Responding to the Free Will Problem in Judaism

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If humans are to be held responsible for their actions, they must have free will, the ability to choose right from wrong. However, ideas about God's providence and foreknowledge and scientific notions of biological and psychological determinism create problems for the presumption of human free will.

How have Jewish texts and thinkers responded to these problems?

The Bible does not engage this issue in a philosophical manner. It asserts God's active role in the world as well as the possibility of human choice, without reconciling the two.

free will quizRabbinic literature doesn't provide solutions to the free will problem either, though it does seem aware that providence and choice are somewhat incongruous. Rabbi Hanina ben Hama tried to distinguish these two domains in his famous proclamation that, "everything is in the hands of heaven except for fear of heaven" (BT Berakhot 33b). Interestingly, this statement can be understood in two ways: diminishing the significance of human choice (i.e. "everything" is decided by God) or glorifying it (i.e. because "fear of heaven" refers to spiritual and religious matters--in this interpretation, the most important aspects of life).

Perhaps the closest thing to an explicit rabbinic response to the free will problem is Rabbi Akiba's famous paradox that, "everything is foreseen [by God], yet man has the capacity to choose freely" (Avot 3:19).

While early Judaism was not generally concerned with debating philosophical issues, the concept of free will was a fundamental and explicit point of disagreement. According to the first-century historian Josephus, different conceptions of fate and determinism distinguished the three major Jewish sects of antiquity. Among the major Jewish sects of antiquity, the Essenes believed that fate determined everything, the Sadducees rejected fate entirely, and the Pharisees--the forerunners of rabbinic Judaism--believed that, "certain events are the work of Fate, but not all."

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