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Freedom of Choice: Natural or Supernatural?

Freedom of Choice: Natural or Supernatural?


See, I set before you today blessing and curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the L‑rd your G‑d. . . . And the curse, if you will not heed the commandments . . .

Deuteronomy 11:26–28

Freedom of choice is one of the core principles of our religion, and indeed every judicial system is predicated on the idea of free choice. A robot or computer is not rewarded for executing a noble mission, nor does it deserve punishment for doing an immoral task. We don’t have prisons where we store computers which have spread viruses; all credit or blame belongs to the programmers.

If man were also a robot with no ability to freely choose, then he too wouldn’t be liable for punishment. Certainly, the most violent elements of society would still have to be restrained in some sort of correctional facility—not because they can be blamed for their behavior, but to protect the rest of the population, much as wild predators must be kept away from society—but one couldn’t blame them for their acts, just as one cannot condemn the lion or eagle for their predatory natures, or give credit to the dolphin for its friendly disposition.

The Today we are told that almost any harmful behavior can be blamed on geneticsfact that we do penalize criminals—and this has always been the accepted method of dealing with criminals, by all civilizations throughout history—shows that society has always recognized that the human being possesses the intuition to distinguish between right and wrong and has the ability to choose between the two, and is therefore responsible for whichever choice he makes.

But is this factually correct? Does the human being really enjoy freedom of choice? Is there really a difference between the human and all other creatures which G‑d created, which are bound by their G‑d-given nature—for better or worse?

Today we are told that almost any harmful behavior can be blamed on genetics. Or, if a gene isn’t at fault, then it must be a traumatic childhood experience. Perhaps he lost a loved one in his youth, was abused by his parents, comes from a dysfunctional family or didn’t receive enough positive attention from his teacher. If none of these factors explain the person’s destructive conduct, that only means that he can’t afford a top-rate psychologist—one who can make a better diagnosis, and explain why he really isn’t to be blamed . . .

This is why G‑d declares, “See, I set before you today blessing and curse.” Indeed, freedom of choice isn’t a quality which is natural to the human being; naturally, the human should be compelled to behave according to his nature—a nature which is formed by a combination of genetics and life experiences. But G‑d tells every person, “No matter your nature, upbringing and intelligence, no matter how many hard knocks you may have experienced, I guarantee you the ability to be a saint like Moses.” And the same is also true in reverse: even one who has been raised by righteous parents, and is naturally disposed to doing that which is right, has the ability to choose evil and stray from G‑d’s ways.

One should never think that he can never be a spiritual person, that “it’s not within my nature.” A person’s nature is a merely a challenge which G‑d guarantees that he or she can overcome.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Emil Friedman Hillside, NJ August 17, 2017

I think you are saying that reward and punishment can only be justified if the being who is rewarded or punished has free choice and that only humans have free choice.

But we reward and punish the family dog in order to condition him or her to behave in a manner we deem appropriate. Does that dog have "free choice" before the training? Some dogs are stubborn. Others can be trained easily. Is that inborn?

What about Yacov and Esav? Did they choose to become the people they became? Or did Hashem give them those characteristics in order to make sure that the rest of history would turn out the way he wanted it to?

Is this whole discussion and gross oversimplification of a subject that no human being understands? Reply

S U.K. August 15, 2017

HaShem said to Cain, "why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely if you to right, there is uplift. But if you to not do right sin crouches at your door; its urge is towards you, yet you can be its master." Genesis 4:6, 7 Reply

GP Sunshine Coast, Australia August 14, 2017

Seeing comments on slow metabolisms, Sefer Gematriot (43a-44b) apparently says that the beryl (Asher's stone) can help speed up the metabolism. Possibly useful? Reply

Victor ben Mark August 14, 2017

Dear Rabbi Silberger,

A very nice nice post regarding freedom of choice. Would like to add:

Rivka gave birth to twins, Jakov and Esav. These twins are within each and everyone of us. Jakov/Israel yearns to serve HaShem and Esav wants to serve thyself. Therefore, no matter who you are or where you are from. Esav is always there to test Jakov, understand this and learn to recognize it. We should always strive to learn in order to develop as servants of Hashem and while learning to saddle the strength of Esav. Only then we can ride on the white donkey through the gates of Jerusalem.


CarmenZoraida Lopez East Orange, NJ August 13, 2017

Inner tubing That's why I hope my "inner tube" doesn't explode for no reason. Todah Rabah Reply

Lazer August 13, 2017

And how does this reconcile with the fact that God already knows what the outcome of the universe will be? There is nothing that he does not foresee and nothing that he does not endorse through his will. As it was written in Malachi 1:2-3 "I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated." This is the question of faith in the Lord. Reply

Simcha Bart for August 15, 2017
in response to Lazer:

Knowing the outcome of our actions does not impede our free will to do those very actions. The simple explanation is that just like my knowing about an event which occurred in the past did not affect that event - so too G-d, for Whom past, present, and future are all one - knows the future because to Him it already occurred. Thus His foreknowledge does not cause our actions, rather His knowledge is a result of our actions. For more insights into this question, please read 54486 The Paradox of Freedom of Choice: Six Questions and you can watch our 4 part online course The Choice Is Yours Reply

Marco Montreal August 16, 2017
in response to Lazer:

Knowing isn't everything. A football coach often knows exactly how his team and players will perform and always allows the game to go on often knowing what the results will be. Sometimes all that the coach wants is for the players to play according to their best abilities. Reply

Victor ben Mark August 17, 2017
in response to Lazer:

Everything in HaShem's creation evolves due to the principle of sacrifice/interaction for the greater good. Faith evolves within each of us in accordance with this fundamental principle. When we intend/will to change, our faith evolves in accordance with our level of willingness to sacrifice for the goodness of His creation on multiple levels.. Ultimately we are responsible for what we create, Hashem allows this to occur, "we reap what we sow". So in Malachi hints at the fact that that if you become likened to Esau, using your God given abilities only to satisfy the ego/self "singular sense", then you are not fulfilling His Will for creation. . While Jakov is the direct opposite, thus he was named Israel - which can be understood to be in the "plural sense". Jakov through his learning/studies of Torah, understood Hashem's Will for His creations to evolve through sacrifice for the greater good of all creation. Jakov acted accordingly with Hashem's Will, this is "Faith". Reply

Viktor Ben Mark August 17, 2017
in response to Simcha Bart for :

Dear Simcha Bart,

What is faster than the speed of light, is ever present and has the power to transform all creation? You guessed it "thought". Thought is energy, this means all constituents ( qualities, intensities and attributes) of thought exist in His creation. We simply tramsform these constituents, anotherwords we create. His knowledge is ever present and is not a result of our actions. But instead our thoughts convert the the ever present infinite energies of thought constituents to actions and produce transformation of creation for better or worse, depending on our thoughts/will. So I hope this explanation briefly clarifies how all of us can transform creation. As we can transform the physical, we can also transform the metaphysical. Try not to think in concepts related to time, time is a subjective reality and is not a constant. But simply a system of measurement of interaction within a relevant continuum of space within a light continuum. Reply

Marco Montreal August 17, 2017
in response to Viktor Ben Mark:

Making your own decisions What is faster than the speed of light,
Actually two things ate faster than the speed of light
1. The expansion of space to accommodate the speed of light
2. Check out quantum entanglement where two separated sub atomic particles react simultaneously ..despite distance!!

...and so in this universe created by the all knowing All mighty Creator..our G*d..there are many things we don't understand...but we all have choice to worship and to understanding Torah we know unequivocally in our hearts and minds what is right and what is wrong.. Reply

Marco Montreal August 17, 2017
in response to Viktor Ben Mark:

Fact of the matter Fyi..thought or synaptic transmission is much slower than the speed of light... Reply

Patricia Arcadia via August 13, 2017

We aren't meant to be like Moses. We are meant to be ourselves, that freedom was given to us at Sinai.
Not meant to be saintly, just natural. Reply

Viktor Ben Mark August 15, 2017
in response to Patricia:

Dear Patricia,

No man can be considered holy or saint as you refer to it, because only HaShem is holy. Though we are His children and should always strive to open our hearts, do good and to manage yetzer hara instead of it managing us. HaShem works His miracles through His children "this does not make us holy, since it is He who works through us". He has created us in His likeness (mental beings, small creators) "this is natural", when we understand this and develop our faith and understanding. We can then recognize Him will for all creation and become His hands in this world. That is when miracles will happen with you and all whom you come in contact with. It requires faith, learning and perseverance but we are all capable of becoming whom we were meant to be, Israel. Reply

Patricia Arcadia via August 13, 2017

Judaism doesn't believe in saints. Moses was not a saint, he was a humble human being.
G-d does not make saints, people do.
Choose life, not sainthood. There can be curses within blessings. Reply

Menachem Posner August 3, 2017

Thank you to our readers for pointing out that parts of this article can be seen as offensive. We have modified it as of 8/3/17. Reply

Chava M. August 29, 2016

loved this! thanks! Reply

David Mark Margate August 2, 2013

Reading the Comments No one may judge except G-d. Yes, as humans we make a lot of choices: picking out clothing, buying groceries, sending our children to a particular shul or school. Reading the preceding comments, however, I note that other readers come for comfort to these pages-- some may be gay, or have gay friends and relatives, as I do, as many other Jews do. Our G-d is a forgiving G-d; not of pedophilia or bank robbing, but of the way we were born. Reply

Jessica wesley chapel, FL October 9, 2012

Amazing! Great points were made in this article! I strongly agree with the entire document! Reply

Anonymous August 25, 2011

Freedom of Choice B"H

I'm a Lubavitcher, and I agree, of course with the main point of the article that despite whatever challenges Hashem gives an individual, we must just put our faith in Him and continue to choose to do good and what's right. However, I do strongly disapprove that the author included homosexuality with pedophiles, etc. In my humble opinion, homosexuality is not such a simple issue, that you just brushed in with the other things that you mentioned. Of course, it's prohibited by our Torah, and even a person with those desires must work on it, but it says in the Mishnah not to judge your friend until you're in his place. May G-d bless all of Klal Yisroel, the Jewish nation, with the coming of Moshiach, the Messiah right now! Reply

Victor ben Mark August 14, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

A servant of HaShem is always in the plural. He thinks only of the greater good for Hashem's creations and leaves nothing for himself.

This is the way of the MoSHIaCH, these sparks are in all of our hearts. All we need to do is learn how to ignite them. Reply

Thanglun madman vaiphei India August 14, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

That's truly Jewish .you are right. Reply

Amy Los Angeles August 14, 2009

Sigh! It is my prayer that one day the blessed people of Chabad will stop lumping homosexuality in with pedophilia and other behavioral maladies. So much wonderful wisdom undone with the fears of those few small minded individuals. It is not G-d's judgment that renders so much harm but, rather our human weaknesses, fears and frailties. It is not homosexuality that keeps Moshiach away but, rather judgment, fear and harsh actions against homosexuals and a whole lotta lack of love for everyone. One day. One day...I know that day will come. Peace and Blessings. Reply

Simcha Brooklyn, NY November 14, 2007

I'm glad you feel homosexuality is in the same vein as obesity and pedophilia. Here is your challenge: Find where it says in Torah a man cannot love another man or a woman may not have a loving relationship with another woman. Because as far as I have studied, Torah only prohibits a specific ACT, not feeling. Moshiach will never come if people like you keep touting hatred and intolerance. Reply

Anonymous NPR, FL August 13, 2007

Freedom Of : To rachel of Beverly Hills Metabolism can be slow because of genetic predisposition. Just to say, take a supplement or drug and that will fix it, doesn't sound very compassionate at all. Not everything can be fixed. Do your homework. Telling a homosexual not to act on his or her genetic predisposition is like telling a heterosexual not to ever have sex either. God created these people, don't forget that. And it's not for you to decide how they should live their lives or to judge them. Maybe your harsh or onesided judgement is your test with god, have you considered that as a possibility? I would hate to see chabad move down the path of self righteousness and take the weak minded with them. When all men think alike, not much thinking is going on at all....( Walter Lippman) Reply

Victor ben Mark August 14, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

We are all here to perform T'Shuvah in order to attain Tikkun. All of us are tested differently. Therefore, it would be unfair to say do this or do that... Instead this is a deep process of rectification which occurs differently in each of us but has one come denominator, we are all children of Hashem. Our hearts always possess His spark, each of us needs to recognize and remove the layers which keep Him hidden from us. Only then are we capable to achieve Emunah, to wear the cloth of merit sewed with blue, silver and gold thread. Reply

Cathy Houston, TX August 10, 2007

Deuteronomy 11:26 to 28 I enjoyed the insight and thought put into this one. Thank you Reply

David Morse August 9, 2007

"Today we are told that almost any criminal behavior can be blamed on genetics. The person who is a kleptomaniac, pedophile, or homosexual; the individual who is obese, impulsive, depressed, etc., it's all because of a faulty gene....If none of these factors explain the person's destructive conduct, that only means that he can't afford a top-rate psychologist—one who can make a better diagnosis, and explain why he really isn't to be blamed..."

This sounds unduly harsh to me, unlike most of this website. In fact, it sounds like right-wing talking points rather than actual analysis. It is not becoming of Chabad. Reply

Rachel Beverly HIlls, Ca August 8, 2007

response to anonymous NPR, FL If metabolism is slow, there are choices one can research the best dietary choices, supplements...if one has homosexual urges, one can choose to act on them or not. If one chooses to act, there are choices about how to live with that too. As another missive from Chabad states, we live in accordance with the commandments but then "get out of Hashem's way," We are partners with Him and if we make choices in accordance with his commandments, He will do the rest! Reply

Lenore Roberts August 8, 2007

Freedom of Choice This is right on target. Ah, to accept the challenge and responsibility we are afforded by the gift of Choice. Recognizing the effects of free choice needs to start very early, or, it seems, too many choose to be slaves.
Thanks for a fine article. My regards to Brooklyn. Reply

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