Free Will Problem in Judaism

Print this page Print this page

free will quizModernity has ushered in new and unique challenges to the idea of free will. Today, notions of biological and psychological determinism predominate in scientific discourse. Sigmund Freud suggested that our behaviors are guided by unconscious drives, not conscious agency. More recently, genetic science has shown the extent to which our lives and inclinations are programmed into our biological constitution. As more and more of our personalities--and the eventualities they imply--are discovered or believed to be organic, the significance and possibility of human choice diminishes.

It must be noted that a deterministic view of the world isn't necessarily problematic. Only once we have a presumption of responsibility is the possible lack of free will a problem. In this sense, theories that negate free will are obstacles for all societies that punish moral deviance. In addition to moral responsibilities, however, Jews also have religious responsibilities, the mitzvot, the commandments.

Jewish tradition maintains that God commanded the Jews to abide by certain laws. Those who comply with them will be rewarded and those who fail to comply with them will be punished. This system presumes that people have the ability to choose to comply or not comply. In fact, this presumption is borne out by the Jewish legal tradition. Individuals who cannot be considered responsible for their choices--e.g. minors, the mentally deficient--are not punished for violating Jewish law.

For Judaism, then, the problem of free will arises from the contradiction between divine and physiological determinism and the moral-religious responsibility mandated by tradition.  

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

Please consider making a donation today.