Practices from Ki Tavo for entering a new phase of life
#BlogElul 21: Change (2)

#BlogElul 20: Judge | On why God-as-judge challenges me, and why I still need the metaphor


One of the predominant images in our High Holiday liturgy is God-as-judge.

One of the most challenging images (for me) in our High Holiday liturgy is God-as-judge.

It's so easy to think of the human judges who have not ruled justly, and to project our anxiety about unjust human rule onto God. To respond with reactivity: I don't want to be judged. To buy into that ugly old line which says that Judaism is a religion of stern and strict Law (while Christianity, the unjust saying goes, is the corrective, a religion of Love.) Ugh. No offense intended to my Christian friends and loved ones; that's just such an appalling (and incorrect) oversimplification.

What fascinates me this year is this: even though I know better than to swallow any of that old negativity, it still crops up in my consciousness. I still struggle sometimes with the metaphor of God as judge.

But it is a metaphor. As surely as any of our terms for God are metaphor. God isn't really a Father or a King or a Judge, a Mother or a Beloved or a Wellspring. And at the same time God is all of those things and more. God is the limitless ein-sof of the kabbalists' imagining, that infinity without-end which human minds can't possibly grasp. And God is every one of the qualities we find in the sefirot as they flow and chain and spiral into creation; God is boundless love and boundaried strength and the balance between the two, God is endurance and humble splendor and generativity, God is immanent in all creation. God is masculine and God is feminine and God is neither and God is both. And God is Friend...and God is Judge.

God-as-judge can be a powerful metaphor -- but we have to remember that it's only a metaphor, and that it isn't the only metaphor. If God is a judge, S/He is the Judge Who rules with the perfect balance of strength and compassion, discernment and mercy.

When we hear that a person has died, the traditional response is Baruch dayan ha-emet, usually rendered as "blessed is the True Judge" or "blessed is the Judge of Truth." Rabbi Marcia Prager taught me that since the word emet, truth, contains the first, middle, and last letters of the alef-bet (א, מ, ת), we can creatively read  Baruch dayan ha-emet as "Blessed is the judge of beginnings, middles, and endings." Perhaps that's one sense in which God is our Judge: God is present, with clarity and discernment, as our lives begin and unfold and end.

And God is that moral force which calls us to be our best selves, which pushes us to recognize when we are falling down on that job, which goads us to notice how we could be better in the year to come. At least once a year we all come before the One and have to make a cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls. As much as I love the personal metaphors for God -- Mother, Beloved, Parent, Source -- I recognize that there's a certain kind of awe-some trembling in which I don't necessarily engage when it comes to those more intimate metaphors. At this season, I need God to be a Judge so that I can meet that aspect of God Which helps me to judge myself.

Judge is a partzuf, a face or form or visage or mask through which we can relate to the Infinite. It's not the only mask God wears, but it is one of the ones we most often call upon in our High Holiday liturgy. What role does this partzuf serve for us? What is it that we need to call forth in ourselves which we can only call forth when we find ourselves face-to-face with this aspect of God?