Man’s Free Will is Absolute
Man is a creature of free will. God created man with free will: i.e. the ability to decide his fate, to choose between good and, God forbid, evil. This choice is an absolute choice. There is no boundary to the ability of man to choose to do good or to do evil. Such our sages have taught us. Rabbi Akiva has said “the permission is granted,” the permission is granted to man to do good or to do evil and he is therefore worthy of reward for doing good and punishment for doing evil. All this because he has absolute responsibility for his actions.
It is not always easy to acknowledge the liberty of man. At times, someone might say, “I’m forced to decide…” and so on, “there are many factors that determine my behavior,” “It is out of my control.” Indeed, it is clear that we must recognize that many facts of our surroundings, various influences on us, and others things are determined for us and beyond our control. However, our response to these facts is not coerced whatsoever. The fact that I was born where I was, with certain conditions whatever they are, is certainly not of my choosing. But whether I decide to be content with my lot, or depressed about it, to choose to do good with it or bad, is part of the absolute freedom of man.
Conversely, there is much talk of people’s right to liberty, as in merely a legal right. This is intended to promote the idea that man should be able to choose what to do without threat of legal sanctions and restraints, but this has nothing to do with the question of why someone chose to do what he did.
This leaves room for the idea that man is incumbent to all types of forces: what is called determinism, astrological determinism, biological determinism, deterministic fate and so on. The Torah says explicitly, “I have put before you life and death…,” this is absolute. “…And you should choose life,” this is good advice. “…So that you and your progeny will live,” this means that by realizing his free will man will eventually reach his full potential. He will manifest the image of God that is within him.
So there is nothing to fear from free will. Sometimes people would prefer that their behavior be predetermined, but the Torah rejects this. It places full responsibility on man precisely because it believes in his ability to persevere and succeed in decisively pushing himself, and the entire world, to the side of good.
‘But I Never Chose to Exist!’
Here we will consider a complex philosophical question. As we know, man has the freedom to choose how he will behave, to choose good or evil, and he therefore shoulders the responsibility for his actions. But here arises a fundamental question: I never chose to exist. I could have never been born. No one asked me if I wanted to live or not. Since I was not asked maybe there is room to say that I am not responsible for my actions, and I am not interested in playing this game of life, of good and bad, of reward and punishment.
Here we will have to discuss this from a more metaphysical perspective. It says in the Talmud that ‘all creatures were created with their own consent.’ Rashi explains this in a slightly paradoxical way, “They were asked if they want to be created and they said yes,” as in, ‘we agree, we want to.’ In other words, it can be said that my very existence is, in fact, a product of my choosing. Before coming into this world I had the choice of whether I am interested in life in this world or not, to be born into my family, to the place and time that I was born into, or not. This means that even though I do not remember this unique moment where I chose to be created, I nevertheless chose it, and therefore I can be held responsible and judged for my actions.
Lest I say, ‘No, I feel that life was forced on me,’ the Mishna, in the section “Ethics of the Fathers,” says, “for against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will live…” If so, maybe I don’t want to live. But the Mishna continues, “… and against your will you die.” Meaning when the time comes to die, people don’t want to. This means that you do not really ‘live against your will.’ You choose to live. Indeed, it says ‘against your will you are formed.’ That is, already the initial phases of being born are against your will, but you had chosen this already. Therefore, the Mishna continues, “…against your will you are destined to give judgement.” When the time comes to stand before the heavenly court we will remember that we in fact wanted to exist, and therefore we carry full responsibility.
Basic Morality Precedes the Torah
Morality is the study of good and evil, not the study of truth and falsehood, as engaged by science, philosophy and logic. Morality deals with the question of what is good or evil, concepts that are a little subjective and complicated. The question is, what is the source of morality, how can we know what is good and what is evil.
A common mistake is to say that the source of morality is in the Torah. But this is incorrect, as our sages, who were upright men of truth, said “The way of the land, precedes the Torah.” The ‘way of the land’ refers to all aspects of human culture in all its totality, from technology, to organization, as well as morality. So we say “The way of the land, precedes the Torah.” If someone has Torah but did not precede it with proper character, good qualities, and moral perfection, his Torah will ‘become for him a poison,’ as it says in the Talmud. One cannot say ‘I may be corrupt, but the Torah will fix me.’ No! You cannot internalize Torah without first of all being moral.
This begs the question: then what is the Torah for? The Torah leads us to holiness, or a direct relationship between man and his Creator; the possibility of engaging with the Infinite Creator. But first you must choose good and be appalled with bad, for if not, the prophets have said “the sacrificial offering of evildoers is an abomination.”17 What the evildoer offers to God, an ‘offering,’ in an attempt to worship, is an abomination in God’s eyes. He has communicated this to us through his prophets as it says in Isaiah, “your incense is an abomination… if your hands are full of blood.”18 Once a person has acquired basic moral character traits only then can he encounter God through worship, and then his offerings will be desirable in God’s eyes.
We must add that morality must be studied. One mustn’t rely purely on intuition because this can be misleading. There is a wealth of moral knowledge accumulated over generations, over thousands of years that teaches man how to be good. Occasionally there may be a decline in the morality, as we are witnessing today in the form of granting legitimacy to immoral behavior.
Another point here, is that a moral system cannot be built without reference to God. To put it otherwise, if I do not understand that my moral behavior is desired by God, then eventually it will decline and wither away. One of the great sages of recent generations, Rabbi Kook, said that morality will not persevere without its source. Its source being the Creator of the world, who gave man a pure soul, that if only he were to listen to it, he would know what is right and what is wrong.
Unifying the Ideals – Charity and Justice
What is Jewish morality? We have said that morality precedes the Torah, but what is this morality? Often, in various moral systems one value is raised up above all others. For example, in Christianity, love is considered all important. Love, kindness, charity, compassion, all express the need to give. This is the essence of morality in the Christian tradition which can be captured by one of the commandments in the Torah “Love your neighbor like yourself.”
On the other hand, in Islam, we find that the main fulcrum of moral consciousness is actually judgement, that all things must meet the standards set by strict judgment. Therefore Islam’s moral guidance takes a severe attitude toward theft and adultery even to the point of cutting off the hand of a thief, or for example the dress requirements of extreme modesty for women. This results from an acute awareness of the need to overcome the wild and base desires of humans.
In other systems, we might say that the essence of moral thought was placed on social justice. Marxism, for example, holds that equal distribution of property is the essential moral ideal. In the far-eastern cultures we find that the moral ideal is knowledge, or to be more precise, the knowledge that we cannot really know anything. This is a spiritually-oriented morality, a sort of spiritual suicide it could be called.
So what does Judaism say? Judaism speaks, not-surprisingly, of the union of the ideals. To synthesize between loving-kindness and strict judgment and by putting them together, create mercy. This is the merger of the spiritual and material worlds, which is called splendor, or universal harmony. This means that the true moral system must integrate all the elements of the values.
It says in the Torah, “One who sacrifices to any deity other than God alone must be condemned.” How should we understand this passage? It could be said that this comes to negate polytheism. But it is also meant to negate giving preference to one ideal above all others. A system that recognizes only kindness, or only justice; only spirituality or only materialism, is fundamentally lacking. It cannot express the unity of the values, the true unity of the moral life.
It can now be understood why the three pathways in man’s soul must be integrated. Man has a pathway between himself and fellow man. I love my friend, help him and he reciprocates. There is also pathway between man and God. I fulfill my obligations toward my Creator. And there is a pathway between man and himself. I must perfect myself, to relate morally to all of my abilities. Only when there is balance, true balance between fellow men, man and God, and man and himself, can we reach moral perfection that allows for the integration of the ideal character traits, the integration of values.