This essay is one installment in a larger series on Bechirah Chofshis/Free Will which you can read in its entirety here.
So far in this series we have discussed the differences between Human and Divine knowledge, and addressed the contradiction at the center of our topic, namely, how can Man possess Free Will when God knows all that will happen in the future? To conclude this series, we now turn to the implications of Man’s Free Will, and what it means for the religious individual.
First, we turn to Rambam for the basic principles of Free Will in the first place. We will quote extensively and offer commentary.
Man Is Responsible For His Actions
רְשׁוּת לְכָל אָדָם נְתוּנָה. אִם רָצָה לְהַטּוֹת עַצְמוֹ לְדֶרֶךְ טוֹבָה וְלִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק הָרְשׁוּת בְּיָדוֹ. וְאִם רָצָה לְהַטּוֹת עַצְמוֹ לְדֶרֶךְ רָעָה וְלִהְיוֹת רָשָׁע הָרְשׁוּת בְּיָדוֹ. הוּא שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה (בראשית ג-כב) "הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע". כְּלוֹמַר הֵן מִין זֶה שֶׁל אָדָם הָיָה יָחִיד בָּעוֹלָם וְאֵין מִין שֵׁנִי דּוֹמֶה לוֹ בְּזֶה הָעִנְיָן שֶׁיְּהֵא הוּא מֵעַצְמוֹ בְּדַעְתּוֹ וּבְמַחֲשַׁבְתּוֹ יוֹדֵעַ הַטּוֹב וְהָרַע וְעוֹשֶׂה כָּל מַה שֶּׁהוּא חָפֵץ וְאֵין מִי שֶׁיְּעַכֵּב בְּיָדוֹ מִלַּעֲשׂוֹת הַטּוֹב אוֹ הָרַע. וְכֵיוָן שֶׁכֵּן הוּא פֶּן יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ:
License (Free Will) is granted to all humans: If one wanted to turn oneself to a good path and to be righteous he has the license to do so, and if one wanted to turn oneself to an evil path and be wicked he has the license to do so, as it is written in the Torah, Behold, the Man is become like one of us, to know good and evil (Genesis 3:22), that is, this species of human is unique in the world (כְּאַחַד) and there is no other species like it in this matter, that it of its own initiative (מִמֶּנּוּ) and will and thought knows Good and Evil and will do whatever it pleases, and there is no one to prevent its hand from doing Good or Evil, and since that is so Lest he send forth his hand (Gen. 3:22).
In the whole of the world, only Man has the ability to actively choose what to do based on what is right and wrong. Animals do not make moral decisions, nor choose the path of righteousness over evil — they operate purely based on practicality, survival, and sensual pleasure. Animals operate based on intuition and instinct; they do not make choices based on their own values. Animals do not choose to be docile or vicious, for instance. Rather, this is merely part of their “programming.” Humankind is therefore unique in all of Creation, such that Man can, through his own thought processes, determine that which is right and wrong and choose to do what he so desires. The fact that humans have their own decision process is unique in the animal kingdom.
אַל יַעֲבֹר בְּמַחֲשַׁבְתְּךָ דָּבָר זֶה שֶׁאוֹמְרִים טִפְּשֵׁי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם וְרֹב גָּלְמֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא גּוֹזֵר עַל הָאָדָם מִתְּחִלַּת בְּרִיָּתוֹ לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק אוֹ רָשָׁע.
Do not let this thing that the simpletons of the Nations of the World and most of the fools of Israel say cross your mind, that the Holy Blessed One decrees for a person to be righteous or wicked from the beginning of his creation.
This would make no logical sense, for if this were true, how could there be Divine reward and punishment? If it was decreed at birth whether a person was to be righteous or evil, with no Free Will in the matter, it would be utterly unfair for God to either punish or reward people for their actions. However, since we know from the Torah itself that Man is rewarded and punished for his actions, we can logically conclude that Man has Free Will to choose his own path in life.
אֵין הַדָּבָר כֵּן אֶלָּא כָּל אָדָם רָאוּי לוֹ לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק כְּמשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ אוֹ רָשָׁע כְּיָרָבְעָם אוֹ חָכָם אוֹ סָכָל אוֹ רַחֲמָן אוֹ אַכְזָרִי אוֹ כִּילַי אוֹ שׁוּעַ וְכֵן שְׁאָר כָּל הַדֵּעוֹת. וְאֵין לוֹ מִי שֶׁיִּכְפֵּהוּ וְלֹא גּוֹזֵר עָלָיו וְלֹא מִי שֶׁמּוֹשְׁכוֹ לְאֶחָד מִשְּׁנֵי הַדְּרָכִים אֶלָּא הוּא מֵעַצְמוֹ וּמִדַּעְתּוֹ נוֹטֶה לְאֵי זוֹ דֶּרֶךְ שֶׁיִּרְצֶה. הוּא שֶׁיִּרְמְיָהוּ אָמַר (איכה ג-לח) "מִפִּי עֶלְיוֹן לֹא תֵצֵא הָרָעוֹת וְהַטּוֹב". כְּלוֹמַר אֵין הַבּוֹרֵא גּוֹזֵר עַל הָאָדָם לִהְיוֹת טוֹב וְלֹא לִהְיוֹת רַע.
The matter is not so; rather, every person is capable of being righteous like Moshe Rabeinu or wicked like [King] Yerov'am, wise or foolish, compassionate or cruel, stingy or wasteful, and so on for all of the attributes. And there is no one that forces him or decrees for him, nor anyone who pulls him toward one of the two paths; rather, that person, of his own will and awareness, leans toward whichever path he wants, as Jeremiah said, Does not Good and Evil come out of the mouth of the Most High? (Eicha 3:38).
While it is true that some men are born with certain inclinations towards a particular character trait (some are born with a higher intellect, for instance), all men are still responsible for their actions. Indeed, modern societies believe and understand this as well. We are not more lenient with a murderer regardless of his upbringing. Every human being has at least a basic semblance of choice when it comes to right vs. wrong. Some might have a harder time overcoming a particular tendency, but a murderer is still deemed a murderer. We all accept that humanity has at least a basic level of decision-making ability. In the end, a person makes a judgment call when directly faced with a decision. He exercises his Free Will. Rambam explains that nothing spiritual pushes Man towards a particular decision either. Man chooses everything for himself.
God, therefore, did not decree for Moshe to become righteous. Surely, God gave Moshe a certain soul, inclination, and tremendous potential. Hypothetically, still, Moshe could have made all the wrong choices, and ended up an Egyptian prince that partied day and night. (Indeed, it is quite clear from a number of sources that Moshe had great anger issues that he had to overcome, and he grew in general as a person throughout his narrative in Chumash.)
Difficulty in overcoming a personality tendency does not relinquish responsibility. Humans are not all equal in their challenges, but the baseline ability to make decisions for themselves remains.
וְכֵיוָן שֶׁכֵּן הוּא נִמְצָא זֶה הַחוֹטֵא הוּא הִפְסִיד אֶת עַצְמוֹ. וּלְפִיכָךְ רָאוּי לוֹ לִבְכּוֹת וּלְקוֹנֵן עַל חֲטָאָיו וְעַל מַה שֶּׁעָשָׂה לְנַפְשׁוֹ וּגְמָלָהּ רָעָה. הוּא שֶׁכָּתוּב אַחֲרָיו (איכה ג-לט) "מַה יִּתְאוֹנֵן אָדָם חָי" וְגוֹ'. וְחָזַר וְאָמַר הוֹאִיל וּרְשׁוּתֵנוּ בְּיָדֵינוּ וּמִדַּעְתֵּנוּ עָשִׂינוּ כָּל הָרָעוֹת רָאוּי לָנוּ לַחֲזֹר בִּתְשׁוּבָה וְלַעֲזֹב רִשְׁעֵנוּ שֶׁהָרְשׁוּת עַתָּה בְּיָדֵינוּ. הוּא שֶׁכָּתוּב אַחֲרָיו (איכה ג-מ) "נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה וְנָשׁוּבָה" וְגוֹ':
And since that is how it is, it seems that this sinner injures himself. Therefore it is appropriate for him to cry and wail over his sins and over what he did to his soul and how he caused evil to it, as is written afterward, How can a living man complain? etc. (Eicha 3:39). And he returns to say, since we have free will, and by our own awareness we did all of the evil, it is appropriate for us to return in teshuvah and abandon our wickedness, since we now have free will, as is written afterward, Let us search and try our ways, and return [to the Lord] (Eicha 3:40).
If a person sins, it is his fault alone. A sin damages the sinner. Therefore, one should be upset by his own deficiencies. Instead of blaming genetics or upbringing, one must take responsibility for his own actions. Surely, genetics and upbringing could make one’s challenges much more severe, but Man still retains the ability to walk away from sin.
If we blame our shortcomings on everything but ourselves, Rambam wonders how anyone will ever come to repent. Rather, we should examine our own deeds, and return to HaShem.
Resolving The Theological Difficulties
In our previous installment we dealt with the logical and philosophical problem at the heart of the topic of Free Will. Now, Rambam deals with a number of theological problems that arise when discussing Free Will. These problems are purely within the realm of theology, and are thus based on certain usual religious assumptions, as we shall see:
אִלּוּ הָאֵל הָיָה גּוֹזֵר עַל הָאָדָם לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק אוֹ רָשָׁע אוֹ אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם דָּבָר שֶׁמּוֹשֵׁךְ אֶת הָאָדָם בְּעִקַּר תּוֹלַדְתּוֹ לְדֶרֶךְ מִן הַדְּרָכִים אוֹ לְמַדָּע מִן הַמַּדָּעוֹת אוֹ לְדֵעָה מִן הַדֵּעוֹת אוֹ לְמַעֲשֶׂה מִן הַמַּעֲשִׂים כְּמוֹ שֶׁבּוֹדִים מִלִּבָּם הַטִּפְּשִׁים הֹבְרֵי שָׁמַיִם הֵיאַךְ הָיָה מְצַוֶּה לָנוּ עַל יְדֵי הַנְּבִיאִים עֲשֵׂה כָּךְ וְאַל תַּעֲשֶׂה כָּךְ הֵיטִיבוּ דַּרְכֵיכֶם וְאַל תֵּלְכוּ אַחֲרֵי רִשְׁעֲכֶם וְהוּא מִתְּחִלַּת בְּרִיתוֹ כְּבָר נִגְזַר עָלָיו אוֹ תּוֹלַדְתּוֹ תִּמְשֹׁךְ אוֹתוֹ לְדָבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לָזוּז מִמֶּנּוּ. וּמַה מָּקוֹם הָיָה לְכָל הַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ וּבְאֵי זֶה דִּין וְאֵיזֶה מִשְׁפָּט נִפְרָע מִן הָרָשָׁע אוֹ מְשַׁלֵּם שָׂכָר לַצַּדִּיק. הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט.
If God would decree for a person to be righteous or wicked, or if something existed in a person’s nature that would pull him to a certain path, or to a certain opinion, or to a certain characteristic, or to a certain action, like the stupid astrologers make up, how could God command us through the Prophets, “Do this and don’t do that,” “Improve your ways and do not follow your wickedness,” when from the beginning of his creation it was already decreed for him, or his nature pulls him toward something that he can not escape? And what place would there be for the entire Torah? And according to what justice and what law could God punish the wicked or reward the tzaddik, Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice (Genesis 18:25)?
This is, as discussed above, a theological proof based on posukim in Tanach. We can theologically accept that there can be certain tendencies that a person is born with, but we cannot accept that these tendencies are compulsory. Rambam here very strongly and firmly makes the point that Man has the power to act how he so chooses; to be good or bad, to do right or wrong.
This, though, presents us with a new problem: Doesn’t God say only that which He wants to happen can ever happen? How, then, can we suggest that Man has Free Will to do whatever he so desires? What if it runs contrary to something that God wants to occur?1
וְאַל תִּתְמַהּ וְתֹאמַר הֵיאַךְ יִהְיֶה הָאָדָם עוֹשֶׂה כָּל מַה שֶּׁיַּחְפֹּץ וְיִהְיוּ מַעֲשָׂיו מְסוּרִים לוֹ וְכִי יֵעָשֶׂה בָּעוֹלָם דָּבָר שֶׁלֹּא בִּרְשׁוּת קוֹנוֹ וְלֹא חֶפְצוֹ וְהַכָּתוּב אוֹמֵר (תהילים קלה ו) "כּל אֲשֶׁר חָפֵץ ה' עָשָׂה בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ". דַּע שֶׁהַכּל כְּחֶפְצוֹ יֵעָשֶׂה וְאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁמַּעֲשֵׂינוּ מְסוּרִין לָנוּ. כֵּיצַד. כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהַיּוֹצֵר חָפֵץ לִהְיוֹת הָאֵשׁ וְהָרוּחַ עוֹלִים לְמַעְלָה וְהַמַּיִם וְהָאָרֶץ יוֹרְדִים לְמַטָּה וְהַגַּלְגַּל סוֹבֵב בְּעִגּוּל וְכֵן שְׁאָר בְּרִיּוֹת הָעוֹלָם לִהְיוֹת כְּמִנְהָגָן שֶׁחָפֵץ בּוֹ. כָּכָה חָפֵץ לִהְיוֹת הָאָדָם רְשׁוּתוֹ בְּיָדוֹ וְכָל מַעֲשָׂיו מְסוּרִין לוֹ וְלֹא יִהְיֶה לוֹ לֹא כּוֹפֶה וְלֹא מוֹשֵׁךְ אֶלָּא הוּא מֵעַצְמוֹ וּבְדַעְתּוֹ שֶׁנָּתַן לוֹ הָאֵל עוֹשֶׂה כָּל שֶׁהָאָדָם יָכוֹל לַעֲשׂוֹת.
But do not wonder and ask, how is it that a person can do whatever he wants and all of his deeds are given over to him, and could a person do anything in the world against his Creator’s will and desire, when the verse says, Whatever the LORD desires, He has done in Heaven and on Earth (Psalm 135:6)? Know that everything is done according to God’s desire, even though our actions are given over to us. How is that? Just as the Creator desires that Fire and Air rise above while Water and Earth go down below and the wheel turns in a circle, and so too all of the other creations in the world follow their laws that God desired for them, so also God desired that a person should have free will and everything be given over to him, and that there should be no one to force or pull, but he of his own will and awareness – which God has given him – should do whatever a person can do.
The solution to the problem is quite simply that God Himself chooses not to directly govern all occurrences. God wants nature to run naturally, and God wants Man to have Free Will. Thus, indeed, only that which God wants to occur can ever occur — but God wants Man to be able to do whatever he desires, even if it is wrong!
There are certain things that God directly governs, and other things that He does not. God, in general, does not desire to directly get involved in the world. Instead, he wants to preserve natural order and science, and allow Man to have total Free Will to do as he so chooses within that.
לְפִיכָךְ דָּנִין אוֹתוֹ לְפִי מַעֲשָׂיו. אִם עָשָׂה טוֹבָה מֵיטִיבִין לוֹ וְאִם עָשָׂה רָעָה מְרֵעִין לוֹ. הוּא שֶׁהַנָּבִיא אוֹמֵר מִיֶּדְכֶם הָיְתָה זֹּאת לָכֶם. גַּם הֵמָּה בָּחֲרוּ בְּדַרְכֵיהֶם. וּבְעִנְיָן זֶה אָמַר שְׁלֹמֹה (קהלת יא ט) "שְׂמַח בָּחוּר בְּיַלְדוּתֶיךָ" (קהלת יא ט) "וְדָע כִּי עַל כָּל אֵלֶּה יְבִיאֲךָ הָאֱלֹהִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט". כְּלוֹמַר דַּע שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּיָדְךָ כֹּחַ לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעָתִיד אַתָּה לִתֵּן אֶת הַדִּין:
Therefore we judge a person according to his actions: if he did Good we do well by him, and if he did Evil we do poorly by him, as the Prophet said, This is from your own doing (Malakhi 1:9), they have chosen their own ways (Isaiah 66:3). And on this subject [King] Solomon said, Rejoice, young man, in your youth... but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment (Ecclesiastes 11:9), which is to say: know that you have the power to act and in the future you will be called to judgment.
God wants us to have Free Will, and so He gave it to us. The choices Man makes, and the consequences of them, are Man’s responsibility alone. We cannot blame God for our own mistakes. Instead, we should take hold of the power of Free Will to do that which is right and good.
1. Note that this is a totally different question than the “paradox” of how Man can have Free Will if God knows all that will happen in the future. Our present question is not a philosophical one, but rather the theological problem of how God can seemingly contradict Himself and say both that only what He wants to happen can happen, and also that Man has Free Will to do as he so desires.↩