Parashat Bo: Rambam’s Resolution of the Antinomy of Human Free Will and God’s Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

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Jan 5, 2009

Last week (Parashat Va-Era), we discussed the solutions of R. Sa‘adiah Gaon and R. Abraham ibn Ezra (among others) to the problem that the biblical verses that imply God’s predestination pose (in this particular case, His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, causing him to sin against the Israelites, and consequently causing his own punishment). They seem to contradict the position that asserts man’s free will. The response of R. Sa‘adiah Gaon, as well as that of the ibn Ezra, in all its multiple variations, can be classified as maximalist answers from the perspective of free will. The biblical verses regarding God’s action are simply reinterpreted. The dogma concerning human capabilities remains unchanged.

When we come to the opinion of the Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides, 1138-1204) on the matter, however, we find something else. In light of Rambam’s stirring declaration in Mishneh Torah (Chapter Five of Hilkhot Teshuvah) that every human being possesses the free will to become as great as Moshe Rabbenu, one might have expected him to join the ranks of R. Sa‘adiah Gaon and ibn Ezra on issue of Pharaoh and be another freewill maximalist. Strikingly, he does not. (My presentation regarding the Rambam, as was that concerning R. Sa‘adiah Gaon and R. Abraham ibn Ezra, is based on the discussion found in Harry A. Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy [Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1979], His discussion of Rambam’s view is to be found on pp. 208-14. )

In his work Shemonah Peraqim (his introduction to his commentary on Pirkei Avot), Chapter 8, Rambam raises the following question: Assuming that the drowning of Pharaoh was a punishment for his refusal to let the Israelites go, inasmuch as his refusal was due to the fact that God Himself hardened his heart, wasn’t it unjust for God to punish Pharaoh in that manner? Rambam answers as follows: The sin for which Pharaoh was punished was not the sin of refusing to let the people go. Rather it was his original enslavement and oppression of those who were strangers in his land. Moreover, the “hardening of the heart” that the biblical verses depict refers to the deprivation of Pharaoh’s free will to repent of his sin, and not to his original sin of enslavement. He did not possess free will, in other words, to escape (via repentance) his justly deserved punishment.

Elsewhere (Guide for the Perplexed, III:32), however, Rambam writes that although it is theoretically possible for God to deprive man of the power of free will with which He had endowed him, “according to the principles taught in Scripture, God never willed to do it nor will He ever will it.” But doesn’t this preclude the possibility of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart?

Rambam in Shemonah Peraqim declares that the case of Pharaoh constitutes an exception to that rule. Why? Because this is the case of one whom through the exercise of his free will has committed such a heinous crime that divine justice requires an irrevocable punishment for it. Inasmuch as repentance brings about forgiveness of sin and consequently an escape from the punishment, in order to make that result impossible God deprives the sinner of the free will necessary to repent of that heinous sin. Rambam claims that such was the case not only regarding Pharaoh, but regarding Sihon the king of Bashan as well, and Rambam interprets in this vein various scriptural verses that refer to the notion that God can, in certain instances, deprive a person of the free will to repent. In Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 6:3 he reiterates his view that God can deprive the sinner of the free will to repent.

Thus, although in this world God never interferes with a person’s choice to sin or not to sin, He may occasionally interfere with a person’s power to choose between repenting and not repenting of a sin that he has already freely committed. What is the rationale behind this distinction? According to the Rambam (as explained by Prof. Wolfson), the logic behind the Scriptural verses that he cites might pertain to the different grounds that underlie the human ability to choose to sin or not to sin in the first place, and the ability to repent of that sin on the other.

According to the Rambam, God’s endowment of man with the freedom of choice to sin or not to sin is a matter of divine justice. If man were compelled in his actions, Rambam (like many others) argues, reward and punishment would be downright injustice (Shemonah Peraqim, Chapter 8).if man were not free to obey or disobey divine commands, “by what right and justice does God punish the wicked or reward the righteous? ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do right (Genesis 18:25)?’” With regard to the freedom to repent, on the other hand, Rambam understood (following Hazal in various places) that this freedom is not a matter of Divine justice but a matter of Divine mercy. Thus, Pesiqta de-Rab Kahana writes that the penitent is urged to repent to God under His attribute of the four-letter Tetragrammaton, for then He expresses His attribute of mercy. Under the name of God, (Elo-him), on the other hand, God expresses the attribute of justice and repentance is impossible. Other statements uttered by Hazal (Pesahim 119a. Sanhedrin 103a) express the notion that God receives penitents in opposition to the attribute of justice, that is, under the attribute of mercy.

Thus, it is because his understanding of the human freedom to repent is grounded differently than human freedom of choice in general, Rambam arrived at his view that whereas the freedom of choice is never deprived, God may at times deprive a sinner of the freedom to repent.

The Midrash Shemot Rabbah, in two places, seems to anticipate Rambam’s view. Shemot Rabbah 5:7, commenting on Exodus 4:21 (But I shall harden his heart), comments that the hardening of the heart was “in order to punish them (the Egyptians).” Now, this verse occurs prior to Pharaoh’s actual refusal to “let the people go.” Thus the punishment must be for the original enslavement and oppression of the children of Israel. Similarly on the verse “And the L-RD hardened the heart of Pharaoh (Exodus 9:12),” which occurs at the sixth plague, and recognizing that in the case of the first five plagues (Exodus 7:22, 8:11, 8:15, 8:28 and 9:7), the Torah writes that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (and not that God hardened his heart, a phrase which only commences at the sixth plague), the Midrash understands that Pharaoh will not be allowed to repent. It certainly is appealing to suggest that Rambam understood this Midrash as adumbrating his own view, distinguishing between man’s original freedom of choice and man’s choice to repent. It is only the latter that can be in exceptional circumstances (and Pharaoh was one of them) be taken away.

One of the remarkable consequences of a proper understanding of this Maimonidean view is this last point, namely, that Rambam saw the Midrash as prefiguring his own opinions. For all his rejection of numerous theological presuppositions held by the authors of the Midrash, in numerous other cases (another example is his understanding of the meaning of Jacob’s dream, and the ladder with the angels ascending and descending, which we discussed in our piece on Parashat Va-Yetze), Rambam felt that properly understood, the Midrash can hold the keys to help unlock a difficult philosophical problem.


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