Should we act to get a reward?
Deuteronomy details the rewards that one can expect to receive for obeying God’s laws. There are many similar biblical sections. In Deuteronomy 7, the gains will be children, fruit, grain, wine, oil, cattle, flocks, goats, no infertility, no illnesses and no enemies. In Deuteronomy 11, it is rain, grain, wine, oil, and grass for animals. Both of these portions and the others include a list of punishments that will follow the failure to observe the commands. It appears that most people, Jews and non-Jews, obey God’s laws because they are motivated by reward and punishment.
1. Should people obey divine laws because they will be rewarded for doing so and punished if they fail to do so?
2. Are extrinsic payments, such as those listed above, the only benefit one can expect from proper behavior?
3. Is it possible that the world is so constructed by God that good behavior is its own reward?
4. Is the expectation of reward and punishment a childish idea?
5. Could it be that Scripture speaks of reward and punishment because this is the only way to stimulate most people to act properly?
6. Do all people agree on the answers to these questions?
There are vast disagreements with passionate feelings over this issue.
Mishnah Avot 1:3 contends that one should not depend on reward and punishment. Antigonos of Socho states: “Be not like the servant who serves a master on the condition of receiving a gift; but be like the servant who serves a master not on the condition of receiving an award.” The Mishnah Avot d’Rabbi Natan reports that Antigonos’ position provoked strong disagreement. It repeats the statement and elaborates that Antigonos’ two disciples, Zadok and Boethos, rebuffed his teaching and lapsed into heresy. They were stunned, “Is it conceivable that a laborer works all day and does not take his pay home in the evening?”
Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) also spoke against the reliance on reward and punishment in his introduction to the tenth chapter of the talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin, Chelek. “There are many different opinions, but these are based on differences in understanding.” Some people believe that after death they will enjoy physically delightful rewards in the Garden of Eden if they are righteous and the fiery flames of Gehinnom if they sin. Others 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 not live at that time. A third group is convinced that the ultimate happiness for the righteous is the resurrection of the dead, including the reuniting of families. A fourth approach is that reward and punishment is given 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.”
Maimonides rejected all five positions. He considered them to be immature and childish. People who rely on rewards and punishments are like the child who is taken to school for the first time and 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,” he is encouraged to learn so that he will be “a rabbi or a judge and others will honor you.” “All this,” says Maimonides, “is shameful. It is only necessary 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 Antigonos to support his view as well as other talmudic and midrashic statements. The Midrash Sifrei on Deuteronomy 11:13 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 contends that people are encouraged to believe in reward and punishment until they are sufficiently intellectually mature to understand the truth and stop insisting on bribes like the immature child. The truth is what the sages taught in Avot: do not observe the mitzvot shelo lishmah: “not for the sake [of the Torah] itself.” The ultimate benefit for observing God’s commands, like the ultimate reward for study, is the natural consequences of the deed itself. In regard to study it is the gaining of knowledge and truth. In regard to other behavior it is the performance of that which is right. Maimonides speaks on these issues at length, with many examples, and it is well worth one’s time to read his work Chelek.
Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (known as Rashbatz, 1361–1444) agreed with Maimonides. He explained that there are conflicting rabbinical statements on the subject because most people have not reached Maimonides’ level of maturity and need assurances that they will be compensated for acting properly.
Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1904–1994) supported the Maimonidean attitude so strongly that he repeats a teaching by him in almost every one of his books. The first paragraph of the daily recited shema, Deuteronomy 5:4–9, does not mention reward and punishment. It reflects the mature perception. The second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13–21, which mentions these promises, is the presentation for the masses of people.
Don Isaac Abarbanel
Needless to say many people disagreed with the Maimonidean view and his interpretation of the Talmud and Midrash. He was viciously vilified in his own lifetime for his ideas. An example of disagreement is Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508). In his commentary to Avot, he argues that Antigonos is simply wrong. It is human nature that people expect to be paid for meritorious acts. Antigonos used a servant as an example; and this disproves his point because most servants work for wages.
Abarbanel rejects the Maimonidean concept that one should act properly only because of the intrinsic significance of the deed: that the benefit of a good deedis the performance of that deed. He claims that there is no rabbinic source supporting Maimonides’ position. He criticizes Maimonides for relying on the teaching of the non-Jewish philosopher Aristotle for his stance. He sees no intrinsic value in commands such as tzitzit, tephilin, and mezuzah. They should be performed with an eye toward an after-life recompense. When the rabbis said that the compensation for a mitzvah (a good deed) is the mitzvah, they meant that some commands have intrinsic benefits in addition to those gained after death.
As with virtually all matters of Jewish belief, various rabbis take various sides on whether there is reward and punishment after life. Scripture itself promises these items repeatedly. So, too, do the majority of rabbinic statements in the Talmuds, Midrashim, and other writings. However, there are other perspectives that say that the statements made in these sources were made for the masses of people who are insufficiently mature to live their lives properly without the bribe of a reward and punishment.
We saw the statement of Antigonos that one should not expect payment. We saw also the talmudic view that the true compensation for a good deedis the intrinsic value of the deeditself. We also saw that even among those that expect recompense in the after-life, their description of what this is differs radically. Maimonides lists five different notions on the subjects and rejects them all as childish.
All of the commentators, including Maimonides, agree that one may believe in reward and punishment, although some, as Maimonides, feel that one should work to mature and discard the notion.
 This is a version of a chapter from my book “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary” published by Urim Press.