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A Jewish Perspective on Judgement and Salvation

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The world is judged by the majority of its people, and an individual is judged by the majority of his deeds. Happy is the person who performs a good deed: that may tip the scales for him and the world.

    (as found in ‘Forms of Prayer: Days of Awe’, Eleazar ben Shimon, second century CE, son of Shimon bar Yochai)

As already stated in my piece on death, Judaism doesn’t have one clear teaching on what happens to us after we die. Some of these ideas include references to a final judgement, either for all humanity, or for each individual, but there is rarely a reference to Hell. There is also the suggestion within Judaism of a final judgement day, connected to the coming of the messiah. As with many things in Judaism, where there is a reference to Judgement, it is used, as above, to encourage us to ensure the life we live on earth is as productive, good and just as it can be.

There is a very strong theme of judgement that runs through the High Holidays – that is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, which fall around September or October each year. The liturgy and theology of this period suggests that if we can repent for those things we have done wrong, and make a real teshuvah or return to the right way and God, then we will survive the coming year, being written into the ‘book of life’, but if we don’t, or we repent the things we’ve done with no intention of changing our behaviour, we will be written into the ‘book of death’. Personally I find this type of language very difficult and very much dislike the idea that one lives or dies depending on one’s behaviour, because the world has rarely seemed to reward the good and punish the bad (not that many people fall clearly into one category or the other). If we can get beyond this troubling language, however, the high holidays do provide an important opportunity for us to take time out of what is a hectic and fast-changing world, to consider our behaviour and how we might transform it, enabling us to transform ourselves into the person we wish to be in the world, and consider how our actions may make others feel. Some form of Judgement could then be based on an assessment of how well we achieve a ‘return’ or teshuvah – that is, a real change in our lives for doing good.

The famous Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, living in the twelfth century, taught five steps to really effect this change, and these can be summarised as:

  1. Realize that what you did was wrong and admit it
  2. Say you are sorry for what you did
  3. Correct the wrong that you did
  4. Promise not to do the wrong thing again
  5. Behave correctly in a similar situation when it occurs in the future.

Once again, the emphasis isn’t on what will happen in Judgement (though we hope it will be for the good) but what we can do to live as well as possible and make the most of the gifts of this life.

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