In order to understand what it means in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the Hebrew Bible to walk in the ways of God, we must understand the Biblical conception of God. There is a fundamental distinction between the two main terms for God in the Hebrew Bible, and this distinction is a key to understanding the Bible and Jewish tradition. So, I will first explain the two main Biblical terms for God before addressing the question of what it means in the Biblical conception to walk in the ways of God.
The two main terms for God in the Bible are YHVH, the very name of God (usually translated as “the Lord” in English), and Elohim, a generic term meaning God (and, usually translated as “God” in English). The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is reflected in the name YHVH, which signifies that God is a moral God of revelation and redemption as distinct from Elohim, a God of creation and power – and, as distinct from the pagan conception of gods conceived as powers of nature.
In the Biblical conception, Elohim is the transcendent God of nature and power – “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1, 1). YHVH, by contrast, is the God of revelation and redemption who demands morality, as reflected in the revelation to Moses at the burning bush – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). YHVH, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution. The great revolution and fundamental theological conception of the Hebrew Bible is that “the Lord (YHVH) is God (Elohim)”, which means that the God who is powerful in creating the universe (Elohim) is a moral God (YHVH).
Judgment and compassion are two pillar values of the Bible (and the Jewish tradition) – based upon the differing conceptions implied in the terms for God, YHVH and Elohim. Elohim, as the transcendent God of creation and Judge of all the earth, is associated with judgment, while YHVH, as the God who is revealed in the world as a God of redemption, is associated with love and compassion.
The Hebrew term judgment (דין), that is used in connection with Elohim, is sometimes understood as justice, but is better translated as judgment or law – as it is a function of God’s power (implied in the terms judgment and law) rather than God’s morality (implied in the term justice). The image of Elohim, as Creator and Ruler of the world, is that of a king or judge who issues judgments. A king or judge in issuing judgments establishes justice. But, justice is imposed by the king or judge as a function of his or her power and authority. One may disagree with a ruling of a king or judge, and consider it to be immoral. The verdict, though, must be accepted (in respecting the power and authority of the king or judge), unless there is an option of appeal to a higher political or judicial authority. In the case of God, no such option exists. Thus, the term judgment, as characteristic of Elohim, the God of power (as opposed to YHVH, the source of morality) should be understood in a legal rather than moral sense, as a function of God’s power and authority.
The image of YHVH is that of a parent whose compassion and love for his or her child is unconditional. A king or judge may be willing to be lenient and understanding in imposing a sentence in a trial. However, such leniency and compassion is conditional, depending upon circumstances of the case, and signs of remorse and change on the part of the accused. A parent’s love for his or her child is unconditional, regardless of the behavior of the child. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for compassion (רחמים) contains within it the word womb (רחם). The image then of YHVH is that of a parent who loves his or her children unconditionally like the mother’s love for the child of her own womb. YHVH, the parent, redeems God’s children, the people Israel, from slavery not because they are deserving of such redemption (as according to the Bible and Jewish tradition our ancestors, the children of Israel, were idolaters), but due to God’s unconditional love and compassion for God’s children.
In the continuation of the Biblical story of the golden calf, there is a central passage of the Hebrew Bible that is crucial for understanding what it means in the Biblical conception to walk in the ways of God. Moses makes two requests of God – “make known to me Your way, that I may know You” (Exodus 33, 13), and “show me Your glory” (Exodus 33, 18). These are actually two separate requests. The glory of God relates to the internal nature of God; while the way of God relates to external actions of God from which we may only infer the internal nature of God. The first request of Moses to know the way of God is granted to him when God responds by saying “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and merciful to whom I will be merciful” (Exodus 33, 19); and, this is the way of the Lord that in the Biblical conception we are to imitate – “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but…to walk in all His ways” (Deuteronomy 10, 12).
Two things are important regarding the request of Moses to know the way of God following the making of the golden calf. First, God tells Moses that the name of God, YHVH, signifies mercy or compassion, and that God is a God of goodness and mercy. Second, God tells Moses that God “will proclaim the name of the Lord” to Moses, in the future tense. The name, YHVH, has already been revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3, 13-17) – “thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-18). As I pointed out, YHVH, in the verse here in the story of the burning bush, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution as well as God’s compassion for the people Israel. The declaration that the name of God will be proclaimed (in the future tense) in the story of the golden calf (Exodus 33, 19) therefore must involve something more than the previous revelation of the name (at the burning bush). The future tense, in my view, indicates that at this point the full significance of the name of God has not yet been proclaimed to Moses. Moses has been told to this point only that in general the way of God is one of goodness and mercy.
The second request of Moses is to be shown the very essence of the nature (glory) of God, and this request is denied. Before revealing God’s way, God informs Moses that the essence of the nature of God is beyond human comprehension – “you cannot see My face, for no man shall see me, and live…you shall see My back but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33, 20 and 23). The face of God here in the verse, which cannot be seen, symbolizes the very essence or nature of God, which is beyond human comprehension and is not revealed to Moses. The back of God, which can be seen, symbolizes human history in that YHVH as a God of revelation and redemption is revealed primarily as a God of history – and, human history in the Biblical conception is the arena in which the way of God is manifested or revealed (though the essence of God is beyond comprehension). In the continuation, God reveals the name of the Lord (YHVH) to Moses (Exodus 34, 5) in its full significance – and, this then is the way of God. The Bible records (Exodus 34, 5-7):
And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there (on Sinai), and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed. The Lord (YHVH), the Lord (YHVH), God (El), merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in love and truth, keeping love to thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin but who will by no means clear the guilty, punishing the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, to the third and to the fourth generation.
In the revelation of God’s name in its full significance to Moses, both terms YHVH and Elohim and both aspects of compassion and judgment are reflected – God is revealed as a God of love and truth, as forgiving and punishing. But, love and compassion precede truth and punishment. God is revealed first and foremost as a God of compassion, repeating the term YHVH twice – “the Lord, the Lord (YHVH, YHVH)” – prior to the mentioning of the term God (El, a derivative of Elohim) only once. Four characteristics of compassion are mentioned – “merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in love”; while “truth” is the only characteristic of judgment that is mentioned. In addition, God’s love and forgiveness extend to “thousands” while God’s punishment extends only “to the third and to the fourth generation”.
Thus, in walking in the ways of God, the balance for us between compassion and judgment is not to be one of equal balance (50\50) but tilted far more to the side of compassion (80\20). What this means is that in voicing criticism, criticism must not only be issue oriented (what you said or did is stupid or idiotic), and not a personal attack (you are stupid or an idiot) – but, criticism even issue oriented, which expresses judgment, must also be within a wider context of love and compassion. Usually when we express criticism even issue oriented the emphasis is upon judgment and not compassion – “I love you, but what you said or did is wrong in my eyes…”. The Bible in demanding that we walk in the ways of God requires that in expressing our criticism and judgment our emphasis is upon love and compassion – “what you said or did is wrong in my eyes…, but, I love you”.
By the way, the Talmudic rabbi Abba Saul makes a famous statement – “just as He is merciful and compassionate, so you be merciful and compassionate” (Shabbat 133b). Strikingly, Abba Saul speaks only of God’s side of compassion and mercy implied in the name YHVH, and not God’s side of judgment (of truth and strict justice) implied in the term Elohim. He does not say just as God is judgmental, so you be judgmental; or, just as God is strict and stern, so you be strict and stern. I want to suggest that the reason that Abba Saul does not speak of imitating God’s side of judgment (of truth and strict justice) is due to the fundamental difference between God, as a source of absolute truth and justice, and human beings who are limited in their subjective interpretation of truth and justice – “we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are”. We can only imitate God’s side of compassion, and not God’s side of judgment and truth
There is a democratic principle in the Jewish tradition according to which a minimum of three rabbinical judges adjudicate a judicial matter in rabbinic courts. This principle is the background of a Talmudic teaching (Pirkei Avot 4, 10) – “Do not judge alone as no one judges alone except One; and do not say accept my opinion because they are permitted and you are not”. This teaching in its origins is directed to a rabbinical judge, and in the Jewish tradition every judge in a rabbinical court of law is a rabbi (teacher and authoritative interpreter of Jewish law) but not every rabbi is a judge in a rabbinical court of law. A rabbinical judge is called in the Jewish tradition Elohim – and the term Elohim then has two meanings one of which is sacred and the other secular. The sacred meaning of the term Elohim is God, and the secular meaning is a rabbinical judge – and the connection is obvious in that a rabbinical judge is functioning as God who is conceived as the Judge of all the earth (and the term Elohim refers to God’s side of judgment as distinct from God’s side of compassion reflected in the name YHVH). Another thing that is important as background to this teaching is that there is a fundamental difference between a human judge and God conceived as the Judge of all the earth. God is conceived as an absolute source of objective truth and justice; whereas, the judgment and perception of a human judge are subjective as according to the saying that I just previously cited, which is characteristic of all human knowledge, judgment and perception, that “we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are”. Every human being, and every human judge, perceives truth and justice according to one’s subjective angle of vision.
I return to the Talmudic teaching directed in its origins to a rabbinical judge – no rabbinical judge in the Jewish tradition is allowed to judge alone as a single judge in a rabbinical court of law (“Do not judge alone”) as human judgment is subjective and limited (“we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are”). Only God conceived as the Judge of all the earth is an absolute source of objective truth and justice (“as no one judges alone except One”). Therefore, there is a democratic principle in the Jewish tradition that in a rabbinical court of law there must be a minimum of three judges. The teaching continues to address a rabbinical judge who judges among a minimum of three judges, and tells him that if he is in the minority he cannot coerce the others to accept his view (“do not say accept my opinion”) – and only the majority can coerce the minority to accept their view (“they are permitted and you are not”). In modern nation states, and even in modern democratic nation states, judges in the judicial system do indeed judge alone as single judges in an anti-democratic and authoritarian manner.
Notice then that in the Biblical and Talmudic conception to walk in the ways of God does not presuppose an orthodox (correct doctrine) and theological belief that God exists. The concept of walking in the ways of God is orthoprax (correct deeds) in nature that is expressed in the living a life of love and compassion. There are those who believe in God from a theological point of view who are not loving and compassionate but judgmental and harsh (and do not walk in the ways of God) – and, there are devout atheists who are loving and compassionate and refrain from judging in a harsh manner (and do walk in the ways of God).