Days of Judgement and God’s Relationship to Time

Days of Judgement

Here is a little internal discussion I’ve been having about Repentance and atemporalism, it ends with a question about a debate in the Talmud. I’d be eager to hear what people have to say.

As a tangent to something I was writing recently, I had cause to think about the following:

  1. Most religious Jews seem to believe that from Rosh Hashona to Yom Kippur (the ten days of penitence), God sits in judgement over us.
  2. Though I know that most Jews probably haven’t thought much about the debate between Divine temporalism and Divine atemporalism (a debate about whether or not God is in time), I tend to find that once it’s been explained to them, they lean towards atemporalism; God is above everything; above space and time.

There is clearly a tension between (1) and (2).

How can me make sense of the claim that God is engaged in a certain special activity during the ten days of penitence, if we also claim that God isn’t in time? Of course, this is just a special instance of a much more general problem for the atemporalist, namely, how can we make sense of the claim that God ever does anything at a certain time if he isn’t in time. But, I think this special instance is a little harder to tackle than other instances.

Take for example the claim that God split the Red Sea as the Israelites stood at its shore. That’s also a claim of the from ‘God did X at t‘. But, I think it’s easier for the atemporalist to make sense of, than our claim about God and the ten days of penitence.

What the atemporalist Maimonides does with the Red Sea claim is the following: God timelessly writes the laws of nature; into those laws, he timelessly writes certain exception clauses, such that water will split before a Moses (and later, before a Joshua), in certain restricted circumstances. As the Israelites were standing before the shore, that timeless act of God’s became manifest for all to see. And so, what we mean when we say that ‘God did X at t‘ is that God timelessly did X, but that, at t it became manifest to us that God did X timelessly. The problem is, this account doesn’t easily generalise to our case about the ten days of penitence. Nothing observable happens at that time such that we could say that a timeless act of God’s becomes manifest through what we observe.

And so, if we really want to stretch Maimonides’ account of the Sea splitting case to our case, we’re going to have to appeal to some more funky metaphysics. We’re going to have to say that (1) even though nothing observable changes, and (2) even though God timelessly judges us, and (3) can’t be said to be judging us at a certain time, (4) it remains the case that some timeless aspect of God (namely his judgement) becomes more accessible to us during the ten days. But why? Well, perhaps the days themselves have a special, though unobservable, quality, such that, on those days, the relevant timeless aspects of God become non-observably manifest; somehow more accessible for us to entreaty. But now we’re saying that a stretch of time has a mysterious metaphysical property. And, when you add in the Jewish law that the calendar is set by the human courts, such that it is somewhat arbitrary which day of the year will be Rosh Hashona, we’re saying that by dint of the decision of the human court, a certain stretch of time is injected with this mysterious quality.

I find this ugly.

Another route presents itself. We could say that all talk of God sitting in judgement at this time is just a figure of speech aimed at causing us to repent. There is some reason to think that this was Maimonides’ approach. For instance: The talmud teaches us that we shouldn’t recite hallel on Rosh Hashona because hallel is too joyous given that the books of life and death are open before God on high (tractate Rosh Hashona 32b). But, when Maimonides codifies this, he merely writes (laws of chanuka 3:6): ‘Hallel is not recited on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, since they are days of repentance, awe, and fear, and are not days of extra celebration.’ That’s to say, Maimonides rules like the Talmud, but not for the reason given in the Talmud: it’s not about what God is doing at that time, but about what we should be feeling and doing.

It’s true that, in light of the verse in Leviticus (16:30), that the day of atonement itself brings atonement, Maimonides rules that certain sins are not forgiven until that day comes along (Laws of repentance 1:3-4). But he doesn’t say that this is due to God doing anything special at that time. In fact, this could all be formal legalism. From the view point of the law, one has to wait, steadfast in repentance, until that day passes, to be legally atoned. Yom Kippur becomes like the end of the tax year, but for sins. A formal event in the legal year. Consequently, when we talk about God judging us at that time, and books of life and death being open before God, at that time, we’re playing a language game aimed at getting us in the right mood: the mood of ‘repentance, awe and fear.’

But, this Maimonidean view might strike some as overly reductive. The idea that these are days of judgement is written pretty deeply into their DNA. So, short of giving up on atemporalism (which I have no objection to, as my views are not settled on that issue, but I’m trying to test the limits of atemporalism, and am thus assuming it for the sake of argument), are there any other options?

In conversation, Dean Zimmerman (also not an atemporalist) suggested the following atemporalist account. If we’re willing to say that, ‘each Yom Kippur, God judges us from last year to this year,’ then we can provide a different atemporal gloss to what we’re talking about. We could say that God timelessly judges temporal units of our lives – he’s always judging them from his eternal present – and those units happen to be divided from Yom Kippur to Yom Kippur; the day of atonement is the day of atone because it sits on the seams of the units that God timelessly judges.

But, of course, a corollary of that would be that it would be useless to repent each Yom Kippur, for sins that were committed before last Yom Kippur, especially if you haven’t carried those sins with you; that is to say, if you repented years ago, and never re-offended. Maimonides, however, rules that each year, we are supposed to repent for every sin we’ve ever committed, even sins from the distant past, and even sins that we’ve already repented for (Laws of Repentance, 2:8). This doesn’t jive well with the notion that God is only judging year-long units. But now things get interesting. In making this ruling, Maimonides was taking sides in the following Talmudic debate (tractate Yoma 86b):

“Our Rabbis taught: As for the sins which one has confessed on one Day of Atonement, he should not confess them on another Day of Atonement; but if he repeated them, then he should confess them, on another Day of Atonement — And if he had not committed them again, yet confessed them again, then it is with regard to him that Scripture says (Proverbs 26:11): ‘As a dog that returneth to his vomit, so is a fool that repeateth his folly.’ R. Eleazar b. Jacob said: He is the more praiseworthy, as it is said (Psalms 51:5): ‘For I know my transgressions, and my sin is even before me.'”

It seems to me that the view of the Rabbis is consonant with Dean’s suggestion. That’s to say, if you believed that God only judges year-long temporal units, with Yom Kippur on the seams, then you wouldn’t repent, each year, for sins that aren’t relevant. If this is what you believe, then the verse in Proverbs suddenly becomes salient. Why revisit shameful incidents in your past, if it can’t help and it isn’t relevant? It’s foolish, and may even cause you to remember the parts of the sin that you enjoyed, and may lead you to sin again. Forget about it! It’s gone! There’s nothing more you can do.

So far, we’ve seen three views.

  1. The days of penitence have a special power to make a timeless aspect of God somehow manifest/accessible.
  2. The days of penitence are imbued with a legal significance, but nothing especially theological occurs on those days.
  3. Yom Kippur lies at the seams of the temporal units that God judges timelessly.

Views 1 and 2 are consistent with the view that we oursleves are, in some sense or other, the subject of judgement. View 3 thinks that it is not us, but temporal units of our lives that are up in the dock.

The view of the Rabbis is consonant with view 3. But, if you think that we ourselves are being judged, then past offenses do seem relevant. We need to demonstrate that we’re still penitent for those too. And thus, the view of R. Eleazar b. Jacob, which Maimonides codifies into law, makes more sense if you are (a) a temporalist, or (b) hold either view 1 or view 2.

So, this already gets me a little excited because I like seeing that certain legal positions are more in line with certain metaphysical positions than others. But I realise that there’s very little chance that the Rabbis in this debate had thought about divine atemporalism, and had come up with Dean’s suggestion about how to square atemporalism with the view that Yom Kippur itself, and the days leading up to it, are somehow privileged.

But I wonder… when was the first clear statement of atemporal theology? Is this as wildly anachronistic as I fear? Even if it is, the correspondence between these views (Dean’s and the Rabbis’) is still interesting to me. Perhaps I should have called this blog, ‘Dean and the Rabbis’.

PS. In a recent talk I gave, I argued that most people, when they engage with the imagery of Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur are not thinking about philosophy, and to accuse them of being philosophically inconsistent given their disposition towards atemporalism would be unfair. I make that argument here:
But this blog doesn’t contradict that. I’m now asking, at the level of our sophisticated theology, is there a way of squaring atemporalism with granting these special days their elevated status.

  1. David Nagar

    Thank you for your post. It was thought-provoking and intriguing. I think you presented the issue well and presenting tempting options, but might I suggest another one: You seem to look at the issue of God’s relationship to time in a dichotomous way. Why should it be either temporalist or atemporalist? It seems to me that one could easily say that God resides outside of time, but can insert himself in time. I think a good way of thinking about this is by viewing time as simply as a dimension. God exists outside our our dimensions, but can sometimes enter into the fourth dimension, that being time. This might raise issues for our belief of incorporeality, but it needn’t. I think would be perfectly reasonable to say that God can enter into the fourth dimension, while still stating He cannot enter into any of the other three dimensions since this would contradict His being infinite.


    1. Sam Lebens

      Thanks David, for your comment. Yes, I think that that’s an interesting fourth option, and I agree that it isn’t obviously impossible for something to be able to enter the fourth dimension and not the other three, although some philosophers and scientists would disagree. I’d have to think some more about it.
      But, in principle, I’d be happy to have your option on the table too.
      I think the purpose of this blog was, at least in the first place, to think about what happens if you assume a strict atemporalism – not because I do, but because I was interested in its consequences, but, yes, when I listed the options that were compatible with Rabbi Eleazar b. Jacob, I should have listed this compromise position in which God can enter time, at various moments, alongside temporalism.
      To be honest, I don’t think that it would be without complications, but I think that it should be on the table.
      So let me thank you for your input. It’s really valuable to me.

  2. hlanda

    Dr. Lebens, thank you for your thought provoking post.
    The last two Mishnayot of the second chapter of the tractate Rosh Hashanah come to mind. As the temporality is imprecise (not perfect, as it is not decided by God), it is we who insert God at these times. The points are not ‘seamless’ as when the Bait Din was determining the month, they would vary yearly- as they must according to the God of natural law (‘Math God’).
    We are to be reminded thrice daily of our commitment to perfection (“Hah-shee-vay-nu..”), yet, at least for people like myself, I still need that annual reminder of why I do that, and just how far from perfection I am (although, that is obvious being a Jewish husband and getting older…).
    Whether God inserts ‘himself’ is something I should hope for (“Meh-tza-pim …”) but continues to challenge me daily as to whether God is ‘listening’ or ‘observing’, especially in light of the near daily challenge of theodicy. It is easier to take God for granted by assuming the yoke of the mitzvot instead of thinking about ‘him’. The imperfections are daily, and many are the interpersonal errors I commit that are not forgiven by our temporal dates of atonement. Many of those ‘errors’ are committed in the guise of the ‘yoke of heaven’, hence, taking God for granted.

    Which God are we addressing?

    If it’s the Math God, we can strive to follow ‘him’ and know that ‘he’ is dependable and it is only our flaws that impede us from further elucidation of ‘his’ ways. It is a pleasure to figure out how ‘he’ works and fills us daily with awe and makes us aware of how different – adimensional- ‘he’ is, and can therefor, be ‘seamless’. However, most followers of the Math God do not write out equations thrice daily, and are generally of the most intellectual people on the planet. Changes in understanding and hence ‘praxis’ occur secondary to acute genius and the temporal aspect is maddeningly long (we want it all figured out by now!!!)…does that sound familiar?

    If it’s the ‘Halacha God’, then I am confused, as the constant changes in praxis are not akin to mathematical errors, they are haphazard, and ergo, not ‘seamless’ (unless you are Chabad). Yet, I strive to believe that there is only one God that encompasses all these things.
    I try daily to insert that seamless being into my life as one and the same- the God of Natural Law is the God of Halacha-, and I feel largely unsuccessful. However, I have found that trying to assume that yoke of heaven does make me consider the epistemology of faith.
    I think Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov was more succinct than I am….
    Thanks again!!

  3. Dani Rabinowitz


    Thank you for a fascinating post. You present the problem and lay out the various options clearly.

    Another way to build pressure on the atemporalist is to recall the famous problem of foreknowledge and free will; that is, if my verdict on each and every Yom Kippur is known to God , am I free with respect to repentance? etc.

    But my main concern here is with your comment that, “talk of God sitting in judgement at this time is just a figure of speech aimed at causing us to repent.” I think support for this approach can be found in contemporary metaphysics about vagueness. Maimonides’ distinguishes the wicked person from the righteous person by way of a simple calculation: more sins than good deeds = wicked; more good deeds than sins = righteous. And the “intermediate person” is one whose number of sins and good deeds is equivalent. But it seems somewhat counterintuitive that one small sin could differentiate between these two kinds of people. Surely one sin or good deed cannot be the determining factor between the rewards of heaven and the punishments of geheinom (‘hell’)? Why would two seemingly similar people (A with 100 sins and 99 good deeds, and B with 99 sins and 100 good deeds) be judged so radically different: A getting geheinom/eternal damnation/punishment and B eternal reward? Similarly, it seems rather absurd that the same kind of quantitative reckoning applies to the whole world: if the good deeds of the world’s inhabitants exceeds their sins, then it is judged favourably, and vice versa. Maimonides’ comment that one should be wary of sinning for doing so could tip the entire world into sin and therefore punishment comes across as rather unbelievable. For these reasons, it seems likely that the theology surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur insofar as judgment is concerned is thoroughly steeped in metaphor, or some similar figure of speech. What remains to be determined, therefore, is what actually underpins these days insofar as repentance and judgment are concerned.

    1. Sam Lebens

      Thanks Dani.
      Yes, I think Maimonides has to be committed to the notion that there’s a lot of figures of speech in play over here.
      But what’s going on underneath those figures?
      So, I made a first stab at that.
      The idea is that these days of judgement play a purely legal role. If your repentance was sincere and lasted all of the way until those days, then, for most sins, you will be considered, legally, absolved.
      That might need finessing, but I think it’s how Maimonides is going to make sense of our talk of these days actually bringing atonement and judgement.
      But, your asking a different, and related question: ‘How can we make sense of Maimonides’ talk, and indeed, the talk of the Talmud, that a righteous person is a person with one more good deed than bad deeds, and that a wicked person, who will be damned, is a person with one more bad deeds than good deeds.’
      Taken literally, the words of Maimonides land him in exactly the same puzzle as that pushed by Ted Sider in his paper on ‘Hell’ (
      But, once we accept that there’s some employment of some sort of figure of speech, I think it’s relatively easy for us to get out of Sider’s problem, when giving an account of what’s really going on beneath those figures.
      Sider accepts that his problem doesn’t apply to people who believe in, I think he calls it, a continuous conception of the afterlife. On that conception, the afterlife options are not binary. It’s not a simple as ‘heaven or hell’. Rather, there are levels of heaven, and levels of hell – getting respectively higher and lower in each direction. I think a lot of Jewish sources imply such a conception (making sense of the idea of an aliya neshama (an ascension of the soul of an already dead person, and of our talk of attaining a ‘portion of the world to come’, as if there are different size portions available).
      Our figures of speech make it sound as if the afterlife is a binary affair, and we can think of reasons for adopting this figure of speech (or pretence), it will prompt us to act as if the only consequences are dire and drastic, on the one hand, or blissful on the other hand. But, if beneath the pretence, there is a continuous conception of the afterlife, we don’t actually fall into your (and Sider’s) vagueness problem.
      In this response, I’m only talking relative to what I called view 2 in my blog. What I actually think is still in flux. Maybe I’ll end up a temporalist!

      1. Sam Lebens

        And let me just clarify a little further…
        I’m not suggesting that view 2 is Maimonides’ view. I’m only saying that it is inspired by certain things he says, and consistent with his atemporalism.
        A better response to Dani might be to say that, for Maimonides, the extent of your afterlife is a function of the extent of your intellectual achievements.
        So all of this stuff about counting deeds to calculate your standing, you might think, for Maimonides, must be some sort of useful fiction or figure of speech.
        But the stuff I said in my first response to you, Dani, about a continuous conception of the afterlife, though not what Maimonides may have said, is consistent with view 2, and is, to my mind, more attractive.

  4. Daniel

    Thanks for the fascinating discussion, and analysis. I love this forum and rarely get the time to comment, but please keep up the great work! I’d like to share a few thoughts that come to mind:

    1. as regards the view of Maimonides, whilst I think you are correct that he often appears to take the ‘what God is doing’ descriptions in Talmud and elsewhere as allegorical, I am not sure if he goes so far as to deny that God ‘does’ anything. Surely had he taken such an approach, he might have had far less resistance to the idea of Aristotelian first cause that does not interact with us. His idea of Divine providence, albeit more limited than some cotemporary thinkers, certainly appears to strongly affirm Divine intervention, if only for the deserved few. To what extent do you think that providence (and thus reaction to our choices) genuinely differ from annual judgement?

    2. Regarding the annual weighing of positive and negative acts, I am not sure it is necessarily in as much need of reinterpretation as you say (in response to Dani’s comment). Maimonides is explicit that the calculus is not numeric (Laws of Teshuva 3:2). Indeed he does not actually use the words ‘mitzvot’ but rather ‘zechuyot’ (merits). You cannot do a zechut. It is the effect of our choices (and, possibly other factors cf. ‘zechut avot’) upon who we are. Likewise he does not refer to ‘chet’ but ‘avon’. whilst ‘chet’ would be the natural choice for ‘sin’, ‘avon’ also means ‘corruption’ and can likewise refer to the effect, not the cause. It seems that he is saying that the scales do not weigh ‘what we’ve done’, so much as ‘who we’ve become’ as result of our choices. Are we overall Godly, albeit with some corruption? Or overall self-centered, albeit with some mitzvot? Or might we lie suspended, in a (default? natural?) position which is neither decisively pure, nor decisively corrupt.

    3. As regards the question of atemporality, I wonder whether the purported dilemma of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of time is genuinely exhaustive. I appreciate that David raised a similar question above, though I wonder if a slightly different treatment might be available.

    By way of analogy, suppose someone dreamed up an imaginary world, and suppose they had the God-like ability to make some of those beings, that they dreamt of, self-aware. Now suppose that upon contemplation, those beings figured out that they are actually creations, and began to ask whether their creator was ‘in’ or ‘out’ of their world. From the perspective of the beings inside the mind of their creator, the two might seem exhaustive, but I suspect most of us would deny either proposition: the creator is not ‘inside’ the world that the creations inhabit, nor would it be true to say that s/he is ‘outside’ of it.

    Now it would be true that the thinker would, like their thought-creations, be limited by space and time. But they would not be limited by the exhaustive categories that their thought-beings might come up with. The thinker’s experience of the world they create would not be one that needs to be traverse any distance to ‘reach’ any physical point. Nor would they need to be ‘at’ any point to be fully interacting with it.

    Though our experience of time might prevent us from conceiving of something having simultaneous access to all of time at once without having to ‘be at’ any specific point/s, it seems nevertheless plausible that a non spatiotemporal creator of space and time might be fully interacting with every moment without sharing the experience of time at all.

    I admit that such an approach might need more fleshing out and development, but it seems to me to be somewhat akin to the approach Maimonides himself uses in dealing with the apparent dichotomy of freewill vs God’s foreknowledge. Such an approach might accept that from the perspective of the creator, space-time might have sequence such that some moments might lie ‘before’ others, but the creator would not share any sense of past present or future.

    Of course any intervention by the creator would then instantaneously shift all subsequent history, and produce a whole interconnected series of free-willed responses, but the ‘experience’ of God may well be somewhat akin to the human who shapes dough or other flexible material; they would be capable of massaging the outcome across the entire thing simultaneously. Of course the analogy in question necessarily assumes temporality, but I do not think it is such a stretch to conceive that from the perspective of God, such interaction might pose no problem, nor entail any ‘being in time’.

    I hope the above is sufficiently coherent to be of interest, and would love to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks once again for such a stimulating article.

    1. Sam Lebens

      Hello Rabbi Rowe,

      I’m glad that you enjoyed the blog and am pleased to hear that you enjoy this forum more generally.

      About your first point, I don’t take myself to be denying, on Maimonides’ behalf, that God does things. Instead, I’m denying that he does things at a specific time on our timeline. I don’t think that the atemporalist, and Maimonides surely was that, can have God acting at a certain time. God can atemporally judge our entire lives, all at once, so to speak. But, if you’re an atemporalist, he can’t jump into our time line every Rosh Hashanah to judge us. That is to talk of him temporally (but I’ll come back to this later). The blog concentrates on this example because the usual ways that Maimonides has for re-interpreting talk of God acting at a time (as he does with the splitting of the Red Sea, say) is not easily available here.

      So, in answer to the question, how does providence differ from annual judgement, I’d say that we can make sense of God’s providential care for the world and for certain individuals as operating atemporally. Annual judgement, taken literaly, makes no sense unless God is in time, because the word ‘annual’ measures a temporal interval (but again, I’ll come back to this).

      Regarding your second point: When Dani first started raising these issues with me, long before I wrote this blog, my first instinct was to appeal to the non-numeric nature of the calculus that Maimonides appeals to. But I think it’s more complicated than that. First of all it’s not clear exactly how Maimonides’ calculus works (it seems like numbers are likely to creep in at some point, as I’ll try to show). Indeed he tells us that we can’t second guess it! Second of all, it looks like Sider’s concerns (I highly advise reading that Ted Sider paper that I linked to above) will get going on almost any account of the criterion for going to heaven/hell.

      Of course, you’re right to point out that Maimonides’ calculus doesn’t deal with mitzvot v aveirot. But, Sider’s point is that most criteria admit of degrees and vagueness. Take the notion of a zechuyot, can one zechut be bigger than another? If yes, then there will be a scale, and there will be a cut-off. Imagine that n is the degree of zechuyot you need to qualify for heaven, or being a tzadik. Now imagine that somebody else has zechuyot of n – 0.001 (I told you numbers would creep back in!). Does that person goes to hell? That’s a massive difference in their treatment despite a negligible difference in their zechuyot. That’s why I think we’re safer talking about a continuous conception of the afterlife (which Jewish tradition certainly seems to talk about) … that way it makes sense to say that everybody gets exactly the afterlife that they deserve to the nth degree of accuracy.

      Again… I really advise that Sider paper. If you have any other way to save the Maimonidian calculus from Sider, I’d be really interested to hear… I know that Dani would too!

      Regarding your third point. Yes, I’m willing to accept that the temporalist/atemporalist dichotomy might not exhaust the possibilities here. I guess my blog was just a mediation upon what happens if you want to take a strict atemporalism seriously.

      Secondly, I guess I also didn’t take seriously enough the option that God interacts with every instant of time, without himself being in time. Above, I said that this speaks of him temporally, but now I see your point. It’s not that God is in time, but, that he can intefere with times, and does so with all times simultaneously from his eternal present. That would allow you a strict atemporalism, and it would allow you to talk about God judging us at time t. My only issue here is to what extent this can be called ‘interaction’. I think that interaction itself is a temporal notion. If you’re interacting with all times simultaneously, I think that there’s also a sense in which you’re not interacting. But even so, I think that this is an option I probably should have listed. That God can act at times at which he’s not located, because, perhaps he acts at all times simultaneously, so to speak, from his timeless location. And yes, that does square nicely with the most straightforward reading of Maimonides on foreknowledge and free will (and with Boethius). But, though I’m not super familiar with the literature, I believe that this approach leads to its own problems. It was the approach defended by Stump and Kretzmann, and I know that that conception has come under a lot of attack.

      But, you’re comments about God imagining us up, leads in some interesting directions. I wrote a paper called ‘God and his imaginary friends: a Hassidic metaphysics’. It was published in Religious Studies. You might be interested in it. It sketches what happens when you take this metaphor, of God imagining us, very seriously. I think you’re right that it might open up new ways of thinking about God’s relationship to time. I didn’t include this aspect of the metaphor in my paper, but now I’m wishing I did! C. S. Lewis has a discussion of it in his Mere Christianity, and there he uses the metaphor of God as author of the world to talk about God and temporality in interesting ways.

      Thank you for your comments and your interest; and yes, in the light of your comments, I think I should have listed a fourth option, and thought about its strengths and weakness.

      This is exactly why we have this blog. To road-test ideas and analyses and sharpen them up. So thank you very much Rabbi Rowe.

    2. Sam Lebens

      One more point (well, two actually), Rabbi Rowe.
      First: I think the problem with your suggestion is that it makes a lot out of the distinction between acting in a time, and somehow, acting at a time despite being atemporal. I think that distinction isn’t going to be easy to maintain and threatens to collapse atemporalism into temporalism.
      Secondly: I think that the spirit of your suggestion can be saved if you say the following. God isn’t in time. He doesn’t act at times. He always acts atemporally. He atemporally judges your life; your entire life is atemporally before him (all at once, so to speak); and he judges it atemporally. But, perhaps we can say that in his judgement he gives special weight to how you behaved during each of the Ten Days of Repentance that you lived through. And because special weight is being given to your actions on those days, it might make sense for us to adopt the figure of speech that God is judging us on those days, because, in the final analysis, what we do on those days is going to have a greater weight in our individual judgements than what we do on other days.
      So, I think this is what should be the fourth view, if I were to re-write my blog.

    3. Sam Lebens

      Hi Rabbi Rowe,
      One more stab at a response to you.
      I think I’ve changed my mind a little, having just re-read the Stump and Kretzman article (‘Eternity’, The Journal of Philosophy, 1981, 78/8).
      I think that you can’t make sense of God acting at a time (rather than in a time), unless there is some tangible effect that becomes manifests at that time. And that’s not easy to say over here. What sort of effect becomes manifest at that time. The unobservable effect of having been metaphysically judged? I find that hard to get any conceptual purchase over.
      So, I think that you’ll have to say that, what’s really going on, is, as I’ve said in some of my recent comments, that God judges your whole life, from his atemporal present, but places special weight on things that you did during the Ten Days of Penitence.
      But, now I think that that’s not really such a new option; in fact, it’s very similar to View 3, but it just doesn’t divide your life up into temporal units. Instead of using the Ten Days of Repentance as temporal seams, between units, it just places weight on them.
      Again, thanks for provoking so much thought in me!

    4. Daniel

      Thanks for the analysis and the references.

      I am not clear about the difficulty of arguing that:
      (A) God is atemporal
      (B) there is a causal relationship between God and all of spacetime
      (C) from God’s perspective (though that is a special term and thus imprecise) there is something like an eternal ‘now’ (though that is a temporal term)
      (D) but from that perspective, there are still distinguishable temporal areas/points much as there are distinguishable special areas/points
      (E) from the temporal perspective, that there are moments that create potential and possibilities for other moments that follow them (rather like conception creates the genetic possibilities of what the child may be); at other moments changes can be made, but only within the parameters of what was delimited at the earlier time
      (F) Each year is a process that begins with potential being laid out, and then develops that potential during the year
      (G) God atemporally interacts with all of creation ‘simultaneously’, injecting potential (duration, spiritual potential, aggregate rainfall etc) at the beginning point (or temporal region) of each year, and to determine how that potential pans out throughout the rest of the year
      (H) the potential given at the start of the year is determined according to some kind of spiritual calculus that depends upon the state of the person at that moment
      (I) the state of the person is determined by the aggregate effects of their actions throughout their life, including the extent to which their teshuva may have undone previous effects. The person is thus a combination of zechuyot and avonot (leaving aside, for now, the question of vagueness, and the continuum of the scale)

      Would that not provide an adequate model for an atemporalist to assume a realist position as to Rosh Hashana as both ‘Day of Judgement’ and the day of ‘harat olam’ – conception of the world?

      1. Sam Lebens

        I am sympathetic to the sort of option you’re laying out. But I’d say this.
        When you use the word ‘simultaneously’ in point (G) you can’t mean normal simultaneity. You were right to put it in scare-quotes. Regular simultaneity holds between two things in time.
        Stump and Kretzman try to define a notion of ET-simultaneity, which they think of as the (intransitive) simultaneity that holds between God’s eternal present and moments in our time line.
        The problem is, I think, that it’s not easy to make sense of the notion of ET-simultaneity unless you believe in a God who is both eternal but has a life with a non-temporal duration; i.e. an eternal present. As I understand what they’re doing, this is a fundamental plank of their definition of ET-simultaneity.
        Unfortunately, the notion of a non-temporal duration doesn’t seem to make much sense, despite their efforts to defend it.
        And, if you can’t make sense of the notion of ET-simultaneity then part of what you want to say here, R. Daniel, will collapse.
        Again: I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m saying where the problem might lie.
        Stump and Kretzman’s paper is here:

        1. Sam Lebens

          I think we’d be in a better position if we can appeal to ET-simultaneity without relying on a concept of atemporal duration. I’m a bit confused about whether we’re supposed to be able to, whether we can, whether it will work.
          It’s a tough topic. I was just teaching about it, and I’ve been left more confused!

        2. Sam Lebens

          William Lane Craig argues that the concept of an eternal present is essential to an anaylsis of ET-simultaneity (the type of simultaneity that can hold between the Divine realm and ours). He then goes on to argue that the notion of a present that is eternal is a nonsense.

        3. Daniel

          Thanks so much for pointing me in the direction of Craig’s critique of Stump and Kretzmann (S&K). A thorough and brilliant analysis of the difficulties in working out am atemporal model. You are absolutely right that the notion of simultaneity, or an alternative account, would need to be worked out, and that S&K’s analysis does seem inadequate.

          Craig rejects the S&K notion of ‘eternal present’ (EP) since each analysis of EP by S&K yields implicit, if not explicit, topological properties of ‘eternal’ in their analysis: either point-like (and fleeting) or extensional (thus composed of parts).

          But Craig himself seems to argue that at least two positions would not be subject to the types of contradictions that accrue from such models.

          (1) that the ‘hyper-time’ of God’s ‘perspective’ (my term) is composed of a single instant that is tenseless, and thus neither fleeting, nor extensional. Embedded within that ‘present’ (to God) would be all of creation, all of time. Notions of transition, change etc would only be valid descriptions from within time, but not from the hyper-time perspective.

          (2) That God does not exist in any time at all, neither hyper nor ‘regular’. God’s existence itself is tenseless. There is no point, not even a location of hyper time, in which God might experience what we experience by a present. Except inasmuch as it would be true to say that for God there is a world, and false to say that God experiences either a past (things that no longer are the case) or a future (things that currently are not the case, but will become the case). From the perspective of that ‘present’ (to God) would be all of creation, all of time. Notions of transition, change etc would only be valid descriptions from within time, but not from the hyper-time perspective.

          The former position would be a best-case scenario for EP (taking the extent of allegory beyond that of S&K) whereas the second (which Craig does not develop, but refers to, is what he terms the ‘classical conception of eternity’, and I think it would accurately reflect the type of model that is either explicit or at least implicit within an enormous amount of Jewish philosophical (as well as kabbalistic) writings, including Maimonides.

          If I’ve understood him correctly, Craig still finds difficulty with the former because it implies some kind of locus within hyper time, allowing for the possibility of God’s existence only being true at one point (the intersection of hyper time with time) and not at others. I have yet to fully get my head around the model of hyper time he is employing, but the classical model would seem to be immune to such problems.

          Of course these are highly abstract models and difficult to analyse since our terms and models are ultimately being abstracted away from their ordinary employment within extension (or, perhaps in the case of mathematics, from the possible structures of extension) to beyond extension. So this may well be in the realm of ‘bemufleh mimcha al tidrosh’. But I believe that the contradictions and difficulties ultimately come precisely at the points where our models inadvertently ‘over-borrow’ from extensional experience, as with S&K (more on that below).

          Returning then to the model I laid out, perhaps ambiguity could be avoided through the following clarifications: in (C) the somewhat ambiguous “eternal ‘now’ ” being replaced by (2) above; in
          (D) the distinguishable areas are only those within time (that is what I meant to say, but appreciate that the phrasing may have been unclear)’ in (G) ‘simultaneously’ does not come from God stretching across hyper-time or any other extensional region. Rather that all of time is in direct contact with its cause – God – though the latter has no extension, and no tensed existence.

          I anticipate anyone trying to analyse God’s ‘acting’ or ‘causing’ in the ordinary employment of the terms – which is borrowed from temporal and extensional existence – will of necessity insert time and/or extension into the model.

          Of course it is here that we finally reach Maimonides’ negative theology, and find that the language statements to begin to lose effective reference, except inasmuch as they claim that all-that-happens are effects of God as cause (and to avoid temporalism, the latter may be better analysed in terms of necessity and sufficiency, cf Maimonides in the beginning of Mishneh Torah).

          Put slightly differently: the extent to which temporal/extensional connotation is a necessary component of the verb or adjective, is the extent to which it will necessarily fail to describe the state of being of the non-extensional cause (or Cause) of all extension. So to the extent to which it can be genuinely separated from such connotation, is the extent to which it may yet be employed in service of fruitful thought.

          Of course, for any verb describing the interaction between God and man, the extent to which the verb refers primarily to the impact upon man, is the extent to which it is referentially effective, but the extent to which it refers to God is the extent to which it runs into the need for the above distinction.(hence my argument that talk of God judging us can still be meaningful).

          I believe that this is the crux of the issue, and that the contradictions and difficulties arise precisely for extensional verbs and adjectives employed to reach beyond extension. So long as care is taken to avoid such errors, I do not think that contradictions need arise.

          Of course the price paid for that precision is that at some point we find ourselves at the end of the Wittgensteinian ladder.

  5. Dani Rabinowitz

    Rabbi Rowe, I wish to second what Sam said in response to your comments about zechuyot and avon. It doesn’t matter which terms or categories one uses; the critical point is that so long as a sliding scale / weight / metric is involved in determining who gets rewarded and who gets punished, there will inevitably be the problem of relevantly similar people ending up with relevantly dissimilar desserts, which comes across as unjust. Hence the problem of vagueness.

    While I cannot understand the mechanics of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without some instance of divine judgment, it is becoming apparent that the problems surrounding this conception of the High Holy Days are deep and worrying.

    1. Sam Lebens

      I’m not entirely sure I see that you should still have a problem.
      First of all, if you really want to understand the mechanics of the Days of Awe in terms of God’s actions on them, then become a temporalist. That’s a very viable option, defended, probably, by the majority of analytic philosophers of religion who have thought about this issue.
      My blog was merely talking about what to do if you want to remain an atemporalist.
      Secondly, if you do want to hold onto atemporalism, you have the three views that I sketched in my blog, in addition to the fourth option that Rabbi Rowe, I think rightly points out, that has God acting not in a time, but somehow, at a time.
      If you can’t make sense of that distinction, you save Rabbi Rowe’s point in a different way. You can say that God judges you atemporally. He judges your entire life. But, he gives special weight to your actions during the ten days of repentance. And the special weight that he gives those days in his judgement of you is what licences us to talk as if he’s judging us on those days.
      I think this is perhaps a better take on Rabbi Rowe’s attempt to forge a fourth option.
      Finally, if your concern is the vagueness/Sider type concern… I think you have a completely adequate response if you appeal to a continuous conception of the afterlife. If you deserve the afterlife to degree n, then you’ll get exactly degree n of the goods of the afterlife. If you deserve eternal punishment of severity n, then you’ll get exactly n degrees of severity in your afterlife punishments. No vagueness problem at all. Sider even accepts that there won’t be a problem on such a non-binary conception of the afterlife.
      This continuous conception might not be found in Maimonides, but it’s certainly found in a number of Jewish texts, and indeed, in a number of Jewish practices, such as the practice of trying to encourage an aliyat haneshama (a posthumous boost to a beloved person’s afterlife).

  6. Dominic

    In defense of Rabbi Rowe’s position concerning zechuyot, I think the actual occurrance of repentance could help here. Take agents A and B. Both produced an equal number of avon(im?) and let’s say A has one more zechuyot – such that A is worthy of heaven and B is not. As has been mentioned this seems unfair. However, what if we add to this case the fact that A repented on YK, but B didn’t. In fact, the added zechuyot could be the fact that A repented on YK. Intuitively, God’s judgement would be more just in this case because A shows a level of humility (or something like that) and an openness to accepting fallibility that B does not want to express. Accordingly A would be (more) worthy of heaven than B.

    Or, perhaps a better alternative, if B repented too, even though he has less merits, he would also go to heaven. This would give (sincere) repentance added power.

    How does this sound?

    1. Sam Lebens

      Thanks Dominic.
      Again, I’m not sure that this move will help… Can repentance come in degrees? I think a case could be made for saying that it does. The Talmud seems to have a sliding scale from a hirhur teshuva (some sort of fleeting contrition) all the way through to teshuvah gemora (complete repentance) and teshuva m’ahava (repentance from love).
      Sometimes there may be vague cases.
      For instance… one of the baseline requirements for entry level penitence, for the Rambam, is sincere contrition. But surely that can come in degrees. Furthermore, surely 0.0000001 degrees of contrition (on a scale from 0 to 10) won’t be enough!
      So, lets take the degree of contrition that is enough, and let’s call that number n.
      Now, take two people with the same level of merits and demerits, A and B.
      On Yom Kippur they both go to synagogue and pray for forgiveness, but in the depth of their souls, they can’t muster all that much contrition. They’re not completely full of regret. Thankfully, A manages to muster exactly degree n of contrition. He’s now considered repentant and gets in to the good books (by the skin of his teeth). But, B tries as hard (or very nearly as hard) but only manages to muster n – 0.0000000000000001 degrees of contrition. Unfortunately for him, he’s not in. So, even though he’s almost exactly the same as A from a moral point of view, he’s going to hell, and A’s going to heaven.
      That still seems unfair.
      Dani’s problem is alive.
      But, I think all of this is fixed if you have a continuous conception of the afterlife, and indeed, a continuous conception of the afterlife is, at least, hinted to by the sages.

  7. Dani Rabinowitz


    Thank you for your thought-provoking insights.

    I wonder if the concern about atemporalism might result from a wrong turn at the very beginning of your blog post:

    “Most religious Jews seem to believe that from Rosh Hashona to Yom Kippur (the ten days of penitence), God sits in judgement over us.”

    The rabbis are more concerned with the content of belief than the nature of belief, so they don’t devote much attention to the latter. Mostly what we get are pro forma mentions of the view that beliefs are mental acts.

    Saadia Gaon says that when we believe something, “a notion that arises in the soul in regard to the actual character of anything that is apprehended … He deposits it in his soul for a future occasion or future occasions.” (Book of Beliefs and Opinions) In other words, Saadia thinks that belief is a mental act. Its purpose is to help us direct our behavior successfully on a future occasion or future occasions.

    Maimonides espouses a similar view in Guide of the Perplexed: “Belief is the affirmation that what has been represented is outside the mind just as it has been represented in the mind.”

    In other words, Maimonides says that to have a belief is to represent in the mind a fact outside the mind: to affirm it in a mental act. If the representation corresponds to the fact, the belief is true; otherwise, the belief is false. That implies two crucial points:

    * We can only have beliefs about things we understand or have experienced. If we cannot understand something, or have not experienced it, then we cannot form a mental representation of it and cannot have beliefs about it.

    * A true belief must also be accurate. Its object outside the mind must be “just as it has been represented in the mind.”

    But Maimonides also says that we can’t know what ordinary words mean when applied to God:

    “His essential attributes, may He be exalted, in the existence of which they believe, must not be like the attributes of other beings … Similarly the terms ‘knowledge,’ ‘power,’ ‘will,’ and ‘life,’ as applied to Him, may He be exalted, and to all those possessing knowledge, power, will, and life, are purely equivocal, so that their meaning when they are predicated of Him is in no way like their meaning in other applications.”

    So to have a belief, we must represent accurately in our minds a reality that is outside of our minds. However, that is impossible for any belief about God because He transcends our understanding. We cannot even know what our own words mean when we apply them to God.

    What, then, becomes of the belief that “God sits in judgement over us”?

    We don’t know what “God” means. We don’t know what “sits in judgement” means as applied to God. The word “over” might or might not be meaningful in this context, but we can’t be sure of it. We’re pretty sure that “us” means “us,” but that’s about as far as we can get with such a belief.

    In spite of all that, when observant Jews say “God sits in judgement over us,” they certainly think they believe it. They describe it as an instance of belief. Such phenomena are the data of philosophy, so we must take them seriously in spite of any a priori reservations. If they say they believe a statement that can have little or no logical content for them, then they allude to a type of belief that our theory doesn’t cover.

    I would suggest, somewhat unoriginally, that such beliefs do not assert facts but, instead, express resolutions and aspirations. To say that “God sits in judgement over us” is an indirect way to say that we consider ourselves morally accountable for our actions, to resolve to act morally, and to encourage or prepare ourselves emotionally to do so.

    Under such an analysis, the question of God’s acting atemporally does not arise.

    Maimonides would deny that God acts in that sense. However, since he thinks we cannot know how such words apply to God, his denial is nonsense, which makes his own statement seem more performative than assertive.

    1. Sam Lebens

      Thank you Noah,
      I agree that this is the sort of response Maimonides would provide.
      In a sense, that is the view that I called ‘view 2′. On view 2, nothing theological is going on on these days, and, all of our talk that seems to say that it is, is not real assertion, but something like a pretence that gets us in the right mood for the tasks ahead. I justified view 2 by considering Maimonides’ words: he deliberately deletes talk of God writing in books on these days. And I completely agree that this flows naturally from his philosophy of religious language; or at least quite naturally.
      If we really want to stay true to Maimonidian hermeneutics, we’d have to visit his theory of the active attributes. On this theory, we should really talk about God as acting, but when we do, he provides us with a hermeneutic for interpreting what’s going on. Generally: when we say God acts, Maimonides would read that as ‘the world exhibits effects that we would generally associate with a certain type of action, were a person in charge of the world’ – not that God is actually performing such an action.
      ‘God is kind’ becomes, ‘the world exhibts certain patterns that we would generally associate with kindness, if we believed that a person like us were in charge!’.
      But the case of God judging us on RH and YK is more interesting: when we say that God judges us on RH and YK, surely we’re not saying that the world exhibits certain effects that we would generally associate with judgement – those days don’t seem any different to other days – rather, I’d agree with you: we’re engaging in talk designed to have a certain effect.

    2. Daniel


      Whilst that view may be plausible, I do not think it can be said to represent the view of Maimonides. Maimonides certainly seems to claim that we can form beliefs about God, for instance the opening of the Mishneh Torah:

      The foundation of all foundations, and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Cause, who has brought into being all that exists… This Being is the God of the world, master of all earth, and it is He who drives the orbits with a force that has no end nor limit, and force that does not stop…
      (Hil.Yesodie Torah 1:1,5)

      (Indeed in the very chapter that discusses the scales, he lists those who do not have a portion in the world to come, and includes those who deny key beliefs about God).

      I believe that what Maimonides holds is that any adjectives or verbs we use to describe what God is, or how God behaves, fail since they draw upon our finite, spacio temporal experience that could not accurately reflect God. But that would not prevent us using terms to describe God’s interaction with the world (such as in the above example and elsewhere). If we said, for instance ‘God saved Israel from the decrees and oppression of the Greeks in the Chanuka story’ that is a proposition to which Maimonides would assent (inded he does explicitly at the beginning of Laws of Chanuka).

      As per his discussion in Yesodei Torah ch.2 and Teshuva ch.5, and the quote you cited from the Guide, he would probably argue that the verb employed would contain inadequacies of connotation. Nevertheless, I do not believe he would go as far as saying that ‘God sits in judgement over us’ is a vacuous statement, nor that it is void of meaningful content. Indeed in the very discussion of scales, he explicitly states: ‘and this weighing up only happens in the knowledge of the God of knowledge, and He knows how to value the merits against the corruption’

      I appreciate that this is somewhat tangential to the central discussion as to the consistency, or lack thereof, of annual judgement with atemporalism, It also does nothing to negate your ventral point surrounding Sam’s second option. It is merely a point of hermeneutics, but one that I feel is important nonetheless.

      1. Sam Lebens

        Hi R. Daniel.
        I think I have to disagree with you here.
        I think it unfair to look only at the Mishna Torah without trying to reconcile it with what he says in the Guide. Of course, some people like to treat those two works as if authored by different people (some do so with a religious agdenda, because they want to marginalise the too-rational Guide, and some do so with an anti-religious agenda in order to marginalise the too-simplistic-written-for-the-masses Mishna Torah). My preference is to try to see how the two books can sit side by side.
        So, in the MT, Maimonides talks as if God acts. R. Daniel brings the hanukka example, for instance.
        But, in the Guide, on a relatively conservative reading of it, Maimonides tells us that whenever you have a phrase of the form ‘God did X’, it needs to be reinterprteded into a phrase of the form ‘the world exhibits such effects that we would normally want to attribute X to its cause’, or something like that.
        So, on that reading, Maimonides does allow us to say that ‘God sits in judgement’, but he does force us to interpret it in a non-standard way. It’s not merely that it doesn’t succeed in fully describing God, but that, in order to say anything at all, we need to radically reconceive it’s logical form.
        The same must apply to all the things that Maimonides himself says that God does.

        1. Daniel

          I am not sure we are disagreeing, but suspect that my earlier comment may be in need of some clarification.

          I agree wholeheartedly that any serious Maimonides scholarship has to take into account all of his writings.

          I think that on the question of the meaning of verbs as applied to God, he is consistent across all his works, and I understand his view to be as follows:

          To say ‘God does x’ could mean one of the following:

          (1) God acts in a way that is sufficiently similar to what is captured by the ordinary content of ‘does x’ such that the latter serves as an effective description of the relevant state of affairs
          (2) God is the cause of an effect (state of affairs) sufficiently similar to the effect-element of the ordinary content of ‘does x’ (understood as ’causes effect y’) that the latter serves as an effective description of the relevant state of affairs
          (3) Ordinary language is so far removed from being able to capture God that the content of a assertion ‘God does x’ fails to capture a meaningful proposition. As such we can never talk about God ‘doing’ anything, nor even talk about results in this world being effects of any cause that involves God in any way.

          I believe that Maimonides takes the second position with regards such ascriptions in Tenach or Chazal. Furthermore he seems to always be careful – in MT as well as GFP – to always make such distinctions. He avoids using phrases like ‘God does x’ and instead speaks of the effects with God as cause.

          I took Noah’s interpretation of Maimonides to be saying something much closer to (3), which may be a plausible position, especially as regards the question of atemporalism, but I believe that it fails to capture what Maimonides himself holds.

          I can hear the possibility of accepting a slightly different view as being that of M
          (3*) sentences like ‘God does x’ fail to capture a meaningful proposition, but sentences like ‘state of affairs y happens in the world because it was caused so by God’ do capture meaningful propositions.

          But whether we take M to be holding (3) or (3*) discussions about God’s judging (or God’s being the cause of certain potential being made available, at Rosh Hashana (however we interpret that given our question of a/temporalism), for the rest of the year) can still be perfectly meaningful.

          1. Daniel

            apologies – that last paragraph should have said ‘whether we take Maimonides to be holding (2) or (3*)…’

  8. Dani Rabinowitz

    Sam, I wonder whether a sliding scale conception of the afterlife (where the sentence is proportionate the extent of one’s sins / merits) really gets around the problem. At some point on the scale there will be a cut-off point where those on the one side receives heaven and those just over that point get “hell.” Even if the degree of reward and punishment in those instances is mild, there nevertheless remains a sharp distinction between the two people, the first being “righteous” and the second “wicked.”. The sharpness of the distinction seems to be where the problem lies.

    As for your other point, I have no settled ideas on God’s relation to time. That many contemporary analytic philosophers of religion are temporalists provides me with little incentive to join their ranks. Call me old fashioned, but I like the idea of an atemporal God.

    Finally, and this point is still inchoate in my mind, Maimonides’ model seems to get the wrong result in this case. There seems to be some intuitive difference, at least to me, between person A, who has one merit and no sins in Year X, and person B, whose many merits in Year X just exceed by one B’s many sins. If I’ve understood Maimonides correctly, they may just come out receiving the same reward or degree of reward. But these two people seem too relevantly dissimilar to receive a relevantly similar sentence (proportionality being a condition on justice).

    1. Sam Lebens

      I think the sliding scale does solve the problem; I agree with Sider.
      If you want, get rid of the language of heaven and hell (at least for the moment).
      Just imagine an infinite scale of pleasure/reward from minus-infinity, right through to inifnity.
      Imagine an infinite scale of personal value from minus-infinity, right through to inifinity.
      You live a life of value n, you’ll get degree n of pleasure/reward in the afterlife.
      Let’s just call heaven the most clear cases of abundant pleasure/reward, and lets call hell the most clear cases of horrific negative-pleasure/punishment. In the middle is neither heaven nor hell, but just a just afterlife. So I no longer see a problem.

      I agree that you shouldn’t be an atemporalist because it’s fasionable. My point was that it is intellectually respectable. It’s not a foolish option, as evidenced by the wise people who adopt it. That is no argument for its truth, but I think it is an argument for its being a worthy candidate for consideration.

      Regarding your final point. I think there you misunderstand Maimonides’ point. He doesn’t merely weigh sins against good deeds, but against their relative merits.

      So if A’s relative merits outweigh his sins, that could be because he’s done loads of sins but they were minor, and only a few good deeds, but their merits were major. Likewise, B could have done loads of good deeds, but they were all minor, and one bad deed, but it was heinous. I don’t think there’s a problem there, as long as you’ve got that continuous conception of the afterlife.

    2. Sam Lebens

      Keep in mind, Dani, that one nomenclature for both heaven and hell is simply, the next world.
      If we don’t think in terms of two places, but simply ask, what sort of life will you have in the next world?
      We can then say that the difference in the bounty reserved for people in the next world is exactly calibrated in relation to the relative merits they accrued – minute difference in that merit will only result in minute difference in their afterlives.
      The continuous conception of the afterlife, which I’m not saying is the Rambam’s, but I am saying we should adopt to save the Rambam, and which I am saying has warrant in the tradition, is simply to deny that there’s any binary division in the next life between a place called heaven and a place called hell.

  9. Daniel

    As for the issue of sliding scales of afterlife, I think that such a model would adequately address the application of Sorites paradox to afterlife-status.

    Most sources I am familiar with adopt a model somewhat akin to that (a graduated scale of afterlife status) but only for the positive states. The alternative to a place in ‘the world to come’ is not eternal damnation, but non-existence. On such a model the Sider problem may still be in force.

    To some degree it may be mitigated somewhat by allowing for a sliding scale of ‘reward in this world’ (very evil = punished in this world and nothing after; slightly less evil gets a better time in this world etc) all of which may be considered ‘negative’ on the scale, until eventually comes ‘limited existence in the world to come’ which may be only minutely better than ‘excellent life in this world but nothing after’.

    Nevertheless I suspect some lingering problem of the Sorites nature will maintain against such a position, and certainly against the Maimonidean (and Talmudic) scales. Nor will it necessarily help to point out that the scales are not the totality of judgement in any such model. They appear to play a kind of ‘first role’, rather like the Ramchal’s depiction of a first question: is the person a part of the world to come or not. Second question: if yes, then what status. Third question: what to do with all the negative stuff. But that will not avoid the issues raised by Sider

    It seems to me that in order to accommodate the more standard approaches, one would need to argue that human status does not necessarily exist along a continuum. After all, there are predicates for which the Sorites paradox appears to be inapplicable – where intermediary states do not occur between a small amount of possible states. Quarks are either confined or they are not. Electrons are either in orbit or they are not, etc. Indeed the question of ‘heap’ when applied to, say, bricks, may well have a determinate answer (presumably 3, at least if structured a certain way, whereas 2 bricks probably cannot form a ‘heap’).

    Now human growth may well seem more like an accumulation of decisions that upon aggregation might lead to a continuum, I believe that there are reasons to believe that there is, in general, less of a continuum when addressing the ‘being’ question.

    Take the case of addiction. A person may be called an ‘addict’ if they experience an inability to stop a certain action over a given period of time. Of course there may be people who act upon their addiction every day, and others who do so less frequently, but the common theme here is that they all experience a state whereby they feel a certain helplessness. In the language of 12 step recovery programmes, they may feel that will power alone provides them with no defence against the addiction.

    In such programmes, ‘recovery’ relates to the state of affairs in which the person now does not act upon their addiction. In the state of recovery, or sobriety, the person now has tools to accomplish freedom from the compulsion.

    Now whilst there may be grades of addiction, and, possibly some kind of gradation for recovery, there is also a very sharp line that can be drawn between those who have not yet recovered and those who are now in recovery. For the purpose of the zechut/avon scale – ie a scale that weighs the state of being they have attained, the results are decisively different.

    Now we may consider (I am not saying the Rambam does use this calculus) an addict who wishes to be different, to be equivalent to some sort of ‘intermediate’ category between those who wilfully do bad and those who are able to control their impulse to do bad. Then it would seem that the vast majority of people fall decisively into these categories, and that there is a sharp distinction to be made between them.

    Now not all sin is about addiction, but, it seems to me, that there are categories of people when it comes to being a tzadik/benoni/rasha (good/intermediary/bad). Let us talk for a moment about people who believe in Torah (an analogy might be drawn for any value system) and believe that they ought to perform certain acts, and ought to refrain from others. Let us momentarily allow for gradations of such beliefs, and the personalisation of circumstance that may create a different value-field for different people (cf R.Dessler’s ‘freewill point’). Even so I do not think it will affect the following:

    Given a value-system that tells a person that they ought/not to perform act A and yet a compulsion to do otherwise, there is a strong and sharp difference between, say, one who pre-Teshuvah finds themselves wishing to perform/abstain from A, but finds themselves unable to do so, and one who has achieved a state whereby they now indeed perform/refrain from A.

    So I do think that real life growth and spiritual (or moral) development can indeed entail sharp distinctions. Note that in terms of aggregating choices made over a lifetime, where may indeed be a continuum. But in terms of the inner workings of the person, the status of ‘tzadik’ (at least in any given area) may well be legitimately conferred upon one who has developed a reliable strategy to ensure that they are able to live according to their values.

    Now I admit that we could still find some genuine ‘boundary cases’. People who have achieved success, but still might fail under extreme duress, etc. Likewise there may be constructs in physics whereby an electron is in some kind of limbo state between ‘orbiting’ and ‘not orbiting’ an atomic nucleus. But the point is this: whereby the ‘natural’ situation is to default strongly into one of two sharply distinguishable cases, then it would not be difficult to force the switch to be made.

    I do not know if it is possible for an electron to exist in a limbo state such that it violated sharp bivalence (not/in orbit). But were such a case attainable, it would seem that very soon it would end up settling in one or the other states. Even if it would not, then it would seem plausible that a physicist might (sooner or later) come up with a relatively simple method to apply minimal pressure to force it to end up in one state or another.

    Likewise it may well be that if a human indeed lies on the limbo-line between, say, ‘benoni’ and ‘tzadik’ then God could relatively easily provide situations/pressures that would force them to land on one side of the fence or the other. (For some that may include terminal illness).

    The point is this: if what is being measured is an aggregation of acts, then a continuum seems inescapable. But if what is being measured is the person’s status vis a vis their propensity to live up to their values in the face of compulsion to resist, then I believe that we do find examples of quite sharp boundaries in real life. Indeed I think it is plausible that most people at any given point in life, fall decisively on one side or another of these sharp boundaries.

    So the scales of the Rambam that ask: on balance what has this person become (as opposed to what have they done) there may indeed be, for almost everyone, if not everyone, clear answers. My own suspicion is that the vast majority of people fit into a benoni category overall (even if there are some areas of ‘tzadik’ and some of ‘rasha’). Thus, on the Rambam’s model, the annual judgement is not decisive, and need to await the level of teshuva/repentance done.

    If the above is plausible, which I think it is, then I believe that there may be sharp lines to be drawn on who is viewed as what each year, and who is viewed as what when they leave this world. Of course all standard Jewish models of an afterlife (or lack thereof) include accounting for every act over a lifetime. But accountability of individual actions may be one part of an equation that also accounts for more determinable status.

    At the very least I think that there is strong reason to believe that Maimonides held something like the above (for example many statements in Hil. Teshuva ch.7)

    1. Sam Lebens

      Thanks for this comment R. Daniel.
      It’s clearly very rich, and I’ll have to think about it before I could possibly respond at length.
      But one comment I can make immediately.
      You say that the models you’re familiar with state that the alternative to a place in the world to come (the benefits of which you accept may come in degrees) is no afterlife at all.
      I’m aware of such positions too.
      But I’d need to be convinced that they were the mainstream, or indeed, that there is a mainstream normative view on these matters.
      I think that the tradition allows you to talk about a gradation of reward in the afterlife. But it also allows you to talk about punishment, such as the punishment of Gehenom, whatever that might mean… and I have no reason to claim that that punishment can’t also come in degrees, or that there might be stages of the afterlife that are vague as between being in Gehenom or being in, so to speak, ‘heaven’, if there’s a continuum between the worst punishments and the best rewards.
      The idea that some souls get no afterlife at all, or that the punishment of karet is to be understood as some sort of destruction of the soul, are certainly ideas in the Jewish mix, but I don’t think we should feel bound to them; just as most of us don’t feel bound the highly intellectualised conception of the afterlife that one finds in the Rambam and the Ralbag, according to which most amei ha’aretz won’t receive a share at all!
      Regarding the rest of your comment, and the attempt to find some clear distinctions against all of the various vaguenesses… I’m going to take some time to think about it. Thank you for sharing, and for taking engaging with this blog.
      Shavua tov.

    2. Daniel

      Just to clarify two points:

      1. I was not intending to deny that most sources believe in punishment in the afterlife. Rather that many (most) seem to hold it to be a temporary state designed to eradicate any damage caused by sin. The long-term afterlife state would be a place in the world to come. But that few, if any, sources speak of eternal damnation as an option.
      (I found a bunch of sources indicating the limitation of time in gehinnom, quoted in footnotes to R’Aryeh Kaplan’a Handbook of Jewish Thought vol.2 pp.358-9, fn’s 26-27, 30-31 (I haven’t verified all of them yet). They include: Eduyot 2:10, Zohar 1:68b, Tana DeBei Eliyahu Rabbah 3 (28b), Shulchan Aruch YD 376:5 in hagah, Kitzur SA 26:1 (re kaddish less than 12 months etc), Ramban Torat Ha’adam Shaar hagemul 77a-78a, Sefer Ikarim 4:33, Nishmat Chaim 1:13, the ‘perush’ on Rambam Hil.Teshuva 8:1)

      An example of a fairly accessible source (that has also been translated into English) is Ramchal in Derech Hashem section 2, chapter 2: 2-8 that spells out what I take to be the standard view fairly clearly.

      2. Of course the view of a straight-out continuum that is indefinitely extended in the negative and positive is perfectly plausible, and would alone fully suffice to reconcile justice with a continuum of human evil/good. What I am saying is that I believe there would still be work to be done to reconcile the views that exclude long term gehinnom, yet assume the possibility of no afterlife at all (as in the Mishna in Sanhedrin, or Maimonides Hil.Teshuva ch.3 and many others). Under such a model the question of justice requires further treatment. What I was trying to do was to outline an approach that I happen to think Maimonides himself held of that would serve as, at least, a major part of the solution from such a perspective. To be clear: on all of these models, I do think that the gradations of reward is also very widely held of and part of the standard model, and I think it does some of the explanatory work needed; just that, on such a model, it is only a part of the picture.

      Looking forward to hearing your further thoughts.

      1. Sam Lebens

        Thank you.
        I do agree that most think of punishment as temporary, and I’m grateful for the sources.
        It’s also possible that the temporary punishment comes in degrees, according to the degree of sinfulness (perhaps I have the following little worry there: the notion of temporary after-life statuses might get us into some hot water if you think that the afterlife is somehow atemporal – but that’s not insurmountable).
        So, yes, temporary punishment does seem to be the mainstream view.
        What I’m less convinced about is that absolute destruction of the souls of the most wicked, though I have seen it discussed, is consensus. But I’m not claiming any expertise. Perhaps it is consensus. If it is, it would exacerbate my problems, given my desire for an infinite continuum with no maximum or minimum threshold.
        Anyway, I do completely agree with you that the Rambam’s words that caused Dani the initial discomfort do not lend themselves easily to my preferred picture of a complete continuum, and that they need defending against Sider-style concerns. Perhaps your reflections would help us there.
        But if we really want to get into Maimonides’ own view, rather than developing our own views, informed by the tradition, but not necessarily bound to any one thinker within that tradition, the we’ll also have to revisit his views about the exclusively intellectual nature of the afterlife; those views make me very uncomfortable!
        Shavua Tov.

      2. Daniel

        This may need to be my last comment on this forum for a while (famous last words) since apart from my day job there are now some essay/dissertation deadlines looming over the coming months.

        As for your worry about non-existence, I am actually not sure it would need to be such a worry.

        Let us take the justice continuum. What is the point 0? Surely it would be the point where there balance of pain/pleasure is such that there is no actual overall benefit to existence itself. In other words it is beneficially indistinguishable from non-existence. (if not, then surely we are not actually speaking of the 0 point, but a slight positive).

        Even if you’d reject the above, surely one would agree with the following: there are points along the scale, beneath which any such existence is worse off than no existence.

        So now if we allow that on the standard model God uses justice in service of kindness – that evil/blockage be removed so that what can remain is an unblocked relationship with God – then there would be no purpose served by leaving alive anyone whose relationship with God was irretrievably damaged that their eternal experience would be below the 0 point. There would be nothing to be gained by their suffering. So even though justice alone may demand an actual, fully exhaustive continuum all the way down, it would be kinder to let those whose choices destroy the very possibility of a relationship with God, to simply end.

        Finally as regards the Maimonidean model of the afterlife, I have yet to work through that one. But I do believe that one would need to reconcile his comments in GFP with those elsewhere – eg his comment on the last Mishneh in Sanhedrin that the multiplicity of mitzvoth offers everyone the chance to do at least one properly in their lifetime so as to achieve a minimal sufficient condition for eternal relationship with Hashem.

        1. Sam Lebens

          Just for the record… I agree with everything you say here.
          Perhaps non-existence would be kinder, and trump the demands of raw justice, after a certain point on the continuum. That’s a good point. I’ll think about it.
          I also agree that Maimonides’ views on the afterlife should be made consistent between his Rabbinic and Philosophical works.

          1. Dani Rabinowitz


            I want to pick up on your last comment: “I also agree that Maimonides’ views on the afterlife should be made consistent between his Rabbinic and Philosophical works.”

            If we view Maimonides like any other author whose views develop over the course of their life, then I do not see why we need to synthesise his views in the Mishneh Torah, for example, with his views in the Guide, when the latter was written toward the end of his life. [That he enjoyed playing with contradictions, as is evident from the Introduction to the Guide, does not entail that he remained committed to his views in his legal works. Besides, some, e.g. Herbert Davidson, have claimed that there are no contradictions in the Guide, thus making the comment in the Introduction something of a ruse.]

            Considerations such as these raise further concerns about the Brisker practice of developing “novel insights” into apparent contradictions between Maimonides’ legal works or contradictions within a single , albeit large, work. Despite his greatness, he was a fallible human being after all.

  10. Sam Lebens

    My understanding from reading Joel Krammer’s biography of Maimonides is that he kept updating the Mishne Torah (and the Perush Mishnayot) in order to keep them as consistent as possible.
    And thus, I think it fair, in general, to treat the Maimonidean corpus as reflective of Maimonides’ final views.
    That’s not to say that I’m always convinced by Brisker flights of fancy (although you know that I have some strange views about the importance/unimportance of original intent for the purposes of Jewish learning – but let’s leave that to one side right now, and take original intent very seriously).
    When I say that we need to reconcile his works, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t allow that there are some purposeful contradictions, as Maimonides said that there would be in the introduction to the Guide. But even to isolate a contradiction as purposeful, and to explain its purpose, either pedagogically or politically, still, in my books, counts as a reconciliation, in some sense or other. That’s all I’m looking for.

    1. Sam Lebens

      Just to say it more clearly:
      I don’t have a problem with Brisker flights of fancy in a legal context, because I believe that on certain plausible premises, legal exegesis doesn’t need to be too tied down to original intent.
      But, I do accept that there are academic contexts in which original intent is really important.
      Even in those contexts, where Brisker flights of fancy are illegitimate, I think that there is biographical reason to want to give some plausible explanation of contradictions within the Maimonidean corpus, other than simply saying that he changed his mind. Of course, the contradictions might have been left in on purpose, but an account of that purpose, and an explanation of that purpose, strikes me as a reconciliation of sorts; minimally, that’s what I’d be after.

  11. Stuart Fischman

    Dear Sam,
    It is good to see that you are active in Jewish Philosophy.
    I only have a few comments to make about your fascinating discussion of Hashem in time.
    I don’t understand why you link the Rambam’s discussion of miracles to the question of temporality. The Rambam makes this point in his commentary to Avot (chap. 5 mishnah 3) and he relates it to his discussion in the eight chapter of his introduction to the commentary to Avot (the “Shmonah Perakim). The Rambam’s idea that miracles are “programmed” in the Creation itself and not spontaneous responses to the exigencies of an earthly situation is as you know part of his debate with a a particular school of Islamic thought (the Kalam) . This school claimed that at every moment of time God is creating the conditions which allow all activities on earth to proceed (Moreh Hanevuchim part 1, chap. 73 the sixth introduction). I don’t see in these words of the Rambam any connection to the issue of God operating in earthly time.
    Finally it seems to me that though Chazal ( as far as I know which isn’t very far) don’t address the subject of God in time, they certainly did address the issue of God in earthly space. And since we view time and space as entwined dimensions perhaps what Chazal say about God in space is relevant to this discussion.
    שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת תרומה פרשה לד סימן א

    בשעה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה עשה לי משכן התחיל מתמיה ואומר כבודו של הקדוש ברוך הוא מלא עליונים ותחתונים והוא אומר עשה לי משכן, ועוד היה מסתכל וראה ששלמה עומד ובונה בית המקדש שהוא גדול מן המשכן ואמר לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא (מלכים א ח) כי האמנם ישב אלהים על הארץ אמר משה, ומה בהמ”ק שהוא יותר ויותר מן המשכן שלמה אומר כן, משכן עאכ”ו, לכך אמר משה (תהלים צא) יושב בסתר עליון, א”ר יהודה בר ר’ סימון יושב בסתר הוא עליון על כל בריותיו, מהו בצל שדי, בצל אל, בצל רחום בצל חנון אין כתיב כאן אלא בצל שדי, בצל שעשה בצלאל לכך נאמר בצל שדי יתלונן, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לא כשם שאתה סבור כך אני סבור אלא כ’ קרש בצפון וכ’ בדרום וח’ במערב ולא עוד אלא שארד ואצמצם שכינתי בתוך אמה על אמה.
    All the best, Stuart Fischman

  12. Sam Lebens

    Dear Rabbi Fischman,
    Lovely to hear from you.
    I know that the Rambam in his talk about the miracles was rebutting Kalam occasionalism. I don’t deny that. But I do think that there’s more to it than that.
    First of all, if you accept that what goes for space, goes for time (which, incidentally, I don’t think we need to say – even post Einstein, many temporalist theologians want to say that God is in time but not in space – but let’s imagine that they’re wrong and that if God is in time, he is in space, and vice versa), it’s clear to me, that despite the Midrash you quote, the Rambam didn’t think that God was in space, and so he wouldn’t think him to be in time either.
    Part of the Rambam’s reason for insisting on God’s incorporeality was that it would be an imperfection to be extended; to be extended is to have boundaries, even if those boundaries coincide with the boundaries of space itself; to be extended is an imperfection.
    The Rambam, I claim, must have thought the same thing about time. To be temporally extended, for the Rambam, is just as bad as being spatially extended.
    Given that context, I think it fair to use his anti-occasionalist account of miracles and natural law to explain how, given his atemporalism, God can be said to be acting in time.
    What would he have made of that Midrash (which I thank you for sharing; it’s very beautiful)?
    I think Ross Inman’s paper on Omnipresence is fabulous. You can read it here:
    His conception of omnipresence would seem to resonate with this Midrash.
    But he also explains how many mediaeval theologians watered down the meaning of omnipresence. To be omnipresent is to know what is occurring at any and every location; or to have power over any and every location. On those accounts, omnipresence is derivative, and built upon omniscience or omnipotence. On those accounts, God isn’t really located anywhere, he just knows what’s going on, and/or can affect what’s going on, anywhere. When we talk about God’s special presence in the temple, etc, perhaps they’d appeal, as does Eleonore Stump, to God’s accessibility; God makes himself accessible everywhere, and even more accessible in the temple.
    Using any of these routes, somebody like the Rambam, who, I claim, was committed to God’s being neither in space nor in time, would be able to make sense of texts, like this Midrash, that seem to assert that God is literally located everywhere – they read all talk of omnipresence as a figure of speech to be cashed out in terms of other Divine powers.

    1. Stuart Fischman

      Dear Sam, Hi again.
      I think that the Midrash has a particular bearing on this discussion thread if we think about what Chazal present as what Moshe Rabbeinu thought and what Hashem explains to Him .
      Chazal present Moshe Rabbeinu as viewing the very notion of Hashem allowing Himself as being “located” somewhere as absurd since He is “in space” but He fills all of space.
      Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu that his conception of Hashem’s relationship to space is mistaken. Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu לא כשם שאתה סבור כך אני סבור. Hashem does not deny His “boundlessness” but His boundlessness is not at all similar to the human sense of “boundlessness” ( just as the Rambam demands that we accept that Hashem’s knowledge is not at all similar to knowledge as we understand the term). Despite Hashem being “boundless” He can be present in a finite space.
      It seems to me that the lesson of the Midrash is that “space” is not relevant to any discussion of God and since we are human and think of space as we perceive it God is not “in space.”
      I think that the opinions expressed in this thread fit into one or another of the two views put forth in this Midrash. All the best, Stuart Fischman

      1. Sam Lebens

        Indeed, that’s exactly how I’d think the Rambam would read that Midrash. It’s saying that God is in space, but not in the way that anything else is in space. God is located in all places in virtue of things like his power over all places, and his knowledge of all places. That is to be located, and not located. Located in a special sense, but, in our mundane sense, not located.
        The same will be true for God and time.
        We can talk of him being in time, but not like most things are in time. God is in time because he can, from his atemporal present, determine that things will happen at specific moments in our time line. So, God is in time, and not in time. In time, in a special sense, but, in our mundane sense, not in time.

        1. Sam Lebens

          To make my reading of the Rambam clearer, the claim is that for him God’s spatial and temporal location isn’t fundamental. He is only located in virtue of things he can do.
          But material beings like us are fundamentally located.
          These are the two different senses.
          And, because God lacks fundamental location in both space and time, for the Rambam, I think it fair to say that, for the Rambam, God isn’t in space and time.
          This is where God’s knowledge is different for the Rambam. God’s knowledge isn’t like our knowledge, but it does deserve to be called knowledge.
          I think there’s a very real sense in which the Rambam wouldn’t want us to call God’s relationship to space or time ‘location’; why? Because location implies imperfection.

      2. Sam Lebens

        Ross Inman, on the other hand, who thinks that God is really located in space, would be able to read the Midrash to suit him very nicely.
        All other beings pertend in space, but God entends in space. See his paper for a definition of those terms.
        And thus, God is in space, but not in the way that we are in space. We pertend, He entends.
        We are both fundamentally and non-derivatively located, but still, in different ways.

        1. Stuart Fischman

          Dear Sam, I was thinking some more about your ideas about Hashem’s relationship to time. I looked in Prof.Urbach’s work חז”ל פרקי אמונות ודעות and there is no chapter devoted to Chazal’s conception of time. I looked in the index and from a 714 page book there are only two pages about “time” and those discussions are not only brief but tangential as well. Shabbat shalom, Stuart Fischman

          1. Sam Lebens

            Sounds like a good research project!

  13. Jay McCrensky, Ph.D.

    To maintain that God is in time or in space violates a core principle of Maimonides – that God is unknowable. Both are attributes and one can attribute only negative, not positive attributes. One can understand what God is not, but wow to one who defines what God is.

    I start with this reminder because Kabbalah builds on this principle. And in the process gives us insight into the paradox of the judgment aspect of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To the thirteenth century kabbalists, culminating in The Zohar, God is knowable only through one’s experience in receiving the Sefirot, the ten emanations from the unknowable source. One can know the attributes, the Sefirot, but not the source. One can experience God by becoming a co-creator through these potencies. One can receive holiness, and thus make holiness in time. One can receive revelation and thus become an inventor, a composer, an artist. One can receive the ability to discern and choose right from wrong, to engage in ethics, to repent, returning to balance and harmony.

    Thus, God can be experienced as flowing in, not as outside. A kabbalist (a mikubal) prays to God flowing in, not to God, the Source. Ha Elohim, the divine name for the Sefirah Gevurah, is the Sefirah of Judgement, a received emanation that bestows the ability to judge oneself and to repent. This aspect of God is in time and space; it flows into and resides within ourselves. The Sefirah Tiferet, also known as YHVH, the holy name of God, is the harmonizer, the power of homeostasis, of equilibrium, of balance and of holiness. This Sefirah balances Gevurah and its associated evil inclination or potentiality, with Hesed, the Sefirah of compassion and goodness. Tiferet enables us to identify sin (through Binah), and to repent and rebalance.

    Understanding that Kabbalah, as the name implies, is the spirituality of receiving the potencies of Ayn Sof, the unknowable source, provides insight to the dilemma under discussion here. Within us is where judgement happens. God gives one the power to judge oneself, a necessary condition to the companion power to repent.

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