The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.
As they stand at the cusp of the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites are given a choice, and it is stark: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God …” (Deut. 11:26-28)
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, seems to suggest that our freedom is both absolute and binary. We have total autonomy as to whether or not we choose to observe God’s laws.
We can accept them or we can reject them.
If we choose the former, we will be blessed and rewarded. If the latter, we will be cursed and punished. This is the classic Deuteronomic worldview.
But are we truly free, according to this parashah? Who in their right mind would voluntarily choose to be cursed? On reflection, this isn’t much of a choice at all.
While it is often said that free will is what separates humans from other animals, the reality, as we know from recent insights in biology and psychology, is far more complex. In many ways, our lives are determined by our choices. But those choices do not exist in a vacuum. They are frequently the result of our genetics, habits, culture and context.
This Torah portion and others like it seem to highlight this ambiguity and tension. So does rabbinic Judaism.
The Talmud states that “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” (Berachot 33b). While the precise meaning of this teaching is opaque, its observation about the ambiguous, even paradoxical, nature of human freedom seems to be clear. God is in control of everything in this world — except for our attitude toward God.
Are we therefore free only in this one specific way? If so, it is a very profound, life-defining sort of freedom, and it should not be minimized.
The High Holy Days, which begin on Sunday, Sept. 29, offer another glimpse into this ambiguity and tension. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish liturgy contains a signature prayer — Unetaneh Tokef — that captures the paradoxical nature of freedom.
In the middle of the prayer, we are told that God determines everything in our lives, including the destinies that each one of us will experience: “… who will be calm and who tormented; who will live in poverty and who in prosperity; who will be humbled and who exalted.”
And yet, in the very next line of the same prayer, we recite a contradictory lesson: “But repentance, prayer and righteousness can annul the severe decree.”
So which one is true?
Are the outcomes of our lives determined by God, or can our free will alter them?
During the most introspective and thoughtful period of the Jewish year, Judaism offers us a message about freedom and human existence that is anything but clear.
And it seems just fine with that.
There are other areas in Jewish thought and practice that highlight similar ambiguities and tensions that the Jewish religion, and the Jewish community, have wrestled with for centuries: study and prayer vs. action and deed; the universal vs. the particular; the transcendent vs. the imminent nature of God.
The genius of Judaism is that, for millennia, it has not only tolerated but embraced the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of our experiences, our ideas and our lives.
Judaism is a religion of dialogue and debate, not dogma and doctrine. Its strength lies in its capacity to accept more than one truth at the same time, to shun black-and-white answers to life’s questions, and to engender nuance, conflict and perplexity.
The Jewish path is not an easy one, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.