This past Rosh Hashanah, I learned about a concept that seems to have been lost in our postmodernist understandings of religion and the Abrahamic God of the Bible in particular: God judges.
This concept seems to be inelastic or even simplistic at first, but it underpins everything that is lasting about good, ethical religion. “Good” here is defined by the objective and transcendent justice of the Ten Commandments. For this article, I will be focusing on the Abrahamic God as a judging God (as described in the Torah), but there are broader concepts at play that relate to all religions.
There certainly is a tendency for religious figures to overemphasize God as judge in a “fire and brimstone” fashion. But religious Jews in the reform and conservative movement, as well as most Christians attending mainstream churches, have lately often been taught that God is love rather than that God judges. Such teaching has resulted in confusion about the nature of God. Preaching God as judge has receded from Judaism and Christianity in 2019, even though there is a middle ground worth advocating that does not vacillate from one extreme to the other.
Believing that God does not judge ironically undermines the idea of a loving God as well. What type of God doesn’t execute judgment between the torturers and the tortured, or chattel slave owners and the slaves themselves? A God who excuses all in the name of the healing powers of unconditional love is not exactly a lovable God for anyone who cares about justice. It seems to be that the emergence of emphasis on God’s loving elements as a religious concept is tied to an understandable need to stay abreast of post-WWII social changes. Social changes that came about for various reasons and emphasized the fracturing of community, family, and religious structures that had underpinned civil society in the name of greater personal autonomy. Debating the specific merits of these changes is beyond the scope of this column. However, to fast-forward to today when pastors and rabbis talk only about a loving God, untempered by the concurrent concept of a God who judges the actions of man categorically as evil and good, religious Jews and Christians and agnostics suffered needless confusion that does no one any good.
Believing in a judging God can be a freeing idea in the sense that it allows humankind to accept the limitations of its collective ability to solve injustice. How else can one with empathy sleep at night, knowing that the constant suffering inflicted on others by the hand of man may otherwise go unanswered?
The idea of a judging God reinforces a sense of reward and punishment that is crucial in guiding behavior at a fundamental level. When one knows that they can cheat on a test, fudge IRS returns, or claim that they invented something they stole without repercussions, they are much more likely to do so. This is why criminal and civil laws exist. But the law can only be extended so far without either resulting in tyranny or inefficiency, which is why a widespread belief in a judging God is important for healthy societies. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterson, when man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in anything.
The Jewish High Holidays end this week, which concludes the 10 days between the Day of Judgment and New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Many Rabbis will preach about politics, or different forms of social justice. It certainly is easier to grandstand on such things than to confront the reality of God as He has been understood by centuries of Jewish religious thought. How many will be talking about the importance of a judging God?