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 the 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 G-d:
"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 G-d 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) Yonasan 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.
SOURCES: (1) Maimonides commentary on the Mishnah, chapter 10. (2) Mishnah Avos 1:3 (3) Maimonides' Code, Laws of Repentance 10:2