Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan Rosenblum’s intriguing recent post at Jewish World Review revisits the age-old debate over free will versus determinism, and how it makes a difference to our understanding of morality. Among other good points, the article helped me reconcile the Old Testament’s emphasis on moral choices with other passages where God appears to predetermine the outcome by hardening people’s hearts to do evil:
In his Discourse on Free Will, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler describes how the area of free will differs for each and every person, based on education and other factors, and how it shifts constantly. It is only possible to speak of the exercise of free will, he writes, at that point where a person’s apprehension of the truth, i.e., what is right, is in perfect equipoise with a countervailing desire. Precisely at that point, nothing besides the person himself determines the outcome.
Rabbi Dessler employs the spatial metaphor of a battlefield to capture the process. The point at which the battle is joined is the point of free will. Behind the battle line is captured territory — the area where a person feels no temptation to do other than what he perceives as right. And behind the enemy lines are all those areas in which a person does not yet have the ability to choose.
The battlefront moves constantly. With every victory — every choice to do what is right — a person advances. And he retreats with every defeat. Pharaoh provides the paradigm of the latter. By repeatedly hardening his heart, he finally lost the capacity to exercise his free will.
In a contemporary context, Rabbi Dessler remarked that those who deny the possibility of free will do so because by failing to develop their own will power through the positive exercise of their free will they have lost their freedom.