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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 19

We are still on the sayings of Rabbi Akiva, who used to say (in the translation of Judah Goldin):

Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted; in mercy is the world judged; and everything is granted according to the preponderance of works.

I love this verse.

To me, this verse is what makes it possible for me to be a believer in the Divine. This is a statement about the Divine mystery, the fundamental irreconcilability of the Divine as we accept it and the world as we learn it. The step is to accept this.

If I were the Divine, I could not make free will and foreknowledge compatible. Oh, there are some rhetorical tricks to get around the more obvious logical problems, but if you follow those out with the ruthlessness of logic, you still run into conclusions that are unacceptable, or that are seriously incompatible with worship. But the great and holy Rabbi Akiva is saying, what if you don’t follow them out? What if you accept that there is a logic that applies in the world, and that the Divine is not bound by that logic? If an essential attribute of the Divine is that the Divine is more than human, more than humanity, more than the world we can test and examine, more even than the world we can imagine, then much of the rest of it falls away, and we can judge ourselves and our worship by our own worthiness, not by the worthiness of the Divine.

All is determined and free will is given. It is a contradiction to us, but the Divine is not bound by rules or laws of any kind; the Divine is not a clockmaker or an attorney, the Divine is ineffable, and exists outside the universe, before it and above it and beyond it.

Now that is the part of the verse that is most often quoted, and is used (by YHB, fairly frequently) as an example of the difference between the Rabbis and the Church Fathers, between Judaism as it has come down to us and the other religions. It’s not that we reject logic. Our legal system is rigorously logic-based. It’s that we do not expect the Divine to be subject to it. And it’s not that we reject philosophical inquiry, either, although the nature of that inquiry tends to be more limited and more focused on the workings of the world and its dwellers. We begin those inquiries, when they reach the Divine, with the understanding that we will not be able to ultimately reduce the Divine to a formula.

More important, though, it seems to me at the moment, is the second half of the verse, the one that says that we are judged with mercy and by the preponderance of works. We know that the Divine is merciful—it’s right there in the Scripture. It’s one of the attributes (it’s the first of them, actually, in the liturgical List of Thirteen Attributes, and also several of the others), so we cannot doubt it. But then, if I were a Judge, I would find mercy in conflict with Justice; if punishment is the inevitable result of transgression, and the preponderance of acts determines the granting or withholding of reward, where is mercy? And if mercy is the first principle, then doesn’t it, logically, undermine judgment?

Yes, if it were human judgment. Or even natural judgment, that is, the working out of cause and effect, in which mercy plays no part and can play no part. But the Divine mercy, and the Divine judgment, are not like ours, nor are they bound by the laws of time and nature.

But—and here’s where we get to the really important part, the existence of Divine mercy, above logic and beyond the boundary, does not in any way invalidate the preponderance of works. The Divine foreknowledge does not invalidate free choice, and the results of that free choice remain our own works, our own world, our own legacy to ourselves. The Divine mercy is not a mercy that lets us off the hook, any more than the Divine foreknowledge is a foreknowledge that lets us off our free will. It is the prerogative of the Divine to be merciful; it is not the prerogative of humanity, or individual people, or for that matter the prerogative of animals and matter and the logic and laws of nature to presume on that mercy. We can accept the ineffability of Divine foreknowledge and logic only if we also accept our free will and our responsibility for our works. They are not separate matters. They are the same thing, in the same verse, in the same world.

That’s why I can accept that (for instance) the world was created in seven days, or that in the endtime we will be resurrected in the body, while simultaneously believing in, say, physics and biology. To the extent that bodily resurrection is true (and we are given that it is, just as we are given the Divine mercy), it is true beyond our understanding. We can’t accept it as invalidating physics and biology, not and be true to Rabbi Akiva. We can’t even accept it alongside physics and biology. To believe in bodily resurrection and be true to this verse, you have to be prepared to set aside your belief in bodily resurrection as part of the Divine prerogative and put your own mind to physics and biology and to the preponderance of your own works—not give it up, not at all, but give it up to the Divine as part of the Divine’s business, while taking care of your own.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,