Rabbi Sacks on Free Will
JInsider (March 2010)
Isaac Bashevis Singer said it best, “We have to have freedom. We have no choice.” Of course, he was right, because Judaism is predicated on freedom. The truth is that in the ancient world, the polytheistic world, all the gods were part of nature, and therefore they were subject to the laws of nature. Along comes Judaism, and for the first time discovers a transcendent God, who stands outside the universe, who is free to create or not to create. And when He makes humanity in our image, He bestows on us that gift of freedom. It costs God a great deal to give us freedom, because if we didn’t have it, we could never rebel against Him. We could never sin. We could never threaten the future of the world He created. But so precious is freedom that God gave it to us.
How do we know that we have freedom? The answer lies in a single concept called teshuvah in Judaism, repentance. And here it is, you find yourself in a certain situation, and for some reason, temptation, weakness, fear who knows what you do, something wrong. Comes, Yom Kippur, you feel bad about it, you do teshuvah you say, “Forgive me, God. I recognise that I made a mistake”. Then some later time in your life, you find yourself in exactly the same situation. And this time you don’t make that mistake. That proves that you have changed. That proves that it was not a combination of environment and genetics that determined your action. Your action was determined by your choice. The first time you chose one way, the second time you chose another way, that means we are free.
Many people have tried to deny freedom because it’s a scary thing. Some people held that our fate was in the stars. Marx said our fate is in the economic system. Freud said our fate is in the hands of primal repressed, unconscious drives. Darwin said it’s all in genetics. None of that explains the fact that actually, we can change our way of life, whatever our economic status, whatever our unconscious drives, whatever our genetically coded instincts. The truth is we are free, Bashevis Singer was right, we have no choice but to be free.