Just a thought: On divine retribution

The reward and punishment of the Bible is strictly “worldly” in nature. If we follow God’s law, we are promised rain, bounty and security.

Torah scrolls around the world 370 (photo credit: Elie Posner/ Israel Museum)
Torah scrolls around the world 370
(photo credit: Elie Posner/ Israel Museum)

One of the clearest teachings to emerge from the Hebrew Bible is that God rewards those who keeps His commandments and punishes those that don’t – yet the reality of our lives seem to contradict this teaching.

The reward and punishment of the Bible is strictly “worldly” in nature. If we follow God’s law, we are promised rain, bounty and security. If we do not, we are promised drought, war and plague.
Recognizing the weakness of the doctrine, the Bible offers another voice: that of the Book of Job. Job opens with the fantastical bet between Satan and God as to whether Satan can cause Job to curse God.
The worst of calamities befall the righteous Job, and still he does not curse God. But that is not the point of the story. The point of the story is that serious troubles can befall innocent righteous people and, most importantly, that tragedy is not evidence of sin. Yet 2,500 years later, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum would still declare that “sin is the root of all suffering.”
With the rise of Rabbinic Judaism we see the doctrine of reward and punishment in the afterlife rise to the fore. It should be remembered that the entire Bible is silent on the concept of any afterlife, or at least of any reward or punishment there. It should be realized that the rabbis had to deal with the failure of the biblical promises of good things happening to good people, not just on the individual scale, but on a national one as well, and had to account for the prospering of evil people. During the First Temple period there were doubtless calamities and defeats as well, but at least there was the prophet who explained why God caused the catastrophe. The rabbis, devoid of the power of prophecy, had to look inwards to their own intellectual understanding of God to answer the theological questions of their day and propagated the afterlife as an obvious answer to the injustice of this world. With that doctrine, the belief that true justice awaits us only in the next world, they were able to at least quiet if not answer the many questions of faith raised by the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, the destruction of the Temple decades earlier and the dominance of Rome.
Yet what need is there for God to punish? If the purpose of punishment is to deter sin, why carry it out in the afterlife? If it is to reform and educate, again, what need is there for when one is already dead? Kabbala sees punishment in the afterlife as a means of cleansing the soul from any and all of the inevitable sin incurred in this world. But for the non-mystics among us, the question remains.
This brings us to the question of why the Hebrew Bible is silent about the spiritual reward that awaits us. The Maharal answers quite cleverly that the biblical writers make no reference to the next world because the prophetic faculty can only describe the reality that the prophet lives in, which is only this world. This, the Maharal observes, is one of the ways that a sage is greater than a prophet since the Sages do discuss the next world using their intellect alone which can stretch beyond this world.
Nevertheless, the Sages are in unanimous that there really cannot be any agreement about something no eye has ever beheld, that all of our speculations are nothing but speculations. I would imagine that the same way a bird can never describe to a fish what it is like to soar through the sky, we humans can never even begin to comprehend what it means to exist on a spiritual plane alone.
Still, it would be prudent for us to remind ourselves that the real reason that Judaism is scant on descriptions of the next world is that Judaism is an olam hazeh, “this world,” oriented religion and not an olam haba, “heaven oriented.” The focus of a Jew’s life is to fix this world to be the kingdom of God.
We have no vows of poverty, we have no celibacy or other traditions of asceticism in Judaism for precisely this reason. Instead, we are to enjoy this world, engage in commerce, sexual and other worldly pleasures, because God desires us to take advantage of the world He created for us. The laws of Judaism are meant to teach us how to focus best on this world and get the most out of it. Yet we believe in an afterlife because we refuse to believe in a God that would allow “both Hitler and his victims to share the same fate.”

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.