Why Does G-d Punish?
Written by Gil Student
Bear in mind that the Lord your G-d disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son.
The very title of this essay bespeaks arrogance. Who are we to question G-d? Who are we to think that we can even begin to understand G-d's actions? Therefore, before we begin trying to answer this audacious question, we must first justify asking it in the first place.
The only justification for asking this question is precedent and, indeed, there is a great history of asking about divine providence. The Torah [Exodus 33:13] tells us that Moshe asked G-d to explain His ways [cf. Berachot 7a]. Yirmiyahu asked G-d [Jeremiah 12:1], "Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease?" Chabakuk asked [Habakkuk 1:13], "Why do You countenance treachery, and stand by idle while the one in the wrong devours the one in the right?" There are many more examples, both Biblical and Talmudic. It seems that Jews have always attempted to understand G-d's workings in the world and, therefore, we should not feel ashamed for asking similar questions. Indeed, the Ramban (c. 1194-1270) [Sha'ar HaGemul in Kitvei HaRamban, vol. 2 pp. 281-282] strongly states that people are obligated to try to understand these issues.
The question generally asked has historically been why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Our question, why G-d punishes people, is a subset of that. Since divine punishment is always part of the answer to the age-old question, our quest is part of the broader endeavor to understand divine providence, of which there is a large literature. Indeed, the very fact that the answers we will give are taken directly from the great medieval philosophical works should be precedent enough to justify this essay. If the great rabbi-philosophers could ask and try to answer this question, we can certainly provide the answers that they have given.
Before we begin, let us also note that this essay is not an attempt to explain why bad things happen. We will only discuss why G-d punishes people. There are many bad occurrences that can be attributed to reasons other than punishment. There are factors such as neglect, mazal, happenstance, and others that would need to be discussed as well before one can even consider explaining why all bad things occur, if that can be explained at all. This essay will focus only on the reason behind punishments, not on what is or is not a punishment.
It is certainly noteworthy that with five sections and 325 chapters in the Kuzari, R. Yehudah HaLevi (c. 1075-1141) does not address the question of theodicy until the last chapter of the last section. While HaLevi is generally skeptical about the need for philosophy [cf. Kuzari 5:2, Even Shmuel ed., pp. 195-196], he is even more skeptical regarding divine providence. HaLevi states [Kuzari 5:22, p. 230] that "[i]t is worthy to investigate these and similar questions." However, he does not offer any explanation other than what can only be called chapter headings of standard answers upon which to meditate and then adds [ibid. p. 231], "It is proper for a person to admit that he is a boor who does not even understand the revealed reasons, much less the hidden ones." The philosophically skeptical HaLevi is extra-skeptical about theodicy. He nevertheless encourages thinking about it, albeit with humility and a sense of perspective.
R. Saadia Gaon (c. 882-942) discusses the reasons for punishment extensively, albeit in various places throughout his Emunot VeDeyot. It is Saadia's contention, and that of many others as well, that everything that emanates from G-d is ultimately good, even punishments. Saadia writes [9:7, Kaffih ed. p. 277] that since G-d commanded us to do certain things and not to do others, it is only proper that He encourage us along the path of obedience by rewarding those who fulfill these obligations and punishing those who do not. Punishment, according to this line of thinking, is a deterrent from straying off the proper path. It is a motivator to do good [cf. 4:2, p. 154].
In another section [6:4, p. 206], Saadia notes that any punishment that G-d administers is in a person's best interest. It is intended as a warning, a message to end one's sinful actions. This is a bestowal of good in more than one way. Not only is this intended to bring a person back to the true path of spiritual fulfillment, in a more mundane way it is meant to cause a person to stop sinning and condemning himself to further punishment for the previous reason. Saadia expresses this more clearly in an earlier section [4:2, p. 153]. "I found that these were for his benefit to scare him from sinning and to humble him before his G-d and improve his ways."
It is important to note that there is a practical difference between Saadia's two explanations for punishment. The second reason only applies in this world. In the next world, where one's soul is bereft of body, there is no possibility of repentance [cf. 6:4, p. 204]. Therefore, it is pointless to punish someone in the next world in order to stop him from sinning when he cannot sin, much less repent. However, the first reason would apply in the next world. According to that explanation, punishment is intended as a deterrent for this world. As long as we have knowledge of a future punishment, where that punishment is administered is irrelevant. The knowledge alone serves as motivation to obey G-d.
This distinction is particularly significant for Saadia. He states [5:1, p. 172] that the world-to-come is the true place for reward and punishment. G-d only gives us a sample in this world to assure us that there will be true recompense in the next world [cf. n. 48]. This statement indicates that Saadia considers the first explanation to be the primary reason for punishment.
R. Yonah of Gerona (c. 1180-1263) discusses suffering in the fourth section of his Sha'arei Teshuvah. R. Yonah compares a sinful soul to a sick person [4:1, Mishor edition p. 171]. Just like a sick person suffers from his illness, so too a sinful soul will suffer. This explanation for suffering seems to be similar to the soul-cleansing explanation we will soon explore. However, it might instead be meant to be more similar to the explanation that punishment is a natural result of sin.
R. Yonah mentions in passing that wicked people will only receive punishment of vengeance, while the (relatively) righteous will also receive punishment of distinguishment [4:13, p. 180]. While the latter seems to refer to yissurei ahavah which does not qualify as punishment, and is therefore beyond the scope of this essay, it is certainly noteworthy that R. Yonah calls punishment for a sin "punishment of vengeance". As we shall see, Ran would strongly disagree with this characterization.
What might temper this extreme characterization is the implication that R. Yonah gives earlier in his work [2:2, pp. 39-40] that punishment is intended as a message to man that he should repent. This certainly does not seem like vengeance. Additionally, R. Yonah summarizes the purpose of punishment in his commentary to Avot [3:16 sv vehakol] as preparation for the world-to-come. In other words, punishment is intended to make man worthy of receiving reward in the world-to-come. That, too, does not seem like vengeance.
R. Nissim ben Reuven (Ran; c. 1290-1375) has a brief but important discussion of punishment in his Derashot HaRan [on the identification of the author of this book, see the introduction to the Feldman edition pp. 6-7]. In the tenth essay in this book [pp. 163-164, 180-181], Ran emphatically states that G-d does not punish people as revenge for sinning. "Punishment for it's own sake is not praiseworthy" [p. 163]. Rather, punishment is to turn one to the right path and, if one turns before being punished i.e. repents, there is no need for punishment at all [ibid.]. Like Saadia's second explanation, Ran is suggesting that G-d punishes man to notify him that he is on the wrong path and must turn back.
Ran repeats this [p. 164] and adds that even if this punishment does not cause the sinner to repent, it also serves to tell others not to sin like him. The punishment is a message to the world to not sin. Even if the sinner does not react properly to his message, others might see this communication and learn from this episode to obey G-d.
However, Ran adds, these two reasons for punishment only apply in this world. As we noted above, people cannot repent in the world-to-come. Therefore, Ran offers two explanations for suffering in the next world. The first [ibid.] is that man's soul was created in such a fashion that sin is unnatural to it. It is inherent in man's nature that disobedience of G-d leads to affliction. Just like when a man cuts off his fingers he is in pain, when he sins and fails to repent he will also be in pain. This form of punishment is not revenge but the natural consequence of sin and is eternal.
Ran also explains [ibid.] that every sin that man commits dirties and darkens his soul [cf. Emunot VeDeyot 5:1 p. 171; 6:4 p. 204]. Because of this damage to his soul, man cannot fully appreciate G-d in that state. Therefore, in the next world, a person's soul must be cleansed of its blemishes through suffering. After this affliction, the soul can appreciate G-d and bask in His radiance. In contrast to the natural punishment, the cleansing of the soul is only temporary.
R. Chasdai Crescas (c. 1340-1410) discusses the reason for punishment in two sections in his Or Hashem - the section on divine providence [2:2:4, Fischer ed. pp. 167-170] and the section on reward and punishment [3:1:3:1-2 pp. 324-329]. The primary intention of punishment, Crescas tells us [3:1:3:1 p. 324], is to benefit man and drive him towards spiritual completeness. How does punishment do this? A punishment for a sin is a message to the sinner that G-d is not only watching but guiding as well. The punishment is a reminder of the existence of G-d and the need to obey Him. However, Crescas points out, this message is not intended solely for the punished. It is a communication to the world that sinners will be punished. Everyone can learn from this person's ordeal the importance of following G-d's command.
Crescas' continuation of this thought is somewhat cryptic. He writes [ibid.] that secondary to this reason is the "victory over and rebuke of the destructive Satan, who is the Angel of Death, who is the Evil Inclination." Perhaps Crescas means that the punishment proves that sin leads to bad results and is thereby a victory over evil desires. Or maybe he means that suffering serves to dull the desires. It is unclear to this author exactly what the intended explanation is.
It is possible that the above passage alludes to what Crescas wrote earlier [2:2:4 p. 167], which is also somewhat ambiguous. Another reason he gives for punishment is that it stops a man from "straying after desires." This could mean that the punishment is the loss of the ability to follow his desires. For instance, a man who was having an illicit affair aboard his boat could have his boat sink. This loss would serve to stop him from satisfying his sinful desires. Alternatively, this explanation could mean that the punishment is a warning to the man not to continue this affair.
Another explanation Crescas gives [ibid.] for punishment is that it is to "make him complete and to give him strong possession of spiritual virtues." This might mean that the punishment is meant to cleanse his soul of imperfections, as Ran suggested. However, it could simply mean that the chastisement is meant to turn a person around and drive him towards repentance.
R. Yosef Albo (c. 1380-1444) offers a number of answers to our question in his Sefer HaIkkarim. One reason for punishment, Albo tells us [4:10, Chorev ed. p. 484], is to direct the recipient of this divine message to repent. It is a call to stop his evil ways and return to the proper path. In, perhaps, a more supportive spirit, G-d might also punish a man to stop him from the sin which he is about to commit [4:13 p. 490]. We illustrated this above with the example of the boat. By sinking the boat, G-d helped this man by stopping him from sinning. According to Albo's first explanation, G-d is reacting to sin and forcing man to return from its grasps. According to his second explanation, G-d is helping man remain out of sin's hold.
We explained above that every sin that man commits dirties his soul. Punishment, even in this world, serves to cleanse the soul and bring man back to his original, pure state [4:13 pp. 490, 491].
The initial, temporary punishment in the world-to-come, says Albo [4:31 p. 567], is to cleanse the soul of not only its blemishes, but also any behavioral attachments the soul may have developed towards physicality. A soul that has become accustomed to physicality will by its very nature feel punished when it is removed from the physical world. This is a natural result of attachment to the physical, similar to that which Ran suggested. However, according to the Ran, this punishment is eternal while according to Albo it is only temporary.
In our brief survey of some of the philosophical literature regarding punishment, we have seen a number of suggested answers to our initial question - why does G-d punish? The following is a list of those possible explanations.
1. To deter people from doing wrong. The prospect of a future punishment should stop us from sinning.
2. To deter others from sinning. When they witness the result of sin, they will learn not to imitate it.
3. To communicate to people to stop sinning. Punishment is an order to cease-and-desist.
4. To stop man from sinning. The punishment can be the loss of ability to commit a particular sin.
5. To humble a person before G-d. He has control of our lives, not we.
6. To inform both the sinner and others that G-d watches and guides the world.
7. As a natural result of sin. Man was created in such a way that a sinful soul will suffer in the world-to-come.
8. To dull human desires.
9. To cleanse a soul of its blemishes. Sin bruises one's spiritual structure and only punishment can repair that damage.
10. As a natural result of a person's attachment to the physical.
Does this list answer all of our questions regarding divine providence? Definitely not. However, it brings us one step closer to an understanding that we instinctively know we can only grasp for but can never reach.
© Gil Student 2001