5757 - #18

Free Choice

Bechira, free choice, is a fundamental concept within Judaism. As Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 8:1-5 points out, without the concept of bechira, the entire nature and purpose of Torah falters. Only because of the human being's free choice, can we be held responsible for our actions and thus receive reward and punishment. Furthermore, it is only because of bechira that the very concept of mitzvah can exist, for how could G-d command if we did not have, through our free choice, the possibility of listening and following the command. Free choice, though, is a concept that is most difficult to understand.

The classical difficulties with free choice are the theological ones. How can we have free choice when G-d already knows the future and what we will do?1.How can we say that all that occurs is the Will of G-d at the same time that we state that we choose our behaviour?2 Factors of determinism, which also are deemed to have merit, further raise questions on the extent of bechira and its exact realm and specific nature. Ra'avad, Hilchot Teshuva 8:5 raises this issue through his question on the co-existence of the effects of mazalot, astrology, with bechira. In modern times, we ask this question in our search to reconcile psychological determinism, in fact the science of psychology, with free choice.3. Clearly, free choice cannot mean that every possible choice is available for us; the choice must have parameters. Yet, there must be a choice.

What, though, do we mean by this word "choice"? If someone threatens to kill a person unless this person signs a contract or performs a certain deed, is that deemed a situation of choice or not for this person? In the broadest sense of the word, there clearly is a choice: do as is wished or die. The person can physically choose either alternative. In a different sense, though, we would say that this person had "no choice" but to sign the contract or perform the deed. Within this perspective, choice must imply some balance between the two alternatives. It cannot be deemed a choice if one alternative clearly would be the selection of any rational individual. It may also not be considered a choice if one alternative evokes a much stronger emotional response. Accordingly, "to do as is wished or die", for both these reasons, would not be a choice for the option to die is not, emotionally and rationally, an equal alternative. In applying the concept of duress and thereby excusing the person from the responsibility of the contract4. or the deed,5. it would seem that we are effectively recognizing this latter perception of choice. In the case of duress, we excuse the person because he/she had "no choice".6.

This perception that choice must involve two equal (or almost equal) alternatives in order to be deemed a true choice, has an effect in our understanding of bechira as well. It is because of this reason that some individuals argue that the knowledge of G-d's existence cannot be proven but must be a result of faith: if it was absolutely clear that the mitzvot were the Will of G-d, there would be "no choice". What these individuals are saying is that absolute knowledge that the mitzvot are His Will would clearly remove the balance between the alternatives. Who would not follow the Will of G-d? Does this mean that the generation of the desert had no bechira?

The tochecha, warning, (Vayikra 26:3-46; Devarim 28:1-69), to many, presents a similar challenge. In the face of these repercussions, especially the negative ones for violations, could a person possibly choose to transgress?

We could again return to the argument of faith, assert that this is exactly why G-d does not punish immediately, so that a person can doubt the truth of the repercussions and have free choice. Remarkably, doubt rather than allowing for punishment is actually, in halachic terms, a defence against punishment. The necessity for hatra'ah, a warning, before someone can be punishable in the courts for transgressions is but one example of this.7. And again, can we say that the generation of the desert doubted the truth of these warnings? Bechira means knowing full well that G-d exists and the repercussions of our actions; we have the choice to observe the command or transgress and suffer the consequences. But is that "choice"?

We could answer that it is still a choice in its broadest sense. Where do we see that bechira means a choice between two equal alternatives as our second definition of choice maintains? In the case of Pharaoh, there are many who argue that G-d's hardening of Pharaoh's heart was not a removal of free choice but actually was intended to ensure free choice.8 Given the intensity of the plagues, without the hardening of his heart, Pharaoh would have had "no choice" but to let the Jewish nation leave. Indeed, bechira would seem to involve two equal alternatives.

We have the alternative to listen to G-d and receive reward. We have an equal alternative, given fully that we accept the existence of G-d and know the punishment for transgressing, not to listen. There is a strong drive to simply not wish to listen to G-d. That is a drive that we must further contemplate.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1. Rambam, himself, confronts this question in halacha 5.

2. Much of Da'at Tevunot is devoted to this question.

3. Rabbi Moshe Halevi Spiro's various works on the topic of psychology and Judaism, including his book entitled Judaism and Psychology deal extensively with this issue and are excellent starting points for this study.

4. See, further, Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat c. 205 for the exact rules outlining the application of the onnes, duress, argument in commercial transactions.

5. See, further, Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, c. 5 for a presentation of the application of the onnes, duress, defense in cases of mitzvah transgression.

6. It should be noted that there are other possible explanations for the lack of responsibility for decisions made under duress. We may excuse the individual not because there was no choice but because the choice was not fair or that the imposition of this choice by the other was not fair.

7. See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 12:2. Another example of this concept is Hilchot Mamrim 3:3.

8. See Rabbi Y. Nachshoni, Hagot B'Parshiot HaTorah, Va'era 2 and N. Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Va'era 4.

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