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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

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