What is the Jewish View About Reward and Punishment?
By Israel Drazin - August 18, 2009
Recent surveys of people of all religions reveal that over ninety percent of people of all religious groups believe in reward and punishment after death. Thus it is no surprise that when Moses spent an enormous amount of time trying to persuade the Israelites to follow God's commandments, he used the carrot-stick approach of reward and punishment repeatedly.
There are many passionate disagreements among the Jewish sages about reward and punishment. The following are some of the many views.
The Mishnah Avot 1:3 contends that one should not depend on reward and punishment. Antignos of Sochi is explicit: "Be not like the servant who serves a master on the condition of receiving a reward; but be like the servant who serves a master not on the condition of receiving a reward."
The Mishnah Avot d'Rabbi Natan reports that Antigonos' position provoked strong disagreement. It mentions that Antignos' two disciples, Zadok and Boethos, rebuffed his teaching. They were stunned, "Is it conceivable that a laborer works all day and does not take his pay home in the evening?"
Moses Maimonides accepted Antignos' view and spoke rather strongly against the reliance on reward and punishment in his introduction to the tenth chapter of the Talmud tractate of Sanhedrin, Chelek. "There are many different opinions, and these are based on differences in understanding." Some people, he wrote, believe that after death they will enjoy delightful physical rewards in the Garden of Eden if they are righteous, and suffer the fiery flames of Gehinnom if they act improperly. Other people think that the righteous will receive payment in the era of the messiah when their bodies will be perfected and they will live like kings forever; while those who were evil will be punished by not living at that time. A third group is convinced that the ultimate happiness, the ultimate reward, for the righteous is the resurrection of the dead, including the reuniting of families. A fourth approach is that God gives reward and punishment in this material world in the form of bodily pleasures and worldly achievements. A fifth position, the most popular, combines the various ideas: the messiah will come, he will resurrect the dead, we will enter the Garden of Eden, "where we will eat and drink in health forever." Some call this fifth approach "the World to Come." All five of these popular notions are certain that there is reward and punishment.
Maimonides says that he rejects all five positions. He considered the notion of reward and punishment and all five variations of this notion immature. People who rely on rewards and punishments are like the child who is driven to school for the first time and being a child is only motivated to learn by being bribed with candies. As he grows older and outgrows candies, the bribe is upgraded to shoes and other clothes. When he is still older, the bribe is money. Then, when he matures somewhat further, he is encouraged to learn so that he will be "a rabbi or a judge and (is told that) others will honor you." "All this," says Maimonides, "is shameful. It is only necessary (for people to believe this idea) because of the immature nature of people who need bribes. They make the ultimate goal of study something other than the study itself." The ultimate purpose of study should be knowledge, to know what is true.
Maimonides quotes Antignos to support his view as well as other Talmudic and midrashic statements. Midrash Sifrei on Deuteronomy 11:13, for example, states: "Should a person say: I will study Torah so that I will become wealthy so that I will be called rabbi,' so that I will receive payment in the World to Come, behold, it is written: to love your God.' Everything that you do, do only out of love." Maimonides insists that this is the proper way that people should think.
Maimonides writes that people are encouraged to believe in reward and punishment until they are sufficiently intellectually mature to understand the truth and stop demanding bribes like the immature child. But there comes a time to grow up, to drop the childish notion. People need to understand that the benefit for observing God's commands, like the reward for study, is the natural consequence of the deed itself, intellectual development.
People should not aid a blind man cross a street because they want a reward for helping him. They should not refrain from stealing because they are afraid of being punished. They should behave properly simply because it is the proper thing to do.
What is the difference between acting because of rewards and punishments and because the deed is proper behavior? The two ways create different ways of thinking and acting. When people only seek rewards and avoid punishments, they usually do not act as they should when situations arise where there is no reward or punishment. Thus when the blind man stands at a corner and no one is around to see if anyone helps him, such people may ignore the man. In contrast, people who conduct themselves properly because it is the right thing to do will tend to look for opportunities to do good and, thereby, improve themselves and help society.
Did Maimonides mean what he said?
Maimonides' rather strong statement, which is accompanied by deriding comments such as calling people who insist that there is reward and punishment "childish," seems clear. Yet, there are many intelligent scholars who insist that Maimonides did not reject reward and punishment out of hand. They say that Maimonides meant that one should not act to gain a reward, but people should know that God will reward them anyway after death in some undisclosed way.
Although these scholars may be correct, Maimonides strong and derisive language and the fact that he does not even hint the interpretation assigned to him, seems to contradict their view. Additionally, Maimonides discusses life after death in the same work Chelek and does not say or hint that that period includes rewards.
Additionally, just as there are scholars who say that Maimonides believed in rewards and punishments, there are scholars who say he did not.
Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (19041994) supported the view that Maimonides did not accept reward and punishment so strongly that he repeated his understanding of his teaching in almost every one of his books. He writes that the first paragraph of the daily recited shema, Deuteronomy 5:49, does not mention reward and punishment and it reflects the mature true perception. The second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:1321, which mentions rewards and punishment, is the presentation for the masses of people, who need to believe in this concept.
Don Isaac Abrabanel
Another scholar who recognized that Maimonides rejected the notion of reward and punishment was Don Isaac Abrabanel (14371508). In his commentary to Mishnah Avot, mentioned above, Abrabanel argues that Antignos is simply wrong. It is human nature and common sense that people expect to be paid for their work. Antignos, he wrote, used a servant as an example; but his example proves him wrong because servants work for wages.
Abrabanel understands the Maimonidean concept as a rejection of reward and punishment: that one should act properly only because of the intrinsic significance of the deed: that the benefit of a good deed comes out of the good deed itself. However, he criticizes him and argues that there is no rabbinic source supporting the Maimonidean position. He says that Maimonides got his idea from the pagan philosopher Aristotle who was an atheist, not from the rabbis. Aristotle did not believe in reward and punishment because he did not believe in the existence of God. Maimonides who knew that God exists should never have accepted the pagan view.
Curiously, despite many rabbinical explanations that tzitzit, tephillin and mezuzah were instituted to remind Jews to obey God's commands, Abrabanel says that he sees no intrinsic value in these biblical commands. Thus, he continues, how could Maimonides say that the reward for doing these acts comes out from the acts themselves? These acts, he argued, give nothing. They should be performed because of a reward in the after-life.
He recognized that some rabbis did say that the compensation for performing a mitzvah is the mitzvah, meaning that the reward is in the deed itself, and this seems to agree with Maimonides, but he claims that they meant that some commands have intrinsic benefits in addition to those gained after death, but others do not.
The subject of reward and punishment is a very contentious issue. Over ninety percent of people would disagree with Maimonides, including many rabbis. Many scholars disagree in how Maimonides should be interpreted.
Should people behave only to obtain a reward? Should they believe in reward and punishment but not act only to obtain this benefit? Should people drop the idea of reward and punishment entirely? Is it possible that the overwhelming majority of people are wrong? Is it likely that there are people like Maimonides that understand matters better than the majority of people?