I am reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I am enjoying it very much. The storyline is laced with fascinating religious-themed exchanges between characters. Though the discussions are of a Christian nature they have gotten me thinking about Judaism. One conversation that comes up in the book is around the interplay between the issues of predetermination and free will. Does Judaism believe that people enter this world with a set role assigned to them, with a preordained fate? If so, how does this relate to the Jewish idea of free will?
Though my answer won’t make for light summer reading, I think you raise valid questions that weigh on people’s minds. So set the beach book aside and get ready for Jewish Thought 101. First let us consider the question: does Judaism believe that people come into this world with a predetermined fate?
A verse from the Book of Job will launch the investigation. Job is our quintessential tormented, suffering Biblical character. He opens his first speech after the catastrophic tragic misfortune that has rendered him a bereaved father, mourning for 10 lost children and a prosperous man stripped of all his worldly possessions. He cries out cathartically with this ominous gloomy declaration:
“Let the day I was born perish,
likewise, (Lailah), the night that declared:
A male has been conceived. “
The Talmudic sage Rabbi Chaninah bar Pappa interprets the verse homiletically. He tells us that a heavenly scene is hinted at here. There is an angel appointed to oversee conception, named Lailah (night), who takes the drops from which an embryo will be conceived, sets it before the Holy Blessed One and says, “Master of the Universe! This drop, what is its destiny? Will the person that develops from it be mighty or weak, wealthy or poor?”
A seemingly capricious-like scene snuck from above. What are we to think? An angel, a drop, a child yet to be born. This sobering arbitrary assigning of attributes must snap us to our senses. Does the Almighty thus determine the fate of each human being before their entry into the world? Are matters of wealth and weaknesses pre-assigned in such a seemingly random fashion? Are those now living in squalid sub-human poverty doing so because of this Divine declaration?
That certainly sounds frighteningly like predetermination. In this Divine scene, each human being is assigned a set fate: mighty or weak, rich or poor. Is this what we believe? Predetermination seemed more the stuff of Christian Calvinists. Is this Jewish? What is the nature of this predetermined fate? Does it not thwart our notions of free will?
Truth be told, who of us does not enter this world with much prearranged? Most would concede that prior to birth, much is already in place: our economic status, our social strata — let alone parents and siblings.
And then there is the matter of genes. The more we learn about genetics the more understand that they hold the secret to our personality, preferences and predilections.
Despite this, the angelic scene of pre-assignments on high remains astounding. Though we may get past our initial astonishment, the lack of choice and the overwhelming degree of predetermination is haunting and humbling.
We humans enjoy an illusion of powerful ultimate control — indeed, we revel in our dominion. To realize the reality, that we are but creatures of fate, victims of happenstance, is deeply disturbing. Is this the sum total of the human condition, fate determined even before a swim in embryonic fluid?
But wait: respite and reprieve are in sight. A critical aspect of each human’s existence is categorically not predetermined. Here is the rest of the Talmudic teaching:
“The angel does not mention whether the child is destined to be wicked or righteous.” This accords with Rabbi Chaninah’s principle, “everything is in the hands of heaven except for the awe of heaven.”
The Talmud reassures us that the moral path of each individual is left to self-determination, awe of heaven is outside the bounds of even heaven. Free will freely reigns.
Consider these selections from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work, The Prophets: “Man lives in bondage to his natural environment, to society, and to his own ‘character;’ he is enslaved to his needs, interests, and selfish desires. Yet to be free means to transcend nature, society, ‘character,’ needs, interests, desire.” How then is freedom conceivable? Freedom is an act of self-engagement of the spirit, a spiritual event.
We are free to choose between good and evil — we are not free in having to choose. We are, in fact, compelled to choose. Thus, all freedom is a situation of God’s waiting for man to choose.
Heschel begins with an echo of our Talmudic passage. Though much in the nature of life is predestined, the truly magnificent aspects of our humanity are the opportunities of transcendence, moments of lofty choices of the spiritual realm. Here a person’s true free choice is expressed. Our grand human predominance is expressed in going beyond our set situation in making choices that demonstrate our human spirit.
Many of our choices are so mundane. What do I eat? What do I wear? Of what do I speak? But herein lies the potential for greatness, where our choices become grandiose expressions of human free choice. Do I select the easy comfortable path or do I elect to stretch beyond? Am I satisfied to walk on the path of the popular or am I ready to accept the path of destiny?
Choosing to stand up for the oppressed, to observe kashrut, Sabbath, to converse gossip-free, and to judge others favorably is to move upward and beyond. To accept one’s preordained proclivities, to translate them into freedom and thus to respond to God’s patient waiting, these are Jewish notions of free will, angels on high notwithstanding.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an email at email@example.com.