Jonathan A. Pomeranz
The Humility of God in Rabbinic Judaism
Rabbinic Myth in the Roman Empire
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Rabbinic midrashim in which God demonstrates humility have, for the most part, been studied with little attention to their historical context. Scholars have focused on the relationship between rabbinic theology and biblical theology, and the relationship of rabbinic midrash to the biblical text. However, midrashim which depict God in positions of humility engage with both Roman and Christian ideologies of honour and humility. These midrashim, and the rabbinic theology reflected in them, were intertwined with the cultural and political worlds in which the rabbis lived.This article focuses on a single midrash (Exodus Rabbah 43:4) and uses a new historicist analysis of the midrash to direct an inquiry into the dynamics of honour and humility in rabbinic, Roman, and Christian discourses. According to this midrash, God vowed to destroy anyone who worshipped idols. However, when Israel committed the sin of the Golden Calf, God stood before Moses and expressed regret for this vow, in order to have the vow annulled. God's participation in the rabbinic ceremony of the annulment of vows focuses attention on God's regret and on God's posture of standing. Regret (paenitentia) in Roman culture was closely bound up with notions of honour. This midrash engages with the tensions between biblical and Roman conceptions of personal honour and dignity through its examination of the reasons for God's regret. God's standing before Moses is strikingly similar to the ways in which fourth-century Christian bishops, using the model of the Incarnation, chose to portray the Roman emperor. They showed the Roman emperor practicing humility by deviating from the postures typical of the emperor and adopting humble bodily postures. I argue that this midrash is a rabbinic adaptation of Christian stories of the Roman emperor, and, more broadly, that it participates in a late antique Christian discourse of humility. This composition is considered in light of other midrashim which depict God in positions of humility. Rabbinic theologising about God's humility is shown to be a response to the subordinated status of Jews in the Roman Empire. This type of midrash also adapts for rabbinic purposes the Christian theological innovations that were prompted by the paradox of a humble yet all-powerful Christian emperor. Midrashim that depict God demonstrating humility can, therefore, only be understood fully in the context of contemporaneous Roman and Christian ideologies.