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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard

of SCF - Shoresh Charitable Fund


  • Shabbat Teshuva
  • On Repentance and Predestination

    Dr. Avraham Alkayam

    The Department of Philosophy

    In Parashat Nitzavim we find the following verses: "See, I have placed before you this day life and good, death and evil" (Deut. 30:15). "I call the heavens and the earth to bear witness this day against you, that I have placed before you life and death, a blessing and a curse, that you should choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (19).

    One of the most difficult and complex questions in the history of human thought is that of the relationship between predestination and free will or between determinism and indeterminism. Clearly, the question is linked to concepts in religious thought such as Divine Providence, Divine Justice, reward and punishment; to the ideas of causality and probability in the philosophy of science; to obligation in the realm of ethics and to liability and punishment in legal theory.

    On the one hand, the statement in The Ethics of the Fathers (3, 15), "Permission is granted" implies that man has an inner consciousness or inner experience of free will, that he can make considered judgments, and that the causes of his voluntary actions are situations, events or conditions in which he finds himself, to which he applies his willful actions, his considered opinions, his choices, his decisions, his desires, etc.

    On the other hand, the first part of that statement in Avot is "All is foreseen", meaning predestination or determinism. This idea is likewise a feeling or impression based on experience. For example, when I hear a noise I investigate, trying to ascertain from whence the noise came. I never assume that the noise came from nowhere and that nothing caused it. This implies that everything, without exception, has a reason; therefore, everything - including every cause - itself has a cause or a number of causes. Every thought and action of man is motivated by some factor.

    The dilemma between determinism and indeterminism is thus implied in the totality of Rabbi Akiva's maxim, "Everything is foreseen and permission is granted." Numerous interpretations have been given to this expression since the term which we translate as 'foreseen' or 'predestined', tzafui, has various meanings. The Mishnah commentator R. Obadiah of Bertinoro (commonly pronounced Bartenura), and, following his lead, the late scholar of Rabbinic thought, Prof. E.E.Urbach, explained it as "everything is seen", that is, the Lord sees "everything that man does, even if done in complete privacy". According to this view, there is no paradox in the statement. However, others interpreted it as "Everything is foreseen" - and then the question arises: how is free will possible if everything is known and revealed in advance to God Almighty?

    A third interpretation, suggested by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitz (in his book Sichot al Pirkei Avot), is that everything is predestined. Rabbi Akiva had no intention of solving the problem, as is commonly assumed, but simply presented it as a fact. Due to the limitations of human reason, man is incapable of solving this problem. Moreover, Leibovitz is of the opinion that the Torah itself can be interpreted according to two conflicting philosophical models: complete free will and absolute determinism.

    It is not my intention here to present a history of the failed solutions to the contradiction between determinism and indeterminism. However I do wish to root out one of the more common myths which is accepted as truth by nearly everyone: that Judaism, according to all its streams of thought, presents a united front which supports the concept of free will.

    In the history of Jewish thought there have been several orthodox thinkers who championed the doctrine of pure determinism. We cite two, one a philosopher, the other a mystic: The philosopher was Rabbi Hisdai Crescas, one of the leading Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages. The mystic was Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, the Admor of Izbitza, who was the illustrious disciple of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Crescas' ideas are found in his book Ohr Hashem and R. Mordechai Yosef's in his work Mei Hashiloach.

    A major obstacle to accepting pure determinism for religious people is the assumption that determinism leads, logically and psychologically, to fatalism: that is to say, to a position of passivity which stems from the assumption that if everything is predetermined, all human efforts are in vain. In point of fact, this assumption is erroneous. The determinist position does not necessarily lead to passivity regarding the observance of the Torah and its commandments. On the contrary, it may even lead to religious activism. In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930), Max Weber showed that the Calvinists, who believed in the doctrine of predestination, firmly believed that they were obliged to act precisely because that was what they were predestined to do. In other words, determinism can trigger a psychological reaction towards religious activism in the observance of the Torah and its commandments.

    A further obstacle which makes it difficult for men of faith to accept the determinist view is the relationship between determinism and the principle of repentance. They have trouble accepting the position that repentance can be derived at all from a determinist system, a system in which free will does not exist. They base their position, inter alia, on the (presumed) necessary connection made by Maimonides between repentance and free will.

    Maimonides, in his Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), which is part of Sefer Hamada (Book of Knowledge), the first volume of his Mishneh Torah, presents the position that repentance automatically presumes an indeterminist system:

    "Freedom is given to every man to direct himself to the path of good and he has the freedom to be a righteous man, and if he wants to direct himself to the path of evil and be an evil man, he may do so" ( Sefer Hamada, Hilchot Teshuvah, chap. 5, halachah 1); "...Since we have freedom to choose and all the evil we have done was by our own choosing, it is proper for us to repent and to leave our evil ways for we now have the freedom of choice to do so, as it is written (in Lamentations 3:40): ' Let us search and examine our ways and return to the Lord' " (ibid., halachah 2); "Since every man has freedom of choice given to him as we have explained - one should strive for repentance" (ibid. chap.7, halachah 1).

    However there is no certainty that even Maimonides himself held an indeterminist view. Several scholars believe that in his philosophical work Moreh Nevuchim, A Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides expressed an ontologically determinist position.

    "This is clear, that anything which is new cannot exist unless some thing caused it to be, and that cause has a cause, and so forth until one arrives at the First Cause for everything, by that I mean: the will of G-d and His choice" (Guide, part 2, chap. 48).

    According to this theory, the position Maimonides expressed in his halachot is a popular one which he uses for didactic purposes and is not a true reflection of his philosophical viewpoint.

    Even if we accept the common wisdom that Maimonides held an indeterminist view, indeterminism is not the only position expressed in the history of Jewish thought. There were undoubtedly many thinkers who held determinist positions in ancient and medieval times. Most of Chassidic thought leans in that direction. An outstanding representative of that line of thought in the Chassidic world was Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, the Admor of Izbitza, who maintained that the will of G-d is absolute: "...And in truth only the will of the Lord exists and nothing else besides it" (Mei Hashiloach, part 1, page 4b). Therefore, Man's freedom of choice is but an illusion:

    "In the deepest sense everything is in the hands of Heaven and man's freedom of choice is only apparent and exists only in his mind, because God has hidden His ways from Man since He desires man to serve Him, and if His ways were revealed to man he would not be motivated to serve G-d" (ibid., 56).

    He was the one who coined the radical expression "everything is in the hands of Heaven, even the fear of Heaven" (ibid.). Man is, therefore, a passive tool in the hands of the Divine Will.

    This opinion of the Rebbe of Izbitza may be explained as "soft determinism" which distinguishes between those aspects of life in which determinism is evident and those which are not determined:

    "Everything which happens in the world seems to be the acts of flesh and blood. However after consideration and thought they are seen to be the acts of the Almighty ....the Lord teaches us that the acts come from the hand of the Lord and the thoughts come from man..." (ibid., 14a).

    Every action is predetermined and testifies to the will of G-d, but man has complete freedom to decide. That is to say, man is not judged for his actions but rather on the decision he makes to act. The concept of sin is therefore transferred from the act to the decision to act and the error in decision-making. Accordingly, the concept of repentance is also transferred from the realm of behavior to the realm of thought and man is judged on the basis of his own internal decision to repent.

    In contrast, the position of Rabbi Chisdai Crescas may be interpreted as "hard determinism", a view which sees the determinist principles as controlling all aspects of life including man's thoughts and decisions. Crescas maintained that man's considerations and decisions are set and can also be determined in advance, if one is aware of all the circumstances - internal and external - which surround them. The commandments and prohibitions, one of which is repentance, are bound up within the entire system of causality.

    How, then, is repentance possible in a system in which every thought, consideration or act is a result of causality? In Crescas' opinion repentance is determined by Divine Grace: man is not free in his decisions or in his actions, thus repentance cannot be a voluntary act on his part but rather it is granted as a Divine gift (Ohr Hashem, article 3, part 2, rule 2, first and second chapters). In other words: repentance is also a Divine decree.

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