By Rabbi Michael Beyo
The Babylonian Talmud, in Pesachim 50b, reports the saying of Rab Judah in the name of Rab: “A person should always engage in Torah and good deeds, though it is not for their own sake, for out of [doing this] not for its own sake comes for its own sake.” Mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma – is the Hebrew term which means literally “for out of not for its own sake comes for its own sake.” This phrase means that if you begin doing something good for an ulterior motive, you will come to do good for its own sake.
This is the accepted and standard reading. It is permissible and even sometime advisable (for pedagogical reasons) to engage in a proper behavior and study, even if we have no real interest to do or study the subject matter. Actually, if we have a stated ulterior motive, in time we will train ourselves to do the right thing, we will then (hopefully) continue to perform it for the correct reasons.
Maimonides is famous for having brought this concept to a quasi dogmatic acceptance when in his Perek Helek (which is also where he introduces the famous 13th principles of faith that are quite different than the popularized version found in the standard prayer books) he speaks of a situation where a child does not want to study because he does not comprehend the importance of knowledge for the sake of knowledge – Lishma – and therefore the intuitive teacher will bribe the child to study for the reward of a candy. And so on year after year, the child that is not a child anymore keeps studying exchanging the reward of studying for the sake of knowledge for a different kinds of candy, that change according to his age, so the candy become shoes and shoes become money and money becomes honor and honor becomes some form of spiritual reward. To all this pedagogical methodology, the Rambam says that sometimes it is necessary – a necessary evil – but that the Rabbis have allowed it, mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma, that it is permissible (and not preferable – note: the Babylonian Talmud in Taanit 7b also says the complete opposite, that a person that engages Torah lo lishma – it will became his poison) to engage in such a behavior because hopefully the child at a certain stage of his/her life will realize that knowledge is important for its own sake.
Also in the Yad (Maimonides code of law), we encounter the following law, in the Laws of Talmud Torah 3:2 – “[...] the rabbis said that a person should engage in Torah study for its own sake (lishma) or even if it is not for its own sake (lo lishma) for out of [doing it] not for its own sake [ulterior motive - i.e. candy] he will come to do it for the right motive (lishma).”
The problem with this Halacha is that Maimonides does not quote the actual text of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud, as we quoted earlier, says Torah and good deeds; where Torah is universally understood as Torah study. The question is, therefore, why isn’t the Rambam quoting the Babylonian Talmud correctly? From the formulation of Maimonides, it would seem that it might be permissible to study Torah for an ulterior motive, but maybe actually doing a Mitzvah must be done without any ulterior motive.
Maimonides uses a similar quote in the Laws of Repentance 10:5, where once again the Rambam is very clear that we are referring to a person studying the Torah not for its own sake (i.e. knowledge), and he is not talking about a person that performs a Mitzvah for an ulterior motive. It might seems that Maimoinides would not condone such a behavior. Why? (Also, the examples that he brings with the child is only referring to studying Torah not for its own sake. Why?)
What is ultimately the difference between studying and doing and why does Maimonides say that it is permissible to study not for its own sake but he does not say the same for the performance of the Mitzvot not for its own sake?
I would like to suggest that maybe the reason that Maimonides condones studying not for its own sake is that the function of studying is such that even if I am doing it for an ulterior motive ultimately, and involuntarily, my knowledge will change. The more I study, even if it is against my will, it will influence my knowledge and there is nothing I can do to prevent it. Once I know something, I know it and that is the ultimate goal of Torah – to know the truth – with the hope that once I know the truth I will also apply the teachings of it to my life.
On the other hand if I perform a Mitzvah for an ulterior motive it might became a rote. It might became a mechanical, instinctual behavior without any positive influence on my understanding and therefore, the Rambam would not include it in the permission given from the rabbis to perform a Mitzvah for an ulterior motive.
If my reading of the Ramabam is correct, it would mean that he would not allow many of the outreach programs that are normally conducted around the world. Further, it would mean that we have to be extremely careful of the real motive that we have when performing the Mitzvoth. Are we performing the Mitzvoth because we want a candy, a new car, a better job, a healthy child, the resurrection of the dead or Mashiach or are we performing the Mitzvot since it is the correct thing to do?
Why are you?