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A Jewish Psychology of Motivation

A Jewish Psychology of Motivation


For close to fifty years, the dominant paradigm in psychology was behaviorism. The mind was considered a black box, unknowable, and more significantly, irrelevant to explaining human behavior. All living creatures were assumed to operate by one simple rule: some external force, or stimulus, would act in a way that affected the creature, and the creature would respond accordingly. A pleasant stimulus would reinforce whatever the creature was doing when it occurred, while a negative stimulus would discourage the behavior with which it was associated. In a nutshell, behaviorists believed that the simple concept of reward and punishment was sufficient to predict and alter all human and animal behavior.

The star charts, the weekly prizes, the contests, the graded homework and worksheets, the honor rolls . . . these are all practices born of behaviorist thinking By breaking behavior into tiny steps, some of which would occur naturally, and rewarding steps as they occurred, one could eventually train animals to engage in complex behaviors. Thus, B. F. Skinner, by rewarding hungry pigeons with food pellets every time the pigeon took a step to the right, could eventually train a pigeon to spin in clockwise circles. (One could likewise train animals to refrain from certain behaviors by punishing them, albeit at the price of inducing fear, mistrust, hatred and anger toward the trainer if the punishment was too harsh or too frequent.) It was a short step to extrapolate from these results the training and shaping of human behavior. And thus, much of modern classroom practice was born. The behavior modification systems, the star charts, the weekly prizes, the contests, the competitions, the graded homework and worksheets, the honor rolls, the daily behavior point cards, and more: these are all practices born of behaviorist thinking.

The notion that behavior can be so reliably manipulated is an attractive one to Torah educators as well, for they are faced with a number of instructional challenges. The sacred texts are in Hebrew and Aramaic. Much premium is placed on memory and on having a wide range of information at one’s fingertips. In addition, much of the oral tradition deals with abstract and theoretical constructs. These factors make it difficult to introduce the study of Torah to children, and the problem of the recalcitrant student is an old one.

From the very first day of school, attempts are made to motivate children. An old tradition is that when children are first brought to cheder, cakes are baked in the shapes of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and the letters are smeared with honey. The child is told to repeat the names of the letters, and then to eat the cakes “so that the study of Torah will always be sweet in his mouth.”

Nor were motivational strategies used only with children. The Talmud relates that when Rabbi Elazar died, he left behind a son who was notoriously immoral. Rabbi Yehudah wanted to persuade the young man to return to the path of his fathers. He sought the lad out in the seamiest part of town, and when he located him, he ordained him as a rabbi. Rabbi Yehudah then said: Now that you have been ordained, you will surely want to join me in the yeshivah, to fully develop your outstanding talent. And with that, Rabbi Yehudah dragged him to the house of study, and assigned him Rabbi Shimon as a tutor. Whenever the young man would get discouraged and threaten to return to his old friends, the patient tutor would say: “A gold crown has been placed on your head, and you are called Rabbi, and yet you wish to leave?” And so the student stayed on, until he eventually became known as Rabbi Yose, a scholar and righteous man in his own right.

The notion of offering incentives has penetrated even the body of Jewish law. Maimonides states:

The father should cajole his son [to learn] with the things that children desire, so that he will go happily to study. When he is young, the father should give him nuts and honey and dates. When he grows older and rejects these small gifts, the father should give him fine clothes, and when he grows yet older and rejects these, the father should give him gifts of money. Afterwards, when he grows still older, the father should say, “Study Torah and you will become a leader and be called Rabbi.” And afterwards he should say, “With Torah you will merit paradise.” And when he becomes wise, his father should train him to learn Torah for its own sake.

This seemingly unabashed use of bribes and incentives is astounding, in view of the numerous Talmudic references exhorting the student to study Torah for its own sake. The Torah student is warned not to make the Torah “a crown to aggrandize oneself with, nor an axe to grind with”—i.e., not to use it as tool for receiving payment or prestige. Jewish law forbids a teacher of Torah to receive payment for his work, and chastises one who is arrogant because of his learning. The learner is even enjoined not to study for the sake of a spiritual reward. The Mishnah states: “Don’t be like those who serve their master on condition to receive a reward, but be like those who serve their master without any conditions” (Avot 1:3).

The ideal is to study for its own sake, not as an exercise in self-gratification, but in appreciation of the absolute worth of study. G‑d commands us to study the Torah, which is the embodiment of divine thought. Thus, by studying, we become sublimated in the most essential aspect of G‑dliness.

How then, can Maimonides sanction the use of extrinsic motivators? Doesn’t this negate the whole notion of learning for its own sake? The resolution comes from a statement in the Talmud itself: “One should always learn Torah, even if it is for ulterior motives, because from learning for ulterior motives, one comes to learn it for its own sake” (Pesachim 50b). The rabbis seem to assure us of an inevitable eventual transition from learning as a result of incentives to learning for its own sake.

How can this transition be assured? The answer lies in the careful wording of the statement. The word used in the Hebrew text to mean “from,” mitoch, is a rather unusual one, better translated as “from within.” The implication of the statement, then, is that one should always learn, even for ulterior motives, because underlying the ulterior motive is a pure motive. The two levels of motivation coexist within the individual. It is assumed that in one’s heart of hearts, one really wants to learn for its own sake, but that there are sometimes impediments and distractions that get in the way. The ulterior motive, then, is never the true reason for learning; rather, it is seen as a facilitator for what one wanted all along.

In view of the premium placed on doing good for its own sake, why is belief in reward and punishment so central to Judaism? The young child introduced to the cheder, then, is not told to learn Torah in order to get candies and sweets; he comes to learn Torah because it is inherently good. The letters are smeared with honey to point out to him that Torah is sweet. The reward itself is intimately bound to the spiritual world it is meant to encourage. It never becomes the sole focus of attention.

The role of the incentive can be better understood by placing it in the larger context of reward and punishment in general in Jewish tradition. Maimonides cites as one of the thirteen basic principles of the faith the belief that the righteous are compensated and the sinners are punished. In view of the premium placed on doing good for its own sake, why is this belief so central to Judaism? Why is not sufficient to believe that virtue is its own reward? It should be enough that we do good, even if we do not believe that there is any reward for our actions. This is especially surprising in light of the mishnah cited above, which says that we are not to be like servants that serve their master for a reward.

The answer is that the reward is important to us as a symbol of value. The true value of the deed is in fact the deed itself, for the performing of a mitzvah connects us to G‑d, the source of all good. Nevertheless, this is not a reality we can apprehend. Inevitably, then, the belief that there is no reward at all for good deeds would devalue them in our eyes. It would be tantamount to saying that the spiritual world is divorced from reality and is powerless to affect it.

Furthermore, the belief that good can exist without reflecting a change in reality presupposes an assumption of the independent existence of evil. The foundation of our faith is the unity of G‑d, who is the source of all that happens in this world. A world in which good exists unrewarded is a world that fails to reflect the power of G‑d to affect all spheres. In this way, serving G‑d without believing in reward is the flip side of serving G‑d only for the purpose of receiving a reward. In the one case, good is constrained to the metaphysical; in the other, good is limited to a crass physical expression. Both attitudes reflect a fundamental distortion of the truth.

It is helpful, in this context, to distinguish between various kinds of rewards. I can tell my child to eat her vegetables so that she will get dessert, or I can tell her to eat her vegetables so that she will be healthy and strong. The dessert is what we can term an exogenous reward. It is arbitrarily chosen, and is external to the act of eating the vegetables itself. And thus, the reward will not always further the cause of eating vegetables: if dessert is coconut cream pie, and my child hates coconut, she has no reason to eat her vegetables that night. On the other hand, the health one gains by eating vegetables is an endogenous reward, one intrinsic to the nature of vegetables. It cannot be separated from the act. To conceive of vegetables that are divorced from these benefits is to no longer think of vegetables as we know them.

Maimonides’ ladder of incentives, then, is more than a means to cajole a child to a difficult task. The young child, whose first perception of goodness is sensory, is told that Torah brings sweetness. As the child comes to value less tangible dimensions, Torah is portrayed as the ultimate source of spiritual pleasures. The incentives offered the child serve as models of value, but not as its price. And with time and maturity, these models continue to be refined.

We can perhaps clarify this concept by examining another mishnah: “If love depends on a reason, then when the reason disappears, so does the love. But a love that does not depend on a rational reason can exist forever” (Avot 5:16). If love is to be impervious to the storms of life, it must transcend rational reasons. It must be altruistic, love for its own sake, just as study and virtue must be done for their own sake if they are to continue despite adverse circumstances. And yet, even as we agree that externals such as wealth and beauty are poor reasons for loving, love does not develop in a vacuum. We all have reasons that first attracted us to our friends and spouses.

The implication of selfless love is not that we must arbitrarily and randomly choose the company we keep. Selfless love is the central value, and the reasons that draw us together are the facilitators of that love, and reflect the maturity of our concept of true love. Thus, one who is immature will choose friends based on physical attractiveness; with time, one learns that personality or idealism are better measures of the value of the friendship. These “rewards” are reminders to us of the value of our friendship. Ultimately, though, the test of true love is our ability to continue to give of ourselves regardless of what we get in return. If our love falls away when we no longer benefit from the relationship, it is a sign that our love was never true to begin with. The teacher who seeks to motivate reluctant children to moral and intellectual growth, therefore, must think deeply about how incentives are applied. Reward and punishment alone are insufficient agents of change.

The underlying assumption of the behaviorist paradigm is that all beings are open to any sort of manipulation. But after the initial laboratory successes, evidence began to mount proving that there were limits on what kinds of behaviors could be elicited. For example, rats could be trained to avoid certain tasty foods if the foods contained a substance that induced vomiting in the rat. However, they could not learn to avoid foods paired with painfully bright light. It is within the natural repertoire of rats to avoid foods that cause nausea. But it is not within their natural repertoire to associate bright light with bad food.

In addition, the animals trained to perform complex tasks through chaining a number of simpler behaviors within their natural repertoire would continue to do so only as long as they were rewarded. When the schedule of rewards was tapered off, the animals drifted back to their usual behaviors. This is why animal trainers at the circus must reward animals frequently during every performance.

So we know there are natural limits on what can be rewarded. A child with absolutely no propensity for a certain task will not respond to any schedule of rewards. And we can also extrapolate that one of the difficulties with behaviors that are elicited through reinforcers is the tapering-off of rewards. Once the prizes are removed, the behavior will tend to fade.

Another difficulty is finding the appropriate reward. A teacher who offers a reward that the children don’t care about has, in essence, reinforced the notion that the desired behavior is not worthwhile. Thus, it will be even more difficult to motivate the child the next time. If, on the other hand, the offered reward is larger than need be, it sends the message that the task is so onerous that it must be compensated for. Once the rewards are removed, the child is even less likely to naturally gravitate to the desired behavior.

Thus, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it can be rather challenging to get a reward system to work at all. But a more daunting problem with rewarding children is what happens when the rewards succeed. The underlying premise in the behaviorist’s reward-centered universe is that only behavior matters. However, by creating a focus on the external, there is a fundamental change in the nature of what is learned.

Much research has shown that when children are offered rewards, the learning is more shallow. This is the ubiquitous “but is it on the test” phenomenon. The students may in fact be motivated to memorize what they must know in order to earn a good grade, but they are less likely to find the work relevant or meaningful, or to explore other aspects of the subject that were not required. Less creative thinking is generated, and there is more stress, which again works against deep learning. If the goal of schooling with all its rewards and prizes is to create lifelong learners, this method fails miserably.

Likewise, tutors who are offered a reward for successfully teaching a younger child a game are more impatient with their students than those who are not offered a contingent reward. The reward keeps the tutor from focusing on the teaching itself. When the rewards are contingent on another’s learning, tutors are less patient and understanding of their pupils’ difficulty. We can well imagine that chesed projects that earn points and prizes shift the focus from generosity, empathy and caring to one where the emphasis is on the ability to easily earn one’s credit. Difficult people become the adversary, rather than people who elicit our sympathy.

The behaviorist approach is doomed to failure, because we cannot motivate without an intimate consideration of the individual’s inner life. Incentives are effective only insofar as they tap into that inner life, helping the soul to grow in its appreciation of eternal values. We cannot manipulate and force change. We must model value, and inspire our students to reach for it on their own.

In fact, our very history is a testament to the failure of the lasting effect of rewards and incentives in the absence of inner change. Our people’s greatest moments of glory occurred during the Exodus from Egypt, and forty-nine days later at Sinai. Wealth, freedom, peoplehood, purpose, and intimate relationship with G‑d were all bestowed upon us in the space of less than two months. And yet, forty days later, at the first moment of challenge, the Jews made the Golden Calf. The experience had not penetrated their being, and was a failure. And so, the first tablets were smashed.

Subsequently Moses helped the Jews to understand what they had lost, and the change necessary to be part of a covenantal relationship with G‑d. For forty days they prayed and engaged in heartfelt teshuvah, repentance. The second tablets were given without the pomp and glamour of the first. It was a quieter, humbler affair. But the tablets of this second covenant exist intact until this day.

An old chassidic anecdote describes a Jew traveling by horse and buggy to be with his teacher for the High Holy Days. Three make the long and arduous journey to Mezeritch: the horse, the coach driver and the chassid. The horse, of course, makes the journey only to avoid being whipped by the coach driver, and because he will be fed oats at the end of the trip. The coach driver is making the trip because he will be paid well when he reaches his destination. And the Jew is making the trip so that he can study and learn from his teacher. They are all motivated by different things, and yet together, they can make the trip to Mezerich.

So it is with us in our journey through life. There is a “horse” within each of us, motivated by the mundane, like physical pleasure and fear of pain. There is a “coach driver” that rises above the animalistic: financial reward is distinctly human, yet still unremarkable. Then there is the sublime part of us that recognizes the deepest meanings: the inner “student” journeying to his master. It is true that we all make the trip together, the student paying the coach driver, the coach driver feeding the horse, and the horse pulling the passengers along so he will be fed. But we do not get to Mezeritch if we allow the horse to lead. It is the chassid who must dictate the destination.

Chana Silberstein is a developmental psychologist and educational director of the Chabad House in Ithaca, New York
Reprinted with permission from Wellsprings, a journal of Jewish thought.
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Discussion (9)
November 6, 2016
Inspiring. Well written. Thanks.
August 26, 2008
the unspoken
Thank you for a very deep and insightful article. Just a brief note, there is a strong chance that Maimonides would like to conceal from the child the fact that at the soul level he is studying Torah for a higher purpose. This might perhaps be a truth meant to be concealed.
Maimonides earlier in this section talks about those who preached serving G-d for a higher purpose as those who caused Jews to abandon the faith.
Brooklyn, NY
August 11, 2006
I am not Jewish but , I loved this article. I am inspired by it to develop my motivation in a more G-dly direction.
April 10, 2006
I just wanted to thank the author for a brilliant piece and to thank the commenters for opening up more thoughts.
Reading this today brought a few answers to some inner turmoil I was feeling. Many thanks.
Jen P
March 29, 2006
Psychology Update
How wonderful this new site, and these wonderful insights!

As a practicing psychologist who works with children, I just wanted to note that the field of psychology has progessed well past the "black box" of behaviorism. I don't know of any clinicians who are strictly "behaviorist" anymore. Although behavioral techniques are often helpful to at least get the "horse" to the water, whether the horse drinks or not, relies on other factors! While I use behavioral techniques myself, my "homework" for parents also considers the family and couple as a system, the influence of their own upbringing, their beliefs and values about themselves, each other, and their child, as well as their spiritual committments. In truth, behavioral homework often reveals more about the parents' motivation to change than the child's!
La Verne, CA
February 19, 2006
This is a most brilliant article but it does not spend much time explaiing how we reach for the goal for its own sake. What process enables us to do things without ulteriour motives
Manchester, UK
July 27, 2005
The Jewish Psychology of Reward
I enjoyed the article! It seems to me that from the standpoint of values, we should instill in our children the standard to seek only fulfillment in the righteous things. The chassid, in the story above engaged in his path for a spiritual reason, so us only feel deeply rewarded when we are motivated by our core values, our spiritual values...
São Paulo, Brazil
July 22, 2005
The Rebbe says new approach is needed
Interesting analysis of motivation in education. It should be noted that the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated decades ago that after the Rebbe Rashab (5th Lubavitcher Rebbe) cried to his father when he was a little boy, asking why Hashem did not appear to him as He appeared to Avrohom, this gave us an altogether new approach in education!

The Rebbe refers to the Rambam quoted in the article and says that nowadays we must educate a child so that G-dliness is that which is beloved to the child (and not sweets!), so that every child today yearns for G-d to appear to him, as He appeared to Avrohom.

Astonishingly, the Rebbe says that if we see a child nowadays who doesn't care that Hashem does not appear to him, that this is the fault of those who educate him!

(sources: see Likutei Sichos vol. 15, p. 132-133 and Likutei Sichos vol. 20, p. 66)
Yehudis Homnick
July 18, 2005
Great article! Insightful, thought-provoking and very well written. Thank you.