PARSHAT BEHUKOTAI

REWARD AND PUNISHMENT, GROUP VERSUS INDIVDIDUAL

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.”  (Leviticus 26:3,4)

               This week’s portion consists of a short list of blessings if we keep God’s commandments and a long list of curses if we do not.  It is group punishment.  The Torah sees reward and punishment in terms of the entire community.  Where did the idea of individual reward and punishment come from?  Why does Judaism and the other major Western religions teach that our individual soul receives justice in the next world?  Allow me to share a passage from my new book, Does the Universe Have a Soul? 

The Bible presents a very different image from that of classical Rabbinic Judaism. The soul is the breath of God which returns to its source. The body sleeps with its fathers, not to be disturbed. Where did the idea of an eternal soul come from?  Allow me to present my own theory. It involved a change in Biblical religion. The Bible evolved from an emphasis on group justice to an emphasis on individual justice.

            Originally the Bible speaks of group justice. Reward and punishment are meted out to an entire community. This is made explicit in the section of Deuteronomy which Jews recite morning and evening, the second paragraph of the Sh’ma.  “If you obey the commandments which I enjoin you today, to love the Lord your God and serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, I will grant the rain for your field in its season, the early rain and the late rain, and you shall gather your grain and wine and oil” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14).  The reward comes to the community as a whole. The passage continues with the punishment for not obeying God’s commandments. Reward and punishment are for the group, not for individuals.

            We see this idea throughout the five books of the Torah. The flood of Noah, the Tower of Babel, the Golden Calf, and the many stories of wandering through the wilderness show group punishment.  Meanwhile, there is the ongoing promise of entering the land as a group reward. People are not judged as individuals but as part of the group. But this would radically change with the Babylonian exile.

            Ezekiel, the great prophet of the early exile, introduces a new idea, individual reward and punishment. “The soul that sins, shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (Ezekiel 18:20).  People are rewarded or punished for their own sins. There is a clear religious turn to the individual rather than the group. But this creates a serious problem. Too frequently in this world, bad things happen to good people while good things happen to bad people. If death means sleeping with our fathers, where is the justice?  When does the reward and punishment occur?

            The Western Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – developed a powerful answer. There must be life in a world beyond this one, a world of reward and punishment. Justice is meted out in the next world. The only Biblical hint of this new idea is a single verse in the book of Daniel, a late addition to the canon which often deals with apocalyptic themes. “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). This verse speaks of reward and punishment, but only after those asleep will wake up. It seems to refer to reward and punishment after a resurrection of the dead, an idea that will become vital in later religious thought.