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Rabbi Akiva Tatz


The most important thing to grasp about being human is the fact that you have free choice. You make the decisions. You are responsible. We shall attempt to show that the secular world is not so sure about this, but as a Jew, you have to know that everything significant about life depends on this idea.

Let us explore the concept of free will and understand why it is essential to come to grips with who you really are.

What are the components of human free will and what are its limits?

Free will applies only in the area of morality. That is, you are free only when it comes to decisions and actions which relate to your personal battle when you are tempted to do that which is immoral. Only in the arena of the battle between good and evil are you free to win or lose. Only when you are challenged with a situation in which you can act as you know you should, in line with your higher self, and at the same time you are tempted by the more physical, the more sensuous and animalistic, can you apply your free will and battle the ordeal?

You have very little free choice outside the area of morality. Your health, wealth and many other areas of life have large components which cannot be controlled no matter how you try. But in moral tests, you are entirely in control. That is where you are free.

Of course, there are many things outside the realm of morality which you can choose, but those choices are purely technical: certainly, you can choose a particular flavour of ice cream, for example, or which socks you will wear today; but those choices are not uniquely human. Animals also choose options like which food to eat and where to sleep; those areas have no inner meaning, they are mechanical issues. Here we are talking about the unique free will of human beings, that faculty which makes you unlike any animal. The area in which animals cannot make any choices is the area of morality. No animal chooses between right and wrong; no animal battles to overcome its lower self and achieve a more spiritual state by means of its moral ordeals. That is exactly the area we mean when we talk of human free will; the battleground of human free will is precisely the area of moral ordeals, the striving for higher values against the pull of our lower selves.

How free are you? What is the nature of this freedom? What about someone who has tremendous disadvantages outside of his or her own making – disadvantages of upbringing, emotional problems, lack of natural talents, financial limitations or anything else which seems to make personal progress difficult? Do we say that such a person has less free will? Do we say that such a person is less accountable for his or her moral failures? Perhaps such a person is not accountable at all?

This requires some thought. Let us study the interaction between free will and those things which affect it.

Many factors affect your area of free will; in fact, many factors outside of your free will determine what your ordeals will be, and how difficult those ordeals will be. But the critical issue to understand is that at the moment of ordeal, at the point of choice itself, you are entirely free. You may find yourself in a particular test through no fault of your own, through causes and events entirely outside your control. But how you respond to that test is entirely up to you.

Each person has a point of free will which is determined by many factors. In fact, in various areas of life you may have very different levels of free will; some types of ordeal may be much more difficult for you whereas for someone else other types of ordeal may provide greater challenges. You may not be tempted by things which someone else can hardly resist, and yet you may have a mighty struggle with things which would be a walkover for that person. In fact, some tests may be exceedingly difficult for one person and be virtually out of the realm of free choice for someone else.

Your battle of free choice takes place only at your point of free choice. In any area of your life which involves moral issues, you have a point at which you are being tested. Below that point, things are so easy that they are not really tests; you would not fail there because you are too powerful. You always succeed there because you handle those things correctly out of habit – in short, they are not tests at all.

Above that point, you are not being tested either: things above your point of free choice are too difficult for you; you do not handle those things correctly because you are too weak. You are not yet ready to grapple with things at those higher levels; you fail there without doing battle. The experiences of those levels are not your tests either.

An extreme example will illustrate this idea: imagine an individual who is morally undeveloped; someone whose life consists of gross violence and physicality. Say, an individual who mugs helpless victims daily and has been doing so ever since he was a youth brought up in desperate circumstances. This criminal has a very low point of free choice – his maximum moral choice may be whether to apply more or less violence the next time he mugs a frail old woman or not.

Now if this individual decides to rob a helpless victim without unnecessary violence, that decision may represent a great elevation in the area of free choice for him. An action which would be the worst kind of failure for a more elevated person may be a great victory for this person!

On the other hand, consider someone who has reached an elevated state of refinement and self-control, say, a Torah scholar who has toiled for years to understand the depths of the Torah and develop his personality. Such an individual is grappling with ordeals so refined that the criminal we considered previously would be entirely unable to relate to them. Perhaps this sage is working to control his speech, to ensure that every word he utters is necessary and true. Or perhaps he is labouring to control his thoughts, one of the most difficult areas to master. This individual is battling in areas which our criminal could not begin to understand.

And if this highly developed person fails in one of his tests, slips from his level of greatness in word or thought, he will yet remain far above the greatest achievement of the criminal. Failure at his elevated level may consist of behaviour which would be a supreme achievement for the person at the lower level!

This is known as the point of free will. You are always locked in battle with your lower self, but where the battle is pitched depends on your particular situation and the state of your personal growth.


Your point of free will moves as you make choices. As you handle a free will ordeal, you rise or fall. If you win in your battle with your own lower self, if you overcome your temptation and choose the higher path in your ordeal, you immediately become a higher person. As you exert effort to

defeat the temptation, as you push through the test successfully, you rise. Just as physical exertion against resistance builds muscle, so spiritual effort builds spiritual power. As you overcome your own immaturity, you develop your inner being. As you conquer tests, you conquer yourself, you take control and you build yourself.

Your growth is in direct proportion to the effort you exert.

If you lose the battle in an ordeal, you fall, you become a lesser person. And if you fail to engage your ordeals, if you give up without a struggle, you become a lesser person. Just as muscles weaken if they are not constantly stressed, your inner being becomes weaker if you are not straining against resistance and winning.


As you conquer ordeals, you must face more difficult ordeals. As you grow, you are given tests which are more difficult. Just as an athlete must face ever stronger opponents as he develops skill in order for the game to remain a challenge, so must you face ever more difficult tests in order for your free will to remain free. If you grew as a result of a test, but the next test remained as easy as the previous one, you would immediately outgrow free choice. When a player outgrows the “little league” it would be pointless (and ridiculous) to continue playing against children. When a club player rises to the level where he can easily defeat all the members of his club, he must go on to play in the national league where he must pit his skill against other champions. There he will find challenge, and there of course, if he exerts himself appropriately, he will develop further. For free choice to remain free, your point of free choice must rise as you rise.

Put another way, your negativity grows along with your positivity. As your positive or spiritual side grows, so does your negative or dark side. Your pull to evil grows in exact proportion to your pull to good. A greater person has more temptation than a lesser person. If free will ordeals must remain real ordeals, real challenges, then the individual who is growing and facing new ordeals must experience a more powerful evil in those ordeals exactly as he must experience a more powerful good.



So if you ask why your ordeals become more difficult as you grow, why your negativity grows with your positivity, the answer is that you are here to exercise your free will, and the only way to do that throughout life is to be faced with ordeals which are pitched exactly at your level always. As your level goes up, your tests become more difficult, and of course by overcoming a new test at a higher level, you grow further. Your drive to do that which is negative, your drive to harm and destroy, grows exactly as much as your higher drive.

Just as the previous ordeal was pitched exactly at the point where your positive and negative drives were locked in a life-and-death struggle for supremacy, so too the new ordeal is pitched at your new point of free choice, both sides of your character are more powerful, and the battle is fought again. But you are greater, the enemy within is more powerful, and the stakes are higher. You are closer to your inner potential, the final victory of life is that much closer, you have become a more worthy opponent of your own darker side, and of course you have further to fall if you fail.



If we ask how it is that negativity grows with positivity, how your drive to evil grows as your spiritual refinement increases, we will discover a principle in the world of the spirit. The mechanism of the growth of the darker side of the personality is this:

There are in fact not two separate personalities within you; the opposing sides of your character which are locked in the battle for the real you are one and the same. There is only one being within: you. And that single being can be directed in one of two directions, good or evil. And of course, with exactly equal force: the only difference lies in the direction you choose.

This reflects a general rule in the world: there are no intrinsically good or bad things. Things themselves are not good or bad; only the manner in which they are used is good or evil. Money is neither good nor bad; it is entirely neutral. The question is: how is that money used? It may be used for equally good or evil purposes. In fact, in exact proportion to the good which can be achieved with money is the evil it can produce. More money means more power, but that power is neutral, it waits to be directed to the good or to the bad. More money can achieve larger benefits, but of course it can achieve more evil to the same degree. Things are not good or bad, only more or less powerful.

The electric current supplying your home is enough to power a household of appliances. On the other hand, if you accidentally put your finger into the socket the result is unpleasant and dangerous. But the high tension lines supplying a city carry enough power for the entire city – much more energy than the current in your home and able to achieve much more. But if you touched one of those lines, you would be fried. More power means more can be done, but the danger increases in proportion to the potential for good.

Money, good looks, charismatic personality, powers of persuasion – all these are neutral. The more one has, the more powerful one is. But not better or worse: that depends on the purposes and ends to which one applies those gifts and talents. And that is your true measure: not how talented you are, but rather the degree of control that you exert over your talents. For what purpose do you use your looks, your intelligence? Good or bad? That decision is, in fact, the real you. You are your free choices.



Let us attempt to put together the elements we have been studying by considering some practical examples. Consider someone who is going through a free will ordeal; it may be a man alone with a woman, or it may be any test of morality or conscience, any situation in which the pleasures of the body, for example, are pitted against the refinement of conscience.

Imagine a person who steps out of his office for lunch. He is about to enter the shellfish restaurant where he usually eats. He is accustomed to eating unkosher food; perhaps he was brought up with inadequate knowledge of the importance of kosher food, and perhaps he has moved away from Jewish observance. As he is about to enter, he is struck by the thought that he should really consider what he is about to do. Perhaps there is something to the idea of kosher food, after all. Perhaps he should take it more seriously; perhaps changing to a kosher diet would be the spiritually correct thing to do. He is caught in an ordeal: his higher self is fighting for control, for the elevated choice of self-control, of living up to the laws and values of his people. And his lower self craves pleasure, self-indulgence and the easy way of simply doing what feels good.

He stands there, locked in battle with himself. The battle may take quite some time, and it may be surprisingly difficult. He may stand there, sweating and shaking, for long minutes. Let us say he overcomes the desire for his accustomed meal and decides to enter a kosher delicatessen instead, where he will order food which is not his favourite type of food at all. This individual has achieved victory in a test. His higher self, his higher world of values, has overcome his lower self, his lower world of physical pleasures. He has grown to a new level; he is a new person. He has a measure of self-control which he did not have before, and he has made a move along the road to perfection of character, out of the grip of thoughtless desire.

What happens the next day? Our hero steps out for lunch again, and the same battle occurs: again he is tempted, and again he battles. But the battle is easier, the agony is less. Let us say he overcomes the ordeal. What happens on the third day? If he overcomes his ordeal again, very soon he will be eating a kosher lunch with no battle at all. He is now in the habit of eating a kosher lunch. He has a new behaviour pattern which costs no effort to maintain. He has outgrown his ordeal in that area of his life. That which he does out of habit is not at the point of free will; he has passed beyond being

tested in that area and he no longer gains spiritual reward there. If there is no battle, there is no reward; if there is no exertion there can be no growth.

Of course, we should not become confused: for this individual, the benefits of kosher food still apply, and the harm of eating unkosher food is still avoided. But the special dimension of fighting the battle to acquire that particular mitzvah as part of his life is no longer active.

And of course, now he will be faced with a new challenge, one which he could not have faced before. He was previously too insensitive, too much in the unthinking grip of his habits at the lower level; now, at his new level of sensitivity he enters the arena of new and more subtle battles. And if he wins at the new level, he grows again, and he will face new battles yet again when this level becomes old habit. Battles are always being fought at the point of free will, and that point is always changing.

A classic image has been used to illustrate this process: your point of free will is like the front line in a war. When two countries are at war, the sharp pain and conflict are felt at the front line. Although each country in its entirety is at war with the entire country of the enemy, the battle is only where they meet. Your higher self is locked in battle with your lower self, the battle is for victory over all that you are, but the conflict is felt only at the point of free will. As one army advances and the other retreats, the front line moves; as your higher self develops and your lower self is brought under control, the area of your free will shifts. And of course the battle can rage in either direction: the enemy can advance into your territory and force you to retreat, you can find yourself losing and sinking. That is exactly what free will means.

The war rages on, and it lasts as long as you live. There are advances today and retreats tomorrow, victories and defeats. Some setbacks are inevitable; you will not win all your battles. But the main thing to keep in focus is steady gain, steady progress towards controlling and mastering the personality. Your aim should be to win as often as possible and to learn from your failures so that even those can be used to build perfection in the long run.



What about things that seem to be outside the arena of free choice entirely? What about someone with a significant psychological problem, or an extreme situation which appears to force a person to act in a certain way? What about real disadvantages of upbringing, culture or intelligence? Do we say that such a person is not free? Are they to blame if they fail in a situation in which someone else not suffering from the same disadvantage would have coped? Let us think this through.

Now the question is: is she responsible for her actions? Does she have free will in this area of her life? Is she to be blamed? Punished?

The answer is that the urge to steal may be presently outside the area of free will for this individual. That is to say: she feels a real urge and has a real craving, and it is quite possible that the origin of the problem is outside her range of freedom; she may be unable to suppress feeling that urge. But the action of stealing is within her free choice – she is responsible. As long as she remains in contact with reality, as long as she knows right from wrong, and as long as there is no unstoppable force moving her to take the candy, she is free at her point of choice when she reaches out to take that candy bar.

The fact that her ordeal is in the area of stealing candy may be outside her free choice. That is her ordeal for whatever reason has caused the development of her particular craving, whether that reason is genetic or environmental or some combination of factors. It is quite possible that she has not chosen this ordeal, this problem. In other words, her point of free choice is here, at the point of choosing between stealing and not stealing. That may be outside of her doing, and it may be inappropriate to blame her for having such a nature.

But what she does at her point of free choice, whether she steals or not, is her responsibility. Whether she yields to her nature or rises to control it is her test; that is the expression of her free will.

In other words, where your point of free choice begins may be outside your control. You may have an immense urge to do something improper which others may not feel. One person may have a moral ordeal which others may consider no battle at all. Every person has a different point of free will, and within each individual there may be different points of free will in different areas of life. And those points of free will may in fact be set by genetics, upbringing, education, social norms and behaviour and many other factors.

But what you do at your point of free will is up to you. Once you are doing battle with your particular ordeal, you are free to win or lose. You may be able to blame others for the fact that you have a particular ordeal, that may be true; but how you cope with that ordeal is your doing entirely.

And of course, you grow or fall depending on how you manage your own ordeals. You are expected to cope only with your own tests, to overcome yourself at your point of free will only. You are never accountable for living up to standards that are not yours, for battling at points of freedom that are not yours. Your task is to win your own battles, to defeat your own inner enemy, not someone else’s.



Note how different this approach is from that of the secular world around us. The world thinks that if a person has a particular problem, an urge or a seemingly unfair disadvantage, that person is not accountable for his or her actions. They might look upon our young lady stealing candy as though she were caught in the grip of an unstoppable compulsion, as though she were not free at all; and they would perhaps absolve her of moral responsibility. They may even consider her to be totally controlled by her drive to steal, totally unable to act differently.

And that is not true. That she has a genuine problem is quite true. That we must relate to her with sympathy and understanding, of course. That the origin of her problem may be beyond her free choice and even her understanding, certainly. But that she cannot act differently, that she cannot resist the act of theft if she exerts herself and tries enough – certainly not. She may not have chosen her ordeal, but she certainly chose her behaviour in that ordeal.

You are not responsible for where your point of free choice starts out, only for what you do with it from there on.

Of course, there are situations outside of free will entirely: a child does not have real moral ordeals and is not morally responsible. There are psychiatric states that make free choice impossible. But as long as a mentally competent adult is able to decide and act in a moral ordeal, that person is free, no matter how difficult the correct decision and action may be.



Let us look at one more practical example in order to sharpen our understanding of the difference between the point of free will and the actual choice made at that point. Note again how Judaism approaches these situations, unlike the modern secular trend.

Not long ago, a group of youths from an inner city slum attacked a young woman as she jogged through the park near her home. They brutalized her terribly and left her desperately badly injured, and later admitted that they had done so “for fun”.

During their trial, the defence raised was that they came from disadvantaged backgrounds – broken homes, raised by parents with unstable and criminal histories, exposed to violence and poverty. And therefore they cannot be blamed, stated the defence; they are guiltless.

Their behaviour is nothing other than the inevitable outcome of a problematic childhood, a violent upbringing. How could they be expected to behave otherwise? How could standards appropriate to more privileged members of society be applied to them?

And for the secular court which heard the case, this argument posed a serious challenge. One cannot deny the force of the observation that such behaviour may be related to exactly those sociological and societal issues targeted by the defence in this case as being the cause of the crime.

What does Judaism say about this? Are we insensitive to these issues of background and deprivation?

The answer should be clear by now. Of course, the disadvantaged and violent background of such individuals is relevant. Of course, they are tempted in ways that more refined and sensitive individuals may not be; and that is exactly the point: their problematic and disturbed backgrounds may be the reason that they found themselves in that ordeal. A morally trained and finely raised person would not have had that ordeal in the first place; on the contrary, a morally sensitive person would be nauseated by the thought of doing what they did, not tempted by it.

But that does not mean that they were not free to act differently than they did. The depth of the deprivation and cruelty of their childhoods does not mean that they have become machines, robots, incapable of controlling their violent urges completely. The social problems they had experienced had not made them psychotically detached from reality, mindless animals with no capacity to tell right from wrong entirely. Of course, they may have had a real ordeal, of course, it may have been difficult, perhaps extremely difficult. Perhaps it would have taken a high degree of self-control for any of those young men to restrain himself from the violence he committed. And the blame for that problem may in fact properly be laid at the doorstep of the violent and uncaring parents who abandoned or mistreated them, or perhaps at the doorstep of a violent and uncaring society. But as long as they are able to act differently, they are responsible.

They may not be responsible for the circumstances of their lives or for where those circumstances have led them, they may not be responsible for what appeals to them and tempts them; but where they find themselves tempted and tested, they are responsible for their actions.

Again, the nature and the difficulty of your tests may be beyond your control, and out of your hands. But within any test you face, victory or defeat is in your hands.



And of course, this means reward and punishment too. Let us understand this.

When you succeed in an ordeal, the spiritual reward is in proportion to the effort you exert to win that battle. In fact, at a deeper level, that effort is the reward itself, because the effort not only overcomes the test, it builds you. You are the achievements you have attained in your tests. That is all you are. The starting point of your tests, the raw material you have been given in life to apply in your free will battles, those are not you. Your raw material of intelligence and personality, mind and body, are tools only. What you achieve with that raw material is the real you. And only against resistance.

So when you struggle against a test which is enormously difficult and you overcome it, you gain tremendous reward even though someone else would not have had an ordeal in that situation at all.

When our young lady driven to take candy in a supermarket manages to overcome that urge, she grows tremendously even though you may experience her ordeal as trivial. You may have no urge to take candy that is not yours – and if that is so, you gain no reward when you succeed. For you it is not a test; when you stroll along the aisle in your local supermarket you experience no urge to take candy at all. And that is why you earn no reward there, that is not your test. But the young lady whose problem we have been studying gains great reward when she overcomes her urge; that is her problem and that is where she must grow.

You earn no reward when you avoid brutalizing some girl jogging through the park. The very idea would turn your stomach. You need exert no effort to overcome such a temptation, and therefore you gain no reward. But someone else may.


Of course, a human court does not, cannot, measure the effort that may have been required to overcome a particular test. That is a spiritual matter. The human court may have to apply a more uniform standard, and therefore two individuals may receive the same verdict in court for the same crime even though they may have experienced very different inner struggles in committing that crime. But their spiritual growth or fall will be very different; each one’s inner reality will have changed in proportion to the difficulty he experienced in dealing with his test.



As we have noted, there is a move in the thinking of Western society, particularly in the fields of psychology, sociology and criminology towards a position which holds that we are not free at all. Much research is devoted to demonstrating that certain behaviour patterns are linked to genetic or biochemical factors. Violence, criminal behaviour and other behavioural patterns have been linked to particular genetic variations or other biological factors. The trend seems to be towards seeing these factors as so significant that the individuals who possess them are not free; their genetic constitution determines their behaviour and it is the cause of their actions.

Taken to its logical extreme, such an attitude would make nothing criminal and nothing punishable; after all, you cannot punish someone for doing that which is his only option, that which his inner nature causes him to do. Humans are increasingly seen as biological creatures acting according to their inner forces with no real free will at all, just as plants and animals act out the results of their biological inputs.

Taking this line of thinking further, it must also logically follow that you cannot reward people for positive moral behaviour either. If we are not free to choose our actions, then of course even apparently great and heroic actions must be the result of inner drives and forces too. Speeches of praise and admiration, awarding of medals for bravery and all other forms of recognition of human achievement become absurd – if people are really only biological creatures, animals, then you cannot talk about achievement or failure, about morality or immorality. Just as we see the actions of animals as morally neutral, just as when a gorilla takes a banana away from another gorilla we do not talk about immorality or stealing, and just as when a mother animal risks her life to save her cubs we do not talk about heroism and idealism but only about instincts, so too if we are to be consistent we should speak of human actions in the same terms.

If you accept that we are animals, then it follows that we act out our biological instincts and inner forces just as animals do.

Judaism rejects this position entirely.

Judaism’s position should be clear after our discussion of free choice and the point of free choice: our understanding is that when you are placed in an ordeal, you are free to choose your response. What you do is up to you. You are in control; you decide and you act.

Do not ask why someone responded in a particular way in a test; the answer is that they acted that way because they chose to. Do not say that they acted as they did because of their genes or their upbringing; those things explain only why the person experienced the ordeal and why it was as difficult as it was. Genes and upbringing and all the other factors which may affect us and our ordeals affect an individual’s point of free will in an ordeal, but they do not cause that individual’s action. In the entire world outside of the human being, the inputs cause the output. Plants and animals do what they do because that is what their inputs determine. But in people, the inputs cause the ordeals, not the responses. We are the cause of our actions in the free will arena.



What you do in your tests is who you are. Your choices are the reflection of your character. That is where you reveal your level, that is where your real achievement lies. Real success or failure is success or failure in your free will ordeals.

Making life decisions and acting on them is the deepest expression of yourself. When you choose and act, you are expressing that part of your inner being that has no prior cause; it is the root. When you grasp the fact that you are in control, that where it really matters you are free, you have begun to grasp who you really are and what you are meant to be doing here.

As long as you see your decisions and actions as the passive results of your background and your nature, beyond your control and outside your ability to change and master, you have not begun to live.

Choose and live. Choose the correct options in your tests; choose to live correctly. Choose and elevate your point of free will with every choice; choose and grow. Express your real depth and choose wisely and courageously. Choose and live.

Excerpted from "The Thinking Jewish Teenager's Guide to Life"

TAGS for this article: Free Will | Jewish Thought | Philosophy | Tatz



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