Sunday, December 10, 2006

Reward and Punishment - Miraculous or natural?

Popular understanding of Reward and Punishment is that it has no direct cause and effect correlation to man’s action but is rather divine reward or punishment for his deeds. Man does his thing and if he is worthy God protects him. It assumes no causal relationship between a man’s action and the consequences of that action. If I keep the Mitzvot, wear a talit Katan that has a proper size, check my mezuzah periodically, put a filter on my tap, am extremely machmir on Kashrut and so on, I am protected and no harm will come to me. These good deeds accumulate points and God weighs them on His fine and mysterious scale and offsets them against all my other deeds and if they outweigh the bad deeds I am safe. In fact if I do all these things I am allowed to cheat a little, steal a little, never mind Goyim, Jews too as I have this great store of Mitzvot that will surely outweigh these little perversions of mine.

This thinking is the bane of our society and the root of many of the ills in our community. It is pure superstition and does not belong in Jewish thought. It is a reversion to idolatry or as I prefer to think of it a remnant of idolatry that has not yet been eradicated completely even after 3000 years. Bribing the deity is what Avodah Zara is all about. Just read the prophets starting with Hoshe’a and ending Malachi.

Rambam introduces Hashgacha as follows:

“I will show you [first] the view expressed on this subject in our prophetical books, and generally accepted by our Sages. I will then give the opinion of some later authors among us, and lastly, I will explain my own belief.” (MN 3:17)

Rambam tells us that here are three possible understandings of Hashgacha in Jewish thought; one found in the prophetical books also accepted by “most”[1] of our sages; another accepted by later scholars and thirdly his own opinion. This is intriguing already and apparently a subject not clearly defined by the Mesora. But as we will see there are several components that are unanimous in all versions diverging only in the details but as they say the devil is in the details.

Here is the common ground:

It is one of the fundamental principles of the Law of our Teacher Moses, and of those who follow the Law, that man has an absolute ability to act. According to this principle man does what is in his power to do, by his nature, his choice, and his will; and his action is not due to any newly created thing for his benefit. (Free will is not because of anything special in man such as his ability to think – DG[2]). All species of irrational animals likewise move by their own free will. This is the Will of God; that is to say, it is due to the eternal divine will that all living beings should move freely, and that man should have power to act according to his will or choice within the limits of his capacity. Against this principle we hear, thank God, no opposition on the part of our nation.”

What hits us at first is the universality of free will to all living species, man and animal. It would seem that a sentient being’s free will should operate differently than a non-sentient being. The answer is that there are two kinds of free will. The one generally discussed when we talk about Bechira, clearly not universal, is the choice between right and wrong which requires a higher level of thought and is therefore sentience dependent. The other one to which Rambam refers to here is choices that we have on a daily basis, crossing the street or not, eating this apple as opposed to the other and other such continuous decisions. This freedom of choice is common to all living things sentient and non-sentient. This understanding of this type of free will is unanimous “in our nation” and note Rambam’s sigh of relief about that! (Unfortunately nowadays Rambam’s relief is misplaced. The opposite view is very close to popular belief.)

The second view that is common ground:

Another fundamental principle taught by the Law of Moses is this: Wrong cannot be ascribed to God in any way whatever; all evils and afflictions as well as all kinds of happiness of man, whether they concern one individual person or a community, are distributed according to justice; they are the result of strict judgment that admits no wrong whatever. Even when a person suffers pain in consequence of a thorn having entered into his hand, although it is at once drawn out, it is a punishment, for some action of his, that has been inflicted on him, and the least pleasure he enjoys is a reward for some action; all this is meted out by strict justice; as is said in Scripture, "all his ways are judgment" (Deut. 32:4); we are only ignorant of the working of that judgment.”

If you assume that this reward or punishment is other then causal read on.

We, however, believe that all these human affairs are managed with justice; far be it from God to do wrong, to punish any one unless the punishment is necessary and merited. It is distinctly stated in the Law, that all is done in accordance with justice… Our Sages declare it wherever opportunity is given, that the idea of God necessarily implies justice; that He will reward the most pious for all their pure and upright actions, although no direct commandment was given them through a prophet; and that He will punish all the evil deeds of men, although they have not been prohibited by a prophet, if common sense warns against them, as e.g., injustice and violence.”

Pure and upright actions not commanded by a prophet and evil deeds that common sense warns against are things man does for his survival and the survival of the species, what we call natural law. Included are rules that society sets to protect one individual from another, to allow for peaceful coexistence among men. Breaking those rules wreaks havoc with a society, retaliation is to be expected and the consequences are inevitable. It may take a day, month, years and even several generations but eventually the consequence catches up with the wrongdoer or his progeny. It also includes self-control for health reasons, protecting the environment and pretty much every human act that is necessary for survival. The same consequence that Aristotle sees as random we see as Divine justice. The consequence does not change just the interpretation. Clearly Reward and Punishment is not some kind of Divine and supernatural concept. It is a purely natural one. God is seen as being the original cause of existence and in that role Reward and Punishment is ascribed to Him.

What have we so far? Man’s actions are left to him and his actions have consequences. We have not addressed Hashgacha as yet. Next post will bring this third component into play and Hashgacha will start to be fleshed out.








[1] As translated by R. Kafih. Schwartz notes that the Arabic word can be translated in different ways. Rambam seems to have been a little vague intentionally.
[2] I understand Rambam to mean this. R. Kafih understands it to refer to some Muslim thinkers that believed that every little change is specifically created for that action. ShemTov in his commentary seems to agree with R. Kafih.

4 comments:

  1. jewishskeptic12/11/2006 1:44 PM

    David,in your post "Rambam on Providence: A contradiction?" You asked a kashe on the Rambam.I wrote an explanation,but you dismissed it.Since it deals with the same subject as your present post & is even in the same perek in MN,& since I didn't have a chance to further comment,I wish to do so now.
    I wrote:"IOW,his freedom extends ONLY TO MORALS.
    So, therefore,when the chasid boarded the ship,he followed his natural instincts.He HAD NO FREE WILL OF HIS OWN WHICH WOULD CONTRADICT GOD'S WILL who wants him to perish & lead him to take that trip.
    According to that, Rambam would hold that free will exists only with regard to morals."
    Your comment: "Have a look in Shemona Perakim chapt 8 Kapach edition where he strats Ava halashon shematzanu lechachamim vehu omram hakol bydei shamayim etc... I think it contradicts your explanation"
    I don't think it contradicts what I said that according Rambam REAL free will is only with reference to acts that involve morals.
    you write:"The answer is that there are two kinds of free will. The one generally discussed when we talk about Bechira, clearly not universal, is the choice between right and wrong which requires a higher level of thought and is therefore sentience dependent. The other one to which Rambam refers to here is choices that we have on a daily basis, crossing the street or not, eating this apple as opposed to the other and other such continuous decisions. This freedom of choice is common to all living things sentient and non-sentient. This understanding of this type of free will is unanimous “in our nation” and note Rambam’s sigh of relief about that! (Unfortunately nowadays Rambam’s relief is misplaced. The opposite view is very close to popular belief"

    The second ex.of " free will",which Rambam says is common to all living beings is NOT really "free will".It's used more in לשון העברה & yes the popular believe that animals don't have free will is correct & I don't think Rambam would dispute it. If animals had free will, they should be rewarded or punished per the Mutazzilites,which Rambam rejected.
    So yes,there are 2 kinds of free wills.One that is common to all living things ,not directed towards morals.To call it "free will" is really a misnomer,it's a volition or rather instinct.
    To go back to the chasid boarding the ship,there was no FREE WILL involved,directed towards morals.He wanted to board the ship for whatever reason.It was instinct not free will.It could have been a cat trying to get on board.Therefor there was no INDEPENDENT FREE WILL to contradict God will.

    The second kind of free will is of course the one which,according to Rambam,humans possess,but it can only be called free will when the acts leads to a choice between good or evil.

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  2. JS, you are correct in differentiating between the two types of free will, instinct and freedom of choice, however when it comes to schar ve'onesh it is dependent on moral choices. Rambam uses the case of the Chasid in the ship as an example of schar veonesh as he reads:

    which examines all their deeds in order to reward or punish them. It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within; but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments,

    I therefore believe that if you read that piece carefully Rambam sees the decision to embark on that ship, like every human decision, always "good and bad". It is always a rational decision. The presence and absence of correct rational calculation makes the act "good or bad". That is the Shemona Perakim reference where he argues that. It is also in Yad. I am writing my next post and I will be expanding on this there.

    I find this issue fascinating and every time I think I have it straight I get entangled in another problem. Notwhistanding my seeming self confidence I am not as sure of it as I make believe.

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  3. I like the naturalistic idea of reward and punishment, although it seems to make God a bit of a "fifth wheel".

    Wrong cannot be ascribed to God in any way whatever.

    I would have interpreted this (in the context of Rambam's thought) as meaning that "right" and "wrong" are not predicates which apply to God. In that case, it's not that "we are only ignorant of the working of that judgment," but rather that there is no judgment. See, now I sound like Ben Avuyah, but isn't this what Rambam is flirting with? Doesn't he also indicate that for Adam and Eve before the "Fall" there was no "right" and "wrong", only "true" and "false"? Or something to that effect....

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  4. Big S now that you are an expert on Unknowability I have to watch every word I write:-)

    What applies to God's actions is Tov and Ra, Good and evil or rather there is no evil possible just good because God is Creator only. It is not a limitation but that is another matter.

    You are also right that before the sin there was only true and false but that is as it relates to man. True being God as He is the ultimate truth - see beginning of Yesodei Hatorah.

    And again there is no judgement just as we perceive it. Wait for the next post (in production) and it will get a little clearer.

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