The Choice to Make Choices
We have a number of weddings coming up in my congregation. Therefore, I thought it would be wise to address the glaring contradiction that exists between a widely-held Jewish belief about marriage, and a fundamental aspect of Jewish faith.
The Talmud (Sotah 2a) makes a startling statement about the inevitability of spousal identity: “Forty days before an embryo is formed, a divine voice declares: ‘this person’s daughter is destined to marry that boy.’” Jewish folklore refers to this marriage predetermination concept as “bashert” — the Yiddish word for “destined.”
In other words, no one should ever have to remain single; all we have to do is find our “beshert,” marry them and live happily ever after.
To say that this idea is theologically problematic rather understates the glaring issues that it presents — issues that undermine the very basis of our faith system.
For example, just look at a section of Shoftim, which talks about military exemptions. One exemption criteria is framed as follows (Deut. 20:7): “who is the man who has become engaged to a woman, but has not yet taken her as his wife — let him go and return home, lest he die in battle and another man shall marry her.”
Maimonides, in his famous letter to the 12th century Italian convert known as Obadiah the Proselyte, refuted the notion of “beshert” by citing this verse from Shoftim.
Why, Maimonides asks, would a man who is engaged to the woman he is destined to marry be fearful of being killed in battle and replaced by another man? Surely, says Maimonides, if the meaning of the Talmudic passage is that his fiancé is destined to be his wife even before her birth, no other man could ever marry her. Why, therefore, should he be exempted from military service?
To reconcile this apparent contradiction between scripture and Talmud, Maimonides advances the idea that the Talmudic passage about “beshert” cannot be taken at face value, and must instead be interpreted as referring to the potential that exists for reward and punishment — a potential that God sets into motion even before a person is born.
According to this approach, someone who is deserving of reward will merit the husband or wife who will be their agent and partner for a wonderful life, while the opposite will be true if their behavior falls short. The point is, all the options are already in place before one is born.
Maimonides goes even further in his refutation, by quoting an alternative Talmudic source that is a cornerstone of Jewish faith — and turning it on its head. In Berakhot (33b), the Talmud declares that “everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven.” Like so many other Talmudic statements, what seems to be a simple idea is actually very profound. The key to understanding this particular statement lies in accurately defining the exception. What is included in the “fear of Heaven?”
Maimonides, being the great rationalist that he was, refused to accept a notion that includes literally “everything” as being in the “hands of Heaven.” If that were true, he says, it would wreck the entire concept of free choice.
Consequently, the exception to the rule — “fear of Heaven” — turns out to be a much broader category than the basic translation implies. It includes your marriage and all your relationships; it includes your livelihood, your home, your time management — in fact, it includes anything that relies on choices that you make. Because who we choose to marry, and how we choose to live our lives, all falls under the rubric of ensuring that our relationship with God is on the right footing — a process that requires the careful and proactive calibration of our “fear of Heaven.”
The tension between determinism and free choice has vexed philosophers and theologians for millennia. Particularly in recent years, when we have begun to explore and understand the world of biological and psychological determinism, we have been forced to deal with the weight of inevitable consequences and our limited ability to counteract them. And yet, it is in this limited arena that our “fear of Heaven” — namely, our relationship with God, can really come to life.
As we approach the High Holidays, the period in our calendar during which we focus on our choices over the last year — and the choices we intend to make for the next — it would help for us to reflect on the fact that it is in the arena of choice that we truly define ourselves.
The realization that we have the choice to make choices is a critical component of ensuring that everything we do never becomes a product of fate. Rather it must be the result of considered reflection and our own willful actions.