THE LIMITATIONS OF FREE WILL AND EVIL
The question of the day last Friday was why is there evil in the world? Coincidentaly, the next night I went to a class at our synagogue focusing on the question of free will as presented in Rabbi Elyahu E. Dessler’s book Strive for Truth.
Two stances generally polarize talk about evil doers. One stance believes all is determined in one way or another. Some of this group say the God of our understanding has predetermined our path; others say Bad Seeds or our genes determine who is good and who is evil, and still others think we are controlled by our experiences.
The second stance sees evil doing as a choice because they believe in Free Will. This idea gets a great deal of media attention. Oprah is not by any means someone who does evil. Still you is the champion of free will when she says, “If I did it, anyone can do it.” Not true, she is smart, driven and talented, but most importantly she was the right person at the right time. Those who read my blog know I rail against the idea of free will, particularly as promoted by the “Just do it” gurus.
I ranted a bit at the class, part of Torah learning allows you to question, and I was not alone in expressing my concerns and questioning. I ultimately found out that Rabbi Dessler had a view of Free Will that I can live with very comfortably for it takes into account both capacities and experiences.
As a professor teaching human behavior, I taught that we all have a conscience, but the content varies according to both our ability to think, what we have been taught, what our culture teaches, and finally what we have experienced. Rabbi Desseler takes each of these into account when he talks about choice and free will.
Essentially, he believes free will only comes into play when our conscience conflicts with desire. When temptation calls and our conscience reminds us of the right way to behave, that is the moment we can make a choice. If we know what we are about to do is wrong and do it, we have sinned, we have made the wrong choice. We are not sinning, however, if our life experiences or mental capacities keep us from developing a conscience and we commit acts of violence or evil. Torah teaching seeks to build conscience and the heart of Torah is practicing kindness. Those who practice kindness whether Jewish or not are said to be living Torah.
One other point came from the night’s teachings, those who live Torah or put another way, those who have had lives that have lead to consciences built on kindness have a further obligation. That obligation is to live so others will be helped to make better choices for themselves and the world.
Here is another of my favorite quotes. This one is by Martin Buber, another rabbi.
When a man is singing and cannot lift his voice and another comes and sings with him, another who can lift his voice, the first will be able to lift his voice too. That is the secret of the bond between spirits.
There is a second secret, both will be lifted for that is the truth about kindness, it lifts the giver as well as the receiver. Moreover, one can always choose kindness.
Stay strong, share and care.