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Getting Over the Judging God: A Yom Kippur Reflection

By Jay Michaelson

Tallis worn during prayers on Yom Kippur. Photo credit: Richard Cahan

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post. 

GodvsgayThe Jewish High Holidays are an ironic time. It's the time more Jews go to synagogue than any other, yet it foregrounds a theology least likely to appeal to them, one highlighting sin and repentance, judgment and guilt. Is this a good thing?

This is not, strictly speaking, a theological question; it is a psychological one. Let us set aside the question of whether God actually exists. We know, most of us, that our images of God are metaphors, invented for our benefit. So the question really is whether this particular image—the judging God—is helpful or harmful.

To be sure, it's not an either/or decision. In Jewish tradition, God is both the dayan emet, the true judge, andharachaman, the compassionate/womb-like one. God is Mother, Father and Friend; Teacher, Consoler and Lover. For that matter, God is Everything and Nothing, Immanent and Transcendent, Earth and Sky. Surely, the Kabbalists were right that, experientially, we humans relate to the Infinite according to traits, genders, energies and perspectives that are different for different people and at different moments. So it is not that the judging God is the only God-image we have.

But on Yom Kippur, He (and He is a He) is the dominant one. So the question remains: Is it a good image to have, or a bad one?

Today, many object to the image of the judging God 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 wish to 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 psychological grounds. Much of what we ascribe to noble motives of repentance is really just guilt warmed over. I learned this the hard way, as I came to accept my sexuality, and slowly understood that so much of my own theological talk was just plain old guilt and self-hatred.

This is true for all of us. Is it really such a healthy thing to feel oneself to be inadequate, judged and deficient? Does it really make us better people, or does it just make us tougher, more defensive and more judgmental ourselves? Does it comport with mystical experience, which radiates acceptance and compassion? Does God judge us, or only love?

I do not have a neat answer to these questions, but I want to suggest that while the judging God is an image of God that is experientially accurate, it is ultimately something to be transcended.

First, guilt is part of human nature, and not an entirely bad part; it keeps us honest, checks the ego, and reminds 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; it accords with our experience of remorse. And 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 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 point is that we judge ourselves so that we can introspect, right our wrong behaviors, taste the sweetness of forgiveness—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.

Or is it? Actually, the tradition says, the book is really open for another couple of weeks. And God is always watching you and always judging. And it never ends. I remember, during my more observant days, debating whether to eat non-kosher-supervised cheese, a legal debate that goes on within the Conservative movement to this day. Believe it or not, I really racked my brain and searched my heart over this technicalhalachic 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?

Today, the whole thing looks like neurosis. Yes, there's a certain nobility to suffusing every aspect of one's life with holiness and participating in a millennia-old tradition of law. But all this angst—about cheese! Couldn't the emotional energy be better spent on giving more money to the poor, rectifying the sins of racism and sexism, or, well, just about anything? Is the sense of God's judgment helping us do what's right, or making us neurotic about anything and everything?

The narrative arc of judging-introspection-forgiveness remains, for me, an important one, because it calls attention to my own tendency to judge myself and my attendant need to forgive. But if it gets stuck in the middle, it turns into craziness.

It would be funny, if it weren't tragic. Because 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. We make ourselves tough, argumentative and always right because we fear that otherwise we will be found lacking.

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?

It's a shame that so many Jews go to shul only on the Days of Awe. I wish they would turn up for the Days of Love, Rest and Celebration (Sukkot and Shabbat are good starts, as are meditation retreats). Those, it seems to me, are what we need more of: more love, more authenticity, more openness. And they yield experiences of something which deserves to be named as "God."

When love, rather than judgment, fills my heart, I see a natural world which we are lucky to inhabit, in bodies which are miraculous in construction, and I feel loved in return. I feel the imperative to pursue justice, not out of judgment or toughness, but out of compassion. Terrible things still happen. But I feel God's presence in the companionship and response to such adversity, in intimacy, in love, in the healing and the mending.


About the Author 

Jay Michaelson is the author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. He is a writer, scholar, and activist whose work addresses the intersections of religion, sexuality, spirituality, and law. Follow him on Twitter at @jaymichaelson and visit his website.