The Denial of Free Will in Hasidic Thought

According to some Hasidic thinkers, human free will is an illusion; God causes all human actions.

Print this page Print this page

Free Will is Part of the Illusion of Separateness

So it is for the Creation and the Einsof, except for one difference: in the case of the Creation, relative to the Infinite, the "rays" have never really left the sun. There exists no metaphysically real principle of individuation of a ray (creature). What exists is merely a consciousness of "rayness" (creatureliness), when in fact all the fire and all the light (all of the substance of what is real), are really within the undifferentiated mass of the sun (the Einsof) itself.

As far as the Einsof is concerned, there is no difference between before Creation and after, since the Einsof does not suffer from the illusion of individuated creatureliness.

The purpose of creation is for the "existent" to annul itself:

The purpose of creation is that there shall be an abode [for God] in the lower worlds. That there shall be an existent, and the annihilation of the existent…That there shall be an annihilation of the existent to nothingness. (Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, Liqqutei Torah, pt. 5, 28)

This Hasidic, allegorical doctrine of tzimtzum put metaphysical pressure on saying that there really was no free will, and that the consciousness of free will was only part of the illusion of creaturely separateness that has no basis in reality. Free will is only an appearance. When we cognize from within the appearance we experience our free will. However, were one to achieve the bittul ha‑yesh, the nullifying of selfness, of a separate consciousness, then free will would disappear along with the consciousness of separateness.               

Admittedly, this line of argument makes free will no more illusory than tables and chairs, in which case perhaps there would be no special point in singling out free will as mere appearance and illusion. But there has been a continuing tendency in Hasidic discourse to move in and out of the realm of appearance and the realm of reality, without clearly demarcating the boundaries of the discourse.

God Causes Our Actions, But We Control Our Thoughts

A second cluster of ideas congenial to the denial of free will starts with the pronounced Hasidic valuation of inwardness over action[…]

Reb Zadok [Zadok HaCohen of Lublin, a disciple of Mordechai Joseph Leiner (the Izbicer Rebbe), who believed that humans do not cause their own actions, also] denies free will in the strong sense of teaching that none of our acts result from our own volition; God is the true agent of human deeds. There is no human agency in the world of action. However, there is freedom with regard to the mental attitude we take with regard to our actions.

This is well illustrated by the following passage:

Repentance [Literally: "return"] means to return the matter to God, which means to say that one realizes that God does everything…And in this way, after repenting one turns one's willful sins into merits. (Zidqat ha-Zaddiq, sec. 100)

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Yehuda I. Gellman

Professor Yehuda I. Gellman is a lecturer in philosophy at Ben-Gurion University. He is the author of Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief.