [i.e. the respective opinions of the houses of Shammai and Hillel] are the words of the Living God, but the law follows the House of Hillel.

Let’s begin with the Tosefta. It commences with a clear, forceful statement: the law follows Beit Hillel. The reader should then spot the difficulty straightaway: this unequivocal statement is immediately followed by a qualification that seems to undermine it: you may adopt either the positions of Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai, just so long as you are consistent.

Which is it?

The Yerushalmi’s version of this passage presents a solution. Both of these statements are true, but they refer to different time periods. In an earlier era, there was room to act in accordance with Beit Shammai, so long as one accepted all of its positions. But eventually, this era came to a close. In the new era, one may only follow Beit Hillel.

Let’s take note of a few things. First, how does the Yerushalmi mark the transition to the new age in which Beit Hillel’s views are binding? The answer, significantly, is the bat kol. That is, the Yerushalmi describes a standard development in the halakhic process - the eventual dominance of one position over another - in a rather remarkable fashion. God Himself announces Beit Hillel’s authority. And this announcement - this bat kol - is taken to be halakhically decisive. Second, from a literary standpoint, the Yerushalmi’s solution is counterintuitive. After all, if one follows the order of the Tosefta, then one would expect the era in which all must follow Beit Hillel to have been earlier, and the era in which one may follow either to be later. The fact that, in the Yerushalmi’s account, it’s the other way around only serves to highlight the important role played by the bat kol in determining halakhah.

All of this is to say that in this passage in the Yerushalmi the bat kol takes on a greatly expanded role relative to the Tannaitic sources. Here, it is clear that people hear the bat kol, and that the bat kol settles halakhic disputes. Whereas earlier, Hazal deployed the bat kol as a sort of literary device, the Yerushalmi employs it in halakhic contexts.[3] In this case, the impression one might receive is that not only are Beit Hillel’s views normative, but actually mandated directly by God. Beit Hillel - and in its wake, the sages of the Talmud - speak with God’s voice. That is quite a powerful claim.

Elsewhere in Amoraic literature, however, this expansive model of the bat kol encounters a response. An excellent example of the contrasting restrictive model appears both in the Yerushalmi and, in more developed form, in the Talmud Bavli. In this essay I will consider the Bavli version, although my conclusions apply, with few to no exceptions, to the Yerushalmi as well. The Bavli passage is set against the Mishnah’s discussion of a certain oven known as “the oven of Akhnai.” Rabbi Eliezer and the rest of the sages argued over its purity status. The former declared it pure, and the latter declared it impure. This sort of dispute is de rigueur throughout rabbinic literature, but in this case the Bavli relates a story concerning the aftermath of this dispute (cited according to the Hamburg 165 manuscript):

השיב ר' אליעז' כל תשובות שבעולם ולא קבלו ממנו...אמ' להם. אם כמותי הוא. מן השמים יוכיחו. יצתה בת קול ואמ'. מה לכם אצל ר' אליעזר. שהלכה כמותו בכל מקום. עמד ר' יהושע על רגליו ואמ'. לא בשמים היא. מאי לא בשמים היא. א'ר ירמיה. כבר נתתה לנו על הר סיני. וכתוב בה אחרי רבים להטות. אשכחיה ר' נתן לאליהו. אמ' ליה. מאי אמ' קב'ה בההיא שעתא. אמ' ליה. גחין ואמ'. נצחוני בני. נצחו' [בני].


Rabbi Eliezer attempted to rebut his colleagues with all the rebuttals in the world, but they did not accept them from him... Finally he said to them: “If I am correct, let it be proven from Heaven!” A bat kol went out and said: “What have you against R. Eliezer whose legal opinions are always correct?” Thereupon Rabbi Joshua stood up one his feet and said, “It is not in heaven!” What does [this] mean? Rabbi Jeremiah said: “You [God?] already gave us [the Torah] at Mount Sinai; and it is written therein, ‘Follow after the majority.’” Rabbi Nathan encountered Elijah [the prophet] and asked him: “What did God say at that moment?” He replied: “He bent down and said, 'You have bested me, my children! You have bested me!’” (Bava Metzia 59b)

In this passage, the expansive bat kol model does make an appearance. Just as in the Yerushalmi’s account of Beit Hillel’s dominance, the divine bat kol sought here to impose a halakhic ruling upon the sages. But rather than the bat kol settling the matter, Rabbi Joshua stood up and contested the bat kol’s authority. Indeed, according to Rabbi Joshua - who seems to have the final word - the bat kol has no authority whatsoever! The halakhic process operates independently of God’s direct involvement, and as such the bat kol’s pronouncement may be ignored.

This sort of bat kol exemplifies what I have called the restrictive model. But if all I mean by that is that this version of the bat kol doesn’t serve any of the new functions represented in the expansive model (as in the Yerushalmi passage about Beit Hillel), then why don’t I just call this the “Tannaitic model”? After, the Tannaitic version of the bat kol doesn’t fill any of these expansive roles either.

The key difference between them, to my mind, is in their engagement with the expansive model. In other words, notice that there are no Tannaitic sources that grapple with the question of the bat kol’s role in deciding halakhah. After all, the Tannaim do not appear to have considered that the bat kol might conceivably act this way. It was only once the expansive model developed - and the Amoraim began openly to discuss the bat kol as a feature of halakhic decision making - that sources like the Bavli passage just discussed had to argue specifically for a restrained version of the bat kol.

Another way of putting this is that the expansive model represents a bold statement about the nature of halakhah and the sages who steward it. If Beit Hillel’s rulings became binding because God explicitly took its side, that gives a very different impression than if they became binding through debate and consideration among the sages. One can easily see how the expansive bat kol model could encourage Jews to think of their halakhic leaders as speaking directly for God - rather than just empowered to speak by God - even if the expansive version didn’t intend this very broad conclusion. In order to forestall this possibility, and instead advance a much more modest, if no less normative, claim about halakhic authority, the restrictive model developed among the Amoraim.[4] In the restrictive model, halakhic positions become binding even if - and in our Bavli passage, in full knowledge that - these positions are in imperfect proportion with what the halakhah ‘should’ be.

Why “Bat Kol”?

Let’s return, now, to my earlier question. Why, of all metaphors, was “bat kol” - a disembodied voice - selected to describe God’s involvement in a discussion? The restrictive model, I believe, supplies the solution.

The restrictive model in Amoraic literature emphasized the limited role ascribed to the divine bat kol in Tannaitic literature. That is, the bat kol should not - and was not, among the Tannaim - used as a halakhic tool, such that people might be tempted to claim, in support of their own positions, that not only are they right as a matter of halakhic process, but, in fact, God is definitively on their side! The halakhic process does not and should not claim that degree of confidence. Halakhic decisors must do their best with the modest, human tools they are given. In other words, the divine bat kol - for both the Tannaim and restrictive Amoraim - is, simultaneously, a way of expressing commitment to an ongoing relationship with God, and conceding with due humility that we know too little about God to make many more extravagant claims than that.

The disembodied-voice metaphor is perfect for expressing this tension.

After all, recall the mishnah in Yevamot that I discussed near the very beginning of this essay. What is the nature of the standard, natural bat kol - that is, the non-divine one - as it appears in that mishnah? Well, in that case, the mishnah used the term “bat kol” to describe a scenario in which people heard a voice say something, they were pretty sure that they knew and understood what that voice said, but they could not be more certain than that since they could not actually find that person to ask. And even though the court was willing to accept this testimony, it remained well aware that it was based on imperfectly established evidence.

To my mind, this is precisely the sense that the Tannaim and restrictive Amoraim[5] tried to convey by using the “bat kol” metaphor.

Hazal sought, and Jews following in this tradition continue to seek to live according to God’s will. When we have questions about how to do this, we do our best to provide solutions, and are reasonably confident in our process for doing so. But we are fully conscious that, at best, our halakhic process is like God’s bat kol - a disembodied voice, an echo that we hope - but cannot be sure and cannot check - that we have interpreted correctly. Viewed this way, Rabbi Joshua’s Biblically-tinged exclamation “It is not in Heaven!” is less a statement of religious empowerment than a call for religious humility.

And surely this humility should extend beyond the realm of halakhah as well. Should it not also infuse our hashkafic pronouncements, our tefillot, and really the entire scope of our avodat Hashem? Now, this should not induce in us so great a fear of being wrong that we become spiritually paralyzed. That would be a mistake. But it should encourage us to ask ourselves difficult questions like: how confident are we that what we say to God, about God, or in interpretation of God is correct? Surely we need to be able to say some of these things, and even come to authoritative conclusions about them. But in doing so, perhaps we should be far more epistemologically and theologically meek than we tend to be in practice.

So, to come full circle: does Modern Orthodox Judaism have a God problem?

Maybe. Maybe we should talk about God a lot more than we do. Maybe we really are capable of knowing much more about God than some people might assume, and we should communicate that knowledge among ourselves, and to others. And maybe the desire to do so should inevitably be expected. This view certainly possesses impeccable philosophical bona fides.

But for those wishing to understand the opposing instinct in rabbinic tradition, the best place to start might be the traditions concerning the bat kol.

[1] I realize the title “4Q186” can look pretty intimidating. Not to worry! Here’s what it means: the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a series of eleven caves near a place called Qumran, just off the Dead Sea. So “4Q” indicates that this particular manuscript was catalogued from the finds in Cave 4 of the Qumran caves, and “186” means that it was the 186th such manuscript. Hence: 4Q186.

[2] While I have you down here in the footnotes, allow me to tell you a bit about Professor Lauterbach, who had quite an interesting career. At the turn of the 20th century he earned two degrees: 1) his Ph.D. at the University of Göttingen with Julius Wellhausen, and 2) his rabbinical ordination from R. David Tzvi Hoffman at the Rabbiner-Seminar in Berlin. He migrated to the United States in 1904 and became best known for a lengthy career as professor of Talmud at Hebrew Union College. He was also the second chairman of the Responsa Committee for the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. Because I’m an Orthodox Jew writing something on the Internet in 2016, I am obliged to note that the landmark decision reached during Lauterbach’s tenure as chairman of the Responsa Committee ordain women as rabbis. Lauterbach was opposed.

[3] I do not think that the Yerushalmi intends, by referencing the bat kol, to claim (against the Tannaitic evidence!) that God Himself decides halakhah - in this case by ruling in favor of Beit Hillel  - through a literal bat kol. I believe instead that this is a very elegant, subtle way of describing what is in effect the halakhic process as reflected in the earlier sources. This will, God willing, be the subject of a future post.

[4] This impression is reinforced by the Bavli’s version of the “oven of Akhnai” narrative (even more than in the Yerushalmi’s version). That is, unlike the Yerushalmi, the Bavli cites this story in the midst of its discussion of ona’at devarim (oppressing with words). The “oven of Akhnai” story is germane to this topic because in the aftermath of the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues, the sages excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer, and - in various ways - attempt to eradicate the impact of his rulings from halakhic life. While the Bavli nowhere implies that Rabbi Eliezer’s views should somehow have been accepted, it does make the case that the sages’ treatment of Rabbi Eliezer constituted a form of ona’at devarim. I suspect that what underlies this conviction is a sense that just as epistemological and theological humility required Rabbi Joshua and his colleagues to reject the expansive bat kol’s role in halakhic decision making, so too should such humility have mandated much greater restraint in subsequent treatment of someone - Rabbi Eliezer - whose views have been provisionally rejected. At the end of the day, the Bavli tells us, we need to arrive at a fully binding halakhic ruling, but that doesn’t mean that we should be any more confident in the objective truth of our rulings after we promulgate them than we were beforehand.

[5] See note 3. To reiterate what I hope will be the subject of a future post: I would even claim that the expansive Amoraim do not fundamentally disagree with their restrictive colleagues.

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