Can we really choose between pizza and borekas?

Judaism teaches that we have free will, but there are scientists and philosophers who disagree. Is it possible to bridge the gap?

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol ,

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
INN: Daniel Malichi

We live with the knowledge that we have free choice to decide what to do at all times. But do we really have free choice of what to think? Do we have free choice not to get angry? To be happy?

Some argue that although we feel we have a free choice, it is actually an illusion, and we do not really have freedom to decide. They compare it to a missile: if a missile is fired from a certain place, and we know exactly its velocity, the angle, the state of the air at that moment, etc., we could put all these important parameters into a mathematical formula that would tell us exactly when and where the missile is expected to land.

In the same vein, if we take all the parameters that influence decision making, for example: events that affected the decision-maker, the heredity that shaped the brain in the first place, the person’s character, etc., we can similarly predict how one will behave at any given moment. As a simple example: a person grew up in a home where the mother was unappreciated. This mother used to make pizzas for her family. When the son grows up and would walk into a restaurant, debating whether to order pizza or borekas, he would always choose pizza.

It would appear that he made that decision out of free choice. But psychoanalytic proponents of determinism would argue that there was really no choice here. His decision was forced by the power of his childhood experience, in which he felt a need to compensate his mother for the suffering she had gone through, so he chose the pizza that his mother used to make. The choice between pizza and borekas is not critical, but according to this approach the same is true regarding the question of whom we will marry, which occupation we will pursue, etc. Worse still, this approach claims that we have no free choice even when it comes to moral choices.

Contrary to the above, Moshe Rabbeinu addresses the people of Israel at the beginning of the parsha by telling them: “See that I have set before you today blessing and curse. The blessing will come to you if you heed G-d commandments and the curse will come to you if you do not heed G-d’s commandments.”

A person has completely free choice to choose good or evil, and by virtue of that choice he is commanded to choose good, and is rewarded when he is a good person, and is punished when he chooses evil. Maimonides emphasizes the importance of free choice: “The authority of every man is given to him. If he wants to turn himself onto a good path and be righteous, the permission is in his hand, and if he wants to turn himself onto a bad path and be evil, the permission is in his hand ... ".

And Maimonides adds: "Do not let it pass in your mind ... that the Holy One, Blessed be He, condemns man from the beginning of his creation to be righteous or wicked, it is not so, but every man can be as righteous as Moshe or as wicked as Yeravam ... No one forces him and it is not decreed on him... but he himself chooses the path he wishes to follow.”

"And this is an important principle" Maimonides concludes "and it is the pillar of the Torah and the mitzvot as it says ‘See I have given you today, life and good and death and evil ‘, as well as ‘See, I give you today blessing and curse ‘: that is, the decision is in your hands ‘And man can choose between good and evil’.”

So how can we bridge the gap between the Torah which teaches us that we have absolute free choice, and scientific and psychological conceptions which deny it?

Man is made up of different “levels”: body, mind and soul. The denial of free choice is correct at the level of the human psyche. Indeed, the psyche is affected by various things - psychological and social genetics that affect a person’s decisions. But in people in general, and in Jews in particular, is the level of " Tzelem Elokim – that we were created in the image of G-d" and our soul is divine and a part of G-d’s soul. And just as G-d has absolute control to decide even the laws of nature, on a lesser level so too man has a divine part of him that allows him full control of his choices.

That free choice is stronger than all the external factors that force the person to make a particular decision. The soul gives man the absolute freedom to choose good. All the compelling reasons to make a particular choice can make it easier or harder for a person to choose, but the soul is stronger than all of them, and it allows a person to choose correctly even when natural life circumstances would appear to lead him to choose otherwise, because life circumstances are all on the mental-human level, while free choice is on the soul-divine level.

We are soon beginning of the month of Elul, the month of mercy and forgiveness, in which we are all called on to repent. The foundation of repentance is the belief that just as G-d granted us a pure soul, He also grants us the ability to choose good.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol is the head of the Barkai organization and rabbi of the Shaarei Yonah Menachem community in Modi'in.



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