Do You Want to Believe?

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

After a bitterly divisive election season, there’s one question on everyone’s mind:

“How can people possibly believe that?”

What “that” is depends on who’s doing the talking. It means one thing to Trump supporters, something else to Clinton supporters, and who knows what to third-party supporters.

We all have friends who believe things that seem crazy, but we don’t think our friends are crazy. So we’re completely baffled. Are the people who disagree with us ignorant? Stupid? Hyper-emotional? Or – this seems to be the favorite – are they just plain evil?

It’s usually none of those things. The true answer is simpler and more innocent.

People adopt beliefs based on several factors. If those factors are different, then the people tend to adopt different beliefs.

In 2016 America, those factors differ a lot – by region, economic class, ethnicity, social circles, information sources, and life experiences. Differences in those factors lead people to different beliefs.

Even biology gets into the act, since we now know that different political attitudes often go with minor differences in the structure and function of our brains. The differences show up mainly in emotion and intuition, which influence our political and moral judgments.

America’s dominant political and moral culture is WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). WEIRD people’s moral reasoning tends to be abstract, utilitarian, and universalist. As a result, writes psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “the WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.”

However, millions of people – perhaps half of Americans, to judge by the election – are less WEIRD. They accept utilitarian and universalist ideas, but also value loyalty, respect for authority, respect for the sacred, individual liberty, and support for the common good. Sometimes, for example, they might feel that loyalty is more important than preventing harm, or that the common good is more important than preventing unfairness. To WEIRD people, such feelings are often incomprehensible.

All of those factors – background, beliefs, social circles, biology, and basic moral intuitions – exert a powerful subconscious influence on what feels right or plausible to us. If a factual or moral claim feels right to us, fits our current beliefs and previous experiences, then we want to believe it. According to Haidt, that biases us more than we realize:

“When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe it?’ Then we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Must I believe it?’ Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.”

Thus, equally intelligent, educated, well-meaning people can have diametrically opposed beliefs. Some of us are careful about our biases, sometimes, but at other times we all slip.

Knowing that fact doesn’t make our social problems go away. Our disagreements still exist. There are still some real and legitimate conflicts of interest between different groups in society. Unfortunately, there are also a few genuine crazies and haters: in a population of over 300 million, that’s inevitable.

However, if we can just calm down and accept that most other people are trying as honestly as we are, it’s at least a start toward solving our problems. Nobody can or should compromise with “Hitler,” and if we think that’s who we’re dealing with, then we can’t do anything else but fight. However, it’s not necessary. Or true.

Don’t let a tiny minority of crazies and haters blind you to the fact that most people want to be good and to do the right thing – even if their idea of “the right thing” sometimes clashes with ours.

Screaming at people, calling them names, and dismissing their concerns as unworthy of consideration leads to on-going conflict and social disintegration. People want us to agree with them – just as we want them to agree with us — but they’ll often accept something less: knowing that we listened to them, tried to see their point of view, and did our best to accommodate them even if we still disagree.

That’s what a civilized democratic society is all about. Maybe it’s WEIRD, but it’s our best hope.

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Morality Needs Both Logic and Feeling

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My new blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

As a child, I was a big “Star Trek” fan. I never wanted to be like Captain Kirk. The world was full of Kirk wannabes. My hero was Mr. Spock: stoic, brilliant, and supremely logical.

But is logic enough? With all due respect to Mr. Spock, the answer is no. Feeling is an essential part of moral judgment and moral action.

Even our Jewish tradition, which focuses more on what we do than what we feel, answers that logic is not enough. As Hillel said:

“That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Logic by itself can’t reveal what is hateful to you or your neighbor. Only feeling can tell you that. And even if you know how your neighbor feels, why should you care? If you care, it’s probably because of empathy, the ability to feel your neighbor’s happiness or suffering as if it were your own.

The role of feeling and empathy are well known both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. Though best known for writing The Wealth of Nations (1776) that founded modern economics, Adam Smith was also famous for his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he wrote:

“However selfish man may be, there are principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others … That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it.”

Feeling helps us find the right things to do. Logic helps us understand and prioritize them. As A.J. Heschel wrote:

“Love offers an answer to the question of how to live. In Truth we find an answer to the question of how to think. … It is impossible to find Truth without being in love, and it is impossible to experience love without being truthful, without living Truth.”

Failure of empathy makes us indifferent to the suffering or happiness of others. We’re particularly vulnerable to such failure when we don’t see the people and events first-hand, with our own eyes. “Seeing is believing:” it’s easy to ignore what we don’t see. And it’s a short step from not seeing, to not wanting to see, and finally to closing our eyes so that we can’t see.

In the early 1940s, most Germans really didn’t know about the death camps. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to see. They didn’t want to believe. If they had, they would have been forced to make a terrifying choice. So they didn’t. Their great-grandchildren and their nation still bear the shame of that failure.

But just as logic is not enough, feeling is not enough. Feeling pushes us to solve the problem we see, but it doesn’t consider problems we don’t see. In real life, there are always trade-offs.

We can all feel empathy for the suffering of people in war-torn regions of the world. When confronted with images and news reports, our natural inclination is to help: to bring them to our countries, take them into our homes, and so forth.

That’s entirely laudable. But there are trade-offs. How would our actions affect our families and our societies? How would we know that the people we helped were refugees and not jihadists? Moreover, money we spend on helping refugees from other countries is money we cannot spend on helping the poor at home. We want to help both, but we can’t. Our resources are finite. We must make a choice. Our actions have opportunity costs.

Finite resources aren’t the only issue. Sometimes, as controversial Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner remarked, the best way to help people is not to help them. If we help them the wrong way or at the wrong time, then we deprive them of the personal strength and self-respect they’d get from solving their own problems. Of course, that can also become an excuse for not helping people when we should. By itself, feeling can’t tell us when to help or not help.

The upshot is that neither feeling alone nor logic alone should guide us. We need both of them to make sound moral decisions. There are no cookbook answers, even in Jewish law, which we must apply with honest intelligence and generous hearts.

How can we learn to use both logic and feeling in a balanced way?

  • Do engage in activities that remind you about the importance of all human beings. Such activities include study, religious observance, volunteer work, and morally inspiring entertainment.
  • Do consider both the benefits and potential costs of your actions.
  • Don’t make important decisions impulsively or when you’re in the grip of strong emotion.
  • Don’t forget that although everyone is equal in human dignity, your duties to everyone are not the same. Your first duties are to your family, to your community, and to your people. Make sure that your actions to help anyone else don’t conflict with your most important obligations.
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Ben Franklin’s Jewish Values

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

American founder Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) wasn’t Jewish, but he might as well have been. He shared many of Judaism’s key moral values.

One of our most central values is moral seriousness: the idea that doing the right thing is important, so we should pay attention to how we live. It’s an inevitable side effect of having 613 commandments that govern every aspect of life. Regardless of their content, they require us in any situation to stop and think: What kind of situation is this? What moral principles apply? What is the right thing to do? It inhibits impulsive, careless action. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarized it well:

“Every aspect of life … had its precisely calibrated laws, its choreography of holiness. The fundamental idea of Judaism was and is that we bring God into the world through daily acts and interactions …”

Franklin enthusiastically supported that kind of thinking. He wrote that:

“At the last day, we shall not be examined what we thought, but what we did; and our recommendation will not be that we said ‘lord, lord’, but that we did good to our fellow creatures.”

As a young man, he made a list of virtues that he wanted to practice in his life. It’s easy to imagine a Jewish sage coming up with a list similar to the one in Franklin’s autobiography:

  • Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  • Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself. Waste nothing.
  • Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothing, or habitation.
  • Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Chastity: Rarely use venery [sex] but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Each week, Franklin tried to improve his performance of a different virtue. The only one that gave him trouble was humility. He wrote that each time he became humbler, he was proud of himself for it. As a result, he had to start all over again.

In one of his most famous sayings, Franklin resolved to avoid evil gossip:

“I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of everybody.”

That is of course a Jewish value:

“The fact that something is true doesn’t mean it is anybody else’s business. The Hebrew term for forbidden speech about others, lashon hara (literally ‘bad tongue’), refers to any statement that is true, but that lowers the status of the person about whom it is said.”

Franklin emphasized using our time wisely, vowing to “lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

That’s also a Jewish value:

“A rabbinic head of a yeshiva once established a special five-minute study session. Even students who lived blocks away were expected to come back for this very short activity. As the rabbi explained, ‘I want you to learn that something can be accomplished in five minutes.’”

Jews for millennia have wrestled with the problem of how evil can exist in a world created by a perfectly just God. Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager sees it as a reason to believe in the world to come:

“To state this case as starkly as possible, if there is nothing after this life, then the Nazis and the children they threw alive into furnaces have identical fates. If I believed such a thing, I would either become an atheist or hate the God who had created such a cruel and absurd universe.”

Writing for The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1734, Franklin’s argument was almost identical to Prager’s:

“Many arguments, to prove a future state, have been drawn from the unequal lot of good and bad men upon earth … to see virtue languish and repine, to see vice prosperous and triumphant: such a view, I confess, raises in us a violent presumption that there is another state of retribution, where the just and the unjust will be equally punished or rewarded by an impartial judge.”

Like Maimonides, Franklin leaned toward Deism – the view that God set up the universe and its laws, then mostly left it alone. However, he reassured his Christian parents (whom he addressed as “Honored Father and Mother”) that he was open to hearing any argument:

“All that should be expected from me is to keep my mind open to conviction, to hear patiently and examine attentively whatever is offered me for that end; and if after all I continue in the same errors, I believe your usual charity will induce you rather to pity and excuse than blame me.”

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The UNESCO Vote Mystery

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

There’s a mystery about UNESCO’s denial last week of Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The mystery is not that the resolution was proposed by some of the usual suspects (Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan). That’s expected.

Nor was it that the resolution passed, with 24 countries supporting, six opposing, and 26 abstaining. That’s also expected, from the perennial alliance between evil and cowardice.

No, the real mystery is this: Given that the Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and Western Wall are crystal clear, how could anyone believe otherwise?

The answer is the way in which people hold beliefs. All of us hold beliefs in three ways:

  • Hold and apply.
  • Hold and do not apply.
  • Hold if X.

Hold and apply

These are normal beliefs. In appropriate situations, we affirm them verbally or base our actions on them.

We weight all of our beliefs by credibility, importance, and other factors. Although the scale is arbitrary, such beliefs might be weighted from 1 to 10. In case of conflicts between beliefs, we apply the beliefs with higher individual or combined weights. If we do not reject them outright, we place the losing beliefs in the “Hold and do not apply” category.

Hold and do not apply

These are beliefs that we put aside because they conflict with other beliefs to which we give more weight. We do not deny them, but neither do we apply them.

For example, a central belief of the Pythagoreans was that everything could be explained by whole numbers and ratios of whole numbers. As a central belief, it was heavily weighted. They weren’t going to give it up. However, then they discovered that certain quantities couldn’t be explained that way, such as the hypotenuse of a right triangle whose shorter sides were both of length 1. They couldn’t deny it, but to apply it meant rejecting their central belief, so they didn’t.

Almost certainly, officials who voted for the UNESCO resolution know perfectly well that their resolution’s implication is false. However, they do not apply their knowledge because they know that they would be in serious trouble if they did.

Hold if X

These are beliefs that we hold only if a certain condition or conditions are true.

The most obvious case is when beliefs depend on matters of fact. Will I get wet if I go outside? I hold that belief if I look out the window and see that it is raining. If it is not raining, I do not hold the belief.

However, there are other cases of this type of belief-holding. Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam wrote about how he reconciled his religious and secular beliefs:

“As a practicing Jew, I am someone for whom the religious dimension of life has become increasingly important …Those who know my writings from that period may wonder how I reconciled my religious streak and my general scientific materialist worldview. The answer is that I didn’t reconcile them. I was a thoroughgoing atheist, and I was a believer. I simply kept these two parts of myself separate.”

Putnam weighted his religious and materialist beliefs differently in different situations. If he was in synagogue, he assigned weight 10 to his religious beliefs and weight zero (do not hold) to his materialist beliefs. If he was in his office at Harvard, he assigned weight zero to his religious beliefs and some non-zero weight to his materialist beliefs.

How We Weight Beliefs

We weight our beliefs by three main factors:

  • How much the beliefs fit our existing worldview.
  • How much we want to hold the beliefs.
  • How much evidence there is for the beliefs.

Notice that evidence comes last. Our assessment of evidence is heavily influenced by the first two factors.

Our worldview contains general beliefs by which we interpret new information and accept or reject new beliefs.

For example, if news reporters believe that the Temple Mount is a Muslim holy site with no connection to Judaism, then they interpret any Israeli attempt to secure the site as illegitimate. If a terrorist stabs four people and gets shot by the IDF, the news headline will be “Palestinian Man Killed by Israeli Soldiers.”

Likewise in the United States, if we believe that police routinely harass and murder black people, then we tend to interpret any contact between police and blacks as an instance of racism.

That’s why interest groups hammer away so relentlessly with propaganda memes. They want to bias your perception so that everything seems to confirm their narrative. It doesn’t matter if you later discover that their memes are based on lies. They’ve got control of your perceptual filters, so you’ll tend to see what they want you to see.

So even if you don’t work for UNESCO (thank goodness), carefully scrutinize memes and constantly-repeated political themes. If in the end you decide to believe something, then it’s fine; but don’t let anyone smuggle such beliefs into your mind. And be alert for your own biases. If you intentionally “hold but do not apply” some beliefs, at least be aware that you’re doing it.

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Twin Holidays of Creation

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. They seem quite different.

But what if they’re not so different after all?

I’m not a rabbi and I don’t play one on television, but I can tell you what I think: Both holidays celebrate creation, but from different perspectives.

Multiple perspectives occur often in our tradition. The Book of Genesis first gives a cosmos-level view of the world’s creation in 1:1-2:3 and then retells the story from a more personal, ground-level view in 2:4-24. Similarly, Exodus 6:2-7:13 gives a high-level view of Moses’ appointment by God, and Exodus 3:1-6:1 gives a more detailed and personal view of the same events.

But how could Yom Kippur be “another view” of Rosh Hashanah? What’s the evidence?

Our first clue is the date: Yom Kippur is the 10th day of the new year. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna remarks that for our ancestors, “the tenth day of the month in which the New Year falls must carry special significance, though in what way currently eludes us.”

Here’s a thought: In Jewish and Gentile tradition, the number 10 signifies completeness and perfection.

It’s the sum of both the first four counting numbers (1, 2, 3, and 4) and of two sacred numbers (3 and 7). Exodus 20:2-14 gives 10 Commandments (Buddhism also has 10 commandments, five for monks and five for laypeople). The Kabbalah says that God created the world by 10 utterances, using 10 Sefirot as channels for the Divine energy. There are 10 generations from Adam and Noah, and then from Noah to Abraham. God says (Genesis 18:32) that He will spare Sodom if Abraham can find 10 innocent men in it. Ten men complete a minyan.

It suggests that Yom Kippur, the 10th day of the new year, might be about completing something. But what? Creation? And completion by whom?

Our second clue is the number of days (40) between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur. Forty indicates transition, change, renewal, and new beginning.

Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days; in the Biblical flood story, it rained 40 days to purify the earth; and in the Kabbalah, each of the four corners of the world contains all 10 Sefirot, totaling 40. It’s often similar in non-Jewish traditions. The Babylonians celebrated a new year’s feast when the Pleiades reappeared after being gone for 40 days. In England, the ancient site of Stonehenge has 40 giant stone pillars in a circle with diameter 40.

Our third clue is the Biblical text itself, in the light of the fact that 10 symbolizes completion and 40 symbolizes transition. Yom Kippur means a completion that causes a transition.

From Genesis 1:1-25 at each step of creation, God assesses his work and sees that it is “good.” But then He creates human beings in His image, as self-aware beings who can choose what they do and how they live. After that, what He has created is no longer merely good: it is “very good.” God no longer has to work alone. We become His junior partners in creation, adding a human moral dimension to physical reality.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the physical world, which is good. Yom Kippur reminds us that the physical world by itself is incomplete. It’s up to us to finish it by the choices we make. God gave us a world, but what we do with it is up to us. God gave us a choice, but what we choose is up to us. God will not stop us from choosing foolishly or destructively. The responsibility to choose wisely is ours.

Yom Kippur asks the most fundamental moral question of life: What kind of person do you want to be? Our answer determines the kind of world we will help God create.

In this new year, let’s make it a better one.

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Never Give Up Hope

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

War. Terrorism. Riots. Crime. Unemployment. Political corruption. Intolerance.

There are many reasons to give up hope.

Don’t.

If you give up hope, then you give up on the future. If you give up on the future, then you give up on life.

Don’t do it. Don’t give up. As long as you’re still alive, you’re never defeated unless you give up.

Maybe you’re afraid. Heartbroken. Angry. Confused. There’s a lot of that going around. You’ve got plenty of company.

You can get through all of it, as long as you haven’t lost hope.

If you give up hope, what will you accomplish? Nothing. It’s guaranteed.

If you persevere, what will you accomplish? Maybe nothing. Maybe something. There’s no guarantee, but it’s better than guaranteed failure.

You might end up doing the one thing that tips the balance in favor of goodness. Isn’t it worth a try? If you fail, you’ve lost nothing. If you succeed, your loved ones and the world will be better off.

The future is not set. God has put it in our hands to make the future by our choices and actions. Our options are sometimes limited by what’s happened in the past, but we are always free to do the right thing in the present.

Don’t worry about yesterday. It’s gone. You can’t change what happened yesterday, but you can give it a different meaning and a new value by what you do today, tomorrow, and the next day. You can reframe yesterday to turn a past evil into a future good.

Most of what happens in the world is beyond your control. However, some things are in your control. Even if you can’t solve all the world’s problems, at least make a point of doing what you can:

  • You can’t change human nature, including your nature. But you can change how you think, how you act, and to some degree, how you feel.
  • You can’t eliminate hatred, but you can resolve not to give in to hatred yourself.
  • You can’t eliminate poverty, but you can give some of your time and money to help the needy.
  • You can’t eliminate injustice, but you can act justly and oppose injustice when it appears.
  • You can’t eliminate hysteria and irrationality, but you can try to stay calm and rational.
  • You can’t eliminate your own limitations, but you can use what you’ve got to be your best self.
  • You can’t live forever as the person you are now, but your actions can create goodness that will survive beyond your final breaths.

Hope will keep you going. But going to where?

Albert Einstein wrote that “the most important factor in giving shape to our human existence is the setting up and establishment of a goal.”

You need a worthy goal, something that can inspire you and others. When you find a goal, ask yourself:

  • Is it honest? If it’s dishonest, it’s neither worthy nor inspiring. Play it straight.
  • Is it realistic? William Penn (the founder of Pennsylvania) advised to “hope not beyond reason, for that shews more desire than judgment.” Long shots pay the most and succeed the least, but sometimes they’re worth it. Just be aware of what you’re doing.
  • Who will it help? And how will it help them?
  • Who will it hurt? For things like volunteering with the elderly, the answer might be “nobody.” However, the question is not “Do I think some people are hurt?” The question is “Do they think they’re hurt?” Everyone’s happiness matters, even people you don’t like.
  • Does it help more people than it hurts? Then it does more good than bad. As long as it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights, it’s a worthy goal.

Hope is an essential part of Judaism. Indeed, in certain respects, we invented it. Earlier faiths saw the world as cyclical. The future was the same as the past and people were prisoners of their fate. Judaism revealed that the future didn’t have to be the same as the past: it could be better. We weren’t prisoners of our fate: however difficult at times, we could choose the path that we followed. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said it very well:

“We are free because we face an open future: open because it depends on us. We know the beginning of our story, but we do not yet know how it will end … History without freedom equals tragedy. History plus freedom equals hope. Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.”

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Are We Free to Choose?

free-will-myjewishlearning

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.

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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.

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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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