Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Reward And Punishment A True or A Necessary Belief? Musings on MN 3:28.

The end goal of Torah and Mitzvot is to create a society with great knowledge of their environment and through that knowledge develop an understanding of God and His ways fulfilling their role in existence by emulating Him. This society will bring along the rest of humanity to the same developed state. If we look back at the history of the human species, we have evolved from a hunter-gatherer society where immediate survival was the central focus of day-to-day life into a (relatively) technologically advanced one. This evolution took many millennia, was gradual with many hiccups and regressions along the way with humanity still a long way from having fulfilled its potential.

We know that early man was baffled by his environment and completely at the mercy of it. His understanding was guided by his imagination as there were no tools available to perform any experiments that would provide empirical data. Man developed a theological system based on imaginary myths that tried to explain his existence. Those myths developed into a complicated system of gods,  some benevolent others malevolent, operating on a reciprocal approach where these gods were to be mollified and bribed if man wanted to be saved from their wrath or deserve their munificence. This system based on imagination created societies with hierarchies of slave and ruler abetted by priests who preyed on their fears presenting themselves as “god specialists” who knew how to bribe and manipulate the deities. Having sunk into this system based on imagination, humanity needed to expend great effort to break away from it and begin looking objectively at the world so that it could develop and become more than just another animal species amongst many. The Torah and its Mitzvot is the tool given to us, Jews, by HKBH to help us pull out from these ages of intellectual darkness and bring humanity along with us. In a macro sense, the Torah has three categories of Mitzvot: (i) Societal Law, (ii) Guide for Self-Improvement and (iii) Intellectual/Theological Teachings. The first two categories are focused on our physical well-being so that we can dedicate ourselves to the third category which is the ultimate objective.

“The general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body… The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state.” (MN3:27)

The societal laws can be summarized as “do not unto your friend what you would not do unto yourself”. In other words, there are obvious consequences to how we act with each other. Society operates on a reciprocal basis where generally we react in kind to kindness, fairness, nastiness and injustice. Narcissism and selfishness are at the root of the latter two and controlling our natural impulses is the key to controlling these inclinations. Looked at from this perspective, reward and punishment are natural outcomes of ethics and morals or the lack thereof.  One does not need to be a scientist or a philosopher to grasp this concept of reward and punishment. In fact, every child is taught that there are consequences to his actions whether explicitly or implicitly and it is a key component of education.

On the other hand, when it comes to intellectual development, the process is long and arduous. One cannot teach Algebra, to someone who has not mastered basic arithmetic or any other advanced theory in any science without having understood the basics. Correct theology is based on correct science. Rambam teaches that if we want to have a correct understanding of God and our existence in relation to Him, we must first have a good and correct grasp of all the sciences. Theology and science go hand in hand; they are not two disparate things, as many thinkers want us to believe.

“There may thus be a man who after having earnestly devoted many years to the pursuit of one science, and to the true understanding of its principles, till he is fully convinced of its truths, has obtained as the sole result of this study the conviction that a certain quality must be negated in reference to God, and the capacity of demonstrating that it is impossible to apply it to Him.” (MN1:59)

Myths are the antithesis to science. They offer alternate explanations based on imaginary fantasies for reality. For science to flourish, myths and idol worship, the practical outcome of myths, must be eradicated. Rambam sees Avodah Zara as falsehood. Eradication of falsehood is at the core of the prohibition to have anything to do with Avodah Zara. The Torah teaches that Avodah Zara leads humanity away from seeking the truth and thus away from God the ultimate Truth.

Teaching a developing society, one has no trouble discussing consequences. One can be explicit and describe consequences as reward and punishment. Although simplistic, reward and punishment lends itself to a presentation that allows for dual meanings: the simplistic obvious one and the more advanced and sophisticated understanding thereof. Both understandings are helpful for the promotion of responsible behavior, though the simplistic approach may be inaccurate at face value. From a practical standpoint, there is value in a detailed description of consequences for bad behavior and the Torah indeed repeats the concept many times in places in excruciating detail. 

However, teaching correct theology is impossible to a society that has not yet reached its ultimate perfection, never mind a primitive one at the start of its journey toward intellectual perfection. As long as a man has not grasped the sciences and all it means, he cannot really know God and Truth. He can be told that the goal, the end-purpose is to know God and he must learn all he can about the world he lives in to achieve that. The real meaning of knowing God however can only be pointed to, not taught.

“It is necessary to bear in mind that Law only teaches the chief points of those true principles which lead to the true perfection of man, and only demands in general terms faith in them. Thus, Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Win, and the Eternity of God. All this is given in the form of final results, but they cannot be understood fully and accurately except after the acquisition of many kinds of knowledge.” (MN3:28)

However when it comes to reward and punishment, consequences –

“In the same way the Law also makes a call to adopt certain beliefs, belief in which is necessary for political welfare. Such is the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him, for it leads us to the fear and dread of disobedience [to the will of God]. There are other truths in reference to the whole of the Universe which form the substance of the various and many kinds of speculative sciences, and afford the means of verifying the above-mentioned principles as their final result. But Scripture does not so distinctly prescribe the belief in them as it does in the first case; it is implied in the commandment, "to love the Lord" (Deut. xi. 13).” (MN3:28)

Reward and punishment is presented in the Torah in its simplistic way, “the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him”, and in great detail (see Vaykra 25:14-42 and Devarim 28:15-69) while theology is presented in a very limited and allusive way, “it is implied in the commandment, "to love the Lord"”.

When practical commands - Mitzvot – are given and their reason presented we have the same situation. The Mitzvot that have a theological underpinning, their reason is often omitted and if presented, they are only in an allusive way, while those that are societal, their reason and consequences for transgressing them, are laid out clearly.

“Consider what we said of Beliefs: In some cases the law contains a truth which is itself the only object of that law, as e.g., the truth of the Unity, Eternity, and Incorporeality of God. In other cases, that belief is necessary for securing the removal of injustice, or the acquisition of good morals. Such is the belief that God is angry with those who oppress their fellow men, as it is said, "Mine anger will be kindled, and I will slay," etc. (Exod. xxii. 23). Or the belief that God hears the crying of the oppressed and vexed, to deliver them out of the hands of the oppressor and tyrant, as it is written, "And it shall come to pass, when he will cry unto me, that I will hear, for I am gracious" (Exod. xxii. 25).” (MN3:28)

Some classic interpreters of Rambam as well as modern scholars pointed to this chapter as an example of Rambam’s “true” esoteric beliefs about reward and punishment. They argue that he did not believe in reward and punishment as true belief but rather as a utilitarian one. I have difficulty accepting that, after studying his presentation of Divine Providence. It is obvious that Rambam sees providence as a natural phenomenon and it is up to man to act in ways that fall in line with God’s will which by definition is “good” as it promotes continued existence. Reward and punishment is thus a natural consequence of our actions. As we believe that God willed things into existence, consequences are therefore traceable to that original will (see MN2:47). When we say that God punishes we are saying that He created the world in a way that there are consequences to actions. This is the sophisticated understanding of reward and punishment. However, the simplistic understanding, that God Himself indeed punishes for every transgression can be understood by all and offers the same result; incentivize good ethics and morals. In fact, the two examples Rambam brings for explicit reward and punishment, both deal with ethical and moral issues that affect society and where the consequences can be traced to reciprocal societal norms.

I understand this as being the message of this chapter and not an “esoteric” view of reward and punishment. As further support for my understanding, this chapter is placed in the midst of chapters that deal with the reason for commandments and not among those that deal with Hashgacha - providence. It explains why some reasons for Mitzvot are explicit and others are not and why some are detailed while others only allude to the reason.

Chag Sameach.   


  1. Man developed a theological system based on imaginary myths that tried to explain his existence. Those myths developed into a complicated system of gods, some benevolent others malevolent, operating on a reciprocal approach where these gods were to be mollified and bribed if man wanted to be saved from their wrath or deserve their munificence.

    This is not what exists today?

  2. definitely. We have unfortunately a long way to go. However the push towards rationality started by Torah has allowed humanity to develop a class of people, the scientists, who are beginning to find explanations for the universe not based on AZ but rather on truth.At least we are moving in the right direction albeit at time in a circuitous path.

    Chag Sameach

  3. I really wonder David. Sometimes I think this, other times, it seems like we are more dedicated to materialism, in middot as well as deot, than ever before.

    I am therefore skeptical about there being an evolutionary trajectory to mankind. Rather, we seem to move in circles, nameless and faceless, toldos of toldos of the same, until liberating moments arise- Avraham and Avot, Moshe, David etc