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Parashat Miqqetz: God’s Power and Man’s Free Will

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Dec 17, 2008

Most people who have had some exposure to the issues of Jewish philosophy have heard or read about the antinomy between God’s foreknowledge and human free will. (An antinomy is a contradiction between two seemingly true statements. It derives from the Greek words anti (against) and nomos (law), and it literally means the mutual incompatibility, real or apparent, of two laws. It is a term used in logic and epistemology. In Judaism, antinomies arise when the tenets of our religion require us to embrace two laws or rules, which taken together, form a contradiction. Yet this contradiction is between principles or conclusions that seem equally necessary.) Philosophers note that technically, the antinomy between God’s power and human free will is different than that of God’s foreknowledge and human free will. Even if I somehow understand that God can know on Wednesday what I will do on Thursday, but I nonetheless possess free will to do or to not to do on Thursday what I want to, if (as we all believe), God is omnipotent (all-Powerful), when human beings, based upon their own free will cause evil to others, why does God, who is perfectly good, not prevent the evil from occurring?

In Parashat Miqqetz, the questions raised by this antinomy arise from the admission by the brothers (talking among themselves) and Reuben’s subsequent poignant admonition to them. Joseph’s brothers have apparently been mistreated by the mysterious ruler of Egypt. The brothers begin to suspect that the ruler’s behavior towards them is somehow connected to their terrible actions towards their little sibling. The Torah writes the following:

    They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. This is why this distress has come upon us.” The Reuben spoke up and said to them, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do no wrong to the boy’? But you paid no heed. Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” (Genesis 42:21-22 [JPS translation])

(Parenthetically, it is appropriate here to recall what Maran Ha-Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zatzal, remarked in this context in one of his Chumash shiurim in the early 1980’s. Why, he asked, is this episode only recounted here, by Reuben? Why is it not recounted at the place in the Torah where the episode actually happened, in Parashat Va-Yeshev? Because, the Rav answered, the actions of Joseph’s brothers were so cruel, so hideous, that it would be too terrible an indictment of their behavior to record then and there how Joseph pleaded “Please save me!” but his brothers couldn’t care less. Only after the brothers have already begun to have hirhurei teshuvah, stirrings of repentance for their misdeeds, does the Torah actually mention how awfully cruel they had been.)

   Thus, the aforementioned antinomy between God’s power and human free will here is inescapable. How could God let Joseph’s brothers treat him so viciously in the first place? Didn’t He have the power to stop them from carrying out their evil designs? To be sure, this question has been raised over and again throughout Jewish history. Here I wish to show that the consensus of medieval Jewish philosophers is that God (for reasons of His own) allows for human free will (with its repercussions) to exist. It is a gift of God to mankind. I will cite the discussion found in Harry A. Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge and London, 1979), pp. 232-33 (the last two pages in the entire book). He writes the following:

The solution of the antinomy of free will and God’s power offered by Jewish philosophers of the Arabic period, or provided by them in anticipation of such an antinomy, is like that advanced by all scriptural philosophers before them: Philo, the Church Fathers, and the Mu‘tzalites. Briefly stated, it is the affirmation that free will is a special gift by God to human beings. This explanation, it can be shown, is common to all these Jewish philosophers. Here I shall quote those of them who express themselves explicitly on this point. Thus, [R.] Saadiah [Gaon], starting out by showing that there is a gradation in the order of beings, and that man, who is “the intended purpose of creation,” has been endowed by God with freedom of choice, concludes that this gift of free will to man is in keeping with the justice of the Creator and His graciousness(hemlato) to man.” Similarly, [R.] Bahya [ibn Pakuda, author of Hobot Ha-Lebabot] explains man’s free will as being due to the great solicitude (hemlat) of God for His creatures. So also does Maimonides say that, according to Scriptural teaching, man possesses free will because “God has willed it so (Moreh Nevukhim III:17),” that is to say, because God, who acts by will and design and for the good of His creatures (Moreh Nevukhim III:25) has singled out man for that special gift of free will. This explanation is more fully expressed by him as follows: “Just as the Creator willed that fire and air should move in an upward direction and earth and water should move in a downward direction and the celestial sphere should move round in a circle, and that similarly all the other things in the world should follow their customary way as He had willed it, so also did He will that man should be in the possession of his own power to act and that his actions should be left to his own direction.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:4)

Of course, man can use his free will for good-or for evil. It is our awesome responsibility, and one that all-too often we misuse. We must always strive to use it correctly, and not have to make the terrible realization, as Joseph’s brothers’ did, that they horribly misused this precious gift of God. We can -and we must- choose the good.


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