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The Challenge of Free Will

Hakol tzafui, vehareshut netunah” – “Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted.”  After emphasizing the belovedness of human beings as having been created in the Image of God (Avot 3:14), Rabbi Akiva encapsulates an entire philosophical treatise on free will in this pithy, four-word adage. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Bereishit 1:26) defines the Image of God as the ability to exercise free will, which illuminates the juxtaposition of the two mishnayot.


Free will is essential to Judaism. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains its centrality in The Great Partnership:

From the outset, the Hebrew Bible speaks of a free God, not constrained by nature, who, creating man in his own image, grants him that same freedom, commanding him, not programming him, to do good. The entire biblical project, from beginning to end, is about how to honor that freedom in personal relationships, families, communities and nations. Biblical morality is the morality of freedom, its politics are the politics of freedom, and its theology is the theology of freedom.


While most people report experiencing freedom of choice, there have been numerous theological, philosophical, and scientific challenges to free will for close to twenty-five centuries. 


One particularly potent challenge to free will is God’s omniscience. If God knows everything that I will choose, then I am not free to choose any alternative. Maimonides raises this theological conundrum and answers that God’s knowledge is not the same as human knowledge; it is beyond the grasp of our finite human minds. Without the ability to fully comprehend God’s ways, we take it on faith that God knows what will happen. This, however, does not deny the fact, that without any doubt, “man’s actions are in his [own] hands and The Holy One, blessed be He, does not lead him [in a particular direction] or decree that he do anything.”


Most modern challenges to free will have emerged from science, with many “hard determinists” arguing that free will is an illusion.  Researchers have conducted several studies, but results are arguably inconclusive. Rabbi Sacks contends that science won’t be able to determine the answer one way or the other as “freedom is a concept that lies outside the scope of science.”


Regardless of the philosophy, theology, or science, free will is something that is a felt experience for most people. Without trying to prove the existence of free will, some studies have looked to analyze the differences between people who believe in free will and those who don’t. Those studies concluded that people who believe in free will tend to make more moral choices than those that believe that their actions are predetermined. Rabbi Akiva’s assertion that despite God’s foreknowledge we have free will emphasizes this main point: We must take responsibility for our moral and spiritual choices.


The Mishna continues that “the world is judged with goodness.” Rabbi Yosef Yavetz (15th century, Spain) interprets this as an acknowledgement of some of the limitations of free will. We are all born with different predispositions toward virtue or vice. While we still have free will and a responsibility for self-control and moral sensitivity regardless of these predilections, God considers these factors and judges us “with goodness.”


The final clause of the Mishna contains both an independently important message, as well as a concluding thought related to free will: “And everything is in accordance with the preponderance of works.” This is interpreted by Maimonides to reflect the important behavioral principle that character is inculcated through repetitive actions. Maimonides demonstrates this through the following illustrative parable:

When a man gives a thousand gold coins at one time to one man to whom it is fitting and he does not give anything to another man; the trait of generosity will not come into his hand with this great act, as [much as] it will come to one who donates a thousand gold pieces a thousand times and gives each one of them out of generosity. 

It is through repetition that habit is formed. Rabbi Dr. Normal Lamm hypothesizes some of the internal psychological mechanisms at play behind Maimonides’s theory, at least as it relates to giving charity:

The Torah recognizes that every time a man has to give something that belongs to him, that he may have acquired by dint of hard work, he feels an inner reluctance and a powerful resistance against giving it away. Hence, that reluctance must be overcome, and the act of overcoming it is not always contingent upon the amount that is given. Every time I give, even a little mount, it is required of me to train myself, to habituate myself, to overcome that resistance, and every time I do so, I perform a new mitzvah.


In response to Maimonides, Rabbi Israel Lipschitz emphasizes not the quantity of deeds, but the quality of the act. Both internal and external characteristics impact the quality. Virtuous acts that require overcoming one’s natural desires towards vice are counted as more important. Additionally, the thoughts, intentions, and motivations of a person’s internal psyche affect the significance. The personal circumstance of the giver also is important. For instance, if one has less but gives more, that is more valuable than one who has more but gives less.


Sforno interprets “And everything is in accordance with the preponderance of works” as a reflection on the importance of actions more broadly. Philosophers tend to stay cerebral, pontificating about ideas in abstract ways. Judaism, without minimizing the importance of learned inquiry, requires the performance of behaviors as a manifestation of the intellect. “Man’s intellectual powers are realized only when translated into action,” Sforno writes, “for it is only then that they acquire a life of their own which is everlasting.” Deeds are what “grant man success, joy, and honor, or the reverse.”


Building on Sforno’s insight, perhaps Rabbi Akiva closes with the importance of action to counteract the philosophical conundrum presented by free will.  While one may never be fully intellectually satisfied by the theological or scientific proofs for or against free will, it is essential not to get too caught up in theory. It is through the performance of valuable behaviors that the problem falls away. As psychotherapist Irvin Yalom (cited by Rabbi Dr. David Bashevkin in his most recent 18forty podcast on mental health) writes, there is a limit to how a pursuit of rational accounts for meaning and significance can be fully resolved. Instead of getting stuck in theory, it is important to act:

Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it; the rational questions one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers. In therapy, as in life, meaningfulness is a by-product of engagement and commitment, and that is where therapists must direct their efforts — not that engagement provides the rational answer to questions of meaning, but it causes these questions not to matter.

Reading through the Mishna with this in mind, Rabbi Akiva compresses the entire free will debate into four words, ultimately concluding that we do, indeed, have freedom of choice.  Nevertheless, he validates that despite free will, God judges us favorably based on our predispositions. Finally, Rabbi Akiva encourages us to exercise our experienced free will by constantly taking valuable moral and spiritual action.   


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