Talmudic pages

Rosh Hashanah 18

Does God play favorites?

Did you know that conversion to Judaism was common in antiquity? Not only this, but the Gemara occasionally quotes converts who are clearly learned students of the tradition, posing challenging and revealing questions to the rabbis. For instance, on today’s page we meet Beloreya (Aramaic for Valeria):

Beloreya the convert once asked Rabban Gamliel: It is written in your Torah: “The great, mighty and awesome God who favors no one”  (Deuteronomy 10:17), and elsewhere it is written: “The Lord shall show favor to you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:26).

In this context, “favor” is understood to mean “forgive.” Beloreya seems to be asking: Does God favor no one (Deuteronomy) or does God favor the Jewish people (Numbers)? It’s an incredible challenge — pointing out an apparent inconsistency in the Torah and posing a heart-rending question: Is divine mercy parceled out equitably? Or is God partial to God’s chosen people?

The Gemara relates that a number of rabbis step up to offer explanations that attempt to reconcile the two verses. Most agree that divine forgiveness is sometimes granted and sometimes not, but do not draw the line between Jews and non-Jews. For example, Rabbi Yosei uses a parable to show that God always forgives sins committed between a person and God, but does not forgive sins committed by one person against another — that is up to people to resolve. Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, explains the discrepancy by teaching that God shows favor only if one seeks forgiveness before one’s sentence has been delivered; after the sentence has been issued, God no longer forgives.

Rabbi Meir gives an example of two sick people suffering with similar illnesses who are sentenced to death, but then one recovers (the other does not). He explains that one prayed and was answered, while the other prayed, but was not answered. Further, the one who recovered prayed with his whole heart. Rabbi Elazar interjects that it was because one prayed before being given a sentence and was answered, whereas the other prayed after the sentence was issued, and therefore was not answered.

All of these views, expressing very different opinions about how divine forgiveness works and who will receive it, seem to sidestep the original question of whether atonement and forgiveness are reserved only for Jews or are universal. To get at this, the rabbis return to the mishnah we read on page 16 that stated that on Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before God like benei maron, a phrase which we translated a few days ago as “a flock of sheep.” The Gemara considers exactly what this looks like:

What is the meaning of the phrase benei maron? In Babylonia, they interpreted it as a flock of sheep (kivnei imarna) who pass one by one while the shepherd counts them. Reish Lakish said that it is like a steep mountain where someone at the top can see everyone climbing up. Rabbi Yehuda said that Shmuel said it is like the soldiers of the house of King David who could be surveyed on parade all together. 

But whether God reviews people one at a time in single file or by gazing down at them all, whether they march in formation or all rush a mountaintop at once, this text from the mishnah suggests that every single person in the world, all creatures, can be forgiven. Atonement is universal.

Or is it? Perhaps you have to be part of that flock to merit divine forgiveness? 

The problem is made more poignant, more urgent, because it has been posed by Beloreya — a convert who was once not a part of the Jewish people, and now is. Did she merit divine forgiveness before she converted? Does she now? Why? 

And here’s another complication: Though Beloreya is a Jew and clearly well-versed in Torah, she also still marks herself as somewhat apart from the people when she addresses Rabban Gamliel using the words “your Torah.” Perhaps we should understand that she is posing this question to him before her conversion. Or perhaps she still feels herself to be in a liminal space, between not Jewish and Jewish.

The Gemara offers no final theology about divine forgiveness, but at least wrestles with the question in a way that makes us aware of the enormous consequences of pronouncing either way.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 27th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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