Sermon: On Reward and Punishment

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 May 2013

[In response to the challenging Dvar Torah of that morning’s Bar Mitzvah]

You’re right Teddy, it is a problem.
And not just a little problem.
A massive, enormous, whopping problem in the heart of Judaism.

It is the fundamental question of theology – the intellectual issue that can make or break our religious lives.
If – and it is a big if – if we believe in a God who rewards and punishes – and your portion very clearly presents that theological model – or, to put it another way, if we believe in meaning and purpose, and express it with the metaphor of divine justice – then how do we cope with the fact that the world is just not like that? That the good do suffer and the wicked do prosper?

If we are going to be grown ups about religion – and we have to be – then we can’t shirk it.  The bible, in places, presents a model of a rewarding and punishing God – in lots of places.  Not just in your portion.  And not merely as an aspiration, but as a description:
Psalm 92, which we sing every Friday night – Tzadik katamar yifrach – the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree; while the wicked – bifroach r’shaim k’mo eisev – when the wicked flourish they are only like grass.
Psalm 37, a line from which is in the passage which classically ends Birchat HaMazon, the grace after meals – na’ar hayiti gam zakanti, v’lo ra’iti tzadik ne’ezav – I was young and now I’m old, and I have never seen a righteous man abandoned.

But this is not true.  As a rabbi, I sit with lovely, warm, decent, honourable – righteous even – people who are suffering every week of my life.
When we look at the world, surely we must reject the idea of justice, throw out the metaphor of a God who watches and cares.
Yet, if we do, we replace it with another, equally difficult problem – in a world in which injustice is accepted – divine injustice or just injustice – how then can we exist together as a society?  We do not need God to know what is good – there is a lot of evidence from studies that belief, faith is an irrelevance in people’s moral judgements – we have moral intuition, we know what is good.  But without God why bother?  To quote the atheist Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “Without God, everything is permitted.”

Even in cricket, it seems: A survey this month commissioned by the MCC and the Cricket Foundation found that three quarters of 8-16 year olds said their teammates would cheat if they could get away with it, and that 1 in 20 would be proud to win dishonestly.  And why not?  If being bad leads to personal reward, while the righteous go unrewarded, where is the incentive to be good?

I’m tempted to end the sermon there.  To name the problem, recognise the lack of a satisfactory answer, and turn to page 310 for the Aleinu.
But that is not the Jewish way.
For this has exercised our ancestors for 1000s of years.  It is not only a challenge of self-aware, intellectual modernity.

In fact the bible itself is deeply aware of the problem of divine justice.  Remember, the bible is not a single document and does not speak with a single voice – at the same time as saying tzadik katamar and lo ra’iti, it also brings us the story of Job, a righteous man who suffers, a man whose friends attempt to reconcile his suffering with their beliefs – you must have done something wrong, something to deserve this, they say – to biblical disapproval.  Ultimately, no tidy scheme is offered to resolve the problem.  The only answer the book can give us is a divine rebuke – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth” God asks Job – why should we expect to understand the world?

The Rabbis who formed Judaism also saw the problem.  Again the text is not univocal, but among the stories found in rabbinic texts are strong statements that while they were unwilling to allow it to threaten their basic belief in God, they knew we can not understand the world in the way the Torah describes.
There is the story of Elisha ben Abuyah who – while still a scholar, while still knowing God – rejects the idea of divine justice.
And there is an extraordinary Talmudic story of Moses transported by God to a classroom to watch Rabbi Akiva teach, and then witnessing Akiva’s end at the hands of the Romans.  He asks God how this can be – zo torah v’zo sacharah? – this is Torah and this is its reward? God’s reply? Shtok – be quiet, for this is My will.

The rabbis recognise that it is not possible, not desirable, to apply simplistic models of divine justice to the world.  And yet, while recognising the impossibility of understanding why injustice happens, they were still unwavering in their sense of a divine presence in Torah and the world – they refused to declare “leit din v leit dayan” – there is no justice and there is no judge.

And so, for example, they promoted the idea of reward and punishment in the World to Come – divine justice after death – an idea that is hardly found in the bible.  Through this mechanism they sought to reconcile their belief in divine justice with injustice in this world – and to answer the incentive problem – to give those who require it motivation to behave well even in a world where behaving badly can bring reward.

And they also recognised that a lack of justice in the world requires us to be more sophisticated in our approach to goodness – that we can not be motivated only by reward.  A great example is found in the Yerushalmi – the Jerusalem Talmud – where we find something not dissimilar to a Kantian categorical imperative.  There we read that Rabbi Shimon bar Kahana was out with his teacher Rabbi Eliezer.  As they passed by a fence, Rabbi Eliezer said to RabbI Shimon, “Go and get me a chip [from the fence] so I can use it as a toothpick”.   As he went to do so, Rabbi Eliezer corrected himself, “Actually, don’t bring me anything”, he said, “for if everyone were to do the same, the man would have no fence”.  It is not that taking a chip from a fence really does any harm, but it is still wrong – not because of fear of divine punishment but because it is impossible for society to exist if each of us views our own behaviour without considering the whole.  Take that 8-16 year old cricketers!

Ultimately, however, the rabbinic view was perhaps less convincing for us – but profound nonetheless.  Ultimately they asserted that how we behave can not be motivated by divine reward, not linked to a divine justice that we cannot in truth discern – but must be for the sake of heaven.  Ultimately they believed in absolutes.  So, in Pirkei Avot we find statements like “Virtue is its own reward and the wages of sin are sin” in the name of the sage Ben Azzai, and the maxim of Shimon the Just,“Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to get a reward, instead be like servants who serve their master with no thought of reward, and let the awe of heaven be upon you”.

This is the bit in a sermon where you expect me to give you an answer.
But on this occasion I am not able to.
You’re right Teddy, it is a problem.
But it is not one which leaves us speechless, and it is certainly not one that demands that we descend into nihilism.
The example of the rabbis, indeed of the bible itself, is that being a religious grown up is not about being simplistic, not about believing the unbelievable, not about denying reality.
Being a religious grown up is about struggling, it is about asking the question even while knowing there is no satisfactory ending to the conversation.

And also,
Also it is about affirming that it is better to lead a good life, better to follow divine will (even if just as a metaphor), better to reject evil – even if we cannot conclusively establish why – even if, whatever the Torah says, there may be no reward.