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The Determinism of Free Will

Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

The most important single creation described in Genesis is the creation of the first human being. Most of the confusion in the world stems from the fact that we human beings do not fully comprehend the nature of this creation. This lack of comprehension has allowed widely divergent opinions to flourish even among serious students of human behavior.

One school of thought maintains that man is merely a very complex animal; another that he is primarily a soul.

One school of thought maintains that man is merely a very complex animal, a product of the evolutionary process, a creature that managed to climb to the top of the philo-genetic scale by dint of some type of primeval struggle. The details of the theory of evolution keep changing constantly as each new version is discovered to be scientifically faulty, but all the versions fall under the umbrella of Darwin's original concept of the "survival of the fittest."

The opposite school maintains that man is primarily a spiritual being whose bodily component is his less significant part. Man's mind is a unique phenomenon in the cosmos and could not possibly have evolved from any lower life form. In this view man is almost an alien to this planet. Indeed, it has been suggested by more than one serious thinker that man is actually a space colonist whose origins are to be found in another galaxy.


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It should surely be fascinating to explore what the Creator Himself had to say about the subject.

A good way to begin the presentation of God's point of view is with the following passage of Maimonides:

Every human being has control over himself. If he wants to push himself towards the right path and become a tzaddik (holy man) he is able to do so. If he wants to go down the wrong path and be a rasha (evil man) he is able to do so. This is what the Torah writes: Behold man has become like the Unique One among us knowing good and bad: and now, lest he put forth his hand and take from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever. (Genesis 3:22)

That is to say: This species man is unique in the universe and there is no other creature like him in the respect of 1) being able to determine what is right and what is wrong through the use of his own thought processes without any outside guidance; and 2) being able to do as he wishes without anyone being able to stop him. Seeing that this is so, there is a distinct possibility that he may choose to eat from the Tree of Life if he is left where he is in Paradise; therefore God banished him. (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 5,1)

(A careful reading of the text will reveal that the Garden of Eden contained two special trees. The famous one is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, whose forbidden fruit prompted the commission of the first sin. The other special tree was the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22). The fruit of this tree was not originally forbidden as Adam was created as an immortal anyway. But after the edict of mortality was imposed on him following his sin, God naturally did not want him to partake of its fruit and thus reverse His edict.)

But surely, if God is able to banish man from Paradise then He is equally able to prevent him from reaching out to eat from the Tree of Life even if he were allowed to stay. What is the conceptual difference between putting the Tree of Life out of man's reach by banishing him from Paradise or leaving him where he is but preventing him from reaching out to the Tree of Life by force?

In answer, what Maimonides is telling us is that even God cannot interfere directly with man's freedom of action. Such interference would need to assume one of two forms:


  1. God could program man's mind so that he is not tempted to reach for the Tree of Life. This He cannot do, as man must be capable of deciding on his own what is right and what is wrong. Or,



  2. God could forcibly restrain man from surrendering to his temptation to partake of the Tree of Life. But God cannot do this either, this sort of interference would also nullify man's free will.


The conclusion:

Nullifying man's free will amounts to destroying him, because the ability to determine his own choices is not one of the facets of man; it is his very essence.

Nullifying man's free will amounts to destroying him.

As God was not prepared to destroy man, He was forced to transport him to an environment where he could be allowed the fullest freedom of will and yet still not be able to eat from the Tree of Life.

Thus, man's free will is his human essence according to the Torah view. To be human is to be free to make up your own mind and implement your decisions. A restriction on human freedom is a negation of humanity itself.

Indeed, the first interaction between man and God described in the Torah revolves around reward and punishment and the consequences of making free will choices. The present state of humanity and the universe it occupies is presented by the Torah as the end result of man's losing the first battle with the Satan.

It is through our own act of choice that we were driven out of Paradise and were condemned to a mortal existence. The Torah emphasizes that man's mortality and his life of struggle and travail was a matter of his own choosing. It was not the type of existence imposed by God at creation.


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But does man really have free will?

A psychologist would offer the following argument:

In a sense man is free as there is no outside force compelling him to make most of the choices that he makes. But this freedom is an illusion. Every human being has a mind that is infinitely more sophisticated than the most complex supercomputer ever devised. Each mind is programmed in a particular way by a mixture of heredity and early environment that is unique to each individual human being. Heredity and early environment are both factors that are clearly outside the area of human choice.

This program contained in man's mind - that was formulated and inscribed totally without man's choice - always tells man how to optimize his possibilities whenever he is faced with a choice. When a human being makes a choice, he is merely following this optimal solution presented by his own personal program. As this program is imposed on him, he really is compelled.

The psychologist might concede that it is possible to alter man's program with the aid of proper conditioning.

The psychologist holding the above point of view might even concede that it is possible to alter man's program with the aid of proper conditioning. However this requires the will to undergo such a regimen. If there is such a will to alter one's program, it is by definition also built into the program itself. Even when he decides to change, man is not acting out of free will.

Consequently, the psychologist concludes that free will is more of a sensation than a reality. We all feel that we are choosing freely as we are doing what we want, but what we want was programmed into us by the evolutionary process and our own early environment. The psychologist gets stuck as early as Chapter 3 of Genesis when he attempts to read through the Bible.

How can we meet this objection?


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Here is the way Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, a well known post medieval Jewish thinker describes man in his work "Derech Hashem":

God built man out of a mixture of opposites. On the one hand, man is an earthy creature driven by his physical desires and sensations just like any other animal. This aspect of man is impermeable to spirituality and has a very self-centered approach to every experience and relationship. The predominant issue under consideration when making decisions for this aspect of the human being is always whether this experience or relationship will afford him pleasure or gratification.

On the other hand, God also gave man a soul. Man's soul is totally uninterested in physical gratification and has no drive toward self-interest. Its fondest wish is to become reunited with its Divine origins and become part of the Infinite. It is this aspect of man that finds pleasure and beauty in knowledge for its own sake, and in selfless commitment to relationships with other human beings and with God.

This dual aspect of man is described clearly in the Torah itself.

And the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the earth, and He blew into him the soul of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

Nachmanides, basing himself on Onkelos and other rabbinic sources explains this verse thus:

God took a creature called Adam, who was created along with the other higher animals on the sixth day, and who therefore was already walking around in his present animal form, and He blew into this humanoid the "soul of life," turning the humanoid into the present day human being by adding a soul to his earthy animal part. The soul is software in contrast to the body which is man's hardware.

Thus each element of man contributes something positive to the entirety. The sense of individuality is primarily based in the body, while the ability to make selfless commitments and relationships on the grounds of pure idealism is rooted in the soul. Luzatto describes the union between the soul and the body as an eternal bond; man is defined by this mixture of opposites. He can only be human as long as he is possessed of both parts.

Remove his soul and man becomes an animal; remove his body and man ceases to be an individual

Remove his soul and man becomes an animal; remove his body and man ceases to be an individual.

The separation of soul and body that we are familiar with as death is temporary in the eternal integrity of the human being; it is a later development introduced to repair the damage inflicted by the sin of the first human couple. (Just how death accomplishes this repair is outside the scope of this discussion.) Once the damage is repaired man will reassume the body-soul format for eternity at the time of the resuscitation of the dead.


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But this dual aspect of man, while basically positive, also places him into a permanent and insoluble state of existential conflict; the soul and the body each have mutually exclusive interests and yet are condemned to be parts of a single integrated entity through this shotgun marriage of opposites arranged by God. Naturally each tries to sway man in its own direction. Foreseeing this in advance God gave each the power to transform his opposite.

The body can harness the soul into vastly enriching simple physical experience and lending it a semi-spiritual aspect. For example, a cultured individual will go to a high-class restaurant to satisfy his physical craving for nourishment. He will look for esthetic beauty in the furnishings and table implements, and a spiritual ambiance in the atmosphere besides excellence in the food, and thus vastly elevate the simple animal experience of eating.

On the other hand, the soul can transform the body and render it sensitive to spiritual experience thereby lending an aspect of individuality and joy to an otherwise abstract and impersonal experience. For example, the Torah requires that an observant Jew should eat and drink well on the Sabbath and on Holy Days, although the focus of such days is primarily spiritual, not physical.

Which aspect of man will gain the ascendancy and transform the other is the area allocated to man's free will and the object of man's life in the physical world.


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How does this work in practice?

Man's soul has three aspects to it - called nefesh, neshama, and ruach - which function as follows:

The nefesh is man's physical life force and is attached to the blood in his body.

Only be strong not to eat the blood - for the blood it is the soul (nefesh) - and you shall not eat the soul (nefesh) with the meat. (Deut. 12:23)

The commission of sins related to one's physical urges, such as forbidden acts of intercourse, are attributed by the Torah to the urgings of the nefesh. Thus at the end of Leviticus 18, the chapter devoted to the definition of illicit sexual acts, the Torah writes:

For if anyone commits these abominations, their souls (nefoshot) will be cut off from among their people. (Leviticus 18:29)

Man's neshama refers to the part of man that originated in the Divine breath blown into his nostrils described in Genesis 2:7 quoted above.

In between these two is man's ruach. It is man's ruach that is the subject of the tug of war between his nefesh and his neashama. It is in this part of the human being that the capacity of choice is located.

If man chooses to respond to the tug of his neshama, his ruach becomes aligned with the Divine breath of God within him, pulling his nefesh along and the nefesh itself becomes transformed into a spiritual entity.

On the other hand, if he chooses to follow the tug of his nefesh, his ruach becomes aligned with it pulling as much of the neshama along as it is able, transforming parts of the neshama into a semi-physical entity in the process.

According to Luzatto, this process is ongoing as long as we are alive. The fact that we are unable to observe these transformations taking place as they actually happen in real time is due to a Divine edict against their becoming manifest.

This decree was issued for two reasons:


  1. to preserve the free will process; if we could directly observe the consequences of our decisions as translated into transformations of physicality to spirituality, or vice versa, it would considerably hamper our freedom of choice;



  2. to allow a situation where people in various stages of spiritual development, who no longer resemble each other but still have to interact, do so.


Nevertheless, apparent or not, each human being effects an integration of body and soul that is unique to himself, reflecting the results of the free will choices made during his lifetime. It is this unique integration that determines the nature and quality of every person's individual existence through the rest of eternity. In a very palpable sense each of us is the direct product of his or her choices.


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But just as the results of this tug of war are different for every person, the actual struggle is different as well.

For example, for a person that was brought up Orthodox, Sabbath observance is not a subject for inner conflict. For such a person, to consciously violate the Sabbath laws would be an anxiety-laden experience. On the other hand, for the non-Orthodox person who is contemplating the adoption of an observant life, Sabbath observance could be a major stumbling block. Accepting all the restrictions imposed by the Sabbath laws is often a major obstacle.

The same holds true for character traits. For the person who was given a generous nature by his genes and early conditioning, the prospect of sharing his possessions with others presents no conflict. For the person who was not programmed for the trait of generosity, sharing is extremely difficult and always involves some inner conflict.

In the tug of war between the nefesh and the neshama each person holds at a different point - the point of choice.

In the tug of war between the nefesh and the neshama each person is holding at a different point. Rabbi Dessler referred to this point as his "point of choice." This point of choice is the only point of conflict. Whatever is too far behind this point towards the nefesh is no longer tempting. Whatever is too far beyond this point towards the neshama is not yet attractive enough to be attainable. We move this point forward or backward according to the choices we make in true free will situations, situations of genuine conflict.

This means that the psychologists are partially correct. While it is true that every thing that happens to us is meant to further our spiritual growth, most of the events of our lives do not challenge this point of choice, and for the most part we follow our programs.

However, every person that manages to move his point of choice - so that situations that were conflict-ridden in his past are no longer - has altered the balance in the tug of war between his nefesh and his neshama in the favor of one side or the other. The amount that one alters this balance defines who one is and how one views reward and punishment.

Looking back at our example, if the person who was contemplating becoming Orthodox goes ahead with it and Sabbath observance eventually becomes a matter of routine for him, he is rewarded for his Sabbath observance even after it becomes a matter of course. Similarly, the person who practices generosity out of conflict until he turns into a generous person will be rewarded for all his acts of generosity for the rest of his life. The loss of free will that results from winning the tug of war with the nefesh is the reward he has earned through the exercise of free will.

Needless to say, although all our mitzvot earn us reward, as, strictly speaking, we are theoretically able to overcome our inner programs, our greatest spiritual uplift is always in the area that we have mapped out through our own choices. In terms of our example, the person who was raised Orthodox will never be able to find the same spiritual inspiration in Sabbath observance as the person who turned it into routine by winning his conflict. For the latter, Sabbath will always provide great spiritual inspiration no matter how routine its observance becomes. Our areas of inspiration are always located in the same place as our former conflicts.

The aim of free will is to lose it!

The object of transformation is to become changed people who have grown past the tug of war. True victory in the tug of war with the nefesh turns the entire human being into a neshama. Such victory is the only way to find true inner peace.

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