Yom Kippur is a curious holiday. Widely known, among Jews and non-Jews alike, it is one of the few Jewish holidays also widely observed among the non-observant—probably out of guilt, but possibly out of a vague sense that this is an important day, and fasting is an important thing to do.
Yet every Yom Kippur, for at least the last decade, I’ve struggled with the theology of the day, the liturgy of repentance, and the challenge of tshuvah, return (usually translated “repentance,” but I prefer the literal rendering). When I was a child, and into my teens and twenties, the imagery of the day was effective; I didn’t think there was actually a Book of Life up there in the sky, but I appreciated the metaphor, and felt myself judged, impelled to repent of various sins and shortcomings.
Later, though, the image became problematic even as metaphor. As I came to accept my sexuality, I saw that much of what we ascribe to noble motives of repentance was really guilt warmed over. Not only did the wicked thrive—the old problem of theodicy, reflected in the Books of Job of Jonah—but some of them seemed to be happier and better-adjusted than some of the pious. I started to wonder whether it was even a good idea to fast and introspect, if this was even the right religious-spiritual thing to be doing.
This is not, strictly speaking, a theological question; let’s set aside the question of whether God actually exists. My question is whether the belief in a judging is God helpful or harmful psychologically. Put another way, which experience is it better to name as an experience of God: that of love, or that of judgment?
I want to assume, for the sake of argument, that all we’re really doing with Godtalk is coming up with metaphors, projecting certain experiences onto “God” that we particularly value. As Wittgenstein noted, when someone says “God created the flower,” what she is really saying is “the flower is important.” This is not a new idea—in most of the progressive religious world, it is understood that images God are just that: images. God is the everything and the nothing, beyond all ascription. They are ways of speaking about the unspeakable that have useful pedagogical value. And, of course, the judging God is only one image among many; He is balanced, ideally, by the Nurturer, the Lover, and so on.
But is this particular metaphor still useful today?
Some object to it on the grounds of history: how can we speak of a God who judges in the wake of the outrage of the Holocaust? Surely, this objection argues, whatever we may say about God, we cannot say that God judges fairly. Others object to the image on the bases of gender, politics, and family psychology: this judging God is like an abusive father (or husband), they say, meting out punishment and doling out rewards from above. We would all be better off without such an exemplar of abuse, patriarchy, and hierarchy.
Still others (and I may be among them) object to the image of the judging God on spiritual and psychological grounds. Is it really such a healthy thing to feel oneself to be inadequate, judged, and deficient? Does this conception even comport with the mystical experience, available to anyone willing to meditate for a few days in silence, which is entirely one of love?
And others may lodge a political objection. Since all religions ask us to imitate God, is it a good idea to say that God judges people? Doesn’t that make us all more judgmental, less tolerant, quicker to demean and defame?
I do not have a neat answer, but I want to suggest that the Judging God is an meaphor that is experientially accurate—and yet, ultimately, something to be transcended, for personal and political reasons.
First, it seems obvious that the Judging God reflects something deeply lodged in the human psyche. On the face of it, it’s quite bizarre that billions of people find solace in the notion of an angry God who punishes them for their failures. Clearly, this image is doing something: replacing the father, perhaps, or reflecting our own inner processes of guilt.
Nor do I want to write off guilt as being entirely bad. Remorse and guilt keep us honest, check the ego, and remind us that we all have the capacity to be selfish and cruel. The judging God, in this light, is simply the superego projected toward the heavens. As a form of social control, it is an effective story that doubtless keeps many of us from acting on our baser instincts. It just needs periodic updating from time to time.
But the essential part of this image, particularly as it’s expressed on Yom Kippur, is that it is not a static one. God judges in order to inspire us to change, in order that God can forgive. Again, let’s stay with experience, not myth: the notion is that we judge ourselves so that we can introspect, right our wrong behaviors… and then move on. The catharsis of Yom Kippur serves its function, and then ends. The shofar is sounded, the book is closed, the process is complete.
This is where so much religious practice, it seems to me, goes off the rails. Well, the book is really open for another couple of weeks. Well, God is always watching you, always judging. Well, you never actually deserve to be forgiven; it’s just God’s grace, extending mercy to the undeserving. No wonder our Christian sisters and brothers threw up their hands and said you can never win, unless a savior comes and saves you. The deck is stacked against us.
Moreover, the grammar of guilt operates regardless of the vocabulary of one’s particular observance. I remember at one point during my more religiously-observant years, I was debating whether to eat non-kosher-supervised cheese, a legal debate that goes on within many Jewish quarters to this day. Believe it or not, I really racked my brain and searched my heart over this technical issue. The rules seemed nonsensical. But was I just trying to rationalize doing what I wanted? Did God really care? Was the system out of whack, or was I being lazy and indulgent?
I shared some of this struggle with an Orthodox friend of mine. She laughed at the story, because while eating “non-kosher” cheese was beyond the pale for her, she was having the same internal debate about eating dairy products that were not cholov yisrael, i.e., watched by a Jew at all times. The legal issue was different, but the pattern of soul-searching and guilt was the same.
Today, the whole thing looks like neurosis. Yes, there’s a certain nobility to the struggle of making every aspect of one’s life suffused with holiness, and participating in a millennia-old tradition of law. But all this angst—about cheese! Couldn’t our emotional energy be better spent on giving more money to the poor, rectifying the sins of racism and sexism, or, well, just about anything?
So, although the experience of being judged is meant to be a transitory one, it often becomes a permanent state of affairs, with pathetic (if not tragic) personal consequences and a misdirection of spiritual energy.
Second, the political consequences of this personal misdirection can be severe. Often, with judgment comes (if we judge ourselves worthy) arrogance, self-justification, and the judging of others; or (if we do not) self-hatred, anxiety, and defense mechanisms aplenty. Thus we make ourselves tough, argumentative, and always right, because we fear that otherwise, we will be found lacking.
The transitive nature of guilt—that it can attach to anything—likewise has problematic political consequences. For example, if we obsess over Leviticus 18:22 (the verse regarding male homosexual activity) but ignore Leviticus 19:9 (the requirement to leave a portion of one’s crops for the poor), we are playing into the Republican party’s cynical bait-and-switch: we are diverting religious attention from where it really matters (greed, money, and power) to where it really doesn’t (sexuality). (See the still-trenchant What’s the Matter with Kansas?) The experience of judgment, divorced from content, enables this con to take place.
The judging God is a stage along the psychological path, both individually and communally. It is important to hold ourselves to a high standard of ethical, and possibly ritual, behavior. But at a certain point, it becomes more important to forgive ourselves for not meeting that standard—and, as a culture, to learn to be more loving and understanding, less judgmental and strict. Of course, there are always personal and political instances where strictness is appropriate. But do we really think that what the world needs now is more judgment?
When I look around, I see a natural world which we are lucky to inhabit, in bodies which are miraculous in construction, and I feel loved by God as a result. I do not feel judged, even when the earthquake hits and the body ages or falls ill, as long as I am close to my better, more compassionate, and wiser self. Rather, I feel God’s presence in the companionship and response to adversity, in intimacy, in love, in the healing and the mending. May it be so for all of us this Yom Kippur.