Free Will Problem in Judaism

Our experiences indicate that we have free will. When we do a particular action, we have the sense that we have chosen that act from an array of alternatives. However, there are theological, philosophical, and scientific reasons to think that this sense of choice is illusory. 

The idea that God controls the world, determining the trajectory and details of its history, is strong in Judaism and is one of the theological issues that contributes to the Jewish problem of free will.

Early in the Bible, for example, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be oppressed as slaves in a foreign land; God will punish their oppressors, however, and Abraham’s children will leave with great wealth and return to the land of Canaan (Genesis 15). In the biblical timeframe, God announces the inevitability of these events centuries before they take place, making the humans who eventually act out this plan into something like puppets. This is an example of God determining general events, but the Bible has more extreme examples of divine determinism as well.

free will problemIn the book of Exodus, God repeatedly hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not release the Israelites from slavery. Interestingly, this “hardening” incident is not unique. In Deuteronomy 2:30, Sihon the king of Heshbon is said to have refused passage to the Israelites because God “hardened his spirit,” and in Joshua 11:20 God is reported to have hardened the hearts of the Canaanite soldiers.

Aside from determining specific events and human actions, traditional Jewish sources often assert that God watches over the world, providing providential care. For example, the Talmud relates that God, “feeds the whole world from the horned buffalo to the brood of vermin (BT Avodah Zarah, 3b).”

The medieval philosophers struggled with how to reconcile divine providence–known as hashgahah–with human choice. They debated the parameters of God’s providence and disagreed as to whether it extends to all species, just human beings, or only certain human beings.

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