Responding to the Free Will Problem in Judaism

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All the major medieval Jewish philosophers discussed the issue of free will.

They were particularly interested in the contradiction between human choice and divine foreknowledge. Most thinkers tried to solve the problem by either limiting the range of God's knowledge (for example, Gersonides, a 14th-century thinker) or the range of man's freedom (for example, Hasdai Crescas, another 14th-century writer). Others, like the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides and some medieval mystics, suggested that the question--how could humans have free will if God knows our choices before we choose?--presumes a conception of knowledge that is inapplicable to God. Thus the free will problem is not a problem at all.

Perhaps the most radical solution to the problem of free will is that of the Hasidic Izbicer Rebbe who stated that, in fact, humans do not have the ability to choose their actions. God is the source of all human actions. However, humans can control their thoughts and intentions, and this is what they are responsible for.  

In the modern era, Jewish thinkers continued to struggle with the problem of free will. Hermann Cohen acknowledged that human actions can be influenced by outside forces, but nonetheless, asserted that it is necessary to believe in an ethical realm of being in which humans can choose.

Existentialism, a general philosophical trend that stressed the importance of human choice, influenced several Jewish thinkers. Martin Buber, the great Jewish existentialist, wrote that, "Sin in man is decisionlessness." For Buber, choice is fundamental to human/religious experiences, but real decisions can only be made in the context of an I-Thou relationship, a relationship of true dialogue and mutuality. In an I-It relationship, in which people relate to each other in a detached manner, on the other hand, humans do not have complete freedom.

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