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Thoughts for Shabbat: A Jewish Answer on Free Will

I was relieved to discover that, in general, Jewish thinkers and Jewish theology have not spilled nearly the reams of useless ink that other faiths have, over the questions of free will and predestination. Whether embedded in strains of Christianity or Buddhism or elsewhere, Judaism has also saved itself from that most unfortunate extreme, which imagines that God’s perfection or knowledge or power can only exist if the righteous and the damned have already been chosen ahead of time.

Rather, Judaism admits to paradox, and isn’t that refreshing? The focus nearly always returns to reaffirming the meaning of human life in the world that God created, rather than using a philosophical puzzle that ends up condemning the world, and rendering human decisions useless:

The philosophical problem connected with free will was appreciated by the Rabbis, but they would not allow it to restrict in any way the belief in man’s powers to control his actions. They made no attempt to solve the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and freedom of will, but offered as a practical rule of life, “Everything is foreseen (by God), yet freedom of choice is given.”

– Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, 94.

The emphasis on grace in the royal and Temple theologies threatens to deprecate the deed, to render ethics dispensable, in short, to make Israel merely a passive bystander in her own spiritual life. The emphasis on works, on mizwot, in the traditions of Sinai covenant, threatens to make God merely a mechanism for the dispensation of rewards and punishments and to make then mizwot themselves into magical practices through which Israel can manipulate her God, who thus becomes the passive partner in the relationship. By refusing to dichotomize spiritual experience into grace and works, by affirming both simultaneously, the religion prescribed by the Jewish Bible maintains the two-sidedness of the relationship of God and Israel. It perceives both activity and passivity as proper postures for both partners, and it affirms the ultimate importance both of this world and of the higher or future world. To some, the juxtaposition of the two theologies will seem to have resulted in an unacceptable contradiction. To others, it will seem to have resulted in a contradiction that is indeed to be accepted, a paradox, one that lies at the heart of Jewish spirituality through the ages.

– Jon D. Levenson, “The Jerusalem Temple in Devotional and Visionary Experience,” in Arthur Green ed., Jewish Spirituality 1: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, 51.