How Much Free Will Do I Actually Have?

I found the following quote from actor Morgan Freeman quite intriguing:

“I knew at an early age I wanted to act. Acting was always easy for me. I don’t believe in predestination, but I do believe that once you get where ever it is you are going, that is where you were going to be. Was I always going to be here? No, I was not. I was going to be homeless at one time, a taxi driver, truck driver, or any kind of job that would get me a crust of bread. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Is Morgan Freeman right? He did play “God” in the movie, Bruce Almighty. Do we never know what is going to happen? Or is it all set into motion at the very beginning of the story, and we are just players in the cast?

The biblical story of Joseph contains one of the most compelling occasions of a seemingly predestined event, and we even see Joseph share his opinion that the ups and downs of his life were beshert. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, we meet Joseph for the first time, and, immediately, it is clear that he is immature, arrogant, and more than a little annoying to his brothers.

His father, Jacob, has already made it clear that, though Joseph is the eleventh youngest of his sons, he is the favorite. And Joseph keeps having these dreams – In one, he witnesses eleven sheaves of corn bowing down to his own sheaf, And he tells his brothers all about this! The corns that bow represent his brothers! And they were bowing to him, the second to the youngest! What a way to make friends.

And, then, he has another dream! The sun, moon, and stars are bowing down to his star – meaning his parents will be bowing down before him one day, too! Yeah, his brothers are not too happy about this. What do the brothers do? They decide to kill him, but, instead, just throw him into a pit, sell him to Egyptian slave-traders, and convince Jacob that his beloved Joseph has been killed.

So, putting ourselves into the shoes of the various characters, how would we feel if we were Joseph? How would he feel towards his brothers?

Towards the end of the Joseph narrative, we have the dramatic self-disclosure of Joseph, in which he finally reveals his true identity to his brothers. In a remarkable scene, perhaps one of the most dramatic in the Tanach, Joseph, now the top adviser to Pharaoh, reassures his brothers that there is no need for them to be feel regretful because they had abandoned him and sold him to foreign slavetraders.

It was, he added, God’s omniscient act that brought him to Egypt for a lifesaving purpose: “It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5). Because Joseph was able to correctly interpret Pharaoh’s dreams about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, Egypt and its surroundings were able to survive an extended food shortage. However, the theological assumption behind Joseph’s statement raises questions for us. In the Joseph narrative, as in many other parts of the Bible, we see that the hand of God is present not only in miraculous interventions, but also in everyday life. The brothers may have had a certain plan in mind regarding Joseph, whom they resented and despised, but God has a different preordained plan for them. In truth, Joseph is only a tool in God’s hands; he is to become a lifesaver.

For the modern liberal Jew, this raises the issue of free will: if God knows what we will do and, in fact, controls our actions, how can we be free and, therefore, responsible? Whether we like it or not, the Tanach does not deal with this issue uniformly. On the one hand it states in Deuteronomy, “I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15), but on the other hand, it maintains that “many designs are in a man’s mind, but it is the Eternal’s plan that is accomplished” (Proverbs 19:21).

As one might imagine, this became a matter of great concern for the early Rabbis and Jewish philosophers later on. Some chose to recognize the dilemma but left it unsolved. For example, Rabbi Akiba taught, in Pirkei Avot, “All is foreseen, yet [free] choice is given” (Pirkei Avot 3:15)

In medieval times some Jewish philosophers attempted to provide an answer. 14th century Jewish philosopher, Chasdai Crescas (1340−1410), argued that God has total foreknowledge and consequently humans are not free. Hence all of a person’s actions are pre-determined by the moment of their birth, and thus their judgment in the eyes of God, as good or evil, is effectively pre-ordained, which nullifies any concept of repentance or change. As you might guess, Crescas’s views on this topic were rejected by Judaism at large.

Then we have the opinion of 13th century theologian, Gersonides (Levi ben Gershon, 1288−1344), who maintained that we have some freedom because God has foresight only of things in general.

Maimonides compromised by saying that everything has a cause, and therefore, God is ultimately responsible for our actions. Thus when we think we are doing something freely, we act without realizing the workings of divine providence, which are unknowable to the human mind.

With whom do you agree? Whose answer resonates with you the most?

Perhaps Maimonides is the easiest to accept. We do not understand fully how the world operates; we act with the assumption that we have some free will. Yet, in reality, we may have much less control than we think we do. Generally speaking, Reform Judaism has no strong doctrine of predestination. The idea that God is omnipotent and omniscient didn’t formally exist in Judaism during the Biblical era, but rather was a later development due to the influence of neo-Platonic and neo-Aristotelian philosophy. Many modern Jewish thinkers in the 20th century, such as Rabbi Harold Kushner,  have resolved the tension by holding that God is simply not omnipotent, in the commonly used sense of that word. These thinkers are primarily liberal Jewish scholars and rabbis.

Orthodox Jewish rabbis, however, generally affirm that God must be viewed as omnipotent, but, interestingly, they have varying definitions of what the word omnipotent means. One finds that some Modern Orthodox theologians have views that are essentially the same as more progressive theologians, but they use different terminology. In recent centuries, Hasdai Crescas’ view that there is no free will has been independently developed among some in the Lubavitch Chabad sect of Hasidic Judaism. Many individuals within Chabad take this view seriously, and hence effectively deny the existence of free will.

And yet, I return to Rabbi Akiba’s statement in Pirke Avot: “All is foreseen, yet [free] choice is given” Many other Jewish thinkers affirm that since free-will exists, then by definition one’s fate is not preordained. It is held as a tenet of faith that whether God is omniscient or not, nothing interferes with humanity’s freedom.

I also know that there are moments in my life that seem like they might just be preordained, That seem to have a higher intelligence behind them, That seem meant to be. And I know that there are some events that I never want to accept as “meant to be.”

For instance, some of you may know that I was in a serious car accident about 14 years ago. For me, there were years of hardship and pain, Which then led to very successful spinal surgery 11 years ago.

Now, I would never say that my accident was meant to be – For me, that would be a very disturbing conclusion to make. Yet, even if not meant to be, I think there are lessons I was meant to learn. I have learned a deeper sense of compassion for those around me who are suffering, I have learned how important self-care can be, I have learned how to properly prioritize my life, And I have learned about chronic pain. I know that these lessons have made my life much richer and more meaningful, And I hope that my rabbinate is likewise enhanced.

Was my accident meant to happen, so that I would learn these lessons? I had always been a perfectionist, an overachiever, and put everyone else first, much to my own detriment. Now, post-accident, I haven’t had have much of a choice, and I must take my own needs into consideration so that I can be fully present for my work with others. And I can now share my insights about health, healing, and self.

Joseph says, “It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you to the land of Egypt.”

Joseph views his suffering, his challenges, his roller-coaster narrative as a gift from God, and his arrival in Egypt not only allows the Egyptians to survive the famine, but also allows for the continuation of the Jewish story. Whether or not you believe that your life is already predetermined, no matter what you think about free will, we can still choose to view events in our lives as teaching moments for ourselves, as inspiration for moving forward and allowing our own stories to continue to develop.

May we all look at our stories as through a lens of learning and growth. May we constantly strive for self-knowledge and insight. May we share our lessons with others, so that the stories of our lives, the lives of our friends and family, and the story of the Jewish people continues to move forward into the future. And may we find ourselves using our freedom for kindness, for healing of brokenness, and for good.

Amen.

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