Reward and Punishment

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

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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.

Modern Attitudes

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.

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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.