Can Man Destroy the World? Part I
Chapter 3, Mishna 19(a)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given. The world is judged
with goodness, and all is according to the majority of deeds."
The first part of our mishna, according to Maimonides and others,
addresses one of the fundamental philosophical difficulties with the
belief in an omniscient G-d. "Everything is foreseen" signifies that G-d
knows the future and every action man will do, whether good or evil, till
the End of Days. "Free will is given" implies that man is given the
freedom to choose his actions. Thus, our futures are in our own hands. We
alone determine our actions and are held accountable for their outcome.
The difficulty this raises -- one which has dogged great thinkers, both
Jewish and Gentile, throughout the ages -- is how can both principles
exist simultaneously. Do we truly have free will if G-d already knows
which path we will choose? I would like, however, to first discuss the
concept of free will itself.
According to Maimonides (Mishne Torah Hil' Teshuva Ch. 5), the concept of
free will is one of the great philosophical pillars upon which the world
is based. The entire concept of reward and punishment -- that G-d rewards
us for our good deeds and punishes for our wicked -- is predicated upon
the assumption that our actions are under our own control. G-d does not
force us to do good or evil. He provided us with the Torah and mitzvos
(commandments) to incline us towards goodness, and He planted within us
the temptation to sin and rebel. But He does not and cannot force us --
neither by revealing Himself too openly nor by punishing us too severely
or immediately. For actions performed without free will and the temptation
to sin are empty of meaning. And empty actions deserve no reward. And if
there is no reward, there is no reason for existence.
I would now like to paraphrase some of the key points of Maimonides'
discussion (ibid., 5:1-4). The following is a loose translation.
Unlike the belief of the fools of the nations and many unlearned Jews that
G-d or other heavenly forces such as the constellations predetermine
whether a person will be righteous or wicked, our fates are entirely in
our own hands. Every person can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as
Jeroboam. We therefore bear full responsibility for our decisions and
actions, and we are rewarded and punished in kind. If predestination
determined our futures, G-d could not hold us responsible for our actions.
We would be no different from actors following scripts written for us and
over which we had no control. And further, it would have been meaningless
for G-d to command us in the Torah how we should behave, since we have no
control over it anyway.
(Maimonides himself admits elsewhere that each person has natural
inclinations which influence his behavior, and likewise family, friends
and neighbors exert a powerful influence. And certainly when we are judged
such mitigating factors are taken into account. But ultimately, we and
only we must stand trial for our deeds and own up to our mistakes.)
(As another aside, it's interesting to note that the concept of
predestination -- that whether or not we will attain salvation is
predetermined before our births by G-d -- long preceded the Protestant
Reformation and John Calvin -- as we lay historians typically associate
it. (Maimonides was writing in the 12th Century.) Apparently, the belief
that our fates are out of our control has within it a strong attraction. I
may in fact not have a soul destined for salvation and heaven, but it is
not my worry. And more importantly, there is no reason I must behave in
order to achieve it.)
The above discussion raises another issue. The following question has been
raised to me in the past, and there seem to be many people genuinely
worried about it: If man has free will, can he destroy the world? Our
advanced(?) civilization has certainly invented the weaponry to do the job
with some left over (not sure what we'd use it for). Now if G-d truly
grants free will, and He allows us to run and ruin our own lives any way
we choose, what's to stop us from destroying ourselves and the world in
the process? (We've certainly been able to drive many species to
extinction -- most certainly against G-d's will. Now how about the human
But it does not seem so simple. Our tradition makes it clear that G-d
controls the direction of history as well as the events of our lives. The
Talmud writes: "Everything is caused by Heaven except for catching cold"
(Kesuvos 30a). Sounds comical but the intention is really quite clear.
Virtually everything that happens to us is decreed by Heaven. The one
exception is the trouble we bring upon ourselves through our own
negligence. If we go out in the winter without a coat and catch cold, that
was not a Heavenly-ordained punishment but our own stupidity.
But let us ask further -- and this will introduce the true dilemma.
Does "Everything is caused by Heaven" extend to what other people
do to us? If another person -- who has his own free will -- decides to
harm me, is G-d behind that? On the one hand, free will should dictate
that that person has the ability to act as he pleases even if it adversely
affects me. But if so, G-d would seem to wield very little control over
this world. Violence, domestic abuse, terrorist attacks, the Holocaust --
most of the evils of this world have been brought to us courtesy of man.
Does free will imply that man acts independently of G-d's will and
control, bringing about evils He did not decree?
Conversely, if G-d does control all events in this world -- since
as above, everything that happens to man short of catching cold is the
will of G-d -- would we have to say G-d is behind all the cruelty and
destruction man wreaks in this world? Does G-d want such tragedy to
occur? Or perhaps all such evil emanates from G-d Himself, the controller
of all things; man is merely G-d's agent to perpetrate the terrible evils
He intended for His hapless subjects. (And perhaps this would even
exonerate the wicked -- who are merely carrying out G-d's will.)
Well, we seem to be caught between that proverbial rock and hard place. If
we do not want to ascribe all the suffering in this world to a merciful
and loving G-d, the world becomes an ugly and senseless place indeed. We
would have to say man's free will has wrenched the world out of control,
that the many manmade tragedies mankind suffers are pointless "accidents" -
- not a part of G-d's plan at all. Man hurts innocents not deserving of
punishment on G-d's Divine scales. And G-d is perhaps watching helplessly
as man, exercising his free will, injures, maims and destroys, undermining
the many good plans G-d has for mankind.
And even further, what of G-d's many promises of the eventual advent of
the Messianic era and End of Days? We have literally scrolls-full of
prophecies testifying about it. Yet perhaps man is corrupting and
destroying G-d's world right under His Divine nose? Maybe man will
literally destroy G-d's world via nuclear holocaust and G-d's prophecies
will never be realized? Or at the very least, exercising the dark side of
his free will, man will make the world unworthy of ever attaining
But what is the alternative? That all the evils of the world *are* willed
by G-d? What a cruel and ghastly image of our Creator emerges! Are these
our only alternatives -- that a kindly G-d watches helplessly as malicious
man corrupts and destroys His very world, or that G-d Himself is in
control, and if so He is not (G-d forbid!) as kindly and loving as
our tradition teaches?
Boy, I've typed myself into one heck of a hole this week! Yes, G-d
willing, I hope to answer all of this -- or at least present a cogent and
logical approach to the Jewish view on all the above. But I've begun to
exceed the bounds of what a typical audience can handle in one week (even
an audience as wise and understanding as Pirkei Avos subscribers). Please
hang in there... One more week! ;-)
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.