Struggling with Our Free Will
Does man truly possess free will? Or, are we, as many social scientists suggest today, a product of a series of events that have occurred in our lives and various natures and dispositions that we are born with? Can man truly be held responsible for the choices he or she makes? “At least since the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, one of the most central questions of human existence has been whether we have free will.
In the late 20th century, some thought neuroscience had settled the question, but this was later refuted. The elusive answer is nonetheless foundational to our moral codes, criminal justice system, religions and even to the very meaning of life itself—for if every event of life is merely the predictable outcome of mechanical laws, one may question the point of it all.”
The modern-day Acher, Yuval Harari, has argued that free will is a myth, invented by religion. “Theologians developed the idea of ‘free will’ to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them?” To prove this is false, Harari argues: “This myth has little to do with what science now teaches us about Homo sapiens and other animals… You cannot decide what desires you have. You don’t decide to be introvert or extrovert, easy-going or anxious, gay or straight.
Humans make choices – but they are never independent choices. Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself. I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc. – and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.”
Free will of classical Jewish literature
Of course, Harari’s argument against free will is predicated on the assumption that religion defines free will to mean that all people are completely equal in their respective dispositions to countless different good vs. bad choices. But that was never the definition of free will in classical Jewish literature. Rather, “free will” simply means that despite one’s unique dispositions – biological, social, and personal conditions – no one forces a human being to act upon that which God defines as bad behavior.
It may be more difficult for one person to resist the temptation to a particular illicit act than another. For example, some people find the urge to shoplift overpowering, while others recoil at the prospect. But in the end, we all can choose, through proper discipline and conditioning, to resist even the strongest of urges.
It may very well be that our patriarch Yaakov struggled with this idea. It would appear that his brother, Esav, had already resigned himself to act upon his impulses. When given the opportunity to choose the immediate gratification of a meal vs. maintaining his first-born role as the moral leader of the family, Esav abdicated the latter, with the argument (Bereishit 25:32), “הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה”, which we may translate as: “All of us, whether saint or sinner, end up in the same place anyway, dead. Why should I maintain this position of moral authority if morality is an illusion and there is no free will?!”
He gave into the urge for food and lived for the instant gratification of the moment. Esav’s very name (עשו = עשוי) implies “completed” and fixed in one’s nature, devoid of the opportunity to change. This is exactly what Harari would have us do, revert back to our Esav impulses.
Yaakov reunites with Esav
“וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר”
The Torah (Bereishit 32:25) describes how Yaakov, returning to Eretz Israel, prepared to confront his brother. He sent his family ahead, and then remained alone in the darkness, devoid of his family – his support system – and left alone to his thoughts.
He began to question the last two decades of his life and the precarious future he now faced: I’ve lived my life with the conviction that there is absolute right and wrong, and yet Lavan seems to flourish with impunity despite his sinister behavior. Esav has amassed great wealth living the life of someone who follows his impulses, and those same bloodthirsty impulses may impel him to kill me.
Struggling with these doubts manifests in a wrestling match with an “angel,” a being who, according to our Sages, doesn’t possess free will. Our sages teach us that this was Esav’s angel, who, over the course of this dark night tries to convince Yaakov that free will is, indeed, an illusion.
Yaakov as Yisrael
But Yaakov resists, and remembers that Hashem appeared to him and promised him Divine protection. He remembers the ladder ascending to heaven, representing the opportunity that man has, through his free will choices, to ascend or descend, to become close or distant, from G-d. Seeing that he cannot defeat Yaakov, the angel touches Yaakov’s sciatic nerve, which runs opposite his loins, representing the greatest biological urge that humans possess.
This proves to be Yaakov’s weak spot, in that there are times in life when man feel powerless to resist his sexual urges. But even that “injury” to Yaakov’s belief in free will does not last long. Man may succumb temporarily, but eventually can overcome even the strongest of urges, once he sees the light of day. This is why, as the dawn breaks, Yaakov is initially limping, but then the sun heals him of the injury to his loins.
The angel thus awards Yaakov his new name, Yisrael (32:29), meaning the man who struggles with G-d and with man, and eventually emerges victorious. Yes, Yaakov, sometimes the urges are overbearing, but you have demonstrated that you do have free will and you can conquer your demons. Indeed, this is why we are called Bnei Israel, Children of the Struggler, because free will is the very basis of our entire faith.
Let Esav continue believing in his deterministic urges as the guide to his life. You and your descendants will have a higher calling. Your virtue will undermine Esav’s whole belief system. At different times in history, he will hate you for it, and will try to destroy you for proving him wrong. For you will remind him that no matter how sophisticated he can articulate the argument, you demonstrate that man can always overcome the evil within.
We have been dealing with the problem of free will for time immemorial. This problem persists today, and we occasionally must face yet another scandal of a religious or community leader who stands accused of being a sexual predator. The perpetrators and their behavior must be condemned in the strongest of terms. We owe the victims no less. No matter how tormented the individual may be by his demons, no one can claim to be religious and yet repeatedly succumb to their baser impulses. We have seen the horrors of those who proclaim “Allahu Akbar” and then proceed to commit the most immoral and violent acts. Even women’s advocacy groups have looked the other way when it comes to Jewish women being raped and abused. One of the reasons for the world’s persistent hatred of the Jewish people is because we never give a pass to someone who chooses evil over good. Both Yaakov and Esav always have a choice.
We may limp from such experiences, but the dawn eventually heals even the deepest of wounds. That is our hope and this is our prayer. May we truly experience the healing power of the day when all evil will be eradicated, and we will feel the soothing rays of light emanating from the Messianic Age, bb”a.