Is the Book of Life just a metaphor or something we are required to believe literally?

September 27, 2011

Question: I am stirred by the sound of the shofar and some of the melodies in synagogue at Rosh Hashanah. But what I find hard to take is the idea that God will decide our fate for the rest of the year. Is the Book of Life just a metaphor or something we are required to believe literally?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Of course the books of life and death are not meant to be taken literally. There are no giant celestial books and the Creator does not need to read them to know every intimate detail of our lives. The idea of the books is, as you suggest, a metaphor for describing the drama and tension of this Day of Judgement.

I think the image of the books underscore two important points.

Firstly, that there are consequences to our actions. God is not a remote deity who, after setting the world in motion, retreats to his heavenly abode uninterested in the affairs of humankind. In Judaism God is seen, paradoxically perhaps, as both transcendent and immanent. This means that he does care deeply about how we live our lives and he judges us accordingly. This is both frightening and comforting.

It is frightening, because under God's scrutiny there is no place to hide. Indeed, this is the major theme of the Days of Awe. Yet it is also comforting to know that we matter to God and that our lives and actions are of consequence.

Secondly, the book image enables us to visualise - quite literally - our ability to turn over a new leaf. I remember as a child returning to school in the autumn after a long summer break. Everything was fresh and new from my textbooks to my school shoes. Most importantly, I remember the feeling that this was a fresh start, that whatever happened last year was in the past and that right now I could reinvent myself as a good student. Rosh Hashanah presents a similar opportunity for all of us. Through genuine repentance and resolve to improve we can be inscribed in a fresh book; the book of life.

Rosh Hashanah is a festival but it is tinged with a certain apprehension. It is precious time that should be spent reflecting on what kind of person we want to be in the coming year. Such reflection should not just be confined to the time one spends in synagogue but it should extend to the entire day.

Engaging in banal conversations over dinner or lunch is a waste of valuable time. A much better use of this precious time would be to discuss as a family what Jewish values you want to develop together in the coming year. Perhaps the best way to trigger such a conversation is to begin discussing just what a book of life might look like.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

The Book of Life is one of the most powerful images of the High Holy Days, but is also a theological catastrophe. We cannot be sure as to how it was understood originally, as we only hear about it second-hand, from one rabbi quoting it in the name of another rabbi (Rosh Hashanah 16b).

Perhaps it was intended as a metaphor to encourage intense repentance during the Ten Days, or as an illustration for children, but for many Jews it has been elevated to a religious reality which, even if they do not believe literally, once embedded in the mind, is hard to dismiss. Moreover, we echo it every time we say L'shanah tovah tikatevu, "May you be inscribed for a good year". Unfortunately, it creates two major religious confusions.

First, it implies that after Yom Kippur the fate of everyone is sealed for the rest of the year and suggests that Judaism adheres to a belief in pre-determination. Once we are in the column for good or bad, our path is pre-set.

In fact, the opposite is true: as Akiva spelt out in Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3.19, God may know ahead of time what choices we are each going to make, but we have complete free will and it is we who take the ongoing, everyday decisions that affect the course of the coming year.

Second, there is a tendency among many people to blame God whenever there are mishaps. They demand: "Why did God allow this to happen?" or "What had the person done to deserve it?".

It is instinctive to cry out in such situations, but it is wrong to accuse God of causing accidents, natural disasters or human acts.

However, the concept of the Book of Life reinforces the idea that God is responsible for the woes we experience, for they had apparently been entered into the heavenly ledger at the start of each year.

The result is that many Jews feel betrayed by God and lose faith because they were brought up with a mistaken idea of God scripting our lives.

The prayer book is not a divine composition but is written by humans. It would therefore be far better to edit out all mention of the Book of Life in future editions. The sadness of losing a familiar metaphor would be outweighed by the benefit of jettisoning the false assumptions that have arisen from it.

Last updated: 11:22am, September 27 2011