The idea that God rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who transgress them is one that runs through the whole of the Bible. The Book of Deuteronomy speaks of God’s love for Israel and the corollary that He wishes to reward them for keeping His laws but that He will not fail to punish them if they fall short of His demands on them:
Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is God, the steadfast who keeps His gracious covenant to the thousandth generation of those who love Him keep His commandments, but who instantly requites with destruction those who reject Him–never slow with those who reject Him but requiting them instantly.(Deuteronomy 7: 9‑10).
This theme runs throughout the biblical record.
The biblical writers are not unaware of the difficulties inherent in the doctrine of reward and punishment. The righteous often suffer and the wicked prosper. These difficulties are faced fearlessly in the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Job (the whole book being devoted to the problem), and in other parts of Scripture, but while this certainly implies that the question was far from simple for the biblical writers, their basic belief in recompense and retribution was not really affected. And while the majority of the biblical passages speak of national reward and punishment, there are sufficient references to reward and punishment for the individual as well.
The prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18) not only dwells on individual recompense and retribution but rejects the idea that an individual is punished for the deeds of his ancestors. The talmudic Rabbis recognized that in this, Deuteronomy and Ezekiel are in conflict, and they tried to resolve the contradiction.
The biblical references are all to divine recompense and retribution in this world, in terms of material prosperity and suffering here on earth. But a remarkable shift of emphasis took place, it is generally held, at the time of the Maccabees, when righteous men and women were being slaughtered because of their loyalty to their faith.
In the face of such direct contradiction to the notion of reward and punishment in the here and now, faith could only be maintained by affirming that recompense and retribution were to be the fate of humans in the Hereafter, in the World to Come, as it is called by the Rabbis. In the Rabbinic literature, while this‑worldly formulations are not unknown, it is in the World to Come that the doctrine is made to receive its chief application.
By the time Maimonides listed the doctrine of reward and punishment as a principle of faith, the whole emphasis had long been on these taking place in the next world. Moreover, in Maimonides’ formulation at least, the doctrine applies chiefly to the fate of the individual soul. This is clearly stated in Maimonides’ eleventh principle of faith, although, obviously, Maimonides believed in the biblical application of the doctrine to national well‑being and catastrophe as well.
Maimonides’ 11th principle reads: “The 11th principle of faith. That He, the exalted one, rewards him who obeys the commands of the Torah and punishes him who transgresses its prohibitions. That God’s greatest reward to man is the World to Come and that His strongest punishment is karet (understood by Maimonides, here and elsewhere in his writings, as the “cutting‑off” of the soul from eternal bliss in the Hereafter).”
The question of reward and punishment exercised the minds of the medieval thinkers. Joseph Albo has a full‑scale treatment of the subject in his Sefer Ha‑Ikkarim (Book IV, ch. 29 onwards). The numerous sayings of the Rabbis regarding the idea of virtue for its own sake, observes Albo, were not intended to suggest that there is no reward and punishment but to emphasize that the man who truly loves God is indifferent to considerations of rewards other than the greatest reward of all, the privilege of serving the Creator.
Surveying the opinions held in this matter, Albo notes that there are four different views. Some thinkers reject the whole doctrine of reward and punishment. Others believe that there is both corporeal and spiritual reward and punishment, physical reward and punishment in this world and spiritual reward and punishment in the next. Others again believe in corporeal reward and punishment but not in spiritual reward and punishment. Finally, there are those who believe in spiritual reward and punishment in the next world but not in corporeal reward and punishment in this world.
Albo rejects the first view as contrary to the opinions of both the Torah and the philosophers. The total rejection of reward and punishment implies that human beings are no different from animals, without freedom to pursue the good and reject evil. And those who hold that there is no spiritual reward and punishment in the Hereafter really reject the whole belief in the Hereafter. For them human beings have no soul that can live on to be rewarded or punished after the death of the body.
The third opinion, that reward and punishment is confined to the Hereafter, is adopted by many Jewish thinkers because they conceive of true perfection and happiness only in spiritual terms. One of the Talmudic Rabbis remarked (Kiddushin 39b) that there is no reward in this world for the performance of the precepts. Albo’s own opinion, which he considers to be the true doctrine of Judaism, is that there is reward and punishment both in this world and in the next, that reward and punishment is both corporeal and spiritual.
The picture which emerges from the writings of the medieval teachers on reward and punishment is that these principles operate by inexorable laws, even though their full workings cannot be grasped by humans. God is merciful and loves His creatures but in spite of this love (the medieval thinkers would say rather because of it), He does not fail to chastise sinners as He does not fail to reward the virtuous.
All these teachers know of the higher type of religion in which the good is pursued for its own sake and out of the love of God, but this is never interpreted as a denial of God’s strict justice and His goodness in rewarding His Creatures for the good they do.
Over and above the difficulties faced by ancients and medieval thinkers, modern Jews have to face difficulties of their own, which are partly the result of the fresh interest in penal reform during the past century. Punishment as retaliation in a vindictive sense has been largely abandoned.
The value of punishment as a deterrent and for the protection of society is widely recognized. But all the stress today is on the reformatory aspects of punishment. Against such a background, the whole question of reward and punishment in the theological sphere is approached in a more questioning spirit.
It is true that many of the ancients refuse to allow that God is vindictive, but it cannot be denied that in some of the literature of Jewish piety the impression is gained that punishment is retaliatory, a view [many] moderns reject in that it suggests an inferior conception of the Deity.
Furthermore, most Jewish thinkers today would be far more reticent than those of the Middle Ages in even attempting to describe the scheme by which God allots rewards and punishments. Nor does it seem compatible with God’s justice that little children should suffer or die because of the sins of their parents, and few would accept the Kabbalistic “explanation” that little children suffer because they had sinned as adults in a previous incarnation.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.