Rebuke and Reward in this World

The fate of the individual is often determined by the behavior of the community as a whole.

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Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The penultimate chapter of Leviticus consists of a divine plea to heed God's commandments. It takes the form of inducements and intimidations, promises of agricultural bounty and national tranquility and threats of defeat, chaos and exile. The future of ancient Israel in its homeland will depend entirely on its adherence to the revelation at Sinai. Aside from the poetry of the passage, its rhetoric pulsates with a tone of urgency. Free will has its risks; people may choose to put themselves in harm's way. Rebellion against the strictures of God is the persistent evil that endangers society.

Neither this collection of admonitions nor those at the end of Deuteronomy are cast in terms of life after death or the world-to-come. They are utterly different from the hell-fire sermons of Puritan New England in which compliance is coerced through damnation. The religious vocabulary of the Torah, and indeed the Tanakh, is pervasively this-worldly. Life predominates as the supreme value and relegates an inchoate notion of the afterlife--Sheol--to the margins of collective consciousness. Accordingly, retribution or reward are natural phenomena, occurring in the here and now. The language betrays no notion of a soul that transcends death.

Equally noteworthy, the audience for our concluding address is the people as a whole, and not the individual Israelite. What will be weighed in the balance is the piety and morality of the nation, which if found to be wanting will impact adversely on the fate of the minority of God-fearing citizens. To abide personally by God's will can secure one's well-being only if a sufficient number of others do the same. Hence, the paradigmatic nature of Abraham's discourse with God on the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. How many righteous members will it take to avert the destruction of a community? Throughout much of the Tanakh the group takes precedence over the individual. The marquee actor in the drama is the nation. The Torah's legislative agenda is to forge a mass of slaves into "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," a beacon of justice and righteousness for an ever wayward humanity.

For all their power, then, these admonitions could not be the final word on God's moral calculus. While history confounds the correlation between the fate of the nation and its character, the plight of the individual begged for divine empathy. The Hellenistic world, with its heightened sensibility for the priority of the individual, created the context for post-biblical Judaism to absorb a full-blown belief in life after death. By the first century B.C.E., the Second Book of Maccabees eases the pain of martyrdom with the promise of immortality and resurrection. And several centuries later, the Mishna makes the belief normative: those who deny that the doctrine of resurrection is not to be found in the Torah forfeit their place in the world to come (Sanhedrin 10:1).

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.