Next month Rosh Hashanah will be upon us. One theme of the High Holidays that drives many Jews away from Judaism is the doctrine of Reward and Punishment. Though it is part of Jewish religious tradition, it is utterly foreign to my Jewish faith.
The Kabbalists teach that despite our living most of the time in Olam ha-Praida (“The World of Separation”) there is also Olam ha-Yichud (“The World of Unity”). Olam ha-Yichud can be understood as the implicate order in which everything, including Olam ha-Praida, exists. In the world of the mystics God is the Unity principle embracing and connecting the physical and metaphysical realms. Mystics do not regard God as ‘out there’ or ‘up there,’ but rather as an immanent continuously emanating Presence, the All of the All. In this sense, transcendence is to be discovered within immanence.
From this perspective, the doctrine of Reward and Punishment has no part. Put another way, a facile connection cannot be made between our behavior on the one hand and good or ill fortune that may come to us on the other. Such thinking, in fact, is silly. This is not to say that there is no cause and effect. What we do, say, think, and feel affect other human beings, the environment and ourselves.
What do we do with the doctrine of Reward and Punishment? Do we read, for example, the second paragraph after the Sh’ma that says God will grant rain in its season depending upon whether we fulfill the mitzvot, or do we drop it? Do we not participate when the congregation reads the Un’taneh Tokef (“Who will live and Who will die” refrain), or do we read it as metaphor affirming the transitory nature of life?
Over the years, Jews have told me that the doctrine of Reward and Punishment was the impetus for them leaving Jewish religious life and community because they do not believe in a judgmental commanding and angry God. Nor do they believe in the apologetics of yisurin shel ahavah (“sufferings of love”), a rabbinic principle that says sufferers here will be rewarded in the world to come because God loves them.
I am sympathetic with their rejection of this doctrinal nonsense. I believe that the healthiest approach is not to consign these texts to the geniza as sacred trash, but to use them as motivators of ideas and as a stimulus to transcend higher and nothing else. For example, note that the second paragraph in the Sh’ma (see above) follows the V’ahavta (“You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, mind and soul…”). This juxtaposition suggests that the best reason for doing the right thing is not for the sake of a reward but rather for the love of God, as if to say that ‘virtue is its own reward.’ Given, however, that none of us is always virtuous, sometimes we need a carrot dangling in front of our noses to remind us, ‘Do right and good will come,’ and at other times we need the stick threatening us, ‘Do right, or else!’
This way of thinking can spur us to do good, but this is not theology. It is merely recognition of our human faults and weaknesses. What we need are vehicles of transcendence (i.e. words, Torah, midrash, poetry, music, and ritual) that can open us to the deepest realm of Olam ha-Yichud.
As we approach the Yamim Noraim, it would be well for us to remember that the so-called offending texts were written in a very different time and place. Much, thankfully, has occurred that has evolved our thinking, understanding and faith.
Rabbi Heschel taught that the sin of taking the text literally is that we miss the poetry of life. Our charge during this season is to take the old, re-excavate its stopped-up wells, immerse ourselves in its ebullient springs, and find renewal.
May the month of Elul be a time of probing, struggle and return.
Chazak v’eimatz. Be strong and of good courage.