Living Columns & Blogs

Understanding God’s message of justness and righteousness

Though both Judaism and Christianity see themselves as religions of the Holy Scriptures ( aka “Old Testament”), the fact is that both represent significant re-interpretations.

Judaism is the religion of the Old Testament as seen through the lens of the Talmud, while Christianity is the religion of the Old Testament as seen through the lens of the New Testament. (The Judaism in which Jesus of Nazareth was born and lived his life was not Biblical Judaism, but Talmudic or Rabbinic Judaism.)

In the Talmudic reconfiguration of the Holy Scriptures’ religion, one of the most striking changes is the introduction of “The World to Come” — a place of reward or punishment after we die. Though the scriptures speak of Sheol, a place where dead people dwell, the ancients did not see it as a place of either reward or punishment. The Biblical teaching, as expressed in Deuteronomy, is that reward for obedience to God’s will or punishment for disobedience to God’s will comes in this life.

This basic Deuteronomic theology is problematic for obvious reasons: all too often, the good suffer and the evil prosper. As Oscar Wilde put it, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” 

A less recent struggle with the unjust state of things comes in the ancient Book of Job. Even though Job is totally just, he nonetheless endures all kinds of suffering. Why? The text considers a variety of possible answers but ultimately concludes with a question mark and a statement of faith. We may not know why fairness and righteousness do not prevail, but God has a much larger purview and a greater purpose.

This answer satisfies some but not all, and the Rabbinic introduction of an afterlife with reward or punishment can be seen as a response to the incompatibility of Deuteronomy with the unjustness of the world. If God is just, then God simply cannot let injustice prevail. The rabbis therefore deduce that God’s greater purview must include a righting of the scales of justice after we die.

Of course, this assumes that God is just, and we may wonder where and how we get this information. Most ancient religions taught about the power of the gods and not their goodness. Though monotheists see a divine unity instead of many gods, our ancient texts also focus on God’s power and hegemony. God is so mighty that those who obey will be blessed, and those who disobey will face devastation. But, what about God’s goodness or fairness? In the other ancient religions, the gods were capricious, and their worshipers devoted much religious effort to assuaging and cajoling them. Is our one God capricious and arbitrary, too?

No, we are told, and this message of God’s justness and righteousness comes from Genesis 18. The narrative tells us of a visit God makes to Abraham and Sarah. One purpose is to inform them that, despite their advanced ages, they will soon be parents. The other purpose is to discuss with Abraham God’s plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. In a kind of Biblical soliloquy, God ponders: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right ...” God wants Abraham to understand the divine judgment so that Abraham can explain it in the world.

This is why God so tranquilly endures Abraham’s objections: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be 50 innocent within the city; will you then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent 50 who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?”

God wants Abraham to understand the divine ways, and Abraham insists on certain standards for the divine. Interestingly enough, God accepts Abraham’s expectations, and the famous bartering process begins. Though Sodom and Gomorrah do not even have the minimal 10 righteous people (a minyan!), God refuses to “bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty” and rescues Lot and his family.

What we have here is the very clear statement that the judge of all the earth will deal justly. It is a definitional statement of God’s goodness — in the Torah.

If we believe that God is the source of the Torah, then we have this standard declared by God. God is just and will not do anything unrighteous. If, on the other hand, we believe that people wrote the Torah based on their experiences and understanding of the divine, then we have the Jewish belief stated very clearly: our understanding and expectation is that the God of the universe is just and righteous and good.

Thus do our Sages (rabbis) proceed in the years after the Bible to intuit or deduct the existence of a World to Come, a place where the God of the universe rights the scales of justice which may not have been fairly balanced in this world.

Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.