Free Will in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
This shiur is
dedicated in memory of
our beloved father Harry Meisles (Elchanan ben Yitzchak) z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on 26 Adar the Meisles family.
Shiur #19: Free Will in the Thought of
Judaism views the fact that humanity was created in the image of God (tzelem Elokim) as a sign of its significance. Avot 3:14 declares, Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God. Many halakhot stem from the concept of tzelem Elokim. We must relate to all human beings in a dignified fashion and treat them with great respect. The same extent of obligations does not exist in our relationship with the animal kingdom. If tzelem Elokim gives humanity special status, then a given commentators definition of tzelem Elokim indicates the significance he attributes to the quality selected as humanitys defining trait.
Rambam defines tzelem Elokim as intellectual achievement, a
definition that reflects his emphasis on the cognitive aspects of humanity. In contrast,
Angels lack this freedom. The reason Chazal state that an angel cannot fulfill two jobs is that angels lack multiple or competing principles. Without multiplicity, each job stands independently and no challenge of competing goals or desires exists. Humanitys ability to choose actually helps us appreciate God. The rest of the natural order shows us pure necessity. Only human freedom reveals another model which enables us to comprehend God as acting freely in His benevolence.
God purposely left the world unfinished so that humanity could come and freely choose to perfect the world. R. Akiva explains to Tinneius Rufus that the same God who wants us to turn wheat into bread also wants us to circumcise the human body (Tanchuma Tazria 7). R. Zeira cries out in protest against the suggestion that Avraham was born circumcised (Bereishit Rabba 47:11). The whole point of the world is that people must struggle to achieve sanctity and goodness. Being born with an already perfect form destroys the entire point.
The philosophers only know of purifying the intellect, whereas the Torah teaches that we also uplift physicality. For that reason, all agree that the festival of Shavuot must have a physical component of celebration (Pesachim 68b). When it comes to the other holidays, rabbinic authorities can debate whether we should enjoy festive meals or must focus on the study of Torah. But on the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah there is no disagreement, since the Torahs innovation is its insistence on the human ability to elevate the mundane. Moshe himself only learns this lesson at Sinai. At the burning bush, Moshe removes his shoes to transcend physicality. At Sinai, he learns about an alternative model in which a person sanctifies physicality.
The concept of free
will plays a central role in
This also explains why God introduces human mortality following the first
sin. This sin brought about an
expansion of human freedom and a limitation of the human lifespan.
A few exceptions to human freedom prove the rule. God instructs the people that Moshes
prophecy would be the vehicle for transmitting the Torah and that no other later
prophet could supplant Moshe. How
could God guarantee this? Could not
Moshe choose the wrong path at a later point in life and lead the people
The other exception applies to the entire Jewish people at the revelation
at Sinai. The gemara
(Shabbat 88a) famously states that God suspended a mountain over
the head of the Jewish people and intimidated them into accepting the Torah.
In that gemara, Rabba says that the Jewish people have a ready excuse for
their violation of Torah laws.
After all, they were coerced into accepting the Torah, so the covenant
should not bind them! The gemara
answers that the Jews freely reaffirmed their commitment at the time of
Achashverosh. Does the gemara truly
intend to suggest that the Jews were not held liable during the time of the
The people at Sinai understand that freedom reflects the human ideal. They request that Moshe tell them the rest of the Torah because they want to reclaim their ability to choose. If the direct divine revelation proves so overwhelming that it dissolves freedom, then they want a human prophet to transmit the divine message. Better to forego direct communication from God in order to hear the word of God in a way that still allows for free will.
The challenge to
belief in free will comes from divergent sources. Modern determinism tends to emerge from
a heavily biological or socially conditioned conception of a human being. We might call it a secular
determinism. Medieval determinism
was rooted in a religious worldview.
Belief in divine perfection and affirmation that Gods omniscience
includes all future events challenges human freedom. How can we have free choice if God knows
beforehand what we will choose?
The very fact that
objections to a few of the arguments and responds. Regarding the last proof, a critic might
point to the angels that act from necessity and yet contribute to Gods
One potential response limits divine providence and foreknowledge, but
Earlier authorities receive sharp critique from
At the end of the
day, he sides with Rambams answer.
Gods knowledge is not something external to Him but part of His
essential being. We cannot
comprehend how divine knowledge works; therefore, it is not surprising that we
cannot resolve this dilemma.
Raavad criticized Rambam for introducing a challenging question and not
offering an answer, but
The philosophic issues discussed here deserve fuller treatment but we
shall suffice with this brief overview.
For our purposes, the discussion illustrates the degree to which
 See my Dignity and
Responsibility: The Unique Moral Message of Zelem Elokim, The
 Moreh Nevukhim 1:1; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 4:8.
 Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 1:26.
 Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 19:18.
 Meshekh Chokhma Bemidbar 16:40.
 Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 20:18.
 Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 5:25.
 Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 1:26.
 Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 1:31.
 Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 3:4-5.
 Meshekh Chokhma introduction to Shemot.
 Ritva and Rambans interpretations appear in their commentaries on Shabbat 88a.
 Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 19:17.
 Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 5:25.
 The essay appears in Ohr Sameach, Hilkhot Teshuva, after chapter 4.
 Maharals approach appears in his second introduction to Gevurot Hashem.