Yom Kippur 5778: Who’s in Charge?

An ancient paradox, presented in the name of Rabbi Akiva:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה (אבות ג, טו)

All is foreseen; but choice is given. (Avot 3:15)

These four Hebrew words contain the classic conflict between determinism and free will. For millennia, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have struggled to reconcile the sense that we are free to decide how to behave with the obvious influence that external forces have on us. Do we have agency—personal freedom, and therefore responsibility—or is that all an illusion? The debate takes different forms in different contexts but the key question remains the same—who is in charge? Are we the authors of our own stories, or just their most prominent characters?

On this day of Yom Kippur when we deprive ourselves of physical pleasures, devote ourselves to angelic song, and lovingly recall the memory of our deceased relatives—we can imagine ourselves too as a disembodied presence, pure spirit, free from all physical restraints. But of course, we are not disembodied. We are very much alive, with stomachs growling, feet shuffling and minds wandering. And so, the question that I wish to discuss with you on this Day of Atonement is—Are we free to chart a new course for ourselves, or has all been determined for us in advance? Are we indeed like clay in the hands of the potter, or are we ourselves the potters, shaping our own lives?

Determinism is a subject of debate in fields from history to neurobiology. In a religious context, especially a Jewish one, the issue of agency is key to everything that we believe about God and about ourselves. Unfortunately, our beliefs contradict each other. If God knows and controls everything, then we are just pawns, and have no responsibility. But if humans are free agents, with moral authority and responsibility, then God is not really in control. Which is true? Let’s start with God.

If God is omniscient, then space and time are no barrier to divine knowledge. A verse from Isaiah (46:10) puts this sharply:

מַגִּ֤יד מֵֽרֵאשִׁית֙ אַחֲרִ֔ית וּמִקֶּ֖דֶם אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־נַעֲשׂ֑וּ

I foretell the end from the beginning, and from the start things that had not occurred.

When Rabbi Akiva states that all is foreseen, הכל צפוי, he is reflecting an ancient belief that God knows everything, from start to finish. This belief is hard to fathom, and even the Torah seems to say otherwise, stating for example that God needed to test Abraham at Mt Moriah, which implies that God didn’t know what he’d do. But ancient interpreters reassure us—don’t worry! God knew what would happen in the end but wanted to give Abraham a chance to demonstrate his commitment. With this explanation, we return to the safe theological space of omniscience, but Abraham is reduced to a character in a role written for him by God.

Theological determinism is not only about omniscience. It is also a matter of providence, or divine management of the affairs of the world. The second half of the same verse from Isaiah claims that God’s plan shall be fulfilled:

אֹמֵר֙ עֲצָתִ֣י תָק֔וּם וְכָל־חֶפְצִ֖י אֶעֱשֶֽׂה:

I say, My plan shall be fulfilled; I will do all I have purposed.

One senses in many biblical stories that while people seem to be making independent decisions, even in defiance of God, that God anticipates their moves and even directs them. Tell me—was there any chance that Adam and Eve would not eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge? I’d say that God set the entire thing up so that the people would have the experience of temptation, resistance, failure, shame and reconciliation. If so, then God wants humans to have the illusion of free will, but all indeed is foreseen and pre-determined.

Theologians are hardly the only thinkers to take the bait of determinism—if anything, deterministic thinking is one of the great constants of intellectual histroy, ranging from nationalist ideologues with their manifest destinies, to Marxists to neurobiologists. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson charts the course of determinism in Western thought in the introduction of his book, Virtual History. Here is a quote he provides from Immanuel Kant:

Individual men, and even whole nations, little think, while they are pursuing their own purposes…that they are advancing unconsciously under the guidance of a purpose of nature which is unknown to them.[1]

Kant was not alone—historical determinism became a dominant theory in Western thought, and prepared the way for Marxist beliefs about materialism and the inevitable march of history. Much totalitarian mischief was justified under the banner of determinism. It was the collective version of the Nuremberg defense, Befehl ist BefehlI was only following orders.

While the star of historical determinism has faded, the principle of individual agency is in some ways more imperiled today than ever before. Today’s determinists are not historians but biologists. They point to discrete parts of our brain such as the limbic system that set us in motion well before our conscious mind has time to rationalize our decisions. That old expression, think first, act second? Apparently, that’s just not the way things work. If you see something rustle in the tall grass, your amygdala will set you off running long before your prefrontal cortex can cry, “snake!”

Yet, agency–the idea that you and I can make decisions—remains the key to all ideas of merit and failure. It is foundational to our criminal justice system. If we don’t decide how to behave, then why should we be punished for misbehavior? For that matter, why should we be rewarded for the good deeds that we have done? Free will—the claim that we are the authors of our own stories, is the basis of all ideas of responsibility. So, what are we going to do about the views of our ancient rabbis? Let’s ask a medieval rabbi for some help.

Maimonides, the great philosopher, physician and sage, was a champion of free will. In his essay introducing Tractate Avot, known as the שמונה פרקים or Eight Chapters, the young scholar explains that free will is the foundation of our lives:

In truth, there is no doubt about this—that the deeds of people are completely handed over to them. If they choose they can act, and if they don’t choose they won’t act—without compulsion or requirement. This is how we can be obligated by the commandments. The Torah says, “See, I have placed before you today life and goodness, and death and evil—choose life!”—the Torah has here given free will. One who transgresses is therefore subject to punishment, and one who listens deserves a reward.[2]

Rambam acknowledges that the Talmud complicates matters somewhat. It reports (Brakhot 33b) in the name of Rabbi Hanina that, “all is in the hands of heaven, except for fear of heaven” ואמר רבי חנינא: הכל בידי שמים – חוץ מיראת שמים. You might read this quote to be an endorsement of determinism, that while we have our own thoughts, God controls our actions. Something similar is expressed in our high holiday prayer אוחילה לאל, which claims that people can think what they want, but God controls what we express, לאדם מערכי לב ומה’ מענה לשון.  This would imply that within each of us is an independent person—the real me or you—but God controls whether we are able to give voice or enact these innermost thoughts.

Rambam disagrees. He says that Rabbi Hanina is speaking about the external world of nature—the quality of substances like air and water, and the inherited physical attributes of our bodies. That is determined by God. But fear of heaven is the essence of agency—once we decide what to believe, our actions follow from that choice. All our deeds begin as decisions—we choose to fear God or to act insolently—this decision determines conduct, and therefore we can acquire merit or guilt. Without agency, there is neither virtue nor vice, nasty nor nice.

Rambam is a free-will hardliner, and he certainly has a point. We do feel free as we walk around the world, making dozens of decisions each moment. We want credit for the good that we do in the world, and we feel shame for our selfish mistakes. And we regard others in the same way. Without free will, what are we, robots?

The problem is that no one, not even Rambam, can take this position to the extreme. We recognize that some people have medical conditions or other ailments that impair their judgment. All of us have physical limits to our action—we can’t just fly to the ceiling, for example. Some people are too young, or uneducated, or incapacitated to exercise free will. Rambam’s defense of individual agency is very appealing—we want credit for our good deeds, and are taught to take responsibility for our failures. But, what if this is all an illusion?

Robert Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neuroscience at Stanford and is the author of, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst (Penguin 2017). In it he argues that there is no independent part of us that is making decisions free from the influence of biology and environment. Starting with the famous studies of Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, scientists have known that our brains become active just before we become aware of making a decision, to flick our wrist for example. In other words, the brain decides before the mind knows what is going on. Indeed, our brains and bodies are making many adjustments right now without us ever being aware that a decision was called for. We’d go mad otherwise.

But surely the big decisions—the ones that we think through consciously and carefully—surely those are decisions that we make. Aren’t they? Sapolsky doesn’t think so. We are always under the influence of some sort of stimulus that restrains or provokes us. True, it is not always a straight line from brain condition X to action Y. Not everyone who suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) becomes, like the late football player Aaron Hernandez, a murderer and a suicide. But to ignore the influence of brain trauma, or even normal brain function, is to engage in fanciful thinking. Sapolsky mocks defenders of individual agency as believers in a homunculus, you know, a little person inside our heads who makes the decisions unless they get pushed aside by overwhelming force.  Without such a structure then, well, you and I don’t really make decisions. There isn’t really a person in there to praise or punish.

Sapolsky does not argue that violent criminals should not be imprisoned—that might be necessary for their own safety, not to mention ours. But he thinks that no one should be “punished” in the name of being blamed. Not only that, it goes the other direction too. If a person should not be blamed for misdeeds, they also don’t deserve praise for kindness. If a car’s brakes fail we don’t punish it—we fix it. And if a car works properly, we don’t lavish it with praise, though we may be grateful for its proper function. If we are basically brains that are controlled by biochemical processes, then moral judgments are beside the point. There’s no need to praise your host for that lavish dinner they prepared—it wasn’t really their decision, but some sort of physical stimulus that set them up to plan, shop, cook and clean for you.

How do you like this approach? I’m not a big fan, and even Sapolsky writes, “I can’t really imagine how to live your life as if there were no free will. It may never be possible to view ourselves as the sum of our biology.” Ironically, those sentences appear on page 613 of his book. I’d like to suggest that the 613 commandments are in fact a very effective way to guide our moral development, and to push back against the determinist declaration that biology is destiny.

Just like as Rambam saved us from the determinism of Rabbi Hanina, we can be saved from Sapolsky by another neuroscientist, this one named Michael Gazzaniga. His book, Who’s in Charge? discusses many of the same systems as Sapolsky; indeed, he argues that the human brain is a complex system with independent processes going at all times, and no simple explanation of what will happen next. If this seems chaotic, Gazzaniga agrees—but he then asks the question of why it doesn’t seem so? Why, with all this complexity, do we have a clear sense of self, and a seamless view of reality? Gazzaniga’s great contribution is the discovery of a left-brain function which he calls the Interpreter Module. This system allows us to gather information from the various brain centers and integrate it into something that feels like a self. The interpreter reconciles new information with prior knowledge and constructs a continuum of experience even when there are gaps in the record.

Gazzaniga says that the brain gives birth to the mind, but that the mind then constrains the brain. It’s a bit like how cars create traffic, and then traffic controls cars. Or how citizens elect a government, and then the government controls the citizens, God help us. In other words, the physical processes of our brains, including those that are unconscious, are very real, but they alone do not define us. Every mind interacts with other minds, and it is through the entirety of our life experiences—personal and social—that our minds are fully expressed. Gazzaniga ultimately dismisses the binary of free will vs. determinism, much as Rabbi Akiva did, and sees that life is complex—from all of our varied inputs, within and without, do our brain and mind interact.

I would add that every action that we take creates or reinforces structures in the brain. The more often we do something, the more natural and easy it becomes—this is true for both mitzvot and aveirot, commands and transgressions. So, our mind can teach our brain how to behave, though our brain will then prod our mind to think and act in the future. It is like the ancient rabbis said: מצווה גוררת מצווה ועבירה גוררת עבירה, One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin.

Our bodies are the theaters for the plays of our minds, but even together they are not the entirety of our identity. Who we are is defined by many factors beyond our solitary self. Right now we are defining one another—when we sing together, when we stand quietly, when we make eye contact or embrace—we become something larger than a body. We become people.

And when we expand our consciousness not only to those around us, but also to those whom we have loved who are alive in our memory, even though their bodies are no more—then we realize that our bodies are only a part of our story. They are alive in us, and I believe that in a mysterious sense, we are alive in them.

What I am saying is that Yom Kippur is a day to appreciate these marvelous bodies of ours, to be grateful for their function, but also to demonstrate that they do not define us. Our sense of self, our very souls, are influenced by physical inputs, but we transcend our bodies too. The voices of ancient sages—from Isaiah to Akiva to Rambam and Kant—have all resonated in our minds today. The values we proclaim with our words and actions influence those around us—every day that we live, and even long after we die.

Are we the authors of our own stories, or only their most prominent characters? Are our actions determined, or freely chosen?  Akiva had it right—it is not really A or B, but both. All is seen, and choice is granted. הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה . Let us be aware of the ways that we are influenced by others, and influence them in return. In the interspace between people, when they express love for each other, there we find God. This is the meaning of the Torah’s central verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” In these connections, we transcend our bodies and become part of the ultimate reality. We realize that we are part of God, and we no longer worry who is in control.

Our agency, our very freedom comes not from isolation, but from connection, from seeing, and being seen, as part of the whole. That is the point of experiencing Yom Kippur together—not as a day of private fast and prayer, but as a communal enterprise. Therefore, let us choose life—a life of connection, of compassion, of devotion and love. Then we will be remembered for a blessing, even as we now recall the lives of those who came before us. May we all together be remembered, written and sealed this year, לחיים טובים ולשלום, for good life and for peace.

[Sermon as delivered at JTS before Yizkor]


[1] Niall Ferguson, Virtual History (Basic Books, 1997), p.28, citing Kant’s 1784 essay, “Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” from Gardiner, Theories of History, pp.22f, 29.

[2]  שמונה פרקים לרמב”ם פרק ח. ואמנם האמת אשר אין ספק בה, שמעשי האדם כולם מסורים אליו, אם ירצה יעשה, ואם ירצה לא יעשה, מבלי כפיה ומבלי הכרח לו על כך. ולפיכך חוייבה המצוה, ואמר: “ראה נתתי לפניך היום את החיים ואת הטוב [ו]את המות ואת הרע… ובחרת בחיים”, ונתן הבחירה לנו בזה. וחוייב העונש למי שיעבור, והגמול למי שישמע: אם תשמעו, ואם לא תשמעו.