For the week ending 15 January 2005 / 5 Shevat 5765

Free Will Post Sinai

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Terrett in Miami, FL

Dear Rabbi,

I have trouble with two apparent contradictions to wit: Judaism is less about faith and more about action. Yet we are to have faith that the instructions for our actions are immutable and divinely inspired. What gives?

Also, we have free will and this is why Hashem does not fully reveal His existence. Yet at Sinai His existence was proven and His Law made eternal. Doesn't that remove free-will? It seems to me that having been shown G-d's existence gave us no choice but to say yes and then transmit that decision through the generations. So if it is all based on mass revelation, then we, especially as Jews, really have no choice but to comply if we wish to keep in G-d's good favor.

How is this fair? Where is our free will? If I exercise my "free will" to comply, I'm not really making a decision born within me. I am deciding to comply based on an event that happened 3500 years ago in which G-d's existence was proven to us all. It's like saying, if you know something to be true, then of course you will decide to believe. Now, I accept the revelation at Sinai - that is not my issue. My issue is with the loss of free-will because of that belief/knowledge. And what about those for whom this knowledge is not concrete? The logic is circular I know, but I hope you understand what I am getting at. Thanks.

Dear Terrett,

Your question is very deep and probing. With G-ds help, I hope I have understood it correctly and will answer it satisfactorily, point by point.

Judaism is not more about action than belief. Belief is just as important. It is one of the six Torah commandments incumbent on every Jew at every moment (see Biur Halacha, Orach Chaim 1:1). It is true that one earns some degree of reward for mitzvot even without belief in G-d; while one who believes but doesnt do mitzvot is held accountable. Nevertheless, this is no different than any case where one is rewarded for one's mitzvot and corrected for transgression. Still, ideally, belief should be a prerequisite to, and impetus behind the performance of the miItzvot.

Regarding free will, even though the Jews had a one-time revelation of G-d at Sinai, that did not preclude their own, or future generation's free will. After all, shortly after having witnessed G-d with such clarity that they pointed saying, This is my G-d and I shall glorify Him (Ex. 15:2, Rashi), they worshipped the calf and continued to challenge Him repeatedly. This, as you know, is explicit in the Torah. Therefore, rather than taking away free will, the revelation merely increases culpability for non-compliance. But the choice to not comply is certainly there.

If this is true regarding the generation of the revelation, all the more so it applies for future generations who never really witnessed directly the presence of G-d. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto states in "The Way of G-d" (1:1:1), Every Jew must believe and know etc. One is required to believe what was passed down from the revelation, but also to embark on his own spiritual path to know for himself the truths of G-d and Judaism. Even though it is incumbent upon one to do this, he may choose not to. Belief in the revelation does not inhibit one's individual, highly personal exploration every person has a mandate to transcend belief to the realm of knowledge.

This is even more so regarding people for whom the truths of the revelation are not concrete. They are challenged not only to come to know personally that which they believe, but to explore whether they even believe, and why or why not. From their perspective, this is a tremendous expression of free will, because there is really nothing other than a sincere search for truth to compel them to ask the questions and seek the answers in Judaism in the first place.

May we merit to truly search for G-d with a pure heart and humble spirit. Amen.

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