Does Religion Reward Us? Berakhot 58, 59, 60

One of the thorniest issues in discussing religion is the question of reward and punishment.  For some people, religion is all about its rewards; if there was not a God who was rewarding us for our good deeds then there would be no foundation to religion.

Other people are affronted by the idea that we would act morally because we were looking to be rewarded.  They would make the valid point that to be incentivised in this somewhat childish way would somehow undermine the ethical stature of our actions, they would somehow be less commendable, less worthy, less inspiring.

And they would surely be somewhat right in this.

There is a middle ground, and it’s not quite a compromise, but more of a pleasing synthesis of these apparently incompatible positions.  The significant move in this position is to re-think the idea of reward, to re-imagine the sense in which we might benefit from sticking to our moral guns.

Reward, on this understanding, is not external to the act: we will not be given material bounty or be spared the fires of hell, we will not receive special economic treatment when God does His accounts.

Rather, the reward is intrinsic to the act itself, it follows as the miraculous consequence (it seems to be anything but ‘natural’) of acting in accordance with our ethical aspirations.  When we rise to the occasion, we are left in an elevated spirit – we feel better about ourselves, proud of ourselves, much more comfortable with who we are.  In the simplest possible terms: it’s nice to be nice.

There is a link between the good and the beautiful, between the ethical and the aesthetic.  Good actions tend to be beautiful ones, and we are pleased by the sense that our behaviour is in harmony with this vision.

And I maintain that we are often surprised by this.  On one level, we are surprised by how much better we feel after making the extra effort and doing that unnecessary act of kindness we could have so easily shirked.  In a similar vein, we are often taken aback by how inspired and moved we are when we see or hear of someone else acting in an altruistic and thoughtful manner.

I remember being at a point once when I was in possession of a deeply negative and cynical view of human beings.  I’d been steeped in Nietzsche and had been overwhelmed by some of the pessimism he had been expressing.  And there had been other stuff going on in life which had been getting me down.  Then, as chance would have it, I missed the last train that was supposed to take me to meet some friends who were staying in the Highlands of Scotland.  Left with no option, I decided to hitch hike, not especially convinced that I would get there – I had a ferry to catch to get to a remote island – but figuring that I had nothing to lose in trying.

Lo and behold, four hitch hikes and about nine hours later, I was being driven across the sea by a random fisherman and I was re-united with my friends.  I felt lucky, but more than that, much more than that, I was stunned by the goodwill of all the people who had stopped to offer me a lift, in some cases going slightly out their way to help me on my way.  It reminded me of the goodness that lies just below the surface in people, of their willingness to help even complete strangers, when there would be no hint of a suggestion that they would get anything tangible in return.  It restored my faith in humanity, teaching me a lesson that all the Nietzsche in the world couldn’t undo.

The good inspires us, it makes us feel good.  The Stoics based their philosophy of virtue upon this – upright character alone would bring a person to eudaemonia, the highest sense of human happiness and flourishing.  In Judaism we say ‘sekhar mitzvah, mitzva’ – the highest reward for a good deed is to be enveloped in a positive framework of life, to be uplifted and inspired to further good deeds.

This more subtle and mature approach to the consequences of religiously coloured behaviour is at work in a discussion of the following verse:

He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. (Ps. 112:7)

Rava makes a slightly cryptic observation on this verse, suggesting that one might be able to read the clauses in either order in order to understand it differently.  Rashi doesn’t get his point, he doesn’t see the two ways of reading it.

The Rashba does see the distinction.  If one reads it with the second clause first:

His heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord;  He shall not be afraid of evil tidings…

then one might understand it as offering a promise or reward – the reward for trusting in God is that one will be spared from the fear of evil news, one will not be troubled by excess anxiety and worry.

Read the other way, in the original structure, one could understand it differently, as describing a reality, a matter of fact.  One who has faith in God, whose heart is strong, will not be susceptible to stray fears, to worries without foundation, to the random anxiety and panic which can trouble a person.

Here the reward is more intrinsic, less of an external affair.

But still, what is this reality, how are we to understand it? What is it to have faith in God other than to believe that he will actually prevent bad things happening, to protect us from harm?

At this point we are close to the core of mature religion, to the kernel of genuine faith that might challenge and maintain us.

The possibility hinted at here is that by living in close proximity to the truth of our lives, by paying close attention to the deepest demands that our being makes of us – at this point a vision of Ibsen’s Brand appears before me –  we will suddenly find that many of the concerns and fears which otherwise trouble us simply fade away.

It is as if we only becomes susceptible to worry when things are not in good order internally, when we are subtly and imperceptibly betraying the highest possibilities in our personality.  When we are distant from our true selves, living a respectable but false life, this is when we are vulnerable and prey to worry.

It is as if we project our internal anguish onto the external world: we are pained, we are hazily aware of warnings, but we cannot understand the message coming from the unconscious.  In our confusion we assume that the dangers must lie outside us, in the broader world, in people and circumstances beyond our control.

We can use this perspective to understand another important expression of faith that Rabbi Akiva gives voice to in the following story:

 Rabbi Akiva was walking along the road and came to a certain city, he inquired about lodging and they did not give him any. He said: Everything that God does, He does for the best. He went and slept in a field, and he had with him a rooster, a donkey and a candle. A gust of wind came and extinguished the candle; a cat came and ate the rooster; and a lion came and ate the donkey. He said: Everything that God does, He does for the best.

That night, an army came and took the city into captivity. It turned out that Rabbi Akiva alone, who was not in the city and had no lit candle, noisy rooster or donkey to give away his location, was saved. He said to them: Didn’t I tell you? Everything that God does, He does for the best.

The idea that God does everything for the best can be taken in a very infantilising way, it can be understood to be saying that there is a Grand Puppeteer who is orchestrating everything that happens, and that He always knows what he is doing.  Since He is in control, we need not worry, everything will be alright.

But there is a subtler and more profound understanding of this dictum.  By saying that everything happens for the best we are making a conscious attempt to see the positive in things, to wrestle with the dark cloud of negativity which always threatens to overwhelm us and blacken our perceptions.  It is an assertion that life is a never ending struggle between optimism and pessimism, and that we have a tiny arena of choice wherein we might be able to push our mood and expectations in a slightly more upbeat direction.

It is an injunction to work hard to tune into positivity, to possibility and to eschew the deathly lock of a negative spiral of thought and affect.  Neville Symington speaks of being open to a force he identifies as the lifegiver, and it is this relationship we tune into when we are able to see the positive in adverse conditions, when we do not howl out in protest at every turn for the worse.

I would like to share a paradoxical anecdote from Symington which embodies this value:

A friend told me once that the turning point in analysis for him came when he said to his analyst one day that things had been so bad they could only improve.  The analyst replied ‘Or they could get worse’.

The analyst wasn’t encouraging negativity, he was, rather, showing that the patient had fallen too much in love with painting his life as negative, with perceiving everything as terrible and persecutory.  He’s giving him a slap, telling him to get over himself, to realise that really his life is not so bad, that there is plenty that he could be positive about, if only he could find the strength and will to do so, if only he could give up his fashionable pessimism.

I don’t want to pretend that this is easily done, that we can always snap out of negativity as easily as choosing between blue or black socks.  But this is not what the Talmud is suggesting either.  Rabbi Akiva is teaching us that we should always be trying to look for the positive, for it is a difficult job, it requires practice and it requires the development of what we might call a stoical muscle, an ability to weather storms without losing all hope, without slipping into despair.

We are coming to the end of reciting psalm 27, of referring to God as our light and our salvation.  Never is this more true than in adversity, when we sometimes find that in spite of the difficulty that surrounds us there seems to be a mysterious core of light and positivity which we can tune into and which might save us.  It’s as if things can only get real when the chips are down, when what we think we fear is actually realised.  At that point we often see that the fear itself was worse than the reality we feared, that we actually have more capacity to cope than we thought.

Life is good, and fear is often much worse than suffering.  Training ourselves to see the positive, to be suspicious of people who project their negativity into their narratives, these are the real challenges of religion, the injunctions of a religion for grown ups.  And with these challenges more than any other, their reward is intrinsically bound up with their practice, with the extent to which we shape our lives in their image.

There is no greater reward than to live with a strong conviction of positivity, to emit an aura of creativity and possibility wherever one goes.  Graham Greene describes the art critic Herbert Read as having this effect, as embodying this energy:

He would come into a room full of people and you wouldn’t notice his coming, you noticed only that the whole atmosphere of a discussion had quietly altered, that even the relations of one guest with another had altered.  No one any longer would be talking for effect, and when you looked round for an explanation there he was – complete honesty born of complete experience had entered the room and unobtrusively taken a chair.  (Ways of Escape p.39)

We must be careful with religious language and ideas, the slightest misinterpretation can transform something of deep profundity into something of childish foolery.  And it is all too clear that there are many nowadays who wish to depict religion in this light, as dishonest silliness for the soft of mind.  But, quite simply, they are wrong; there is a depth to the religious perspective which many of its opponents have not shown themselves capable of grasping.

Let us work hard to maintain faith and retain positivity, to keep a firm grasp on the full armoury of internal resources available to us.  For through them, and them alone, can we be saved from the fear and pessimism which forever lie in wait for us.

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