Judgment Day

It’s the month of Elul, the time when we begin the introspection that culminates with the High Holidays. So I thought I’d share an interesting text I recently came across.

The Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a) reports a four-way dispute about when God judges humans (and the rest of creation, actually).

All are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and the sentence is fixed on Yom Kippur. So says Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Judah says all are judged on Rosh Hashanah, but the sentence of each is confirmed each at its special time–at Passover for grain, at Shavuot for the fruit of trees, at Sukkot for rain, and man is judged on Rosh Hashanah, and his sentence is confirmed on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Jose says man is judged every day, as it is written [Job, vii. 18]: “Thou remember him every morning”; and Rabbi Nathan holds man is judged at all times, as it is written [ibid.]: “Thou triest him every moment.”

Rabbi Meir’s position is, of course, the most well-known, and it finds prominent expression in the High Holiday liturgy. Rabbi Meir’s legal positions generally trump those of other tanaim, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that this theological view has gained the acceptance it has.

Nevertheless, the minority opinions here — particularly Rabbi Jose’s and Rabbi Nathan’s — make even Rabbi Meir’s claim that much more interesting.

What are these Rabbis really arguing about? Is this a metaphysical question? i.e. When does God actually judge?

If so, does that mean that Rabbi Meir does not believe that God judges every day?

Is this a hermeneutical question as Rabbi Jose’s and Rabbi Nathan’s prooftexts suggest?

I’m not sure we can know what this argument is really about, but here’s one interesting possibility — albeit with little grounding in the actual text: Perhaps the Rabbis have different positions on what sort of accountability best facilitates moral behavior.

Are we more likely to act “correctly” if we are constantly being judged (as per Rabbi Nathan)? Perhaps those who disagree with Rabbi Nathan would suggest that this Big Brother type oversight makes us more likely to excuse our missteps or makes us into moral robots.

But is once a year (as per Rabbi Meir) enough?

Perhaps once a day strikes a nice balance between constant judgment — which can be oppressive — and a full year of unfettered human freedom.

Either way, I think this bit of Talmud raises interesting questions for us as we go into the High Holiday season. How often do we conduct exercises of introspection?

Do we do it at least once a year? More often? Do we do it too little? Or not enough?

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