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  • Hester Panim In Modern Jewish Thought*
  • David Wolpe (bio)

The eclipse of God is a metaphor, and as such, automatically inadequate. Metaphorical language is intrinsically suspect when it comes to theology. How can we speak of something that transcends not only language, but any existing or envisioned categories of human thought? Yet as we cannot speak without recourse to metaphor, we cannot theologize without it. The metaphor of eclipse is part of a congeries of images about God’s silence, hiddenness and inactivity which run through the Jewish tradition and have become exquisitely apposite in the wake of the Holocaust.

The idea of eclipse is naturally dear to the Jewish heart. God’s hiding epitomizes Judaism’s perennial teaching: there is an essential part of God that cannot be seen. God may not be made into an image because to do so is to make manifest that which is, by its nature, not accessible to the senses of humanity. Moreover, Jewish history demands hiddenness, for “The presupposition of revelation is that God is hidden from man’s sight.”1

In the Bible, God’s immanence is not merely felt, but manifest in history and miracle. Part of the Bible’s extravagance in its presentation of God is to offer up a God who is immediately obvious to the reader, and presumably, to the historical actors. One of the unspoken enigmas of the biblical text is how so obvious and powerful an entity could be defied, even by those whose hearts are wicked. Can we truly imagine a Pharaoh who would ignore a God after even one of the ten plagues? Is there a nation so obdurate that it would continue to resist after seeing the sun stand still? In such stories we find the apogee of immanence.

One possible explanation for the nonchalance of God’s enemies in the Bible is the palpable absence of God at crucial times. The presence of power need not be decisive if it is sporadic. Where was God for the hundreds of years of slavery preceding the Exodus? The enterprise of theodicy may be seen as an attempt to reconcile the God of immanence and action with the absence of God’s intervention at times of crisis and [End Page 25] pain. At first the Bible takes an essentially pessimistic view of the world—things are bad and God is to be praised when they unaccountably turn good. This enables the Bible to praise God without simultaneously damning God for His absence. Absence leaves things in their natural state, which is precarious. Yet as the Bible progresses, and God’s intervention becomes more regular and predictable, God’s absence becomes correspondingly more problematic and anguishing. Into that breach come the first attempts at theodicy.

There are a variety of what we might term “Absence” theodicies. The most radical are the “God is dead” theologies, which arose primarily in the last century. Beside them are a variety of notions about the hiddenness of God, the absence of God, the silence of God, and the eclipse of God. Different thinkers, employing these cognate terminologies, intend different things. We will examine their ideas below. But first we should note that such ideas are built on the betrayal of immanence; God no longer behaves as the Bible seems to promise in times of trial. Good fortune is, in and of itself, seen as God’s presence; when things go well, God is there. The complaint about God’s absence is a complaint about evil. In the succinct plaint of Gideon, “If the Lord is with us, why has all this befallen us?” (Judges 6:13).

Ideas of God’s absence may seem at first to share an affinity with the process of predicate theologians—those who argue for the finitude of God. 2 The idea of a hidden God is certainly compatible with the idea of a growing or incomplete God. Yet the two need not be identical. Although in practice it may amount to the same thing, the underlying concept may be quite different. Thus Steven Katz writes:

In light of the Holocaust, it becomes necessary not only to advocate this thesis but also to ask anew...

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