This week’s parashah, Vayeshev, raises the thorny question of free will. The descendants of Abraham—Jacob and his family—are living in the Land. Their families, flocks and herds are thriving. All is well, or at least going well enough, until Joseph’s brothers, overcome with jealousy, in an act of sinat chinam (senseless hatred), sell him to a traveling band of merchants, who take Joseph down into Egypt. We know what will happen there, and not just because we’ve read the book so many times, but because Torah already told us. Even before Abraham and God contract the covenant of circumcision, God promises Abraham, who is still Abram at this point, progeny too numerous to count and the Land of Israel. But then God announces:
Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. (Genesis 15:13-14)
Slavery in Egypt was in the cards before Abram became Abraham, before the covenant of circumcision, before Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were born.
Torah is clearly telling us that God has a hand in sending Israel down into slavery as much as bringing them up out of bondage. Joseph confirms this when, after revealing his identity to his brothers and seeing the raw fear of revenge in their eyes, he assures them:
Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. (Genesis 45:4)
God’s hand is not subtle in the accounts of Genesis. The three men who visit Abraham in his tent to announce God’s intention for Sarah to bear a son are termed anashim (“people” - Genesis 17:2), but the story opens, Adonai appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre… (Genesis 18:1). The night before meeting his brother Esau, Jacob wrestles with an ish (“man” - singular of anashim). Jacob names the site of the wrestling match Peniel because “I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:31). In Parshat Vayeshev, Joseph encounters an ish (“man”), who appears out of nowhere. Like the three who visited Abraham and the one who wrestled Jacob, this man has no name. Commentaries too numerous to count presume him to be an angel sent to direct Joseph to his brothers, so that the rest of the drama—his brothers’ scheme to sell him and tell their father Joseph was dead, Joseph’s descent into Egypt, his subsequent descent into the dungeon, and his eventual rise to the office of prime minister of Egypt—would play out according to “God’s plan.”
Hashgachah is the notion that God exerts providential control over the events of our lives. It runs throughout Genesis and, indeed, throughout Hebrew Scriptures as a whole. It’s not that the Torah’s writers were disciples of B.F. Skinner, the MIT psychologist famous for Radical Behaviorism. Skinner was a hard determinist; he believed we do not have genuine free will, but only the illusion of free will. In contrast to Torah, Skinner was a devout atheist who believed our “decisions” and behavior are entirely the product of operant conditioning. Torah however, subscribes to what we might call “limited free will”—God pulls big strings and manipulates major events, but people choose their own paths in life within those parameters, and our physical and situational constraints. Most especially, people have moral free will.
Neurobiologists, psychologists, and philosophers have long been locked in fierce debate about free will: does it exist or is it an illusion? The debate rages within each field, and each field has its own questions and modes of exploration. Neurologists want to know if decisions are made at the level of the conscious mind, or prior to that, the result of chemical interactions and synaptic firings that our minds do not control. Psychologists debate causality and determinism, which are not the same. Philosophers jump into the fray debating metaphysical libertarianism and hard determinism. But in the end “free will” and “determinism” are not precisely defined terms, lending even greater complexity to the conversation. All agree that minimally, we humans believe ourselves to have free choice, and whether or not that is an illusion we would do well to recognize the factors that influence our decision-making.
Neurobiologists, psychologists, and philosophers, even those not enthusiastic about the claim for free will, certainly live as though they have it. Or is it that they appear to live as if they had it? Or can’t I help but see it that way? Without free will, we have enormous problems claiming that people bear moral responsibility for their actions. We also run the risk of a crisis of meaning: If I am not in control of my own life, what meaning can it have for me?
Pirke Avot tells us that R. Akiba cryptically taught: “All is foreseen but free will is given.” (Pirke Avot 3:19) How can both of these ideas operate in the same universe?
I want to suggest a way out of this conundrum from the perspective of Process Relational Theology.
From the intellectual and theological vantage point of Process Relational Theology the world is in God, and God is in everything in the world. As the Rabbis express it through midrash: Ha-kadosh barukh hu m’komo shel olam, v’ein olamo m’komo / God is the dwelling place of the world, but the world is not God’s dwelling place (Bereishit Rabbah 68:9, commenting on Psalm 90:1). God permeates and saturates every part of the natural universe. God is as near and as intimate as our breath, our cells, the genes that animate us, the divine spark in each of us. God includes the sum total of all of our experiences, and the experiences of the entire universe. At the same time, God is also beyond the universe, but from this theological perspective, God is not a being with will and agency, as our ancestors’ imagined God to be. God encompasses the entire universe, experiences all that we experience. God is continuously changing and becoming because the universe is always in flux, always changing—and because we are changing continuously.
How does this understanding of God and the universe help us understand R. Akiba’s claim that, “All is foreseen but free will is given”? God, who encompasses the entire universe, also encompasses every possibility for the future. This does not abridge my ability to make a free decision. We all recognize that physical realities and emotional/social commitments limit our choices—but they do not eclipse them. “All is foreseen” in the sense that the universe includes all possibilities, and “free will is given” in the sense that we do have options and we do make deliberate choices.
Our biblical ancestors, looking backward, saw a pattern in the events they experienced; they “connected the dots” with a narrative line that featured hashgachah (divine providence) and included a forward-looking trajectory because they found comfort in the idea that there is a powerful God who is in control and who oversees the universe. The man whom Joseph encountered that day is an expression of this. Joseph’s assurance to his brothers that all that had unfolded was God’s pre-ordained plan is also an expression of this. Yet with all that, we shouldn’t lose sight of all the decisions Joseph made freely that propelled him from the dungeon to the throne room. Joseph’s story warns us of a danger hiding behind hashgachah (divine providence)—it’s easy to divest of responsibility and say everything is God’s will. Joseph doesn’t do that and nor should we.
So…what will you choose to have for breakfast tomorrow?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman