In his work Light of the Lord, Ḥasdai Crescas develops a seemingly naturalistic account of the doctrine of personal reward and punishment. For Crescas, reward and punishment are not doled out by a deity to an individual for fulfilling the mitzvot. Rather, reward or punishment depend on the extent to which an individual exercises will and effort in investigating true beliefs. One is rewarded not merely for accepting true beliefs as such, but more so for assenting to them, a process that involves intention as well as exertion in establishing the truth of those beliefs. Furthermore, one is rewarded for the will and effort to perform a mitzvah aside from whether it is actually performed. Crescas identifies “joy” or pleasure as the reward that necessarily accompanies such will and effort, and which provides a sense of union with God, closely identified by Crescas as Love. Punishment is the sadness and feeling of disconnection from God/Love, which necessarily results from misguided will and effort.

Crescas’ account is notable in several ways. It shifts the emphasis of reward and punishment from the sphere of actions to the realm of beliefs. It highlights individual effort rather than personal divine involvement, which is largely left out of his account. It proposes a mechanistic view of reward and punishment, viewing them as emotional states that necessarily flow from individual intention. As such, I find that Crescas’ account offers a powerful rejoinder to the question of why the just suffer and the wicked prosper. The physical rewards accrued by the wicked are not rewards, for they have not accepted true beliefs, do not investigate them, and therefore they do not experience real joy. The calamities visited upon the just are not actual punishments: real punishment is sadness and alienation from God (=Love).

In this essay I explore these claims from three perspectives. First, as a theological doctrine, I ask why Crescas emphasizes reward and punishment in relation to belief rather than action, and what role God plays in his account. I relate Crescas’ account to earlier Jewish thinkers, particularly Bahya ibn Paquda, Maimonides, and Gersonides, and to Crescas’ own historical circumstances. Second, I propose a reading of Crescas’ system of reward and punishment as analogous to the philosophical notion of cause and effect. I argue in this section that reward and punishment for Crescas should be understood as the necessary effects of precise causes (intention and effort).

Third, I turn to the Crescas’ characterization of reward and punishment as emotional states—joy or sadness. I examine the idea of pleasure as an effect rather than something chosen, or pursued for its own sake. I conclude by noting the implications of Crescas’ account for the notion of divine justice.