Free Will Problem in Judaism

The idea that God controls the world, determining the trajectory and details of its history, is strong in Judaism and is one of the theological issues that contributes to the Jewish problem of free will.

Our experiences indicate that we have free will. When we do a particular action, we have the sense that we have chosen that act from an array of alternatives. However, there are theological, philosophical, and scientific reasons to think that this sense of choice is illusory.

The idea that God controls the world, determining the trajectory and details of its history, is strong in Judaism and is one of the theological issues that contributes to the Jewish problem of free will.

Early in the Bible, for example, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be oppressed as slaves in a foreign land; God will punish their oppressors, however, and Abraham’s children will leave with great wealth and return to the land of Canaan (Genesis 15). In the biblical timeframe, God announces the inevitability of these events centuries before they take place, making the humans who eventually act out this plan into something like puppets. This is an example of God determining general events, but the Bible has more extreme examples of divine determinism as well.

In the book of Exodus, God repeatedly hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not release the Israelites from slavery. Interestingly, this “hardening” incident is not unique. In Deuteronomy 2:30, Sihon the king of Heshbon is said to have refused passage to the Israelites because God “hardened his spirit,” and in Joshua 11:20 God is reported to have hardened the hearts of the Canaanite soldiers.

Aside from determining specific events and human actions, traditional Jewish sources often assert that God watches over the world, providing providential care. For example, the Talmud relates that God, “feeds the whole world from the horned buffalo to the brood of vermin (BT Avodah Zarah, 3b).”

Medieval philosophers struggled with how to reconcile divine providence–known as hashgahah–with human choice. They debated the parameters of God’s providence and disagreed as to whether it extends to all species, just human beings, or only certain human beings.

In addition to the apparent contradiction between free will and divine providence, the philosophers of the Middle Ages were troubled by the contradiction between free will and divine foreknowledge. If we believe that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, we must believe that God has the ability to foresee the future. If God has foreknowledge of our actions, then these actions are predetermined before any choices even present themselves.

Modernity 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.

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