Thursday, January 26, 2006

Vaera (Rambam)

Is Free Will Possible?

In this week’s parsha, the drama of Israel in Egypt continues to the beginning of the liberation from enslavement, and especially to the first seven of the ten plagues. A leitmotiv here is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart: each time, after the demonstration of God’s might and the havoc this causes to his country, he agrees to let the Israelites go, but each time, after Moses calls off the plague and the immediate threat ceases, he turns stubborn and refuses to give them leave to go.

This passage raises a theological problem: How can we speak of man having free will if God could deliberately harden Pharaoh’s heart, thereby preventing him from doing the good? Are there limitations to human free will? More generally, this raises the entire issue of free will in Jewish thought, and together with that the classic dilemma known as behirah ve-yedi’ah, the apparent conflict between free will and Divine omniscience. If God is all-knowing and all-seeing, and “tells from the beginning what will be at the end,” (Isa 46:10), in what sense is it meaningful to speak of human freedom? Indeed, as we saw last year in our studies of Hasidic thought, such thinkers as R. Mordecai of Iszhbitz, author of the Mei Shiloah, hold to a radically deterministic position, in which human freedom is seen as ultimately illusory.

Maimonides devotes two entire chapters of Hilkhot Teshuvah, “The Laws of Repentance,” to free will and its implications—the reason for its being discussed there being that the very concept of repentance presupposes human autonomy and moral freedom. After all, if one’s acts are predetermined, it makes no sense to speak of repentance, of changing one’s mind or, indeed, of responsibility in any meaningful sense.

In the present setting I cannot present these two chapters in full; perhaps at some future date I will fill in the lacunae. For the present, we shall suffice with only a few halakhot, beginning with Teshuvah 5.1:

1. Every person is given free will: if he wishes to turn towards the good path and to be righteous, he is free to do so; and if he wishes to turn towards the evil path and to be wicked, he is free to do so. Concerning this it is written in the Torah, “Behold, man has become like one of us, to know good and evil” [Gen 3:22]. That is, this human species is unique in the world, for there is no other species similar to it in this respect, that by himself, in his own mind and thought, he knows good and evil and may do whatever he wishes, and there is nothing that can prevent him from doing good or evil. This being so, “lest he thrust out his hand… ” [ibid.]

It is interesting, first of all, that Rambam interprets the Garden of Eden story, and the consequences of eating of the Tree of Knowledge, in terms of humankind thereby acquiring the power of moral choice. In essence, this act, which is described as a “sin” (Christians even identify it as the “Original Sin”), marks the beginning of the moral history of mankind, and hence of the human condition, as we know it. The late psychologist-philosopher Erich Fromm devoted an entire book, You Shall Be as Gods, to the elaboration of this theme, and to the idea that moral choice is the essence of the Hebrew ethic (albeit he takes it in a more secularist, humanist direction).

This is counterpoised by Rambam (by implication) to the instinctual nature of animals, who are driven by biological drives. It is significant that a major trend in contemporary discourse advocates a biologist approach to mankind as well, seeing human beings as acting out of a kind of biological determinism. In this view, man is no more than an extraordinarily sophisticated, complex animal, whose crowning glory—his mind and thoughts and the culture it produces—are no more than a product of evolutionary adaptation. This approach is, to my mind, one of the most serious challenges to religion: both to the plausibility of religious faith, and to specific items of traditional morality (for example, one sometimes reads in the popular press a kind of justification for successful middle-aged men who abandon their long-time companions for “trophy wives” twenty years younger than themselves, as acting out of deeply-rooted biological impulse). I believe that there is a crying need for a religiously-rooted philosophy of science that will respond to this and other points of contemporary thought, and that will not simply refute these approaches dogmatically, but give cogent answers to the issues raised within the language of contemporary discourse—on this and other issues as well (e.g., such issues of bio-medical ethics as the implications of new forms of human reproduction.)

The Judaic belief in free will runs counter to other major trends in human thought as well. Thus, ancient Greek drama was dominated by the sense of fate (moira), that man is inevitably destined to do certain things (this is the real point, e.g., of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). Such motifs are present in much of later European literature and thought as well.

Determinism is also present in certain tendencies within religious thought, both non-Jewish and Jewish, such as Calvinism, Gnosticism, the thought of the Dead Sea sect, and even certain steams within Kabbalah and Hasidut, such as the above-mentioned Ishbitz. Thus, Rambam is doubtless polemicizing here with others. Indeed, in §2 he lambasts “the fools of the nation of the world and the majority of dolts among the children of Israel” (I never said he didn’t write like a snob!) who believe that a person is predestined to be righteous or evil, and reemphasizes that man is free to determine the moral course of his life.

We now turn to the lengthy passage, in which Maimonides addresses the problem of free will vs. Divine omniscience. Teshuvah 5.5:

5. Lest you say: Does not the Holy One blessed be He know all that shall be, and even before it happens knows that this one shall be righteous or evil, or does He not know? And if He does know that this person will be righteous, it is impossible for him not to be righteous; but if you say that He knows that he will be righteous but that he may also be wicked, then He does not know the thing thoroughly. Know, that the answer to this dilemma is as wide as the land and broad as the sea, and great principles and high mountains depend upon it. But you need to know and to comprehend what I am about to say concerning this thing.

We have here the classic formulation of the problem of yedi’ah and behirah. It is logically impossible to maintain Divine foreknowledge and human freedom simultaneously; one or the other must go, as he explains above. Incidentally, I wonder here whether part of the attraction of the doctrine of determinism, perhaps for some of Rambam’s neo-Aristotelian cohorts, is that it is seen as philosophically necessary so as not to diminish God’s perfection, including the perfection of His knowledge? Rambam is thus called upon to defend human free-will, which is no less important for any sort of morally serious universe.

We have already explained in the second chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of Torah that the Holy One blessed be He does not know by means of knowledge that is external to Himself, as human beings do, in which they and their knowledge are two [distinct] entities; rather, He and His knowledge are one. But the human mind is incapable of comprehending this matter thoroughly. And just as man is incapable of apprehending and discovering the truth of the Creator, as is said, “No man shall see me and live” [Exod 33:20], [similarly] it is not within human power to comprehend and discover the Creator’s mind, as the prophet said, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are My ways your ways” [Isa 55:8]. This being so, we have not the power to know how the Holy One blessed be He knows all His creatures and all things, but we know beyond all doubt that man’s actions are in his hands, and that the Holy One blessed be He does not draw him nor decree that he must act thus.

And we know this, not only through religious tradition, but through clear [philosophical] demonstrations. And for this reason it is said in the words of the prophets that a person is judged by his actions, be they good or evil, and this is a great principle upon which all the words of the prophets are dependent.

Essentially, Rambam says here that the solution to this contradiction—which is that both axioms are true—is beyond human comprehension, and that ultimately needs to be accepted on faith (like the “mysteries of faith” in Christian doctrine, such as the simultaneous unitary and triune nature of God?; i.e., an irresolvable logical conundrum). Nevertheless, Rambam as philosopher is reluctant to openly declare that this is what he is doing—i.e., accepting something inconsistent with reason “on faith.” (The Rabad of Posquières, whose glosses on the Yad are an important part of this literature, here asks with biting sarcasm why Rambam raised this question if he didn’t have a coherent answer to offer. He would have done better, he says, to leave it “to the innocence of the innocent.” He also suggests that Rambam is unnecessarily confusing God’s “edict” with His “knowledge.”)

To buttress this position, Maimonides offers a novel interpretation of the verse, “man cannot see Me and live.” This verse is ordinarily understood as referring to the overwhelming, awesome nature of direct experience of the Godhead, the encounter with the “mysterium tremendum” which may literally frighten a person to death. Here, he reads this as referring to the impossibility, beyond a certain level, of human conceptual understanding of God (“seeing” used as a metaphor for ”knowing”). Moreover, he adds, this applies not only to knowledge of God’s essence, but to understanding of His “knowledge”—and that, as applied both to His own self and to the world.

Nevertheless, he does offer a philosophical explanation for this. Referring back to an earlier discussion, in Yesodei ha-Torah 2.10, he explains that God’s knowledge is not like our knowledge, because “it is not external to Himself.” Rather, as he puts it there: “He is the one knower, He is the known, and He is the knowledge: all is one.” In other words, there is no subject-object distinction such as exists in human knowledge. God Himself is both the one engaged in knowing, the object of knowledge, and the knowledge itself.

What does all this mean? Notwithstanding Rambam’s warning that a human being cannot comprehend this, I would like to suggest two possible directions of interpretation. One is based upon a panentheistic conception of God: that is, His own being includes the entire universe and all that is within it, but is not exhausted by it. Unlike the pantheists, who hold that God and Nature are the same, God encompasses all of Nature, plus more beyond that. As the Midrash puts it succinctly, “He is the place of the world, but the world is not His place” (see the discussion of this in HY III: Vayetze). If the universe is all part of God, then God’s knowledge of the world is equivalent to His own self-knowledge, and the subject-object distinction familiar to us from our own experience does not exist for God.

A second possible explanation—and I stress, this is my own speculation, which may or not conform to Rambam’s view—is that the “arrow of time” does not apply to God. He transcends, not only the physical world, with its three dimensions, but also the flow of time itself. “He was, He is and He will be.” God’s eternity does not “only” mean that He “lives” for ever, but that His life is somehow outside of time itself, and that He looks at the entire universe, from past through present to future, in one glance, from without. Such a concept of course boggles the human mind; one can write the words, but one cannot begin to imagine the reality they attempt to describe. In that sense, Maimonides’ comment that all this is beyond human comprehension makes sense. (Nevertheless, such concepts are perhaps a little bit easier for us to accept and to consider plausible in the post-Einsteinian world in which we live, knowing that time itself is relative and is distorted by rapid motion through the cosmos. Maimonides, as we shall note again next week, lived in a pre-Galilean, pre-Copernican, pre-Newtonian universe.)

In any event, if we say that God lives outside of the flow of time, it follows that He can have knowledge of everything without thereby effecting or harming human free-will. (I won’t go into Heisenberg and the interrelation of observer and observed, interesting as it might be to speculate thereon.) This also has some bearing on our previous discussion of messianism, where we touched upon the issue of the nature of time, God’s foreknowledge of the date of the Redemption, and by extension the entire issue of determinism, and whether or not the course of human affairs is fixed in advance by God.

The question is, of course, whether Rambam himself held such an idea. At first blush, Maimonides’ concept of the Divine unity seems to be that God is entirely transcendent, outside of the universe, the First Cause, the unmoved mover. The dialectic play between transcendence and immanence, so familiar to us from Hasidic and Kabbalistic thought, seems alien to the type of pristine perfection that Maimonides ascribes to God. Or perhaps not?

As for Pharaoh, whom we seem to have been forgotten by the wayside: it seems noteworthy that after each of the first five plagues, and in the seventh, the Torah text tells us that “Pharaoh‘s heart was hardened” or “became heavy” (vayehezak / vayakhbed lev Par’oh); Exod 7:22; 8:11,15, 28; 9:7, 35), whereas in the sixth, eighth and ninth, as well as in the introductory section in which God tells Moses what is to happen generally, we read “And the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (thus, in Exod 7:3; 9:12; 10:20, 27; cf. 10:1). Rambam states, in Teshuvah 6.3, that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was a form of punishment, meted to him by God for his earlier sins. That is, after a certain point, once he had become hardened in his stubbornness on his own, God deprived him of free-will and of the power to do teshuvah, which is ordinarily available to every person. A kind of exception that proves the rule—and something that, in addition to the theological dimension, is certainly true psychologically. The more a person is hardened in a negative path, the more difficult it is for him to change.

Melancholy Postscript: As we read this week about the beginnings of Moses’ public career, we recall with longing the leadership of a man who never took so much as a shoelace from his people. Are what we have today the best leaders that the holy Jewish nation deserves?


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