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Free Will ? - Maureen Grossman

Did you choose to come to synagogue this morning?

Did those who stayed away choose not to come?

Did we make a choice of our own free will? Do we have free will?

Like many others I have been attending Jonathan Bergwerk’s sessions on Audacious Jews. During a discussion on the philosophy of Spinoza I found myself wondering if we really do have free will or are our so called choices just the result of our genetic make up and our environment. This “wondering” surprised me as making choices featured strongly in my life particularly in my teaching career.

I maintained order in the school by the blunt tool “do it or else” so giving the students some degree of choice.

Sometimes it was slightly more sophisticated.

In my very first year of teaching Jane jumped on the window ledge and threatened to kill herself if I did not take her to Kew Gardens. I gave her a choice…

you could jump, BUT

it is raining

the earth is very muddy

you will land in rose bushes and

we are on the ground floor

so why don’t you just sit down and learn about the reproduction of ferns

She did and I really cannot remember if I took her to Kew Gardens.

Does God also come into this?  Does God also control by offering choices? Today during a period of silence in the service we were invited to read the second and third paragraphs of the Sh’ma in which God gives the Israelites a choice.

Abbreviating it somewhat:

“Love and Serve the Eternal your God”  and the rains will come at the right time for your harvests and you will “eat and be satisfied”.

On the other hand if you worship other gods, God will “shut up the sky” and “the land will not produce”

This passage from Deuteronomy can be used as evidence that we have free will and can make choices and God will reward or punish us accordingly. But this is a troublesome passage in many respects, this is why in our Reform prayer book alternative passages are also suggested. It certainly does not reflect what happens in life. Do only good things happen to good people and only bad things happen to bad people? No, that is not our experience of life. So how convincing is this passage?

 Let us assume that we have choices. When did humans become choosing creatures? Was that the purpose of the Tree of Knowledge to give them the opportunity to make the first choice? The forbidden fruit must have held a fascination for Adam and Eve. Don’t eat it! What an invitation! Was this part of their learning to be humans? Did they actually expect to become more knowledgeable? Nearer to the Angels? Or was it just curiosity? Did they feel that they were acting against God?

God must have known the outcome. I knew Jane and was almost certain she would not jump; the idea of being scratched and muddy would not have appealed. Even more so God knew Adam and Eve, God had created them and must have known they would eat the fruit. Did God see this as disobedience or just part of their human development? Was their’s a free choice or were they preprogrammed?

Moving on to today’s Parashah. It describes the last of the Plagues and the beginning of the Passover story, but I was immediately drawn to the sentence

“The Eternal had stiffened the heart of Pharaoh so he would not let the Israelites go from his land” 

Did Pharaoh have free will if God intervened as God saw fit? No, so why did God take over? As usual there is more than one explanation

  1. God wanted to win and to be seen to win. Earlier in Exodus Moses was able to change a rod into a serpent, but so were the Egyptian worshippers of false gods. The contest was won by Moses as his serpent ate all the others. But not enough, the God of the Israelites must be seen to be even more powerful and hence the plagues. Look what I can do if you do not let my people go. This does not present God in a good light!

2. Another explanation is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, as indicated in the first five plagues and it was only then that God had an input. Quoting from Talmud,

“Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent 5 times to him and he took no notice, God then said: You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; well I will add to your uncleanness.”

After Gods intervention another 5 plagues followed as a punishment or maybe a means of further separating the Egyptians and the Israelites.

Only the Egyptians suffered the full force of the plagues

3. The Christian acceptance of God’s intervention (in Romans in the New Testament) says simply “Has the potter no right over the clay to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use” In other words it is up to God what he does with us. It is not our business if God hardens Pharaoh ’s heart.

There is a consequence if we do not accept free will. It becomes unreasonable to condemn a person for wrong doing. Their behaviour is the result of who they are and their experiences - and maybe the intervention of God. Unthinkable? It fits well with the idea that the deed is wrong, you judge the deed and not the person, you cannot blame the person for the inevitable. Do I go along with this? Do you?

So where do you stand on free will? If uncertain, as I am, how are we to act?

We believe or even pretend that we have free will and we go ahead, make choices, take responsibility for our choices, and make sure they are informed.

Rabbi  Akiva says in the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot)

“Everything is foreseen, yet free choice is given”

So choose and 

May all your choices be good ones

Ken y'hi ratzon, may this be God's will, and let us say Amen.

Sat, 25 May 2019 20 Iyar 5779