Are We Free to Choose?


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Do you have free will?

That’s an easy question. Of course you do.

Here’s a harder question: What is free will?

That’s where most of us get into trouble. Common sense tells us that we have free will, but doesn’t tell us what it is. We have only a vague idea of what it means to act freely.

And it’s a pretty important concept. If people can’t freely choose what they do, then they aren’t morally responsible for their actions. If we hold them responsible anyway, then we had no choice about it. Just like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, we are helpless automatons, not morally rational beings.


The Torah doesn’t explicitly teach that we have free will, but it’s implied. In Deuteronomy 30:15-18, God, though Moses, gives the Israelites a choice:

“I command you this day, to love the Lord your God … But if your heart turns away and you give no heed, and are lured into the worship and service of other gods, I declare to you this day that you shall certainly perish …”

There’s also a Midrash that addresses the issue:

“At the time when Moses was engaged in writing the Torah, he had to set down what happened on each of the six days of creation. When he got to the verse, ‘And God said: ‘Let us make Adam’,’ Moses dared ask, ‘Master of the Universe, why do you give heretics their opportunity?’ ‘Write, O son of Amram,’ God replied. ‘Whoever wishes to err, let him err.'” (The Book of Legends, 13:48)

Free will has been a hot discussion topic this week at Hebrew College, where one of my classes is studying the Book of Exodus. There, the issue arises in two main ways:

  • In Exodus, God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” so that he refuses to free the Israelites. Does that mean God sometimes takes away people’s free will?
  • In Exodus and elsewhere, God reveals what people will do in the future. Does that mean our actions are pre-determined, leaving us no free choice about what we do?

Those don’t seem like hard problems, but you wouldn’t know it from all the energy people have spent arguing about them through the centuries.

Our common-sense idea of free will is something like this: You go out for ice cream. You like chocolate and strawberry, but today you decide to get chocolate. You could have picked strawberry. Your will was free.

The problem is what we mean by “free.” Can a free choice be influenced by prior circumstances? You like chocolate and strawberry, so you choose one of them and ignore the vanilla. Could you have chosen the vanilla? Sure, but why would you? You felt like having chocolate ice cream.


That sheds some light on the story of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Jewish thinkers have proposed various solutions, but the answer might be very simple.

For example, suppose when you go out for ice cream, your spouse teases you about always ordering chocolate. That “hardens your heart,” so you order strawberry — that is, unless you’re really annoyed, in which case you order Rocky Ripple. Your choice was still free, but both your taste preferences and your spouse caused you to make it a certain way.

That fits very well with how causation works. Events are almost never caused by a single thing. Normally, a whole context of causes makes things happen. In this case, the context included your spouse’s teasing, your ice cream preferences, and you. Which one of those things we choose to call “the cause” of your ice cream choice depends on the kind of story we’re telling and for what purpose. Since we’re talking about free will, in this discussion, you’re the cause. You made the choice.

What about Divine knowledge of the future? If God knows what we’re going to do, does it mean our actions are pre-determined, and therefore not free?

I’ll tell you a secret: It often occurs that months before I know what I’m going to do, my mother knows what I’m going to do. She doesn’t make me do it: I still choose freely. She just knows me very well, so she can predict what I’ll freely choose. However, even she doesn’t know me as well as God does.

God’s knowledge of the future doesn’t mean that our choices aren’t free. It only means that God knows us infinitely well, is outside of time, and therefore can “predict” our actions.

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Solve the Right Problem


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Define the problem right, and you’re halfway to a solution.

Define the problem wrong, and you’ll probably never solve it. You’ll waste all your time looking for a solution that doesn’t exist. That applies in every area of life, such as religion, relationships, science, and social problems. The best movie mystery of 2008 turned on mis-identifying the problem to be solved.

The flip side of defining the problem wrong is what computer programmers call GIGO: “Garbage in, garbage out.” If your assumptions are wrong, then even if your logic is flawless, your conclusions will be wrong. Garbage in, garbage out.

Ironically, it’s the best and brightest people who are most susceptible to GIGO errors when they think about social problems.

Their kind hearts make them want to believe the most optimistic things, so they often base their assumptions on optimism rather than realism. Their brilliant minds make them less prone to mistakes in reasoning than are most people. As a result, they go straight from errors in their premises to errors in their conclusions. And their high standards lead them to demand perfection: they see anything less as failure.

If they were worse people or not quite as smart, then they’d have a better chance of discovering the truth. When you start with incorrect information but make mistakes in thinking, then you might get the correct answer just by blind luck. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

Those thoughts are inspired partly by another blogger’s reflections about racism, and partly by “Religion in an Age of Extremism,” a conference to be held next Sunday at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center.

The conference program asks: “Why are the great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – chronically unable to fulfill their own self-professed goal of creating individuals infused with moral sensitivity and societies governed by the highest ethical standards?”

Is that really the right question? It seems to define the problem incorrectly, based on an incorrect assumption about what religion can accomplish.

All three faiths are able to help individuals develop moral sensitivity and societies become more ethical. They’ve done so. Judaism taught the world about universal moral law under God, improving societies and people from ancient times to the present day. Christianity added emphasis on individual conscience and individual rights, helping to develop Western ideals of freedom and personal dignity. Even Islam was a great improvement on earlier practices in the region where it developed, giving at least some rights to women and, in the medieval era, fostering a high civilization to which we Jews contributed.

What they cannot do is make all individuals and societies ethical all the time, and they can’t do it because it’s impossible.

The problem is not a defect of the faiths themselves, nor of the peaceful, well-meaning leaders among them. It’s a limitation imposed by human nature, and by the fact that people are not all alike. Some are thoughtful, ethical, and peaceful; some are inclined to mindless violence; and most are in the middle, inclined to go in whichever direction they are pushed.

So the problem isn’t helping individuals develop moral sensitivity and helping societies uphold ethical standards. Enlightened religious faiths already do that. They don’t succeed 100 percent of the time, but it would be foolish devote more and more resources to such a fruitless quest. As the French philosopher Voltaire said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

The problem is actually this: How can we do a better job of pushing that large middle group in the right direction? Saints don’t need pushing, and terrorists won’t accept it. But normal people, who are neither very good nor very bad, need guidance and encouragement. Because they have many other claims on their attention, our message must be simple, clear, consistent, and realistic. It must be achievable. And it must allow occasional failures, providing a way to recover from them and get back on the right track.

The solution is to talk to the majority in the middle. The results will never be perfect — only “better.”

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God, Science, and Objective Reality


My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

“If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

Dostoyevsky didn’t write exactly those words in The Brothers Karamazov, but he came pretty close. The character Ivan Karamazov says:

“For every person who believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation.” (p. 62)

In other words, if there is no ultimate moral authority, then the only authority is each individual’s will. Whatever he or she wants is permitted. The only question is whether or not it’s possible.

An old newspaper editor in my hometown made a similar observation:

“It is necessary to reverse the usual tenets of economic and technological determinism, which hold that material forces somehow dictate political relations, ethical values, and religious sentiments. What I am suggesting instead is a theological determinism: theology determines metaphysics, which determines political philosophy and institutions, which in turn determine the economic and technological organization of society.” (Freedom and Virtue, p. 90)

They were talking about morality and politics, of course. But it seems to me that their argument applies more generally.

One interpretation of belief in God is that reality does not depend on what we believe, wish, or want. Apart from a few events that we control, reality is shaped by a power beyond us. If we are monotheists, we think it’s a single power: God. Scientifically-minded atheists have a similar belief but without the theology: for them, the single power is physics.

Belief in objective reality is a natural consequence of monotheism. Polytheists believed that there were many gods who often disagreed, so reality could change abruptly and senselessly based on which god held sway at the moment. If that god wanted things a certain way, then that’s how they were. There was no single, stable reality. Everything was subject to the will of this or that god.

Hardly anyone is a polytheist anymore, but our time has its own kind of metaphysical anarchy:

“If God does not exist, then everything is not only permitted, but also possible.”

If God does not exist, then just as with polytheism, no single will imposes a natural order on the universe. The secular faithful believe that multiple wills shape our reality, but this time it’s not the wills of various gods. It’s the wills of various individuals, based on what they want, what they think is morally desirable, or whatever seems compassionate at the moment in a specific case. They make universal law based on idiosyncratic circumstance.

In other words, if there is no ultimate metaphysical authority whether God or nature, then the only authority is each individual’s will. Whatever he or she (or ze, ve, or it) wants is possible. The only question is whether or not religious conservatives will object to it.

The chaos-producing role of multiple gods has been taken over by the individual will. Its feelings, desires, and whims are imagined as having power to shape reality as each person wants it. If a person wants to change sex, then it’s not only possible but guaranteed to work out splendidly. If it’s morally desirable for hostile groups of people to live peacefully in the same society, then they most assuredly can. If there’s no quantifiable harm in marrying a horse, then why not do it?

The test of such fanciful beliefs is their success in practice. If we can improve society and increase human happiness by trading long-established concepts and institutions for anything-goes individualism, then it’s at least worth a try. But we should think carefully about the risks. A society, once broken, is difficult to repair. A mind, once distorted, can be difficult to heal.

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The Weirdest Torah Theory You Never Heard


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

It’s a weird theory about the Torah. You’ve never heard of it. And it’s really a thing.

Of course, you’ve heard of other theories. The documentary hypothesis says that ancient editors assembled the Torah from four different sources, J, P, E, and D. Academic Bible scholars use it to explain inconsistencies in the facts, vocabulary, and style of different parts of the Torah.

And you’ve heard of Torah min Hashamayim: the theory that God dictated the entire Torah, including the Oral Torah, to Moses at Sinai. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gave a wonderful modern gloss on that theory:

“The idea of ‘Torah from Heaven’ was, even before it was explicitly formulated, far more than a belief about the origin of a text. It was a belief about the origin of a destiny. ‘Torah from Heaven’ did more than negate the idea that a people was the author of its own texts. It reversed it. It suggested that the text was the author of the people.” (Crisis and Covenant, but read it at the library, since it costs $300 on Amazon.)

Whether you agree or disagree with those theories, they make intuitive sense. But Julian Jaynes, an American psychologist, argued in the 1970s for a radically un-intuitive idea: that people in ancient times, including people described in the Torah, were not conscious.

That’s quite a stark headline to come out of a book with the ponderous title of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Even so, it’s attracted interest and a surprising amount of support, including a few rabbis. I think he’s wrong, but his book is fascinating. He discusses the nature of consciousness, the neuroscience of his time (some now disproven), the evolution of language, and the development of civilization.

Jaynes noticed that the oldest ancient literature, including the Torah, seldom referred to anyone’s mental life. The gods commanded, and the people obeyed. Society was organized on the same lines. He argues that it both reflected and shaped how people thought: the “bicameral mind.” One part of the mind did the decision-making. Then it told the other part of the mind what to do:

“Volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever and then ‘told’ to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure or ‘god’, or sometimes as a voice alone. The individual obeyed these hallucinated voices because he could not ‘see’ what to do by himself.”

My first reaction was probably the same as yours: “That’s completely nuts.” But Jaynes does assemble evidence and make arguments. He notes that the oldest stories often have God or gods speaking to humans and telling them what to do. As the centuries pass, such apparitions become less frequent. Eventually, they disappear except for the visions of a few prophets.

And I must admit, it lends more plausibility to stories like the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham hears a voice that tells him what to do, and he prepares to do it? That doesn’t make Jaynes’s explanation right, but it makes you think. Rabbi James Cohn thinks it’s right:

“Unable to disobey these voices, the inhabitants of ancient society acted according to the voice. This voice of God, or of the gods, was experienced as an externally heard voice, precisely as you hear the voice of a person with whom you’re having a conversation. Although the voice was a product of the individual mind, the culture of the time raised people to perceive the voice as externally produced.” (Minds of the Bible)

What changed? Here, Jaynes has more speculation than argument. He thinks that social chaos and the development of writing made people less reliant on hallucinated voices:

“This loosening of the god-man partnership by trade and by writing was the background of what happened. But the immediate and precipitate cause of the breakdown of the bicameral mind, of the wedge of consciousness between god and man, between hallucinated voice and automaton action, was that in social chaos the gods could not tell you what to do – or if they did, they led to death.”

It’s certainly not going to replace more mainstream theories of the Torah. However, it shines an interesting light on ancient history and our modern preconceptions of what people were like.

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Organizing the Bible and the Talmud


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Do you know what it says in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 8, verse 3?

Unless you’re a rabbi or a savant, you probably don’t. Neither do I. But we know how to look it up. We just open the Torah, turn to the Book of Deuteronomy, and flip to Chapter 8, verse 3.

In ancient times, people couldn’t do that. There were no chapters or verses in the Bible.

If you wanted to refer to a passage, you just quoted it and hoped that your listeners knew its origin. You might have told them which book of the Bible you were talking about, but that was as much as you could do.

People needed a certain level of Biblical literacy to understand what you were talking about. Some of them, like most people today, just didn’t have it. They were left out of the conversation.

That got easier in the 13th century CE, thanks to the efforts of Stephen Langton, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. He worked through both the Tanakh and the Christian scriptures, and divided the text into the chapters and verses we (both Jews and Christians) use today. Now, if we want to refer to a Bible passage, we need only give the book, chapter, and verse.

Langton is better known in history for his role in forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta, which limited the powers of the king and gave rights to the people. Back then, “the people” meant mainly the landed nobility. However, the idea evolved over the centuries to mean that ordinary people had rights the government should not violate.

Therefore, Langton changed history in two ways: He gave us a new way of looking at the Bible, and he gave us a new way of looking at the relationship between people and their government. Langton’s principled stands got him into trouble first with King John and then with the Pope.

Despite his scholarship, Langton’s parsing of the Biblical text is not perfect. One strange division occurs between the two creation stories given by the Book of Genesis. The first creation story occupies all of Chapter 1 and the first three verses of Chapter 2. It has a cosmic viewpoint and refers to God as “Elohim.”

The second story occupies the rest of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. It has a ground-level viewpoint and adds the Tetragrammaton to God’s name. Langton knew it, but for some reason decided not to put the chapter break at the end of the first story.

The Talmud also benefited from Gentile assistance. The page layout we use today originated in the 16th century with a Catholic printer in Venice, Italy. Before then, the text of the Talmud and the text of commentaries often appeared in separate documents copied by hand. That made it more difficult to flip between them for reference and study.

Venice did not allow Jews to own printing presses, so we had to depend on Christian printers to print the Talmud and other books. Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer from Belgium, printed a complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud and used the layout that is now familiar. The Talmud text is the middle column, Rashi’s commentary is on one side of it, and additional commentaries (Tosafot) are on the other side.

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Biblical Writers Were Math Nerds


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

We normally look to the Bible for morals, religious inspiration, and history. But are you excited to learn that there’s some mathematics in there, too?

If you’re a nerd like me, the answer is yes. It’s very exciting. Only chocolate syrup and whipped cream could make it better.

Most people’s favorite number is pi because it’s one of the only things they remember from geometry class in school. Pi is the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle, about 3.14159. The decimal digits actually go on forever because pi is irrational, meaning it can’t be written as a ratio of whole numbers. One book explains that:

“An almost cultlike following has arisen about pi. Web sites report its ‘sightings’, clubs meet to discuss its properties, and even a day on the calendar is set aside to celebrate it, that being March 14, which coincidentally is also Albert Einstein’s birthday.” (Pi: A Biography of the World’s Most Mysterious Number)

The Bible refers to pi in two places. They seem to give the same number for pi. However, their wording differs slightly, by just one letter. The Vilna Gaon thought the discrepancy concealed a mystery.

The first reference to pi is in 1 Kings 7:23:

“Then he made the tank of cast metal, 10 cubits across from brim to brim, completely round; it was 5 cubits high, and it measured 30 cubits in circumference.”

The ratio of the circumference to the diameter gives pi a value of 3. Kind of close, but not very.

The second reference in 2 Chronicles 4:2 is almost identical, but the Hebrew text omits the letter “heh” at the end of the word (qof, vav, heh) for circumference.

And there’s where the mystery arises. Using gematria, the Vilna Gaon calculated the first spelling’s value as 111 and the second as 106. Dividing 111 by 106 gives 1.0472. Multiplying the Bible’s pi value of 3 by 1.0472 gives — wait for it! — 3.1416, which is the rounded value of pi. Just as you’d expect if, as some scientists argue, “God is a mathematician.”

The Bible has some other mathematical references, but that one is the most interesting. And as long as we’re talking about the Ancient Near East, the Egyptians had a neat way to calculate the area of a circle, and that also gives a value of pi.

You might remember that the formula for the area of a circle is pi times the square of the radius, and that the radius is half the diameter.

Ancient Egyptians didn’t have a science of mathematics, but they had a lot of practical tricks to calculate land areas for surveying. To calculate the area of a circle, they drew a square whose sides were eight-ninths of the circle’s diameter. Then the area of the square was close enough to the area of the circle that they couldn’t detect any difference.

And if you work it out, they had a value for pi that was, like the Bible’s, pretty darned close:

  • The diameter of a circle is two times the radius, so each side of the square was 8/9ths times twice the radius, or 16/9ths times the radius.
  • The area of the square was 16/9ths of the radius multiplied by 16/9ths of the radius, which gives 256/81 times the radius squared.
  • And 256/81 equals 3.1605, a little off the rounded pi value of 3.1416. But as they say in Washington DC, “it’s close enough for government work.”

If the Egyptians had thought of their method as a mathematical formula, theirs was 3.1605 times the radius squared — very close to ours.

Other Biblical references to mathematics are little strained. In life, the Golden Ratio (1.618..) occurs frequently, especially in art and architecture. In the Bible, Exodus 25:10 says that God commanded Noah to build the Ark of the Covenant measuring 2.5 by 1.5 cubits, and 2.5 divided by 1.5 is 1.666. Some writers say it refers to the Golden Ratio, but unless the Vilna Gaon came up with something like he did with pi, it doesn’t look like it to me.

And the Bible just doesn’t have my favorite number, Euler’s number (2.71828..). I’ve learned to live with that little disappointment.

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Tisha B’Av Turns Tragedy into Victory


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

According to the late comedian Alan King, that’s the explanation of most Jewish holidays.

It’s particularly relevant to the fast day of Tisha B’Av, which is a few days from now. On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, along with other tragedies that have befallen our people.

But this year, the approach of Tisha B’Av has me thinking of — Dunkirk. A big-budget movie about it is scheduled for release next summer.

If you’ve never heard of Dunkirk, or what makes it significant, don’t worry. About half of the U.S. population thinks that World War II occurred shortly after the Civil War. You’re way ahead of the game if you can find France on a map.

In May 1940, the German Army trapped 10 divisions of the British Army at Dunkirk, an area in the North of France that was directly across the English Channel. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy the British forces, which had no way to escape from the French coast back to England. If the Luftwaffe had succeeded, Germany might have won the war.

Instead, the British people set sail in their own private boats — fishing boats, cargo ships, rowboats, anything that could make it across the channel and back — to rescue “their boys” from the beaches of Dunkirk. Almost 800 boats made the trip, over and over, under heavy fire from German planes and artillery. They rescued almost 340,000 British soldiers from certain death. Many of the rescuers died in their heroic mission.

By military standards, the Battle of Dunkirk was a crushing defeat. But “Dunkirk!” became a symbol of British people’s courage, unity, and determination to prevail against any odds.

I’m sure you see where this is going. If anything on earth has preserved the Jewish people for millennia, it’s courage, unity, and determination to prevail against any odds. Tisha B’Av, just like Dunkirk, takes something bad and turns it into something good.

According to our tradition, the first tragedy to occur on Tisha B’Av was in 1313 BCE when the Israelites failed to trust God during the Exodus. As a result, they had to wander for another 38 years before entering the promised land. On Tisha B’Av in 423 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, and on the same date in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. It was on that date in 1290 CE that our people were expelled from England and on the same date in 1492 that they were expelled from Spain.

We must allow tradition a bit of poetic license, since archaeology finds no evidence of the 1313 event and says that the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE instead of 423 BCE. Only about 2,000 of us were expelled from England, peacefully, and the Spanish expulsion edict wasn’t issued on Tisha B’Av. The value of a religiously helpful story trumps (pardon the expression) a few minor factual inaccuracies.

Tisha B’Av, just like Dunkirk, shows how a people can turn tragedy into victory by telling a new story about it and giving it a new meaning. Instead of being a weakness, the tragedy becomes a source of strength:

“A story told by English Jews, perhaps apocryphal, tells of a prominent nineteenth-century British politician who was walking near a synagogue on Tisha B’Av and heard wailing coming from inside. He looked in and was informed that the Jews were mourning the loss of their ancient Temple. Deeply impressed, the politician remarked, ‘A people who mourn with such intensity the loss of their homeland, even after two thousand years, will someday regain that homeland.’” (Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 669)

What applies to groups also applies to individuals. You can turn your personal tragedies into victories by telling yourself a new story about them: a story in which you are no longer a passive victim but are instead a survivor, who suffered but became a better and stronger person as a result.

They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat (just not on Tisha B’Av).

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