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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z"l

At the height of the drama of the Golden Calf, a vivid and enigmatic scene takes place. Moses has secured forgiveness for the people. But now, on Mount Sinai yet again, he does more. He asks G-d to be with the people. He asks Him to “teach me Your ways,” and “show me Your glory.” G-d replies:

“I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim My Name, the L-rd, in your presence … I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for no one may see Me and live” (Ex. 33:20).


G-d then places Moses in a cleft in the rock face, telling him he will be able to “see My back” but not His face, and Moses hears G-d say these words:

“The L-rd, the L-rd, the compassionate and gracious G-d, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex. 34:6-7).

This passage became known as the “Thirteen Attributes of G-d’s Mercy.” The Sages understood this episode as the moment in which G-d taught Moses, and through him all future generations, how to pray when atoning for sin (Rosh Hashanah 17b). Moses himself used these words with slight variations during the next crisis, that of the spies. Eventually they became the basis of the special prayers known as Selichot, prayers of penitence. It was as if G-d were binding himself to forgive the penitent in each generation. That G-d is compassionate and lives in love and forgiveness is an essential element of Jewish faith.

But there is a caveat. G-d adds: “Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished.” There is a further clause about visiting the sins of the parents upon the children, which demands separate attention and is not our subject here. The caveat tells us that there is forgiveness but also punishment. There is compassion but also justice.

Why must there be justice as well as compassion, punishment as well as forgiveness?

Some fascinating recent research in diverse fields from moral philosophy to evolutionary psychology, and from games theory to environmental ethics, provides us with an extraordinary and unexpected answer.

The best point of entry is Garrett Harding’s famous paper written in 1968 about “the tragedy of the commons.” He asks us to imagine an asset with no specific owner: pasture land that belongs to everyone (the commons), for example, or the sea and the fish it contains. The asset provides a livelihood to many people, the local farmers or fishermen. But eventually it attracts too many people. There is over-pasturing or over-fishing, and the resource is depleted. The pasture is at risk of becoming wasteland. The fish are in danger of extinction.

What then happens? The common good demands that everyone from here on must practice restraint. They must limit the number of animals they graze or the number of fish they catch. But some individuals are tempted not to do so. They continue to over-pasture or over-fish. They justify to themselves that the gain to them is great and the loss to others is small, since it is divided by many. Self-interest takes precedence over the common good, and if enough people act on these instincts, the result is disaster.

This is the tragedy of the commons, and it explains how environmental catastrophes and other disasters occur. The problem is the free-rider, the person who pursues their self-interest without bearing their share of the cost of the common good.

One of the things they have done is to create experimental situations that simulate a game in which one player contributes nothing to a common fund – so that if funds are distributed equally it means that some will gain one dollar while the free-rider will gain $9.00.

As the participants begin to realize there is a free-rider among them, even if they don’t know who it is, one of two things then tends to happen. Either everyone stops contributing to the common fund or they agree to punish the free-rider. Often people are keen to punish, even if it means that they will lose thereby, a phenomenon sometimes called “altruistic punishment.”

Some have linked participants to MRI machines to see which parts of the brain are activated by such games. Interestingly, altruistic punishment is linked to pleasure centers in the brain, indicating that maintaining social order and fairness in society is its own reward.

But punishment is bad news for everyone. The offender suffers, but so do the punishers, who have to spend time or money they might otherwise use in improving the collective outcome. And in cross-cultural studies, it turns out to be people from countries where there is widespread free-riding who punish most severely. People are most punitive in societies where there is the most corruption and the least public-spiritedness. Punishment, in other words, is the solution of last resort.

This brings us to religion. A whole series of experiments has shed light on the role of religious practice in such circumstances. Tests have been carried out in which participants have the opportunity to cheat and gain by so doing. If, without any connection being made to the experiment at hand, participants have been primed to think religious thoughts – by being shown words relating to G-d, for example, or being reminded of the Ten Commandments, they cheat significantly less. The outcomes, however, show no relationship to the underlying beliefs of the participants. What makes the difference is not believing in G-d, but rather being reminded of G-d before the test. This may well be why daily prayer and other regular rituals are so important. What affects us at moments of temptation is not so much background belief but the act of bringing that belief into awareness.

Of greater significance are experiments designed to test the impact of different ways of thinking about G-d. Among believers, those who believe in a punitive G-d cheat and steal less than those who believe in a forgiving G-d. Experiments were then performed to see how believers relate to free-riders in common-good situations. Were they willing to forgive, or did they punish the free-riders even at a cost to themselves? Here the results were revelatory. People who believe in a punitive G-d punish people less than those who believe in a forgiving G-d. Those who believe that, as the Torah says, G-d “does not leave the guilty unpunished,” are more willing to leave punishment to G-d. Those who focus on Divine forgiveness are more likely to practice human retribution or revenge. The same applies to societies as a whole.

It is now clear why, at the very moment He is declaring his compassion, grace and forgiveness, G-d insists that He does not leave the guilty unpunished.

A world without Divine justice would be one where there is more resentment, punishment, and crime, and less public-spiritedness and forgiveness, even among religious believers. The more we believe that G-d punishes the guilty, the more forgiving we become. The less we believe that G-d punishes the guilty, the more resentful and punitive we become. This is a totally counterintuitive truth, yet one that finally allows us to see the profound wisdom of the Torah in helping us create a humane and compassionate society.


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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.