Texts and beliefs By Lester Kershenbaum 04th Sep 2018

Nitzavim is the second shortest of the Shabbat Torah readings, with only 40 verses. The final 20 verses illustrate two fundamental issues of Jewish belief. Firstly, that teshuvah (repentance) is always possible, and secondly, that we have ‘free will’ in deciding what actions we take. This is especially relevant, since Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hashanah.

The Rabbis have devoted much attention to both of these issues. The relevant verses for teshuvah teach that return is always possible, ‘Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world’ (30:4). They appear in the Selichot prayers and are repeated in the Yom Kippur service many times. In his commentary on the Torah, Ramban insists that teshuvah is not too difficult for you, ‘It is not in the heavens…or beyond the sea’, as stated in 30:12,13.

The question of free will is closely related as one has to choose to do teshuva. But do humans have free will? Philosophers have discussed this issue for millennia. Ancient societies felt that their destiny was driven by fate as revealed to them by oracles. From a religious point of view, there is also a conundrum. If God is all-knowing and knows what will happen in the future, how can we possibly have free will?

The Jewish resolution of the conundrum is stated clearly in verses 30:15,19 and is emphasised by the Rambam in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter 5, ‘I set before you life and good, death and evil’¦Choose life’¦’ In the Guide to the Perplexed, Rambam says, ‘It is the will of God’¦that man should have power to act according to his will’. And a similar sentiment is expressed differently in the Talmud (Berachot 33b) by Rabbi Chanina: ‘All is ordained by God, except for the belief in God.’ Or, as Isaac Bashevis Singer said more light-heartedly when asked if he believed in free will: ‘I have to; I have no choice!’

However, research by neuroscientists on the workings of the brain propose that, ‘when we are able to fully map out the structure of the neural connections in the brain, we will be able to predict any action you take, before you knew you were going to make that decision’ and, hence, that ‘free will’ is an illusion. That argument may be challenged, as mathematical chaos theory shows that, even for many simple systems (and the brain is not a simple system!) prediction requires the knowledge of the system with infinite precision. Very small ‘errors’ can lead to widely different results. To illustrate this, drop a small piece of paper from a height and allow it to fall to the floor. When you repeat the experiment, the paper will never fall back to same position, no matter how careful you are and no matter how still the air in the room is.

So, whether free will is real or merely an illusion, the Jewish view is that we do have control over our actions and this motivates us to act responsibly rather than ‘opting-out’ and saying that all is in the hands of fate. And surely, that is a better attitude for us to take forward to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Lester Kershenbaum is a member of New London Synagogue, and was formerly Professor of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College.

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