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October 19, 2010 2:04 pm

Do We Still Possess the Power to Choose?

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Viktor E. Frankl: Psychotherapy in practice. Photo: H.-P.Haack.

Ask ten Jews what Jewish values are and you will get twenty responses. Most will enunciate predictable items like education, charity, and family. But these are values which any civilized society embraces and our inability to articulate values that are uniquely Jewish – and to be found exclusively in Jewish texts and Jewish living – is the principal reason why so many Jews are assimilating. In their opinion Judaism has done it’s job. It has communicated important values to the world. Now, like a midwife after a child is born, it can disappear into obscurity.

But there are values that the world has yet to embrace, or that are under threat, of which we Jews are the most important exponents. Foremost among them is the idea of destiny. The ancient Greek world believed in fate. Before one was born one’s life was scripted. The outcome of one’s life was determined before they were born. There was no escape. Astrology and zodiacal signs advanced the idea that a person’s choices were of no consequence. Their lives were governed by the celestial spheres.

Judaism was a radical departure from this view and contributed to the world the most empowering concept it has ever known, that no life is scripted and each of us possesses freedom of choice to be whatever we want. In every circumstance, in every predicament, we can make the moral choice to be good. Everything else is just an excuse. Each and every one of us, regardless of our point of origin, could put a destination ahead of us – a vision of who it is that we wish to be – and we can reach our destination, transforming fate into destiny.

But this most fundamental of all Jewish values is under constant threat. Science has been moving away from a belief in choice for more than a century. It began with Freud who posited that we are all far less of masters in our own mental houses than we would otherwise suppose. It continued with biological determinism up through modern theories of genetic predisposition. Evolution especially – whatever its scientific merits – teaches that we are all far more animal than human.

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Social anthropologists are likewise assailing the idea of destiny created by free choice. How many times have we heard that poverty breeds crime, as if those making the decisions are compelled to violence. It is an argument that has been especially tragic for the Palestinians who are treated by experts in the Middle East as forced to choose suicide bombings because of what they allege to be daily degradation at the hands of Israeli army. But even such degradation were true – and let’s face it, it’s nonstop Palestinian terror that necessitates the army roadblocks – what is the connection with blowing up innocent civilians and children? As Prof. Alan Dershowitz points out, the Jews of Europe experienced the most brutal assault in the history of the world during the holocaust. But that did not compel them to take out their fury on German kindergartens and buses.

It was Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning who gave the definitive rebuttal to the belief that we are nothing but creatures of our environment, incapable of making moral choices when placed in a degrading environment. Frankl’s moving depiction of concentration camp inmates sharing their last morsels of bread with those hungrier than they and moving about the disease-ravaged barracks comforting the dying is proof positive that there is no such thing as fate. The Nazis may have wanted all inmates to become animals. But no one can force us to forfeit our humanity. We all have choice, in every time, in ever place, and under all circumstances. We can all choose how we will respond to what is being done to us. What we become in life is entirely the making of our own hands.

But isn’t this a principle of religion and not just of Judaism? Not really. Christianity maintains that humans are born in sin and must be redeemed by grace. Human action alone is never sufficient for salvation. It the righteous belief rather than righteous action that count. Which is not to suggest that Christianity does not demand a life of moral rectitude. Of course it does. But it is the dogma rather than the activity that ultimately determines human proximity to G-d.

Imagine now if this most quintessential of all Jewish values could be mainstreamed, if we could really convince people that it is in their power to be whatever they wish. Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Blink makes the point that we are so utterly unaware by all the marketing influencing our decisions that we only live under the illusion of choice.

Perhaps, but even the most brilliant marketing campaign cannot force us to buy another useless item rather than feed the hungry. Nor can they force us to live ostentatiously rather than humbly. It is a lesson that those on Wall Street would do well to consider.

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