The Denial of Free Will in Hasidic Thought

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

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A similar thought is expressed more graphically in the following passage:

From the Baal‑Shem Tov…there is a parable of a person who decided to test his wife, so he made himself appear to her as a sea captain, and grabbed her and enticed her. But she refused, until he forced her to agree to him. Afterwards, she came to him with a broken heart and revealed the matter to him. Her husband then said to her, "It was I, and you never committed adultery with another." Thus shall God clarify the sins of Israel, that all was from God. And so I heard from our Master, Teacher, and Rabbi, Blessed be his memory, from Izbica, the interpretation of the verse, "You were rebellious with God (Deuteronomy 9:8)," for it should have said, "against God." But the meaning is that God will make it clear that when we were rebellious it was also with God, and from Him it issued. (Pri Zaddiq, 4.236-237)

Recognizing the Folly of Free Will

And in the following passage the denial of freedom is linked with our inner attitude towards our actions:

Free choice is only from the perspective of this world, and lasts only as long as one cleaves to materiality and does not cleave entirely to Him, be He blessed, and so has not reached the perfection of freedom, which is to cleave to the living God entirely. For when one reaches that level one realizes the truth that there is no freedom and it is not due to your righteousness and the straightness of your heart. Haughtiness comes from the lowliness and the material in a person…For were he to recognize that God is with him and that his own intellect is from God, there would be no place for haughtiness…It turns out that the humility of a person is his greatness, when his soul cleaves to his source. And haughtiness comes from the body, which is far from God, and from whose perspective freedom of choice exists, and from this comes the haughtiness, as though he makes an effort and chooses the good. (Taqanot ha-Shavin, 26)

The latter text may well be based on the following statement of the Izbicer in his Mei ha‑Shiloah in which he comments on the Talmudic statement that in Temple times the High Priest never suffered a nocturnal emission on the night of Yom Kippur, when he was to enter the Holy of Holies on the morrow. Such an occurrence, (literally in Hebrew: "a nocturnal accident"), would have rendered the High Priest ritually unfit for the Temple service. The lzbicer writes:

Had the High Priest...thought for even a minute that he himself had any power and existence of his own, he would have suffered this impediment, which is called by the Torah "an accident." That is, when a person thinks that there is accident in the world without Divine plan, and thus a person thinks that he himself has power of existence of his own, this is haughtiness with which a person is haughty…thinking that he has power to influence events. (Mei ha‑Shiloah, 2.37)

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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.