The Shrewdness of the Jewish God

To be the God of justice as well as the God of compassion…

A fascinating essay by the late great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Covenant and Conversation: Can There Be Compassion without Justice?) offers a modern gloss on the brilliant balancing act of the Jewish God.[1]

According to Rabbi Sacks, Judaism is unique in its emphasis on both compassion and justice. While God initially sought to create the world according to the principle of justice, He saw that bumbling humans could not survive such strictness, so He tempered His creation of the world with compassion. (Rashi, Gen. 1:1)

Even the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy, which He reveals to Moses in last week’s Torah portion of Ki Tisa, include a measure of judgment:

“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:6–7; trans. by Rabbi Sacks zt”l).

God offers this formula to cleanse the Jewish people when they lose faith in this grievous way: Moses had seemingly delayed in returning from Mount Sinai with God’s instructions and the people panicked, believing their prophet and leader to be dead. They clamored for a replacement, which turned out to be an idol, like those worshiped in the land of Egypt. They had just been freed from that land in order to worship God. Clearly, the Jewish people needed emergency rehabilitation. Yet the instigators of the idolatry also received swift justice.

Moses learns that mentioning these aspects of God arouses His mercy, when combined with our teshuva, or self-improvement. Moses prays these words when the Jewish people stumble in their faithfulness in the future during their desert journey.

Recent research in fact shows that religions that have a balance between theological tenets of forgiveness and judgment have a palliative effect on society.

Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely conducted research in 2008 showing that subjects will cheat enough to profit a little, but not more than enough to jeopardize a self-image of being “basically honest,” when given a chance. This held true unless they were reminded of religious standards such as the Ten Commandments, immediately before being tested. Thinking of an omnipotent Judge who issues rules for right and wrong stamped out cheating in the research subjects completely, even in those who were not, apparently, religious believers (Journal of Marketing Research, Dec 2008: p. 636).

Even more interesting were findings from Ara Norenzayan in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (Princeton University Press: 2013). According to his research, societies that emphasize a mostly forgiving God in their religious faith paradoxically suffer more vigilantism, and hence, more violence. A thirst for justice leads humans to take matters into their own hands when they believe that crime ultimately goes unpunished, in miscarriages of the criminal justice system.

Surprisingly, in Norenzayan’s findings, people who believe in a punitive God punish people far less than those who believe in a forgiving God do (pp. 44–7). Evidently, those who believe that, as the Torah says, “‘God does not leave the guilty unpunished,’ are more willing to leave punishment to God,” in the words of Rabbi Sacks.

Furthermore, Norenzayan examined faith systems prevailing cross-culturally, including Christianity and Hindu religions. He found that “Nations with the highest levels of belief in hell and the lowest levels of belief in heaven had the lowest crime rates.” In contrast, nations that emphasized heaven at the expense of hell had flourishing crime rates, comparatively (p. 46).

Perhaps, conjectures Rabbi Sacks, this is why God stipulates that wrongdoers will be punished at the very moment when He reveals His fathomless compassion–within His thirteen attributes of mercy, mentioned earlier. In addition to many other times of year, Jews recite this formula when asking God for forgiveness in the Yom Kippur liturgy, at the summit of a process of stocktaking and teshuva begun in the month of Elul.

Though our Torah tells us “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20), it adjures us to judge justly. It tells us “You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect someone’s presence (i.e. favor the celebrated), and you shall not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make just words crooked (Deut. 16:19). We are reminded of the stirring question of the prophet Micah, “What does Hashem require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).

Knowing there is a Divine Judge overseeing all our affairs frees us to focus on taking care of ourselves and doing good for others when the pursuit of justice becomes just too costly.

[1] Torah Tidbits, Parshat Ki Tisa, February 19, 2022


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