Sometimes it’s difficult to convey Jewish thinking to Christians precisely when it appears almost identical with the corresponding Christian teaching. Orthodox Jewish and Christian believers are committed to ideas of divine justice that include the destination of human beings after death. That means some form of reward or compensation for the meritorious or elect and some form of purgation or punishment for others. Living the right kind of life has consequences and so, alas, does living the wrong kind of life.
Jews like me, and our Christian counterparts, are willing to entertain the possibility of eternal punishment for some, whether as a matter of dogma or as a logical entailment of free will; if our decisions are truly momentous, then we are able not only to accept God but also to reject him. At the same time, we aren’t eager to assign people to hell. Many Christians are attracted to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s view that hell exists but is not necessarily populated, though theologians like David Bentley Hart regard this approach as a tepid vacillation. Balthasar argues in favor of the universal salvation for which Origen was condemned. I and more of my Jewish confreres than I suspect would take a public position are strongly influenced by Maimonides. He holds that eternal perdition means losing out on the afterlife rather than being subjected to endless torment.
Both Jews and Christians occasionally address questions related to these principles. Can a benevolent deity consign any of his creatures to eternal suffering? No, some answer. But then what about cases of really evil people? R. Abraham Isaac Kook (chief rabbi of Palestine, who died in 1935) wondered in his unpublished mystical writings whether Amalek, the paradigm of pure evil, could not somehow be redeemed. These thoughts remained in his notebooks. Kook’s career prevents us from dismissing these irenic attitudes as a reflex of dogmatically shaky theology or an overly rosy evaluation of human nature.
Although the Jews and Christians I describe seem to think alike, it’s hard to avoid feeling that Jews are simply less apt than Christians to place issues of salvation and eternal damnation at the center of their religious consciousness. Jews given to intense self-examination and criticism often ask themselves how they will render their final accounting before God but rarely ask whether their souls are saved or not. For Christians—and not just evangelicals—such a question appears more customary. There is a gap here, I believe, and I am unsure how to express it. One impediment is that theological formulations are often detached from their experiential contexts.
So let’s raise another question. When Jews ask about ultimate reward and punishment, what are we really interested in? Take one crucial moment: the transaction between Moses and God at one of the most fateful junctures of sacred history. And let us focus on three representative texts, the Talmud, the great medieval exegete Rashi, and the master philosopher Maimonides.
The story of the golden calf in Exodus chapter 32 recounts Israel’s betrayal of her relation with God. Initially, God threatens to destroy Israel and perpetuate the covenant with a nation derived from Moses. Moses forestalls this. He then engages in protracted negotiations with God in which he asks for two different revelations, one of God’s “ways” and the other of his “glory.” These he receives “passing before him” as God discloses his attributes of mercy.
Let us examine these two sets of requests. The first: “If I have found favor in your eyes, inform me of your ways that I may find favor in your eyes, and seeing that this nation is your people” (Exod. 33:13). God grants this petition and Moses then asks God to “show me your glory” (Exod. 33:18). To this, God initially appears to acquiesce: “I will pass my goodness before you,” only to qualify the promise by adding, “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live.” Did Moses achieve both of his goals or only the first?
According to one Talmudic view, Moses’s plea to know God’s ways involves receiving an answer to the age-old question of why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. This is a question about God’s justice, reminiscent of Christian debates about the existence of hell and who goes there. This Talmudic view applies God’s positive response to certain specific scenarios that need not detain us here. The disputing view stresses God’s statement, “I will favor he whom I favor.” This appears to deny Moses the explanation he requests, for God warns that his mercy may be inscrutable at times. He may favor those who are not deserving, and do so for reasons unknowable by mere mortals.
Why did Moses want to know these things? He wanted to know God’s ways, and knowing the ways of his providence means knowing why he acts toward the righteous and the wicked as he does. The first Talmudic view implies that a man like Moses can attain such insight; the alternative holds that his desire must remain unsatisfied.
Rashi on Exodus explicitly states that the Talmudic approach is not the straightforward reading of the dialogue. Once Moses sees he has found favor in God’s eyes, he wishes to know the nature of the reward he can look forward to. He reminds God of the covenant with his people in order to reiterate that he does not want their replacement by him as his reward. Then, when Moses asks to see God’s “glory,” he is told that God indeed will show Moses his “goodness.” Rashi takes God’s “goodness” to be exemplified in the human realm by prayer on behalf of the people when the need arises. God’s disclosure of his attributes of mercy shows Moses the way.
Maimonides, by contrast, hews closer to the Talmud, as formulated in the second view. He holds that Moses was taught God’s ways, which means he learned about the nature of the world that reflects God’s actions. But Moses was denied knowledge of God’s glory, which is the divine essence. Mortal man cannot claim such knowledge. Man can know God only through knowledge of the world that he created. There is no path that starts out with an intuition of the divine essence.
Maimonides adds that knowledge of “God’s ways” has practical implications. The prophet, for Maimonides, is not only the philosophical sage but also the leader whose vocation is to guide the people. Knowing God’s ways enables the prophet to imitate God’s creative and providential work, and for this reason is necessary for his mission. In this way Maimonides returns Moses’s philosophical quest for knowledge of the divine to its exegetical context in Exodus chapters 32–34, which concern the future of the Jewish people. The attributes of mercy and other aspects of divine providence integrate the prophet’s desire for intellectual perfection with his moral responsibility. In other words, emphasis turns from knowing the ways of God with respect to reward and punishment to guiding oneself and others toward righteousness. Think less about what God has in store for us, and focus more on what we must do.
The Hebrew Bible and subsequent rabbinic literature are frequently concerned with complaints and confusion about the righteous who suffer and the wicked who prosper. Jews have always asked the theodicy question: How is God’s providence confirmed in a world where injustice is often evident? At the same time, it is more typical of Jewish religious wisdom to look at God’s ways without putting God in the dock, or for that matter, anxiously debating the fate of man. It is revealing that Rashi embeds in his commentary on these biblical verses imagined dialogue in which God offers practical instruction on how to pray (as befits the mercy-seeking situation of Exodus) as opposed to a comprehensive meditation on the deserts of the righteous and the wicked. And it is instructive that even Maimonides, who devoted many chapters to the problem of evil, interprets the momentous encounter between Moses and God in Exodus chapters 32–34 as part of the universal attempt to know God and to guide society, rather than as a defense or justification of reward and punishment.
The attributes of mercy given in Exodus 34 (gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and so on) are at the center of Jewish penitential prayer during the Yom Kippur season and throughout the year. Standing before God, we resolve to adopt his attributes even as we appeal to them for our benefit. The deepest commitments of Jewish theology are often best reflected in their practical expression. The same may be true for Christian faithfulness as well. I’d like to know how the doctrine of atonement, for example, shapes the life of Christian believers. There is more to this than just learning the theories about the mechanics of the doctrine. Such insight might contribute to the religious life and moral health of us all.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.