Free Will in Judaism 101

Jewish tradition assumes that our actions are significant.

If humans do not have free will–the ability to choose–then actions are morally and religiously insignificant: a murderer who kills because she is compelled to do so would be no different than a righteous person who gives charity because she is compelled to do so.

Jewish tradition assumes that our actions are significant. According to the Bible, the Jews were given the Torah and commanded to follow its precepts, with reward and retribution to be meted out accordingly. For Judaism to make sense, then, humans must have free will.

The Free Will Problem

There are theological problems with the idea of human free will. Jewish tradition depicts God as intricately involved in the unfolding of history. The Bible has examples of God announcing predetermined events and interfering with individual choices. Rabbinic literature and medieval philosophy further develop the notion of divine providence: God watches over, guides, and intervenes in human affairs. How can this be reconciled with human free will?

There is also a philosophical problem, which derives from the conception of God as omnipotent and omniscient: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God must know what we will do before we do it. Doesn’t this predetermine our choices? Doesn’t this negate free will?

Modern science has raised yet another problem. Some contemporary scientific thinking and research attributes much of human behavior to biological and psychological factors. If these factors in large part, determine our behavior, how can we be held responsible for our actions?

Responding to the Free Will Problem

Biblical and rabbinic literature don’t systematically analyze philosophical issues, including the concept of free will. The Bible is clear that God has a role in determining human affairs, and equally clear that, in most cases, human beings have the ability to choose between right and wrong. This contradiction does not seem to bother the biblical writer(s), and thus the Bible provides no clear solution to the free will problem. Some rabbinic sources indicate an awareness that divine providence and human choice might be contradictory, but no systematic solutions are articulated.

Solving the free will problem–especially the problem of divine foreknowledge–was a major aspect of medieval Jewish philosophy, which offered an array of possible theories about what God knows and doesn’t know. For example, Gersonides suggested that God knows the choices from which we will choose, but doesn’t know the specific choice we will make.

Gersonides’ position–seemingly radical because of the limitations it puts on God’s capabilities–pales in comparison to the unique position of the Hasidic leader known as the Izbicer Rebbe. He claimed that there is no philosophical problem related to freewill, because humans don’t have free will. While humans have control over their thoughts and intentions, God is the active cause of every human action. This sort of determinism is often referred to as “soft determinism.” “Hard determinism” refers to the idea that even thoughts, intentions, and feelings are predetermined.

Modern Jewish thinkers also address the problem of free will, though more often than not, instead of solving the problem of how it can exist, they discuss when and where it does exist.

In many ways, free will in the modern period is an even more significant philosophical issue, as contemporary life emphasizes personal autonomy in a way that traditional societies didn’t.

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