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Friday, November 20, 2009


Many of us grew up with the belief that we are free to do whatever we want. The sky is the limit, we are told. Yet, others maintain that God, being omniscient, determines everything. All we do is follow our fate. This is not a new issue. It has been debated by philosophers for centuries. And it is not going to go away, because we confront it everyday.
What is the Jewish position on this puzzling question? In many parts of the Bible, the hand of God can be seen not only in miraculous interventions (like, the parting of the Reed Sea) but also in ordinary life experiences. Take for instance the case of Joseph: the brothers may have had a scheme in mind when they sold him to others, but it was ultimately God that had a different pre-ordained plan for him. Joseph is only a tool in God’s hands; he is to become a life saver: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves,” Joseph says to his brothers in Egypt, “because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen. 45: 5). Here is another example: God “hardens the heart of the Pharaoh” (e.g., Ex. 10: 1), and then punishes him for the king’s evil acts. It is not fair! If God knows ahead of time what we will do, thus controlling our actions, how can we be free to do good or not, and, therefore, be responsible?
The Bible does not deal with this philosophical question systematically. On the one hand it states: “I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut. 30: 15), yet, on the other, it maintains that “Many designs are in a man’s mind; But it the Lord’s plan that is accomplished” (Prov. 19: 21).
The matter became of greater concern for the early Rabbis and medieval Jewish philosophers. Some Rabbis have recognized the dilemma but left it unsolved: Thus, in the 2nd cent. CE, Rabbi Akiba taught: “All is foreseen but freedom of choice is given” (Avot 3: 19). In medieval times Crescas argued that God has total foreknowledge and therefore humans are not free. Gersonides maintained the opposite: we have some freedom; this is because God only knows things in general, not in their particularity. Maimonides compromised by saying that, everything is produced by a cause, and, consequently, God is ultimately responsible for our actions. So, when we do something, we imagine that we are doing it freely, without realizing that these acts are the workings of the divine providence, which is unknown to the human mind.
Maybe Maimonides is right. We do not fully understand how the world operates, and we act with the assumption that we have free will. In reality, I maintain, our freedom is very limited. At this very moment, I would love to be in Hawaii lounging by the beach, but I cannot be there, because of my family and professional commitments here and now. Similarly, I would love to be able to play the violin like Yitzhak Perlman but I cannot, simply because I do not have his talent.
So, I say, we do have some freedom: I can opt to give to this charity instead of that one; I can go to a lecture or to a movie; I can sign up for this course or another; I can decide to invest in this stock or the other one; but beside these mundane options, our freedom is rather limited by our biology and conscience. But there is plenty in that area to keep us busy and fulfilled. Also don’t forget that no amount of planning will ever replace dumb luck!
Rifat Sonsino
Nov. 20, 2009

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Gershom Scholem was the founder of the modern academic studies of Jewish Mysticism, Kabbalah. Born in Berlin in 1897, he studied philosophy and Hebrew at the University of Berlin. In 1923 he left for Palestine and became the head of the department of Hebrew and Judaica at the National Library. Subsequently he taught at the Hebrew University until his retirement in 1965. He died in 1982 in Jerusalem at the age of 85.
His writings on Jewish mysticism set the pattern for the study of Kabbalah from a critical and historical perspective. Among his most important books are, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, On Kabbalah and its Symbolism, Sabbatai Zevi; The Mystical Messiah; The Messianic Idea in Judaism. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once remarked, "All of us have students, schools, but only Gershom Scholem has created a whole academic discipline!"

When I was a rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, Dr. Scholem came to the College to do research on Kabbalah. He remained in residence just a short time, from March to May of 1966. In the 60’s Jewish mysticism was not an academic subject for which many of us would have signed up. Rationalism dominated the rabbinic curriculum. Consequently, I never had Dr. Scholem as a teacher but his room was adjacent to mine in the dormitory. Being a neighbor, I saw him often in the hall, library or the dining room. Once in a while, especially on a Saturday night, if I did not have something special to do, I would knock at his door, and ask him if he wanted to go out. He was by himself and not always socially busy. So, on a number of occasions we would hit a movie or get a cup of coffee at a local diner.

Dr. Scholem was a very formal individual, always wearing tie and jacket, even when we went to see a show. He was a stern man with a dry sense of humor. He spoke English well, though with a strong German accent. With me, he was friendly and cordial. I don’t remember what we talked about during our outings. But one thing is sure: I had no idea then that I was in the company of one of the most insightful scholars of our generation. It was only later on, when I started to read about Jewish mysticism that I realized how lucky I was to have spent quality time with Prof. Scholem. I wish I knew then what I know now, and could have asked him so many questions that still puzzle me about Kabbalah, but I will have to contend myself with a few wonderful memories I have of him. Well, c’est la vie!

Rifat Sonsino