Berkovits & Cohen: The Free Will Defense

The deviant use of human freedom, not God, is the source of evil and suffering.

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In the following article, Steven T. Katz explores the assertion that human free will accounts for the suffering experienced during the Holocaust--a notion most notably presented by thinkers such as Eliezer Berkovits and Arthur A. Cohen--and analyzes Cohen’s theology in detail. By posing the question of suffering, says Cohen, we have not only underestimated human free will, we have overestimated God’s abilities. Katz shows Cohen’s affinity with the “process theologians,” those who suggest that God contains the universe, and just as the universe is always changing as a result of human free will, so to God is always changing. Excerpted and reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Among philosophical reflections concerning theodicy [the problem of evil], none has an older or more distinguished lineage than that known as the “Free Will Defense.”suffering evil

According to this argument, human evil is the necessary and ever‑present possibility entailed by the reality of human freedom. If human beings are to have the potential for majesty, they must, conversely, have an equal potential for corruption; if they are to be capable of acts of authentic morality, they must be capable of acts of authentic immorality. Freedom is a two‑edged sword, hence its challenge and its cost.

Applying this consideration to the events of the Nazi epoch, the Shoah [the Holocaust] becomes a case of people’s inhumanity to people, the extreme misuse of human freedom. Such a position in no way forces a reconsideration of the cosmological structure [i.e. the ultimate spiritual or metaphysical constitution of the universe] in which the anthropological [i.e. human] drama unfolds; nor does it call into question God’s goodness and solicitude, for it is people, not God, who perpetrate genocide.

God observes these events with the unique divine pathos, but in order to allow human morality to be substantively real, God refrains from intercession. At the same time, while God is long‑suffering with an evil humanity, his patience results in the suffering of others.

If God must absent himself for people to be, God must also be present in order that meaninglessness does not gain final victory. Thus, God’s presence in history must be sensed as hiddenness, and God’s anonymity must be understood as the sign of his presence. God reveals his power in history by curbing his might so that humans too might be powerful. In this scenario, the only enduring witness to God’s ultimate control over the course of things is the Jewish people.

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Dr. Steven T. Katz

Dr. Steven T. Katz is the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. He is the author of The Holocaust in Historical Context.