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 accordingly respond. 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
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 these results
to 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 even penetrated the body of Jewish law.
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 was 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," mitokh, 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 is not told to learn Torah, then, 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
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 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.
Reward and punishment alone are insufficient agents of change
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
is a better measure 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
In addition, the animals trained to perform complex tasks through chaining a
number of simpler behaviors within their natural repertoire would only continue
to do so 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.
The behaviorist approach is doomed to failure, because we cannot motivate without an intimate consideration of the individual’s inner life
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
only effective 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
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 49 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, 40 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.