Sunday, October 05, 2008

Yom HaDin

If there's one thing that troubles me about basic monotheistic theology is the idea of divine justice. Not that the idea is a bad one per se, but it just seems to fly so contrary to what I know about life and what goes on in the world that it makes it very hard for me to believe that justice reigns and that everyone gets it square in the end. When innocent children die painfully from genetic defects, murderous tyrants on the other side of the world live in luxury and at any time any regular shmo can die suddenly from a previously undiagnosed medical condition or a car accident or a stray bullet or a hurricane it certainly seems like what rules the roost in this world is mere chance rather than justice. At birth you're dealt a random hand and most of your life is played out with one roll of the dice after another. Sure, maybe you make some decisions on your own that set the course of your life, but there are larger forces in play that can wipe out all your plans in a moment.

Anyway, sure, this is an old old issue and there are always some stock answers that people pull out to reassure themselves. Maybe there's a Master Plan, maybe everything gets sorted out in the next life, maybe maybe maybe. Maybe not.

These were the thoughts that I had running through my mind all through davening on the first day of Rosh Hashana. See, my conception of God (in the abstract, non-anthropomorphic panentheist kinda way) certainly makes good sense of God as the almighty, as the creator, as the sustainer, as ruler, as awesome and fully worthy of reverence and praise. It also can make good sense of God being the source of an objective morality with schar and onesh following suit not as divine interventions, but as natural consequences of community behavior. I'll refrain from going into too much detail, but I see it in how moral action raises the net well being in a society and simultaneously betters the noble sense of self, whereas immoral behavior does the opposite. But still, how can I make account with the traditional conception of the Dayan Ha-emet given what I see of the world and my conception of a non-personal deity? In what sense does a panentheist God judge? And for that matter, in what sense can a panentheist God forgive?

So, as I was saying, I just could not get this out of my mind. What is the meaning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur if not for the whole Yom HaDin thing?

To work my way through this dilemma I oriented myself to the idea that God doesn't judge per se, but that God is that moral standard against which we must judge ourselves. I think I went through this in a post last year about Yom Kippur, but whereas we might go easy on ourselves when considering our past actions, if we would imagine a perfectly reliable and righteous Judge considering our deeds we'd realize that we wouldn't get away with a fraction of what we'd permit ourselves. We then must judge ourselves to whether we are truly *worthy* of all the gifts given to us in our lives - and, yes, whether we deserve some comeuppance. Different people have different strengths - in this past year have you done all you could do to make this world a better place? I'm sorry to say it, but I know I haven't. Not that I'm a bad guy - or so I like to think of myself - but I've surely fallen short of what I could have done or what I could have been.

See, I believe in justice. I believe it is a characteristic set in the moral fabric of interpersonal relations. It is something we need to strive for, to struggle to achieve, rather than a fact of reality bestowed upon the universe. A common theme in Judaism is that humanity is co-creator with God. We have the potential to make justice have more impact on our existence than even chance. It is in our power and it is our duty.

So we're given a set time of some ten days at the start of the year to orient ourselves back to this basic task. And even if we were to judge ourselves unworthy we are given tools like teshuvah, tefilla and tzedaka to help change our mentality and to alter our behavior so that we can start the new year afresh with full potential. The purpose of these days is not to endlessly harp on our wrongdoings, but to do so only until we right what is wrong and become better people from that point on.

So with that conception in mind, an extended metaphor, I was able to finish davening with a clearer head - and I can look forward to a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur.