Is God making a list?

When I was about 11 years old, a friend, whom I believe was born a Christian but wasn’t raised to believe in God (as he often told me with great pride), nonetheless always celebrated Christmas with enthusiasm. As that particular Christmas impended, he impatiently awaited the arrival of Santa Claus. In Santa, to be sure, he remained a true believer, or at least a situational believer.

My friend was generally out there as a “bad boy,” but he was always on his best behavior in the month of December. After all, as he made clear to me, “he knows when you’ve been bad or good.”  My friend, let’s call him Paul, wanted to ensure that Santa’s beneficence would come his way that year, and every year. So, when one day late that December we both concocted a plan – I, sad to admit, was the lead – to “liberate” a few chocolate bars from the local candy store, Paul demurred: Santa Claus, after all, was coming to town.  “You don’t still believe in that stuff,” I asked dismissively, maybe derisively. “You bet I do.”

Some years went by and we remained friends; by then, though, the Santa mythology had worn off Paul.  We had both become far more discerning young teenagers – and, by now, I had been bar mitzvah, and was, theoretically at least, on the straight and narrow as an “adult.” Now, he had devised a plan of action far more sinister. We both took American History from the same teacher; Paul in a public high school and I in a nearby yeshiva.  We somehow knew that the teacher would give the same exam, and we both knew that my exam was scheduled for a few days earlier. Enough said.

I was not inclined.  Would I have been if my exam was second, not first? I like to think not. The choice, as things stood, was fairly easy for me: God would have known exactly what I did had I gone along (and perhaps even that I said no to such a plan – a good deed).  So by the time Yom Kippur rolled around, I’d be debited if I had become a confederate. As I told Paul: “God knows and keeps an account of everything we do!” Clearly pissed off, he mockingly laughed at me about this “mumbo jumbo,” as he put it, that I believed in.  He reminded me how I had derided his belief in Santa Claus’s accounting practice a few years earlier that even he had since rejected as “silly.”  So, he said, still trying to persuade me to go along, “Why is this different?”  Why, indeed?

Many, many years later, I ask myself: what about Paul’s thinking? The Five Books tell us nothing that would make us conclude that God’s actually keeping a list – that He actually knows (and cares), in real time or otherwise, who’s been “bad or good.”  Yes, the Book of Psalm (33:15) does say “He Who fashions the hearts of them all, Who discerns all of their doings.” And if that were not clear, the Ethics of the Fathers (2:1) adds “And all your deeds are written in a book.” It is, therefore, no wonder, that the religion itself has created a regimen or protocol, if you will, that tells us that God, perhaps with a bookkeeper’s ledger system – maybe an Excel spreadsheet in front of Him – has the capacity, as if He didn’t previously, to “pull up” literally everything everyone has done, good or bad, instantaneously, especially at year end.

This analysis sounds, of course, irreverent. Why, does one want to challenge such a bedrock belief of religious life? Or, rather, does this challenging of the “System” suggest that the duty of the believer is, instead, to act appropriately in conformity with God’s Law “as if” God were making a list and checking it twice by the time the month of Tishrei has come upon us.

Put otherwise, and assuming for the moment, that “the list” business is simply an educator’s or disciplinarian’s motivational means to induce good behavior or (call it) compliance with a particular code of conduct, is there true value in requiring a belief in “The Book of Life”? Or, better put, does the religion as a community believe that good behavior ultimately rests on a system of reward and punishment, and an unambiguous belief that such a system actually exists?

There’s no question that a more-or-less mandatory belief that dire consequences will follow non-compliance with a particular regimen has at least a greater chance of inducing good behavior: be good or, maybe, you will not be inscribed in the Book of Life next year (a nicer way of saying, and you will die).  If one increases his or her chances of living by engaging in good behavior, as defined by the Torah, why not try to comport?

An individual might wonder, though, if the individual himself were the Creator, wouldn’t he be more inclined to reward good behavior with a long life if the non-sinner abstained from sin simply because the Creator told him to, not because he was warned of adverse consequences for bad behavior? My friend Paul was all about the Christmas presents that he was interested in receiving  – not about conducting himself with good behavior for its own sake.

Are we so different?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.