Responding to the Free Will Problem in Judaism

If humans are to be held responsible for their actions, they must have free will, the ability to choose right from wrong. However, ideas about God’s providence and foreknowledge and scientific notions of biological and psychological determinism create problems for the presumption of human free will.

How have Jewish texts and thinkers responded to these problems?

The Bible does not engage this issue in a philosophical manner. It asserts God’s active role in the world as well as the possibility of human choice, without reconciling the two.

Rabbinic literature doesn’t provide solutions to the free will problem either, though it does seem aware that providence and choice are somewhat incongruous. Rabbi Hanina ben Hama tried to distinguish these two domains in his famous proclamation that, “everything is in the hands of heaven except for fear of heaven” (BT Berakhot 33b). Interestingly, this statement can be understood in two ways: diminishing the significance of human choice (i.e. “everything” is decided by God) or glorifying it (i.e. because “fear of heaven” refers to spiritual and religious matters–in this interpretation, the most important aspects of life).

Perhaps the closest thing to an explicit rabbinic response to the free will problem is Rabbi Akiba‘s famous paradox that, “everything is foreseen [by God], yet man has the capacity to choose freely” (Avot 3:19).

While early Judaism was not generally concerned with debating philosophical issues, the concept of free will was a fundamental and explicit point of disagreement. According to the first-century historian Josephus, different conceptions of fate and determinism distinguished the three major Jewish sects of antiquity. Among the major Jewish sects of antiquity, the Essenes believed that fate determined everything, the Sadducees rejected fate entirely, and the Pharisees–the forerunners of rabbinic Judaism–believed that, “certain events are the work of Fate, but not all.”

All the major medieval Jewish philosophers discussed the issue of free will.

They were particularly interested in the contradiction between human choice and divine foreknowledge. Most thinkers tried to solve the problem by either limiting the range of God’s knowledge (for example, Gersonides, a 14th-century thinker) or the range of man’s freedom (for example, Hasdai Crescas, another 14th-century writer). Others, like the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides and some medieval mystics, suggested that the question–how could humans have free will if God knows our choices before we choose?–presumes a conception of knowledge that is inapplicable to God. Thus the free will problem is not a problem at all.

Perhaps the most radical solution to the problem of free will is that of the Hasidic Izbicer Rebbe who stated that, in fact, humans do not have the ability to choose their actions. God is the source of all human actions. However, humans can control their thoughts and intentions, and this is what they are responsible for.

In the modern era, Jewish thinkers continued to struggle with the problem of free will. Hermann Cohen acknowledged that human actions can be influenced by outside forces, but nonetheless, asserted that it is necessary to believe in an ethical realm of being in which humans can choose.

Existentialism, a general philosophical trend that stressed the importance of human choice, influenced several Jewish thinkers. Martin Buber, the great Jewish existentialist, wrote that, “Sin in man is decisionlessness.” For Buber, choice is fundamental to human/religious experiences, but real decisions can only be made in the context of an I-Thou relationship, a relationship of true dialogue and mutuality. In an I-It relationship, in which people relate to each other in a detached manner, on the other hand, humans do not have complete freedom.

Few Jewish thinkers have explicitly responded to the problems of genetic and psychological determinism. However, most Jewish thinkers would reject any theory that strips humans of all responsibility, but would likely not deny the possibility that our physical and psychological constitution inclines us toward certain behaviors.

Elliot Dorff, a Conservative rabbi and theologian, has indirectly responded to the relationship between genetic determinism and free will. He has suggested that homosexuality should be permissible because it is biologically determined and therefore un-chosen. Dorff’s position is based on a traditional Jewish legal concept–that of the ones, a person under compulsion–that excuses people for actions they were forced to do.

Dorff’s position that this concept applies to genetically determined inclinations, however, is innovative.

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