Reward and Punishment

A concept that accounts for suffering, but also contributes to the problem of its existence.

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Medieval Views

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’ eleventh principle reads: “The eleventh 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.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.