Q. You wrote that judgment after death helps induce people to act ethically.
Isn't that a selfish reason to act properly?
A. I received many responses to last week's column on the ethical significance of life after death in Jewish belief. The most common question was the one above, but there were many other questions as well. I will try to clarify some of the points this week.
Judgment for our acts is certainly a fundamental part of Jewish faith. Maimonides includes it among the 13 foundations of Jewish belief. (1) (Belief in resurrection is also among the 13 foundations.) Yet most of us feel strongly that ethical behavior is not only a question of right acts, but also of right motives. Acting ethically out of self-interest is not really ethical, but rather expedient.
Our sages confirm this. The Mishnah instructs us: "Don't be like those who serve the Master in order to obtain a reward." (2) Maimonides' Code also emphasizes that the ideal of divine service is when it is motivated not by desire for reward or fear of punishment, but rather by love of God:
"One who serves out of love is occupied with Torah and commandments and goes in the ways of wisdom not because of anything in the world, and no because of fear of harm and not in order to obtain good. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and in the end good will come out of it." (3)
However, this is far from nullifying the ethical importance of reward and punishment. Even if a person doesn't act on the basis of incentives, it is still fair and appropriate for God to reward those who act righteously. Note that Maimonides concludes that "in the end good will come of it." So even if selfishness is a second-best motivator, it is still a moral necessity.
There is also a deeper approach to understanding the idea of selfishness in Jewish belief, especially with respect to the final judgment. If we conceive of each person as a distinct, atomistic self, then acting only on selfish motives is merely a question of expedience, though we must always acknowledge that base motives do not nullify the importance of a good act. But this narrow understanding of selfhood is completely inadequate to comprehend the Jewish concept of reward and punishment in the World of Truth. Let us elaborate a bit.
The book of Samuel tells that David, before he was king, had a band of followers in the area of Maon and Carmel, south of Hebron. Abigail, the wife of Nabal, went to greet David and his men and brought them provisions. Abigail also gave David a special blessing:
"Even if a man comes to pursue you and seek your soul, may the soul of my lord be bound up in the bundle of life with the Lord, and the souls of your enemies shall he sling out from the hollow of a sling" (I Samuel 25:29).
The translation of the Tanna (pre-Talmudic authority) Yonatan ben Uziel, translates "bundle of life" as "eternal life." While the soul persists after death, it doesn't continue as a solitary free agent, as we sometimes feel in this world. It joins a great bundle of life; after death the soul recognizes the unity and interconnectedness of all human life. Even in this world all of humanity, and most especially all of the Jewish people, are bound up in a bundle of life and a deep spiritual bond, but here it is difficult to perceive this connection. However, after death the artificial boundaries between souls disappear, and all souls, while maintaining a degree of individuality, clearly perceive that they are one piece of a unified whole.
It follows that any benefice or sorrow we experience in the World of Truth is, by its nature, common to all humanity (actually to all life). When someone has an adequate understanding of this concept, then any right action he or she does out of a desire for future reward or to avoid future punishment is by its nature something done on behalf of the entire world.
Many people asked also about reincarnation.(Click here for related article.) This concept is beyond the usual scope of my column, since it is not given any prominence in the works of the Talmudic era and the great early authorities. However, the concept is prominent in some Hasidic works, and it too has ethical significance. The concept of reincarnation must also be understood in the context of the "bundle of life." If each individual is totally solitary and atomistic, then reincarnation just means that one isolated soul returns to the world in a new body. But this is not the approach of Hasidic thought. Rather, Hasidism explains that the entire Jewish people are hewn from a large number of foundational or primeval souls. (Conventionally, these are numbered 600,000, corresponding to the census in the desert.) Each human being is a compound of these basic traits. (4)
It follows from this approach that each person is reincarnated, since each of us has a human nature made up of basic human characteristics. Yet each person is unique, because never before has this particular combination of characteristics walked on the earth, and every such combination has its unique beauty and unique contribution. This Hasidic concept of a "reservoir" of interconnected souls is in fact closely parallel to the idea of the "bundle of life" which we can glimpse in this world and fully experience in the World of Truth.
Another question asked by many readers is whether Judaism believes in heaven and hell.(Click here for related article.) This question too could fill a book, but a brief answer is possible. In Jewish belief, spiritual growth does not end with death. On the contrary, we believe that the soul continues to grow and develop even after death. It is universal custom to do good deeds in the memory of a departed person in order to effect an "elevation of the soul" (iluy neshama).(5) Spiritual growth is impossible without some degree of torment and catharsis for misdeeds. So Judaism certainly believes that after death there is judgment for sins and torment for the soul. But this judgment, often denoted Gehinnom, is not conceived as a place of eternal torment and punishment but rather as a place of measured and commensurate punishment for sin(Click here for related article.) which enables the soul to obtain atonement and catharsis and thus move on to even greater heights of closeness to God.
This too is intimately connected to the idea of the bundle of life. Unethical acts divide and separate us from our fellow man, thus inhibiting our assimilation into the "bundle of life." The atonement provided by Gehinnom enables us to break down these barriers. One way of understanding this concept is that the torment of Gehinnom is in effect the remorse we feel when we obtain an adequate understanding of the gravity of our sins.
Judaism believes in life after death, where spiritual growth continues as we strengthen our consciousness of our connection to all life and our responsibility to cultivate it. Our reward there is our acute consciousness of all we have done to improve the lot of all mankind, and our atonement for our sins is in our awareness of and remorse for all we have done to harm others and to make a false and artificial separation between our private good and the good of all.
Many of the ideas in this column are developed in more detail in my book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim.
SOURCES: (1) Maimonides commentary on the Mishnah, chapter 10. (2) Mishnah Avot 1:3 (3) Maimonides' Code, laws of repentance 10:2. (4) A typical example is Kuntress Hitpaalut of Admor Emtzai, pg. 66. (5) See for example Bava Metzia 85b which describes the spiritual ascent of some of the great Talmudic sages.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.