Free Will in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

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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.

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Shiur #19:  Free Will in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha

 

 

            R. Meir Simcha grants special prominence to the concept of free will.  It comes up repeatedly in his Meshekh Chokhma as one of the crucial defining aspects of humanity.  Additionally, he dedicates an extended essay in Ohr Sameach to addressing the conflict between divine foreknowledge and human free will.   His devoting four pages of an essentially halakhic work to dealing with a theological topic indicates the importance of this concept for R. Meir Simcha.

 

            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.[1]  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 commentator’s definition of tzelem Elokim indicates the significance he attributes to the quality selected as humanity’s defining trait.

 

            Rambam defines tzelem Elokim as intellectual achievement, a definition that reflects his emphasis on the cognitive aspects of humanity.[2]  In contrast, R. Meir Simcha identifies tzelem Elokim with free will.[3]  This element makes human beings different from the animal kingdom and different from angels.  For R. Meir Simcha, free choice enables mankind’s special role in the created order and gives humans honored status.

 

            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. Humanity’s 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.[4]

 

            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.[5] 

 

R. Meir Simcha contrasts the Torah view with a particular philosophic approach.  Aristotelian philosophers believe in the eternity of matter; therefore, they think of the world in terms of necessity and compulsion.  In contrast, the Torah asserts that God created the world and that He can change it in a miraculous fashion.  This starting point opens up the possibility of freedom, change and dynamism.  In addition, the philosophers think that intellectual achievement leads to immortality.  From that perspective, only a tiny few can realize the ultimate goal.  The Torah disagrees and views man’s struggle to overcome temptations and lead a refined spiritual life as the most important goal.  This reflects an aspiration available to all, as even the unlettered farmer has a chance.

 

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 Torah’s 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.[6]

 

R. Meir Simcha points out how all our human drives have a potential positive manifestation.  We want to eat and, on occasion, religious law demands that we do so.  We have a libido and halakha commands us to procreate.  Even the desire for vengeance can be realized if we are zealous for God’s sake.[7]  All of this illustrates R. Meir Simcha’s insistence on human freedom and the ability to make choices that sanctify the spiritual and physical aspects of our existence.

 

The concept of free will plays a central role in R. Meir Simcha’s commentary on parashat Bereishit.  When God says, “Let Us make man,” He is restricting His presence so as to allow for human freedom.[8]  During the days of creation, God looks at each thing He has made and declares that “it is good.”  He makes no such declaration after the creation of man.  R. Meir Simcha explains that inanimate matter, plants, and animals all fulfill their purpose as soon as they come into existence.  God looks at them and immediately declares their worth.  Since humanity has the power of choice, God cannot look at man and assert his goodness.  The goodness of mankind depends upon free choice, and those choices can also lead to the utmost degradation.  At the same time, mankind represents the pinnacle of creation.  After creating man, God looks at the totality of the created order and declares it “very good.”   Every other creation receives meaning and significance from the creation of humanity.[9]

 

            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.  R. Meir Simcha views those two changes as linked.   Since the angels are creatures of compulsion and necessity, no one will confuse them for divinities.  Humanity, on the other hand, has freedom and mistakenly could be conceived of as a god.  Mortality makes it clear that humans are not divine.  For that reason, the expansion of freedom coincided with the introduction of mortality.[10]

 

            A few exceptions to human freedom prove the rule.  God instructs the people that Moshe’s 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 astray?  R. Meir Simcha contends that God removed Moshe’s freedom.  However, God only did so because Moshe had utilized his freedom to arrive at a level where God could remove his freedom.  Thus, even the loss of freedom stems from a lifetime of free choices.[11]

 

            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.  R. Meir Simcha explains that God did not literally hold up a mountain; rather, the experience of direct and overpowering revelation removed their free choice.  God did this on a momentary basis to ensure the Torah’s acceptance, but immediately afterward the people reverted to the freedom that reflects the true goal of creation.  “Return to your tents” (Devarim 5:27) refers to the soul returning to the tent of physicality, a place with temptation, struggle and choice.[12]

 

            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 First Temple?  Didn’t God punish them for transgressions during this time?  Ritva argues that the gemara did not actually mean that the Jews were coerced; it only brings in the later commitment as a response to heretics.  Ramban says that even before the Purim episode, living in the Land of Israel carried with it certain responsibilities and the potential of punishment.  The original covenant did not bind them, but the lease agreement of the Land of Israel did.[13] 

 

            R. Meir Simcha takes the Jewish people’s excuse very seriously.  If coerced, they cannot be responsible.  However, an exemption regarding the broader responsibility of the covenant does not exempt them from the Noachide laws.  God punished the people during the First Temple period for sins such as murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality.  Such sins were punishable even without the covenant at Sinai, since they represent the basic moral decency demanded of every human being.[14]

 

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.[15]

 

Divine Foreknowledge

 

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 God’s omniscience includes all future events challenges human freedom.  How can we have free choice if God knows beforehand what we will choose?  R. Meir Simcha addresses this religious kind of deterministic challenge.  Keeping this in mind will help us understand his argument.[16] 

 

            The very fact that R. Meir Simcha penned a lengthy analysis of this topic in the Ohr Sameach is noteworthy and quite unusual among modern halakhic giants.  Furthermore, the discussion reveals knowledge of the philosophy of Rambam, Ralbag, R. Hasdai Crescas, Maharal, kabbalists and others.  R. Meir Simcha read widely and thought deeply about the ideas he encountered.  Meshekh Chokhma also reveals a similar range of reading interests.

 

            R. Meir Simcha provides many arguments on behalf of free will.  As noted, some of the arguments begin with religious assumptions about God.  Humans experience their freedom to choose.  Why should a person toil to succeed if God’s knowledge predetermines success?  If people do not truly choose, why did God create the evil of immoral behavior?  Why would God create wicked people?  In a world of compulsion, mitzvot become pointless, and reward and punishment lack justification.  What kind of glory could God receive from righteous people who act due to compulsion?

 

He anticipates 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 God’s honor.  R. Meir Simcha counters that the angels are not compelled by divine foreknowledge.  Rather, they are purely spiritual beings who comprehend God’s grandeur to the extent that they can only adhere to His command.   That kind of necessity reflects divine glory.  However, a flesh and blood human who simply acts without freedom due to what God already knows contributes nothing.

 

            One potential response limits divine providence and foreknowledge, but R. Meir Simcha rejects this approach.  He states that all of Tanakh teaches an acute sense of individual providence, and if he started to cite verses to prove this point, he would have to copy the entire Tanakh.  Once we accept this pervasive level of providence, denying foreknowledge leads to the idea that God changes over time as He accumulates knowledge.  This, too, flies in the face of traditional beliefs as taught in Tanakh and Chazal, so R. Meir Simcha cannot accept it.  

 

            Earlier authorities receive sharp critique from R. Meir Simcha.  Maharal argues that we cannot say anything positive about God’s essence.  We cannot identify God’s essence with knowledge, as the philosophers did.  Therefore, talking about God’s knowledge changing does not indicate that His essence changes.  In an analogous fashion, God acts in various ways at different times but this does not entail a change in God’s essence.[17]  R. Meir Simcha denies this analogy.  God’s actions are truly not physical movements on God’s part but rather manifestations of His will.  His will does not change over time; it carries out actions according to the eternal providential plan based on what is happening in contemporary human history.  Therefore, the different actions do not reflect a change in God.  Shifts in the accumulation of knowledge, on the other hand, would indicate that God changes.

 

            R. Meir Simcha also evaluates the resolution based on the idea that God transcends the boundaries of time.  According to this approach, we do not make choices because of divine foreknowledge.  On the contrary, God knows what will happen because we will choose it.  He correctly finds this answer in Tosafot Yom Tov and mistakenly attributes it to R. Sa’adia Gaon as well.  Though he shows some appreciation of this approach, R. Meir Simcha ultimately finds it lacking.

 

At the end of the day, he sides with Rambam’s answer.  God’s 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.  Ra’avad criticized Rambam for introducing a challenging question and not offering an answer, but R. Meir Simcha counters that Rambam did provide an answer.  We can prove that something we cannot understand exists, even though we are left not understanding it.  Thus, he ultimately affirms full freedom along with compete foreknowledge.

 

            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 R. Meir Simcha values and emphasizes human freedom.  Such emphasis remains relevant in the face of the biological or sociological determinism prevalent today.

 



[1] See my “Dignity and Responsibility: The Unique Moral Message of Zelem Elokim,” The Everett Journal of Jewish Ethics, Winter 2008, pp. 7-18.

[2] Moreh Nevukhim 1:1; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 4:8.

[3] Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 1:26.

[4] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 19:18.

[5] Meshekh Chokhma Bemidbar 16:40.

[6] Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 20:18.

[7] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 5:25.

[8] Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 1:26.

[9] Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 1:31.

[10] Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 3:4-5.

[11] Meshekh Chokhma introduction to Shemot.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ritva and Ramban’s interpretations appear in their commentaries on Shabbat 88a.

[14] Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 19:17.

[15] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 5:25.

[16] The essay appears in Ohr Sameach, Hilkhot Teshuva, after chapter 4. 

[17] Maharal’s approach appears in his second introduction to Gevurot Hashem.