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Shabbat Nitzavim

Deuteronomy 29:9- 30:20

Free Will and Choice

“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

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Moses is telling the people that they can make choices and decide to accept or reject the covenant with God. But he warns them of the consequences of cutting themselves off from their heritage. But do we humans really have free will?

Philosophers, theologians, and scientists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have argued 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 pre-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 permission (to act) is given, and 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). And the equally paradoxical statement that “Everything is in the hands of the Heavens, except for colds and traps” (Talmud Ketubot 30a), and that means that it is up to us to take care of our health and not catch colds and watch where we are going!

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 was able to disobey God over the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

And since our knowledge of God is limited and as we cannot know what God knows, we do indeed labor under the illusion perhaps or the reality that we do have a choice because otherwise why should we be punished for anything if we had no choice? 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, they all presented the issue in the way the rabbis of the Talmud did, by trying to have their cake and eat it.

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. Ones we come to regret and ones that brought happiness or good fortune. Choice does not mean there are no limiting factors.

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 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.

Shabbat Shalom and a very sweet, happy, and healthy New Year



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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