Commentary Magazine

The Vindictive and the Merciful:
God of Wrath and God of Love

It is a time-honored custom to counterpose the Christian “God of Love” and the Jewish “God of Wrath.” Does this sharp contrast have any valid relation to the realities of the two religions in doctrine and practice?



I used to think I was fooling my father, but now I suspect that he knew all along and did not want to make an issue of it. When I was about sixteen or seventeen, I no longer went to synagogue every Sabbath, as I had done when I was a child. Left to myself I would probably not have gone at all; but I was not left to myself, and I went with my father on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and occasionally on other holy days as well. I still go. When the time came and I could have stayed away, I discovered I did not want to.

My father prays from his prayer book, but I read from mine. If you read more than you pray, you are left with a good deal of time. Skipping repeated matter, for example, represents a very considerable saving. In addition, experience and temperament lead to the establishment of some fruitful principles of exclusion; thus, it has been many years since I last read liturgical poetry in which the verses are set down according to an acrostic or alphabetic pattern. (Sometimes I am astonished by the number of pages this eliminates.) It did not take me long to realize that I could carefully read everything in the prayer book that appealed to me in about half the time a respectable person is expected to remain in the synagogue. This meant that the prayer book had to be supplemented.

When it first became clear that the Mahzor was not enough to see me through, I recognized that I would not have a wide range of choice for additional reading.

The language would have to be Hebrew—out of an obscure sense of the fitness of things, and the ignoble calculation that only Hebrew might not arrest my father’s casual glance. The same sense of the fitness of things dictated that the reading should have a certain loftiness of spirit, and even of form. In the course of the years since then my personal canon has come to include the Bible and post-Biblical poetry. Two years ago I added a new volume, a collection by the Israeli writer and scholar S. J. Agnon, entitled The Days of Awe: A Book of Usages, Homilies and Parables for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Intervening Days. It is a fascinating book. (The publishers, Schocken Books, have lately issued an abridged edition of this book in an English translation by Jacob Sloan.)

Last Yom Kippur I came upon this selection, entitled “The Reckoning,” and taken by Agnon from a Hasidic work, Marvelous Tales of the Great Men of Israel: “Once, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holy Rabbi Elimelech of Lisinsk, of blessed memory, said to his disciples: ‘Is it your desire to know how one should act on the eve of Yom Kippur? Go to the tailor who lives on the outskirts of the city.’

“They went to him and stood before the window of his house. They saw him and his sons praying with simplicity, like all tailors. After the prayer they put on Sabbath raiment and lit candles and prepared a table full of good things and sat down to the table in great joy. The tailor took out of a chest a book in which were written all the trans gressions that he had committed during the year, from one Yom Kippur to the next, and said: ‘Lord of the world, today the time has come to make a reckoning between us of all the transgressions that we have committed, for it is a time of atonement for all Israel.’ At once he began to reckon and enumerate all the transgressions that he had committed in the course of the year, for they were all written down in this account book. After he had finished the reckoning of transgressions, he took out a book larger and heavier than the first and said: ‘Having counted the transgressions I have committed, now I shall count the transgressions Thou hast committed.’

“Then he reckoned the sorrow and afflictions, the troubles and anguish and sickness and loss of money that during the course of the year had befallen him and the members of his family. When he had finished the reckoning he said: ‘Lord of the world, if we are indeed to reckon with equity, Thou owest me more than I owe Thee; but I do not wish to be exact with Thee in an exact reckoning, for behold, today is the eve of the Day of Atonement and we must all be reconciled with our fellows; we therefore forgive Thee all the transgressions that Thou hast committed against us, and do Thou likewise for-give us all the transgressions wherewith we have transgressed against Thee.’ He poured brandy into his glass and said the blessing ‘by Whose word all things have their being,’ and said in a loud voice: ‘Lehayim, Lord of the world! We hereby mutually forgive all our transgressions against each other; and all of them, whether ours or Thine, are null and void, as though they had never been.’ After-wards they ate and drank with great joy.

“The disciples returned to their master and told him everything they had seen and heard. And they said that the words of the tailor were harsh words and excessive effrontery against heaven. But their master said to them: ‘Know that the Holy One, blessed be He, in His glory and essence, and the whole host of heaven come to listen to the tailor’s words, which are spoken in great simplicity; and from his words are created grace and joy in all the worlds.’”



As I read this story, I was reminded of something I had read recently in Medieval Panorama, by the late G. G. Coulton, the eminent British medievalist. Coulton is examining the effects on Christian theology of a literal reliance on the Old Testament, and he does not find them good: “[St. Thomas Aquinas] decides definitely that the joy of the Blessed in Heaven will be increased by the sight of the Damned wallowing beneath, in a Hell which he describes . . . at greater length and in cruder terms than Calvin in his Institutes. The Blessed will not, of course, rejoice in all these infernal torments per se, but incidentally, ‘considering in them the order of God’s justice, and their own liberation, whereat they will rejoice.’ How can he thus decide, it may be asked, after he himself has pointed out that to rejoice in another’s pains may be ordinarily classed as hatred, and that God does not delight in men’s pains? These apparently invincible natural considerations are brushed aside by one plain Bible text [Psalms 58:11]: “The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge.’ That vindictive verse of a Hebrew poet, to St. Thomas, outweighs everything else.”

For Coulton it was all the vindictive Hebrew poet’s fault. This follows from the postulate that the God of the Jews is a God of wrath and the God of the Christians a God of love. It also follows from this principle that Aquinas, like Calvin, was an imperfect Christian—i.e. insufficiently merciful—because he had allowed himself to be too much influenced by the Old Testament spirit.

I am not sure why I so resented this passage. It was not the first or perhaps even the hundredth time I had met a reference to the universal acceptance and unquestionable truth of the contrast between Christian love and Jewish wrath. Few doctrines can lay equal claim to Christian antiquity, as we can see when we view it in its most extreme form, the Gnostic identification of Jehovah with Satan.

I suppose the cause of my resentment is to be found precisely in the fact that Coulton did not have any deep-seated bias against Jews or Judaism. His two great passions were opposition to pacifism and opposition to the Catholic Church, especially the latter; he saw himself as a kind of latter-day Lorenzo Valla, whose mission it was to expose the fraudulent Donations of Constantine of his own time. So far was Coulton from being an anti-Semite that he says many generous and handsome things about medieval Jewry in his book: the treatment of women, for instance, and the almost universal literacy. (Respecting literacy and education, he insists that it would be misleading to compare the average medieval Jew with his Christian contemporary; the only reasonable comparison would be with the Christian priest, and at that Coulton is convinced that the Jew would carry off the laurels. We read in Exodus [19:6]: “And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” There has been some groping for an understanding of Judaism as the religion of a priesthood without a laity; Coulton’s assertion, in an entirely different context, that medieval Jewry as a whole was in a very significant respect to be considered in the same category with the Christian clergy is highly suggestive. But all this leads far afield; let us come back to our muttons.)



Clearly Coulton was not the kind of scholar who unthinkingly accepts any religious prejudice, however hallowed by time. The theme of vindictive Judaism and merciful Christianity must have run very deep indeed in his culture for him not to question it. Yet Elimelech of Lisinsk knew the Psalms better than Aquinas or Calvin; and though he had read and pondered the same verse by the same vindictive poet, his God and the God of his tailor does not seem very harsh or unforgiving at all. And since we are on the subject of forgiveness and Yom Kippur, neither does the God of the great Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, in Buber’s account: “He used to say: ‘Like a woman who suffers overwhelming pain in childbirth, and swears she will never lie with her husband again, and yet forgets her oath, so on every Day of Atonement we confess our faults and promise to turn, and yet we go on sinning, and You go on forgiving us.’”

I return to Aquinas and Calvin. A few pages after Coulton has told us that if they are cruel it is chiefly because an ancient Hebrew poet was vindictive, we come to a passage about the elect and the damned: “A minority of human beings were ‘elect’: the majority were not indeed ‘predestined’ to hell, but their damnation was ‘foreknown’: God knew that this was their final destination. The difference here between St. Thomas Aquinas and Calvin is far smaller than men commonly imagine . . . . At least as far down as St. Alfonso Liguori (1750 [not many years earlier than Elimelech of Lisinsk and Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev]) it had been almost universally taught by writers in the Roman Church that the greater part of mankind would miss salvation. Some even fore-told hell for an overwhelming majority; and others, like St. Alfonso, held that ‘the more general opinion is that the greater part even of the Faithful are damned.’ . . . Medieval preachers sometimes estimated the disproportion as one in a thousand, or ten thousand, or even more . . . . Paucitas salvandorum [the fewness of those to be saved] . . . comes very near to a de fide doctrine, in virtue of this universal patristic consent until recent times.”

If the faithful have little chance of future bliss, infidels have none: “Tertullian painted the future vengeance of God upon pagan persecutors in language which still enjoys, after all these centuries, a melancholy notoriety . . . . St. Augustine even taught that unbaptized infants suffered in hell not only the penalty of losing the Beatific Vision but bodily torture also . . . . The only Ecumenical Council of the West which dealt with this question was that of Florence, which decreed: ‘The Holy Roman Church professes and preaches that none who is not within the Catholic Church (not only pagans, but neither Jews nor heretics nor schismatics) can partake of eternal life, but shall go into everlasting fire . . . unless they have joined her before death.’” (The dogma here goes back to St. Cyprian, in the 3rd century: extra ecclesiam nulla salus—outside the Church, no salvation. Coulton shows that it was not until Cardinal de Lugo, in the middle of the 17th century, when the Church felt that a policy of suppleness was required in the face of a vigorous Protestantism and a nascent freethought, that the plain meaning of the Latin words began to be interpreted more liberally.)

The religion of the cruel and vindictive Jews knows nothing about the doom of the majority of the faithful to eternal torment. As for those who are not Jews, the standard doctrine is the Talmudic dictum: “The righteous of the nations of the world have a share in the world to come.”



It has occurred to me that all this may be only Dogmengeschichte, intellectual history with an appeal primarily to theologians and amateurs of theological scholarship. Between the eloquence or silence of learned texts on the subject of damnation or salvation and the actual conduct and emotions of ordinary people there need not exist any direct relation at all. But that relation does exist, or at least it did. Think of the magnificent third chapter of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen makes a retreat with the Jesuits and hears a number of sermons, in particular a sermon on hell. I have read that sermon again, and its sadism disturbs me as deeply as it did the first time I read it.

The entire passage is too long to quote, and excerpts would give only an attenuated impression of its total horror. It includes such elements as these: St. Anselm’s vision of the damned so closely packed that they are unable to remove gnawing worms from their eyes; a pestilential stench sufficient, in St. Bonaventure’s words, to infect the whole world; corpses putrefying into a jellylike mass of liquid corruption and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition; brains boiling in the skull, bowels a redhot mass of burning pulp, and eyes flaming like molten balls; nameless suffocating filth; fire kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead; the damned turning on one another, blaspheming God (!) and execrating and howling at each other, helpless and hopeless; and the devils, who once were beautiful angels and now are as ugly as once they were beautiful (so ugly that after seeing one, St. Catherine said she would choose to walk on live coals for the rest of her life rather than see him again for an instant), mocking and deriding the souls they have seduced. “Now the time for repentance has gone by. Time is, time was, but time shall be no more!”

The words are Joyce’s, but the contents are precise doctrine, and the Catholic Encyclopedia differs only verbally from the apostate artist. This is the hell to which Christian theology, Catholic and Protestant, assigned the large majority of the faithful, let alone the heretics, infidels, and pagans. Knowledge of this hell was not the esoteric possession of the learned but was insistently preached to all Christians, and was common to all Christians’ vision of the life to come. In Joyce the memory of the terror inspired by this vision is reproduced as art. Traces of the same memory are found in folk humor: there is, for example, the story of the Scottish Calvinist divine who preached on the wailing and gnashing of teeth at the Last Judgment; when asked about those who had died without teeth, he answered: “Teeth will be provided.”

What centuries of inventive ingenuity must have gone into the perfection of such a vision of hell; what fertile imagination and depraved inspiration! And all is attributed to a merciful God. (During the Lenten season of 1949 Pope Pius called for greater homiletic emphasis on hell. “Desire for heaven,” he said, “is a more perfect motive than fear of eternal punishment, but from this it does not follow that it is the most effective motive to hold them [the people] far from sin and to convert them to God.”)

Rabbinic literature knows of hell too, but it is a very rudimentary kind of hell as compared with the Christian one. And the folk was not ridden by the fear of hell. When I was a boy my pious and learned grandfather, alav hashalom, used to speak to me often about righteousness and sin, reward and punishment; but I remember his telling me in detail about hell only once, and then it was incidental to a proof of the blessedness of the Sabbath. On the Sabbath the damned have respite from their suffering and even the River Sambatyon, which twists around the precincts of hell, ceases to roar and to hurl up its rocks, as it does on the profane days of the week.

There is an extensive literature, mostly in Yiddish and Hebrew, that began more than a hundred and fifty years ago and consists in an unrelenting attack on the degenerate life and thought of the ghetto. This literature is essentially autobiographical. The writers recall with bitterness the wretched squalor of the cheder school, the obscurantism of the religion taught and practiced, the mean behavior that was considered the norm of right living. Nearly every one of them says in so many words that he cannot forgive the ghetto and Orthodoxy—which in their emotions go hand in hand—for a childhood poisoned by many things, and each draws up a detailed bill of particulars. Yet I cannot think of one who speaks of a childhood made unhappy by the fear of hell.

When the Jew thought of the world to come, he thought of Paradise. The learned and those with a taste for learning hoped, with a fair degree of confidence, for the enjoyment of the splendor of the Divine Presence and the study of Torah in the circle of Abraham and Moses. The simple anticipated the simpler joys: sitting on a golden throne, eating the flesh of Leviathan and the Ox of the Pit drinking of the Preserved Wine. It did not cross their minds that a merciful God could send the majority of them to hell.



I have no quarrel with the contemporary preference for difficult religion over the soft liberal religion that prevailed a generation and two generations ago. We have seen so much human evil in our day that even if we cannot quite accept orthodox theology’s God, we can accept its man. Man no longer seems the naturally good and indefinitely perfectible being of the philosophes and of liberal religion; he more closely resembles the finished portrait drawn of him by classical theology with the indications provided in the Bible—indications like these: “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:24); “The heart is deceitful above all things, /And it is exceeding weak [or ‘desperately wicked’ ]—who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). What lends additional prestige to this theological portrait is that it is complex. Hobbes could speak in his Leviathan of “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”; but the Bible knows that not even man’s fate is so simple: “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?/And the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him?/Yet Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, /And hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalms 8:5,6).

Consider the new respect for Puritanism as an intellectual and moral system. A generation ago the teachings of Freud and Tawney, vulgarized à la portée de tout le monde, had made everybody understand that Puritanism meant sexual inhibition and economic exploitation. G. K. Chesterton was thought to be only up to his usual tricks when he said, in his Heretics: “Many modern Englishmen talk of themselves as the sturdy descendants of their sturdy Puritan fathers. As a fact, they would run away from a cow. If you had asked one of their Puritan fathers, if you had asked Bunyan, for instance, whether he was sturdy, he would have answered, with tears, that he was as weak as water. And because of this he would have borne tortures.” In our days Professor Perry Miller, neither a Puritan himself nor a fantast like Chesterton, takes Puritanism very seriously indeed in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Correspondingly, with all respect for the memory of the late Dr. Liebman, it is hard to take his Peace of Mind seriously; easy and consoling answers are no longer to our taste.

Nor is Puritanism foreign to the Jewish tradition. Hasidism, which dared to suggest a kind of camaraderie with God on Yom Kippur, is also responsible for the T’filah zakkah (prayer for purity), a silent meditation to be read before the communal Yom Kippur devotions. The T’filah zakkah is a passionate declaration of unworthiness and dependence on God’s grace—a typical Puritan document.



All this having been said, I persist in thinking that the Jewish backwardness in the matter of hell is better than the Christian accomplishment. On the evidence of hell, the ancient Christian formula of a merciful Christianity confronting a vindictive Judaism is wrong.

A final quotation is in order. It is from an article entitled “On Transgressions and Their Punishment,” by Professor Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, published in the Hebrew part of the two-volume Festschrift presented to Professor Louis Ginzberg on his seventieth birthday: “Research into visions of hell is not merely a matter for amateurs of mysteries and folklore alone; it has a much wider import. In these visions we sometimes detect men’s ideas on justice and on transgression and its punishment. What is more, many of the cruel tortures of the Roman rule were incorporated into the idea of hell from actual practice, and the authors of these visions were really talking about contemporary phenomena.

“We can recognize the influence of the hell in this life on the hell in the life to come. Crushing the limbs, cutting out the tongue, burning out the eyes, chopping off hands and feet—all of which are mentioned in the lives of the saints, in the works of the Greek and Roman writers and in the Talmudic literature—were carried out in practice by the executioners. Rabbinic literature is accustomed to showing the similarities and differences between the kingdom of earth and the kingdom of heaven. It is right that evildoers who offended the honor of heaven should be punished with no less severity than those who offended the honor of the king of flesh and blood. One is forced to the conclusion that our sages, of pious memory, did not refrain from applying the laws of this world to the other world . . . .

“We conclude that the hell of this world certainly influenced the hell of the next world; we must now inquire whether there was not a reciprocal influence, of the next world on this. The Christian rulers were very well acquainted with the visions of hell, either from books or from the sermons of priests. Is there any wonder that these visions made an impression on them? Did not the Spanish Inquisition find a finished and detailed program of cruel tortures ready at hand in their literature of visions of hell? We should not be astonished by the customary medieval punishment of hanging offenders by their feet, with their heads dangling, since this punishment is mentioned in almost every Christian work on hell. What is more, even the punishment of hanging by the feet over a bonfire . . . was carried out in medieval practice. Similarly, hanging amidst dogs biting the hanging man is not alien to the Christian visions. Likewise, the authorities did not disdain the obscene torture [of hanging by the virile member] mentioned earlier.

“In sum, a large number of the cruel tortures practiced by the wicked authorities passed to the hell of the other world, were refined and perfected there, and returned to this world of falsehood; and they still prevail in this world.”

It is not the Psalmist that we should blame for the hells of St. Thomas and Calvin.


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