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10 Cheshvan 5763 - October 16, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly
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Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Reward and Punishment

by Chaim Walder

Part I

Recent years have brought more and more remonstrations against punishment, remarks that have made their way into our camp as well. The general idea is that punishment is ineffective and not educational, and can even repress the child and make him aggressive toward others, and so on.

Without delving into the question of whether punishment is a means of educating or simply a preventative measure, it seems that psychologists and other experts have focused on only a fragment of the puzzle and forgotten the overall picture: shaping society. This is no coincidence. Modern psychology focuses on the "I," ignoring -- and often even prepared to harm -- the foundations of society.

Take the following example: a congested intersection anywhere. Hundreds of cars and trucks and buses waiting patiently for the convoy to advance. They may progress only 200 meters after waiting an entire hour. Then along comes a car on the right-hand shoulder, whizzing past the long line of cars and reaching the light within one minute flat. Try to imagine you are one of the drivers waiting for an hour in the blistering heat. How do you feel when you see this chutzpah of driving past the entire line?

You feel like a bit of a fool, don't you? You conscientiously maintained the social order, subjecting yourself to tortuous heat as you crawled along at an agonizingly slow pace, whereas some guy who upsets all social order spared himself this torment.

And then . . . at the corner a police car appears, lying in wait. The officer signals the driver to pull over and begins to write out a ticket. Perhaps you don't know this, but the police are instructed to take their time, write slowly, ask a lot of questions and carefully examine all of the little numbers on the license. The driver, who had been in such a hurry, now shuffles his feet back and forth on the floor of the car and wriggles in his seat.

Meanwhile the long convoy of cars starts to stream by and each of the drivers takes a look at the miscreant, driving by with a smug look of satisfaction on his face.

Are they deriving pleasure from their fellow man's misfortune?

Absolutely not. This is merely an affirmation that they did the right thing by maintaining the social order. It proves each driver is not a fool, but a wise man. It proves he lost nothing by respecting public order -- in fact the opposite is true: the citizen who upset the order turns out to be the loser. All of the hundreds of drivers feel this as they drive by the rebellious motorist. They are not happy at his misfortune but are merely pleased over the affirmation of their upstanding conduct.

Now imagine there had been no police car waiting. Instead the rebel drives past the light and out of sight. Everyone would have felt like a fool. Some of them might decide not to maintain law and order the next time around.

The conclusion: punishment is important not just for the transgressor but for the surrounding society as well. Perhaps that reckless driver is incorrigible. But this cannot be said of the hundreds of other drivers. The punishment is intended not only to deter the offender or to penalize him, but to contribute to the social unity of his surroundings and to reinforce values or instruct the masses.

Perhaps those who claim punishment does not educate the transgressor are right, but it definitely contributes to the education of upstanding citizens.

The best example of the influence punishment has on the non- delinquent environment is what former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani did. He adopted the idea that when someone breaks a display window of a store -- which is considered a petty crime -- and is not punished for it, he brings many others into cycles of crime and drives up the crime rate. On the other hand, when punishments are doled out even for minor crimes, it sends a message to the delinquent population that crime does not pay. (Delinquents will also deduce, through kal vochomer, that if people are punished for breaking glass, it is not a good idea to progress to more serious offenses.)

Here the criminal himself is inconsequential--except to bleeding-heart liberals who are invariably more concerned about the miscreant than his victims, or in a political context, more concerned about the welfare of the terrorist and his family than those who were orphaned because of him.

*

This insight can be applied not only to the issue of punishment, but also to how society should perceive those who do not stay in line.

In recent years there has been a positive trend towards addressing those who do not want or are unable to adapt themselves to social mores, and in some cases even drop out. This is certainly a welcome enterprise and a necessary response to a real set of circumstances, because if a society does not attend to its fringe elements, they will come and bite at its middle.

Yet in their enthusiasm some people have been sending the message that there is no distinction between the anomalies and those who walk the straight path. Helping these fringe elements feel a sense of belonging is certainly well- intentioned, and perhaps steps should be taken to encourage them, but when this message is conveyed to the surrounding society as well, it can pose a threat to social unity because a bochur who devotes all of his energy to Torah study night and day must have a sense he is special and distinct from his peers who do not show the same dedication. In reply to the claim that this emphasis is a type of punishment toward those who do not study with hasmodoh and permit themselves to dress and conduct themselves in a manner unbecoming to a ben yeshiva, we must insist there is no other choice. This must be stressed, otherwise it will harm the social unity of omlei Torah, taking away from those who invest superhuman efforts to be worthy of the appellation "ben Torah" and who might be mistakenly led to think that with less effort on their part they could still achieve this hallowed title.

This distinction, as much as it is liable to provoke resentment, is a precondition for the existence of a sound society. For if you do not hold the good in higher esteem than the less good, and if you avoid responding to acts or attitudes that stray from the path, you harm the social unity and the understanding of upright human conduct.

During the previous generation, the general education system made every mistake that could be made. Out of a claim to enlightened thinking or pity for the weak, it undermined the entire society. It refrained from punishing rebellious children to avoid harming sensitive souls, but in so doing it harmed the social unity of those who wanted to walk the beaten path, showing the defiant they could stray from the path without repercussions, and sometimes would even earn better treatment, bordering on admiration. We witnessed an upside-down world.

Indeed the world has done a turnaround, for in today's reality the secular youth who treads the beaten path is dubbed "gifted" which has now become a term of criticism -- like "nerd" or "misfit" or "chump" -- in modern Israeli parlance.

To keep this phenomenon at bay we must view the concept of punishment in a different light and beware not to obscure the lines between those who stay in line and those who must be brought back into line.


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