While I was thinking through my dissertation, Robert Gimello suggested I read an intriguing article in the conservative journal First Things by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, entitled The Virtue of Hate – I think because Soloveichik’s views are in some respects the polar opposite of Śāntideva’s. Soloveichik makes the provocative suggestion that a key difference between Jewish and Christian traditions is their attitude toward hatred: contrary to the Christian advocacy of forgiveness, some people – those, like the Nazis, who have committed truly heinous crimes – genuinely deserve our hate. For Soloveichik, even the sincerest of repentance cannot wash away a serious crime.
I don’t know enough about Judaism to say how pervasive Soloveichik’s approach is in the tradition, or enough about the Tanakh to know how much it pervades there. But I find his view intriguing for a number of reasons, even if it is little more than Soloveichik’s own idiosyncrasy. First among these is the afterlife; for when I read Soloveichik’s article on this subject, I found it made me consider myself significantly more Buddhist.
Soloveichik believes a Christian is committed to saying that Hitler or Pol Pot, if they sincerely repented their evil deeds moments before death, they would then end up in heaven. Richard John Neuhaus, creator of First Things, suggested that perhaps “Hitler in heaven will be forever a little dog to whom we will benignly condescend. But he will be grateful for being there, and for not having received what he deserved,” just as “we will all be grateful for being there and for not having received what we deserve.” Such a view is unacceptable in Soloveichik’s Judaism. He instead presents a view from Maimonides, according to which “souls are never eternally punished in hell: the presence of the truly wicked is so intolerable to the Almighty that they never even experience an afterlife. Rather, they are, in the words of the Bible, ‘cut off': after death, they just… disappear.” [ellipses are Soloveichik’s]
The point got me thinking: what would I like to think about the afterlife of the wicked? What would seem to be a fair view, if I were designing the cosmos? And I thought: neither the Christian instant forgiveness, nor the (presumed) Jewish elimination, seemed right to me – and eternal damnation for those who don’t repent seemed even worse. Rather, I thought, I would want to see something more like the Buddhist view: they would get punishment for a long time, but eventually get a clean slate. I realized that said something about my own ethical views on the treatment of evildoers in this world: forgiveness is a worthwhile goal, but it has to be to some extent earned; a moment of repentance isn’t good enough.
The point helped me learn to pay more attention to the supernatural dimensions of the traditions I study. I have generally Yavanayāna sympathies myself – I don’t generally believe in the supernatural and tend to think most traditions would be better off without it. But it’s worth paying attention to any thinker’s view of the supernatural – whether the afterlife, God, or karma – because it will wind up telling you a lot about that thinker’s view of everything else.