Shabbat Nitzavim: Free will and choice

September 22, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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“When someone hears this covenant that God is making with you today, he may feel blessed that he can choose to do whatever his heart desires.” Deuteronomy.29.18

Moses is telling the people that they can make choices and decide to accept or reject the covenant with God. But he warns them of the consequences of cutting themselves off from their heritage. But do we humans really have free will?

Philosophers, theologians, and scientists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have argued this issue for thousands of years. Some have suggested that God, being above time and knowing everything, must be aware of our actions long before we take them, and if so, everything has been pre-ordained and predestined. We have no choice. So why do we punish people? It is not their fault!
The rabbis of the Talmud were aware of this paradox. R. Akiva says “Everything is foreseen (by God), but permission (to act) is given, and everything depends on our actions ( Avot 3:19). Avot of R. Natan says  “Everything is foreseen and revealed, yet it all depends on the mind and actions of man.” To which the later rabbis added, “Everything is in the hands of the Heavens except for awe of ( or belief in ) God” ( Talmud Brachot 33b). And the equally paradoxical statement that  “Everything is in the hands of the Heavens, except for colds and traps”(Talmud Ketubot 30a), and that means that it is up to us to take care of our health and not catch colds and watch where we are going!

All these are ways of trying to reconcile something seemingly irreconcilable. Even the great Maimonides labours in his philosophy and his halacha to solve the issue. If everything is foreseen, how can we have the free will to choose? Yet Adam in the Garden of Eden was given the choice was able to disobey God over the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

And since our knowledge of God is limited and as we cannot know what God knows, we do indeed labour under the illusion perhaps or the reality that we do have a choice because otherwise, why should we be punished for anything if we had no choice? Some thinkers tried to differentiate between what God knows and what we know. From the  Essenes, the Apocryphal Books of Enoch, Ben Sirah, through early Christianity to Augustine, on through William of Occam, Calvin, and Zwingli, they all presented the issue in the way the rabbis of the Talmud did by trying to have their cake and eat it.

Of course, our choices are limited, by our minds, our bodies, and our circumstances. To use a modern term, we are conditioned to behave in completely predictable ways, and Artificial Intelligence knows what we want before we even realise it.

Someone physically and mentally suited to a life of scholarship will not make a very good boxer. And neither would Mike Tyson be a great philosopher.  And yet, within our lives, we do make choices all the time, fast ones and slow ones, big and small that differentiate one human from another. Ones we come to regret and ones that brought happiness or good fortune. Choice does not mean there are no limiting factors.

We see all the time how people change partners and jobs, hobbies, and sports, become more religious or less, change their sexuality or choose celibacy. And of course, predictions, whether by astrologists or scientists, are often proved wrong or inadequate. We do have some choices, even if we are not completely in control of our minds and bodies all the time. Choice and free will are not zero games.

The Torah is suggesting that there are good choices and bad ones. We must do our best to make those that according to the Torah will make us better human beings and more complete ones by adding a spiritual dimension to the mix.

Deuteronomy 29:9- 30:20.


One Response to “Shabbat Nitzavim: Free will and choice”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    To accept or reject is up to us, up to each man or woman. We have choice. Evil decisions made by some cannot be seen to be the ‘fault’ of G-d, for we are given the capacity to choose. I therefore cannot comprehend why the Holocaust is used as an example of the non-existence of G-d.

    Victor Frankl wrote of his experience in Auschwitz and, more universally, of man’s choice and free will to make it, even in the worst imprisonment while facing the possibility of death each day. He said that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. That man has a choice of actions even in these most terrible of circumstances. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in conditions of psychic and physical stress

    He saw sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. You could choose whether you would or you would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become moulded into the form of the typical inmate.
    [‘Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E Frankl, publ. by Rider, Great Britain, 2004]

    Nobody is suggesting it is not extraordinarily difficult to make an active choice to retain inner integrity of self, to make a moral decision in regard to how to treat others, how to stay truthful, but the point is the choice is there, no matter how hard, and we should not passively give in to the idea that all is ‘written’ ahead of us, all is ordained, for to do that is to forego responsibility.
    And we also should not so easily blame our upbringing and circumstance, because each of us is unique as an individual and capable of independence of thought, despite it.

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