Author Archives: David Shatz

David Shatz

About David Shatz

Dr. David Shatz is Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University.

Hardened Hearts: Some Explanations

In several places, the Bible reports that God hardened human hearts (most notably, Pharoah’s), apparently stripping these agents of free will and manipulating their choices. There are a number of problems with this: 1) Why would God do this? 2) How could God hold a hardened agent responsible for his actions? 3) Why would God prevent one from repenting? 4) How can a good God be the cause of an evil act? These questions are discussed in “Hardened Hearts: Depriving Free Will”; the article below analyzes possible responses. Reprinted with permission from “Freedom, Repentance, and Hardening of the Hearts: Albo vs. Maimonides,” published in
Faith and Philosophy
(1997, 14:4).

A “solution” to [the philosophical problems raised by God’s hardening of hearts] must satisfy two criteria. It must be philosophically cogent; but it also must be compatible with, if not directly supported by, the Bible’s narrative and terminology and concepts found in other parts of Jewish tradition.


Reinterpretation of the Term

Some exegetes, including Saadia Gaon (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, IV:6) and Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (chapter 36 of his Akedat Yitzchak), deny that the term “hardening of the heart” has anything to do with interference in motivational systems. It connotes instead keeping someone alive (as per Saadia) or providing respite (as per Arama). Most interpreters implicitly disagree with these readings.

The Modest Solution

What I would call the “modest” solution contends that, had God not hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh would have therefore released the Israelites due to the mounting pressure of the plagues, this would not have been a free choice on Pharaoh’s part anyway, and would not have constituted repentance. Rather, the decision to release would then have been coerced [by the plagues]. Hence, the charge that God has “deprived” Pharaoh of free will is false, since Pharaoh is not now less free than if God had not intervened.

Further, because releasing the Israelites would have taken place only under pressure of the plagues, Pharaoh would not have genuinely repented had he succumbed to the plagues’ pressure.

Hardened Hearts: Removing Free Will

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from “Freedom, Repentance, and Hardening of the Hearts: Albo vs. Maimonides,” published in
Faith and Philosophy
(1997, 14:4).

On several occasions in the Bible, God “hardens the heart” of individuals. 

“Victims” of divine hardenings include the Egyptian king Pharaoh (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17, and arguably 14:5, 18), the Moabite king Sihon (Deuteronomy 2:30), and the army of Canaan in the time of Joshua (Joshua 11:20). Proverbs 21:1 informs us, indeed, that “the heart of a king is in the Lord’s hands like streams of water; He will turn it to whatever He wants”; and without referring to hardening per se, the prophet Elijah insinuates that God has led the hearts of the sinning Israelites astray (I Kings 18:37).

Interfering With Free Will

To harden someone’s heart is, apparently, to interfere in the person’s motivational system so as to cause the person to act in a way different than he or she would have otherwise acted. Consequently, the most obvious problem posed by hardening of the hearts pertains to the loss of free will incurred by the hardened agent.

free will quizMost philosophers subscribe to the principle that, when an agent S interferes directly to affect agent V‘s motivational system in a way that does not involve rational persuasion–brainwashing, hypnosis and the like–such interference will normally preclude V‘s freely performing and bearing responsibility for acts that the intervention caused. It would seem, therefore, that, by hardening, God deprives certain people of a significant good, free will.

We may call this the “free will deprivation problem.”

Is Free Will a Supreme Value?

One might retort that in Judaism free will is not as great a value as the “free will deprivation problem” and other theological stances, such as “free will theodicies” [attempts to explain human suffering], imply. For example, authoritative Jewish sources at times justify coercion to secure correct behavior; in fact, the biblical God tries to elicit obedience to His commands by promising rewards for compliance and threatening dire punishments for disobedience.