The Free Will Problem: Early Solutions

Biblical and rabbinic sources stress both divine determinism and human freedom.

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In a more pointed attempt to locate the source of human motivations in God, the rabbis pleaded in favor of the brothers of Joseph, "When Thou didst choose, Thou didst make them love; when Thou didst choose, Thou didst make them hate" (Genesis Rabbah 84‑18, Theodor Albeck, ed., 1022).

Elijah, too, spoke insolently toward Heaven, saying to God, "Thou hast turned their heart back again," and God later confessed that Elijah was right (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 31b; cf. Genesis Rabbah 34.10, Theodor Albeck, ed., 320). A similar critique is voiced with almost consistent monotony by the author of [the apocalyptic work] IV Ezra: "This is my first and last word; better had it been that the earth had not produced Adam, or else, having once produced him, [for Thee] to have restrained him from sinning" (IV Ezra 7:116).

"Everything is Foreseen, Yet Humanity Has the Capacity to Choose"

Although the statement of Rabbi Hanina ben Hama, a first‑generation Palestinian amora that "everything is in the hand of Heaven except the fear of Heaven" (BT Berakhot 33b; cf. BT Niddah l6b) has sometimes been taken to imply an absolute free will doctrine, it is most unlikely that this interpretation is correct. Rabbi Hanina probably only meant to imply that whereas God's providence in every other aspect of human life involves direct guidance and at times even intervention, this does not apply to human moral deliberations, which ultimately depend upon the spiritual endowments initially bestowed on a person by God.

Moreover, the famous paradox of Rabbi Akiva that asserts that "everything is foreseen [by God], yet man has the capacity to choose freely" (Avot 3:15)‑‑or as Josephus put it, "to act rightly or otherwise rests for the most part with man, but in each action Fate cooperates" (Wars 2, 162‑63)‑‑is undoubtedly a Jewish version of the well‑known Stoic paradox that although everything is in accordance with Heimarmene, yet human action is within our power.

Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

Biblical monotheism, which tended to subordinate the entire natural world to the sovereign power of YHWH [God], was ineluctably driven to attribute even the human psychological sphere to the all‑determining divine action.

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Dr. David Winston

Dr. David Winston is Professor Emeritus of Hellenistic and Judaic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.