Freedom of Choice

We need to make sure that goodness will prevail


10th century manuscript of the Book of Ben Sira, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection (T-S 12.863)

In response to the Shoah, and with the ongoing human suffering, there is one question that we have to grapple with again and again: How is it possible that a caring God can permit evil and suffering in the world? When theodicy is the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil, some major thinkers have settled for one possible explanation where God retains goodness but God’s omnipotence is put into question.

I would like to offer another line of thought which in my mind avoids any dualism and is also in accordance with my understanding of the biblical concept of divine majesty: in philosophy, it is often referred to as the “free will defense.” Judaism down the centuries was at least clear and consistent about that: the good in us is the consequence of our being made in the image of God. Where, then, does evil come from? In the simplest of terms, the answer of rabbinic Judaism is: just as God created the good impulse, so too he created the evil impulse, so that human beings have the possibility of and responsibility for choosing between the two.

Here it is meaningful to take a look at early Jewish literature from antiquity, for example Ben Sira: “He filled their heart, and taught them good and evil.” Ben Sira judges human beings without exception to be responsible for their actions. But if that is the case, then the counterpart to the “good impulse” requires even more explanation. The noun yetzer is derived from the verb yatzar, “form,” and therefore means something like “a fundamental aspect of human nature” or “a fundamental human disposition.” Of course this raises the question how a good God can create an evil impulse, and the surprising answer is that at least to a large degree despite its name the evil impulse is not fundamentally evil.

Two examples of this idea can again be found in the Book of Ben Sira: “The works of the Lord are all good, and supply every need in its season.” Or, “God created man from the beginning, and he placed him in the hand of his decision.”

In the Hebrew text of Ben Sira, the word for “decision” is yetzer. If all the works of God are good, the yetzer ha-ra cannot be evil as such. Yetzer ha-ra is a blanket term for self-preservation, pleasure, power, possessions, reputation, popularity, etc. These impulses are not evil in themselves. On the contrary, they are good in the sense that they are biologically useful. But they are extremely powerful, and if they are not controlled by a lively conscience, they can quickly lead us to disregard justice and the needs of others and to do harm to them. In this sense – because it so often drives us to do wrong – the yetzer ha-ra is evil. But it does not need to be: the psychical energy for which it stands can also be directed to good ends: “He commanded no man to sin, nor gave strength to men of lies.”

It is possible for human beings to control the yetzer ha-ra in itself. But the starting point is not that this is simple. On the contrary, “Who is mighty?” asks Ben Soma in the Mishnah. He answers: “One who controls his [natural] urges.” The problem is, to put it simply, how one cultivates and activates the good impulse, so that it can exercise the necessary control.

The Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas – in 1984 – gave a possible explanation how there can be space at all for such human action. He pointed towards the cosmogonic centerpiece of Lurianic Kabbalah: tzimtzum. In an act of self-limitation God has withdrawn the all-encompassing power. “By foregoing its own inviolateness, the eternal ground allowed the world to be. Having given himself whole to the becoming world, God has no more to give: it is man’s now to give to him.” It was the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, himself a former prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, who declared theodicy to be “blasphemous,” arguing that it is the “source of all immorality,” and demanded that the project of theodicy be ended. He argued that humans are not called to justify God in the face of evil, but to attempt to live godly lives; rather than considering whether God was present during the Shoah, the duty of humans is to build a world where goodness will prevail.

Walter Homolka is rector of the Abraham Geiger College at Potsdam University

Photo Credit: Used by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University

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