What Price Free Will?

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OK, I’ll admit it: I’ve been jealous for some time of co-contributors Yonason Rosenblum and Rabbi Avi Shafran for their ability to post pieces they’ve written and published in other venues. So I figured I’ll try my hand at this bit of literary economy as well by posting the piece below, although it’s not standard Cross-Currents fare. It appears, with small changes, in two parts in the October and November editions of Yashar, the monthly newsletter of the Mussar Institute.

Aficionados of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone may recall the episode in which an inveterate gambler named Bob comes up to the pearly gates and is shown to his place of eternal repose. Opening the doors to a large hall, he beholds a scene that is clearly his idea of heaven. It’s a casino packed with patrons enjoying every manner of games of chance, and Bob, too, quickly joins in the fun.

Lo and behold, he wins at one game after another. Whether it’s roulette, blackjack or the slots, Bob simply never loses. This goes on for some time, until Bob begins to tire of his constant winning ways. Sitting down at the bar, he orders a beer – it’s on the house – and remarks to the bartender: “I wonder what the ‘other place’ looks like,” to which the bartender responds: “Buddy, you don’t understand; this is the ‘other place.’” Serling’s eerie theme music comes on, as the camera pans Bob’s dumbstruck face and the scene fades.

Whether Serling knew it or not, this scene encapsulates one of Judaism’s deepest teachings about the nature and function of that which defines a person’s very humanity: his free will. To explain, let’s go for a whirlwind tour of Jewish Philosophy 101, and, in particular, what Judaism teaches about man’s purpose in this world.

In brief, G-d is good, and goodness necessarily implies bestowal of goodness upon another. Being perfect, G-d wishes to bestow the greatest good possible, which is connection to Him, Source of all goodness. He therefore creates all of existence, with man as its focal point.

Utilizing all of created existence to help him become G-dlike, man creates the connection to G-d which will eventually enable him to partake of the ultimate, Divine goodness. Where? In that realm where G-d’s goodness can be experienced fully, the World-to-Come.

There is a great deal to digest here and, indeed, one can, and ought to, spend time thinking through each of the above concepts. But for now, a basic question remains: Why must we pass through our present world, which is so often and for so many a vale of tears, on our way to the ultimate destination of the next world?

The answer to this is a window into our essential humanity: being created in the Divine image, as we are, means being free, really free, as G-d is, to create – and destroy – worlds. By contrast, if we were robotic beings devoid of free will, we’d be as diametrically opposite to the Divine as possible and, hence, no true likeness/connection to the Divine would be possible.

It is only by creating this G-d-likeness/connection, through our moral choices in this world, that we can experience it for all eternity in the next one. We cannot, by definition, receive such connection as a handout – a lesson that our protagonist Bob learned with the dawning realization that the eternal “reward” of never-ending winning through no effort of his own meant that he had been in the “other place” all along.

Interestingly, although Western, post-Enlightenment thought is often at stark odds with classical Judaic beliefs, these divergent worldviews both see free will as an essential component of the human personality.

The Talmud teaches that hakol be’ydei shamayim chutz me’yir’as shamayim, meaning that for all that G-d guides the affairs of individuals and nations alike, each person is granted complete autonomy in one area, and that is regarding his or her ethical choices. G-d is without doubt Master of the Universe, but without puny man’s independence to choose rightly or wrongly in the moral realm, that seemingly endless universe would lose its very raison d’etre.

For its part, contemporary Western thought also sees personal autonomy and self-determination as a defining feature of human living. Indeed, the ideal of inalienable personal freedom has given rise not only to innumerable political and social movements of liberation and human rights, but also to the shrinking of religious authority in the modern era.

Yet, beneath the surface similarity of these understandings lies a crucial difference between them.

In Western terms, the exercise of free will is itself the goal, since it is the highest expression of the human self, and nothing trumps actualizing the self. Commenting on the trend among some moderns to eschew traditional Jewish wedding rituals in favor of self-created ceremonies, David Gelernter writes trenchantly: “The whole point of a wedding ceremony is to offer the couple a chance to enter into something bigger than themselves. But in modern America, there is nothing bigger than yourself.”

And when there is “nothing bigger than yourself,” there is no good reason to cede any part of your autonomy. Indeed, it becomes actually threatening to one’s very sense of self to do so; a partial slaying of the self, as it were.

Yet, without self-limiting one’s choices and actions to some extent, how can one hope to change one’s behaviors and, ultimately, the character traits in which those behaviors are rooted? It is here that we see how the insistence on maintaining maximal free will and never acting to limit one’s options can become a detriment to the process of ethical growth and change that is the very essence of the Mussar life.

For Judaism, however, there most assuredly is Something “bigger than yourself,” and free will is a sine qua non of human living specifically because it is a means to enter into relationship with that Something, which we call G-d. But the knowledge that free will, crucial as it is, is only a means to a higher end, enables the individual to circumscribe it as a way of deepening his relationship with G-d, to “annul your will before His will,” as the Mishna in Avos puts it.

There’s a great paradox in all of this: when one, feeling his very selfhood at risk, refuses to part with absolute autonomy, selfhood is retained, but at the steep price of remaining as he began: an ephemeral, infinitesimal dot in a vast universe, far from the only One Who could give existence true meaning. One, however, who acts heroically (which Torah asks even of ostensible non-heroes) to limit his free will, to negate the ego, does not disappear as an individual. To the contrary, that person merges into the reality of a far greater Existence and thereby achieves real and lasting existence.

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1 Response

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Do you see a difference between a person who willingly accepts to observe a rule, and one that is forced into it? For example, is there a difference between you observing Shabbat for the sake of heaven, and somebody in Joshua’s generation, doing it because of the death penalty for desecrating it?