On the Nature of Free Will

Someone wrote me and asked me the following question:


I could use some information. I understand that the Torah says that G-d has given mankind free will. Could you give the verses of the Hebrew Scriptures on that, and explain the logic?

So I answered him:

Ooh, boy, a tough subject. There is much to be said on that, and much to be said on the actual wording of your question.

In the first place, let me preface by pointing out that Judaism does not need explicit verses in the Scriptures to support a doctrine. All of our Doctrine is revealed in the Oral Law even more than it is revealed in the Written Law. That is how it has always been. Still, everything in the Oral Law is at least alluded to in the Written Law. However, that does not mean that one can always cite the Written Law as proof of a Doctrine of Judaism.

Point number two, before I cite the verses themselves: The Doctrine of Free Will is greatly misunderstood by many people who have not actually studied this concept as taught by Judaism. It is not merely the sum of the words «Free Will.» Most people who argue with me over the concept know nothing more than the words «Jews believe in Free Will.» I have no idea what those words mean to them, but their repeated objections against the concept bear no relation to what we actually believe. Therefore the question «What is Free Will?» is in itself a valid question, because it is obviously a concept not readily understood by most. This is why I will discuss its meaning before citing verses.

Point number three (and still before I cite any verses): The very fact that Hashem has given us a Torah at all leads us to the inescapable conclusion that we have free will. What logic would there be in the Torah commanding us to do good and desist from evil, if any act we did was out of compulsion? How could the Torah promise us reward or punishment for acts that we are predestined to do? The Torah gives us 613 Commandments and tells us to do good and not to do evil. This means that it is within our power to do either type of act. The Prophets throughout Jewish history exhorted Israel to mend their ways, to do good, to improve, to repent. How can Israel be so directed if it is not in their power?

The Torah tells us that even though we have the ability to do evil, we should not do evil. We should do good. The Torah tells us we have the ability to do good, as I shall attempt to show, with G-d’s help.

This does not mean, by the way, that we have the ability and power to do anything we want. Nor does it mean that G-d lets us do every sin we want to do, or every good deed. Sometimes we are prevented from doing the actual act. Yet we have the ability to choose which we will attempt to do. A man in a wheelchair can still choose good, and attempt—or at least desire—to do good, even if it is beyond his physical means. Or he can turn bad, and decide that if he ever gets the chance he will do every evil deed he can think of.

And we do not always even have free will to obey G-d’s Commandments. Sometimes we have no choice in the matter at all. Sometimes we are prevented from doing a good deed we desire and plan to do. Nevertheless, G-d counts every good intention as a good act.

And sometimes it is not the act over which we have control, but only over our emotions and desires. That is, we may be forced to fulfill a particular Commandment, but how we approach it is entirely our own decision. We may approach it with joy, and the desire to fulfill G-d’s Command, or with annoyance at the «interruption.»

It is a detailed and complex concept.

There are matters that are left up to the control of each individual. For example, whether or not any of us chooses to fear G-d. That is entirely up to each individual, in almost every situation. There are times, however, that a person can abrogate that right, by sinning in such a fashion that G-d decrees that this person will never again be granted the opportunity to repent. This is very extreme, however, and not the norm.

There are also mixed cases or destiny and Free Will. Say, for example, I work very hard and plant a field full of seeds. I did the work, and it was a function of my Free Will. But whether or not the planting will be successful, whether it will yield a good crop, is mostly out of my hands. Still, it is not entirely out of my hands. I must still tend to the crop, watering it, weeding it, doing whatever is necessary to its success. If I do this, I can hope for a good crop. But I can’t guarantee success. That’s up to G-d.

Personal health is akin to that. A person can get sick if G-d wills it, but a person can also make himself sick, either deliberately or through negligence.

A heavenly decree can also decide that you won’t catch that bus or plane. If heaven did so decree, it is in fact better for you to have missed that bus or plane. It might be better for you in the materialistic sense: perhaps the plane was doomed, or perhaps something much more subtle that you may never know. Or it might be better for you in the spiritual sense, in many possible different ways. I won’t go into that right now.

The point of all this is to show that free will is a complex and varied thing.

As for verses, Maimonides quotes a few on this matter. I shall not quote Maimonides verbatim, but in my own words, using Maimonides’ concepts.

The first verse Maimonides quotes is, «Man has now become like one of us in knowing good and evil» (Genesis 3:22). We see from this that man knows the difference between good and evil.

Maimonides continues, and explains that humanity has free will in deciding whether or not to be righteous or wicked. G-d does not pre-ordain a person’s goodness, nor predetermine whether s/he will be righteous or wicked. Maimonides quotes Jeremiah, in the third Chapter of Lamentations:

It is not from on high that evil and good emanate. Thus, of what shall a living man complain? A strong man [should complain] over his own sins! Let us therefore search and examine our ways and return to Hashem.

— Lamentations 3:38-40

In other words, since it is not G-d Who causes sin, but mankind, humanity is thus to blame for its own sins. A man should therefore examine his deeds until he has found all his sins, and he should repent and return to Hashem.

This would be impossible, illogical, and irrelevant, if mankind did not have free choice. But since we have free will, we have the responsibilities of free will. The evil and good people do does not come from on high, but from the free will of mankind. Therefore, people should do good, not evil. They should not complain to G-d of evil that befalls them. Yes, G-d causes the punishment, but it comes because of the sins of the people themselves.

Maimonides also quotes Deuteronomy:

See, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil. I have commanded you today to love Hashem your G-d, to walk in his paths, and to keep His Commandments, Decrees, and Laws. You will then live and flourish, and Hashem your G-d will bless you…

But if your heart turns astray, and you do not listen… I am warning you today that you will be exterminated…

I call heaven and earth as witnesses. Before you I have placed life and death, the blessing and the curse. You must choose life, so that you and your descendants will live.

— Deut. 30:15-19

And Maimonides quotes:

You can therefore see that I am placing before you both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is obeying the Commandments of Hashem your G-d, which I am prescribing to you today. The curse is if you do not obey the Commandments of Hashem your G-d, and you go astray from the path that I am prescribing for you today, following the gods of others, which you have not known.

— Deut. 11:26-28

And finally:

Who can assure that their hearts will remain this way, that they will remain in such awe of me? If they did, they would keep my Commandments for all time, and all would go well with them and their children forever.

— Deut. 5:26-27

In this verse, G-d is telling Moses, «I wish they would always fear Me as they do today, and then they would obey Me, and then everything would always be good for them. But there is no guarantee that they will continue to fear me and continue to do only good things.»

This verse alone proves that G-d has given humanity free will. If G-d has pre-ordained who shall be righteous and who shall be wicked, who shall obey and who shall disobey, then why did G-d tell Moses that there is no guarantee that Israel will continue to obey? Let G-d simply ordain that Israel obey! Instead, G-d says that there is no guarantee they will obey, because sin is tempting, but if they obey G-d it will be good for them.

This is obvious and logical.

And though Maimonides does not mention it, as far as I know, I add of my own accord the following verse, that which G-d told Cain:

If you do good, will there not be special privilege? And if you do not do good, sin is crouching at the door. It lusts after you, but you can dominate it.

— Genesis 4:7

This is a clear statement, I believe, that we have control over sin, that we have free will to do good and reject sin.

To believe otherwise in the context of the Torah seems to me illogical.

Often, what happens to a person is pre-determined, but how you will react is usually your choice. For more on that subject, read my wife’s article Endless Light: A Book Review, which explores that subject (among others).

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