It’s a Free Country

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Does man actually have free will? The scientific theory of determinism posits that a set of rules, the laws of nature, predetermine everything that takes place in the universe, including the behavior of human beings. Said differently, individuals have no free will and perhaps can therefore not be held morally responsible for their actions. While this is certainly but one approach to understanding mankind’s actions in this world, this is a belief that is held by many prominent secular scientists and philosophers, most notably the famed physicist Stephen Hawking. Without a conception of free will, man is not accountable for his actions. With no accountability should those that violate legal, ethical, or even moral ‘laws’ be prosecuted and punished? If life is predetermined than there is nothing a person can do to stop themselves from killing or committing other crimes.


Yet, the Jewish perspective is in many ways the polar opposite. The Torah tells us in Devarim (30:15-19) that “Reeh Natati Lifanecha HaYom et HaChaim V’Et HaTov, V’Et HaMavet V’Et HaRa” ; “See, I set before you today life and goodness, death and evil. The Torah continues “U’Bicharta BiChaim” ; “Now choose life.” In other words, the Torah clearly lays out the notion of ‘free choice’ or ‘free will,’ what is usually referred to as Bechira Chofshit in Hebrew. This divine gift of free will enables a person to make the choices between good and evil, and between life and death. The choices a person makes are theirs alone and therefore they must be held accountable for any consequences that may occur.


Interestingly, despite how seemingly fundamental this idea of free will is, the Rambam, Maimonides, does not list ‘free will’ as one of his 13 Principles of Faith. That being said, it is clear that the Rambam believed ‘free will’ to be a fundamental element of Jewish thought in that he dedicated an entire section of the Mishna Torah in Hilchot Teshuva to the topic. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps the Rambam subsumed ‘free will’ under the eleventh principle of reward and punishment. After all, the Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva (5:4) that if man had no free will, he certainly would not be held accountable for anything he did. Moreover, the Rambam explains that free will is what gives a person the opportunity to write their own history and leave their own legacy. In Hilchot Teshuva (5:2) he writes:

“Do not believe the thought expressed by foolish nations and many unwise Jews that when God creates a person He decrees whether he will be righteous or evil. This is not the case. Rather, each person has the capability to choose to become righteous like Moshe Rabbeinu or evil like Yeravam, wise or foolish, merciful or cruel… and similarly regarding any other attribute.”

Through free will, and by making the right choices, each and every person has the ability to reach the highest levels of holiness like the great Moshe.


Yet, remarkably, there are many psychologists that vehemently disagree with this notion. Instead, they focus on the debate of nature versus nurture—the question of whether we are born or ingrained by our upbringing to be a certain way and as such might be pre-programmed in the decisions that we make. Based on this, true ‘free will’ cannot exist. Instead despicable and egregious behaviors could simply be excused by nature or nurture. While, Judaism does not deny that each of us are born and raised and even perhaps programmed with personal inclinations and challenges to overcome in life, those predispositions do not prevent someone from choosing a different path. Jewish free will emphasizes that man alone is accountable for his actions despite how he might have been raised, or educated etc. The question of nature versus nurture is more of a question of ‘why I am’ whereas Judaism is much more concerned with ‘who I will be.’


This is precisely what Pirkei Avot Chapter 3 Mishna 18 is trying to teach, “All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given. The world is judged with goodness, but all depends on the majority of one’s deeds.” This Mishna highlights that G-d imbues mankind with free will while emphasizing that one’s deeds (i.e. the choices one makes) is what determines the fate of the world. If man chooses well, then the world is judged with goodness. Sadly, on the other hand, if man chooses evil, then the world is judged for the worst. Free will is what holds mankind accountable, and as the Rambam writes, it is the foundation of the system of reward, punishment, and ultimately Teshuva.


It is certainly interesting that this Mishna finds itself between the previous Mishna that emphasizes that man was created BiTzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d, as well as the following Mishna that highlights that life is ‘on loan’ from G-d. In addition, as a side note, this Mishna is not explicitly attributed to any one author. However, many commentators suggest this Mishan to be a continuation of Rabbi Akiva’s statements in that the previous Mishna as well as the following Mishna each start with “Hu Haya Omer” ; “He used to say” referring to Rabbi Akiva. It would be strange to see a random statement by another Rabbi in the middle of Rabbi Akiva’s ‘train of thought.’ Assuming that it is in fact a continuation of Rabbi Akiva’s teachings, perhaps, the placement of the idea of free will specifically here provides a greater understanding of why free will even exists. Rabbi Hershel Schachter writes that the meaning of Tzelem Elokim, being created in G-d’s image, is the power of choice, free will. “Just as G-d created the entire world yesh me’ayin (something from nothing) so too He gave us the ability to make decisions yesh me’ayin. There are various considerations we keep in mind when making our decisions, all based on our psychological predisposition. But the final decision still remains up to us; our minds are not programmed in advance to make any specific decisions.” In other words, Rabbi Akiva teaches the concept of free will following the concept of B’Tzelem Elokim, because free will is the meaning of being created in G-d’s image.


Yet, despite how important free will is to Jewish thought, Mishna 18, highlights a seemingly contradictory idea. If everything is foreseen according to the Mishna, in other words, if G-d knows all, then how can there ever truly be ‘free choice’? G-d already knows what someone might choose. G-d already has a divine plan for mankind. If so, what kind of free will is that? In fact, the Gemara in Tractate Chullin (7b) writes that, “Rabbi Chaninah said: A person does not even bang their finger below (in this world) without it being decreed above.” How could there be free will in a world like that?


To say that this is an enormous question is an understatement. Finding a meaningful answer, frankly, is extremely difficult. In fact, the Rambam continues in Hilchot Teshuva (5:5) and writes that:

Know that the answer to this question is longer than the earth and wider than the seas…A human being is not able to understand this issue completely, just as he is unable to perceive the true nature of G-d.

It is beyond mankind’s ability to understand the ways of G-d. G-d’s knowledge is on an entirely different plane than man. In its most simple way, man like G-d can see the past and the present. However, the very nature of “seeing the future” as described in Mishna 18, “HaKol Safuy” is simply incomprehensible. Despite this difficulty, there are a number of interesting ideas that can bring some semblance of meaning to the difficult balance between G-d’s plan and mankind’s free will.


Making choices and using free will is the way in which man bring the potential within him into practice. After all G-d doesn’t need man to make the “right choice.” G-d already knows what lies in man’s heart, and whether he truly desires to do what is right. Yet, G-d provides mankind with daily challenges and choices that must be made such that the choices made cause man to achieve his potential. Perhaps the greatest example of this can be found regarding Avraham. The Torah tells us in Bereishit 22:1 “Hashem Nisah et Avraham, that G-d tested Abraham. Why did G-d need to test Avraham? What was the purpose in doing so? Ramban, Nachmanides, writes:

The concept of a test is as follows. Since a man’s actions are completely subject to his own will, so that he can act if he wishes or desist if he wishes, it is called a “test” from the vantage point of the one being tested. The One Who tests, however, is commanding him in order to actualize his potential so that he can receive reward for proper actions, not merely for proper intentions. Know that God tests the righteous (Tehillim 11:5) when He knows that the righteous man will do His will and He desires to give the man merits – that is when He commands him to undergo a test. However, He does not test the wicked, who will not listen. All the tests in the Torah are for the benefit of the one being tested.

Free will and free choice allows man to actualize his potential and become a true partner with G-d in this world. G-d provides many challenges and competing options for man to choose. Through the process of free will man can ultimately become closer to G-d. It was through these kinds of life tests that Avraham actualized his potential and ultimately became closer to G-d.


Another possible way to find meaning in the balance between free will and G-d’s divine plan can be seen in two seemingly contradictory pieces of Talmud. On the one hand the Gemara in Brachot (33b) famously writes that “Hakol Bidei Shamayim Chutz MiYirat Shamayim” ; “Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of G-d.” On the other hand, the Gemara in Bava Batra (144b) writes, “Hakol Bidei Shamayim Chutz MiTzinim Pachim” ; “Everything is in the hands of heaven except chills and fevers. By definition these pieces of Talmud are self-contradictory. If everything is in the hands of heaven except for one thing, then which is it—the fear of G-d or chills and fever? Tosafot in Bava Batra answers this question by referencing a Gemara in Nida (16b) that explains that there is an angel called Lilah that supervises every pregnancy. The angel takes the fertilized egg to G-d and says, “Master of the Universe, what will become of this child—strong or weak, wise or foolish, wealthy of poor?” Based on this, Tosafot explains that the Gemara is actually discussing two distinct categories of Divine decrees. With regards to events that befall a person, everything is decreed in Heaven, and the only area in which a person can exert some control over his destiny is with regard to taking precautions to avoid chills and fevers. However, when it comes to a person’s own physical attributes, there is a different rule. A person is powerless to alter or change these parts of themselves. One’s intelligence, physical strength, wealth, etc. cannot be changed. All one can hope to do is to change one’s level of fear of Heaven—choosing between what is right and what is wrong. In other words, G-d makes certain decisions about a person’s attributes in this world that man must live with. However, what a person does with those attributes, and the free will choices they make, are ultimately up to them.


Finally, it is interesting to look back on Mishna 18 and notice the language used to connote free will—‘Reshut.’ As was mentioned above, the Mishna does not use the more commonly used Hebrew phraseology of free will—‘Bechira Chofshit.’ In fact, the Rambam also in his discussion doesn’t use the term Bechira Chofshit, but instead also chooses to use the word ‘Reshut’ to describe free will. It is especially strange in that modern Hebrew almost exclusively uses the phrase ‘Bechira’ and not ‘Reshut’ when talking about choices one can make. For example, elections held in Israel are called ‘Bechirot.’ To try and understand this distinction in language, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (as told over by Rabbi Hershel Schachter) teaches a novel interpretation. Using elections, Bechirot, as an example, when one goes to vote they are presented with a fixed set of candidates to choose from. However, when we talk about choices a person can make, they are not not limited by just the fixed options that are laid out for him. Rather, man has the ‘Reshut’ the ability to choose a path in life that may have never even been presented to him as an option. Just because life is heading in one direction, just because a person is in a certain environment that predisposes or exposes them to certain negative/positive stimuli, doesn’t mean that they cannot make a new path for themselves. Being created Bitzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d means making choices and having free will such that we too can be creators Yeish Me’Ayin like G-d. What kind of a life will you choose?