Wednesday, September 28th | 3 Tishri 5783

September 22, 2022 11:02 am

Moses, Free Will, and Making the Right Choice

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law (1659), by Rembrandt. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“When someone hears this covenant that God is making with you today, he may feel blessed that he can choose to do whatever his heart desires.” — Deuteronomy.29.18

In this Torah passage, Moses is telling the people that they can make choices and decide to accept or reject the covenant with God. He warns them of the consequences of cutting themselves off from their heritage, but this passage makes us ask the question — do we humans really have free will?

Philosophers, theologians, and scientists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have argued about this issue for thousands of years. Some have suggested that God, being above time and knowing everything, must be aware of our actions long before we take them, and if so, everything has been per-ordained, predestined. We have no choice. So why do we punish people? It is not their fault.

The rabbis of the Talmud were aware of this paradox. R. Akiva says, “Everything is foreseen (by God), but … everything depends on our actions (Avot 3:19). Avot of R. Natan says, “Everything is foreseen and revealed, yet it all depends on the mind and actions of man.” To which the later rabbis added, “Everything is in the hands of the Heavens except for awe of (or belief in) God” (Talmud Brachot 33b).

All these are ways of trying to reconcile something seemingly irreconcilable. Even the great Maimonides labors in his philosophy and his halacha to solve the issue. If everything is foreseen, how can we have the free will to choose? Yet Adam in the Garden of Eden was given the choice, and was able to disobey God over the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Some thinkers tried to differentiate between what God knows and what we know. From the  Essenes, the Apocryphal Books of Enoch, Ben Sirah, through early Christianity to Augustine, on through William of Occam, Calvin, and Zwingli, all presented the issue in the way the rabbis of the Talmud did, by trying to have their cake and eat it, too.

Of course, our choices are limited — by our minds, our bodies, and our circumstances. To use a modern term, we are conditioned to behave in completely predictable ways, and artificial intelligence knows what we want before we even realize it.

Someone physically and mentally suited to a life of scholarship will not make a very good boxer. And neither would Mike Tyson be a great philosopher. And yet within our lives, we do make choices all the time, fast ones, and slow ones, big and small, that differentiate one human from another.

We see all the time how people change partners and jobs, hobbies and sports, become more religious or less, change their sexuality or choose celibacy. And of course, predictions, whether by astrologists or scientists, are often proved wrong or inadequate. We do have some choices, even if we are not completely in control of our minds and bodies all the time. Choice and free will are not zero sum games.

The Torah is suggesting that there are good choices and bad ones. We must do our best to make those that, according to the Torah, will make us better human beings and more complete ones by adding a spiritual dimension to the mix.

The author is a rabbi and writer, currently based in New York.

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