The Centrality of Free Will in R. Hutner's Thought

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


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Lecture #41: The Centrality of Free Will in R. Hutner’s Thought



R. Hutner frequently discusses the concept of free will, identifying it as the distinguishing mark of humanity and depicting contemporary determinism as one of the central challenges of modernity. He describes the essential impurity of our day as a degradation of humanity rooted in a denial of human freedom. This impurity has a metaphysical basis. At the end of days, we will lose our freedom when God removes our uncircumcised hearts.[1] Since the approaching end of days involves a loss of freedom, the corresponding negativity of our era denies freedom. This explains the prominence of deterministic approaches in our time.[2] 


In truth, that loss of freedom stems from the full flowering of freedom in this world, which brings about the ultimate redemption.


A removal of choice that emerges as a result of a strengthening of choice is nothing other than a revelation of the power of choice, even though we lose the ability to choose freely. On the contrary, this removal of freedom appears as the peak of the exaltedness of choice.[3]


Although R. Hutner does not fully elucidate the nature of the causal relationship between the approaching eschaton and modern determinism, his approach apparently resembles the idea of “zeh le-umat zeh” in R. Tzadok’s thought. Similar intellectual and cultural currents find different expression in Jewish and gentile society. According to R. Tzadok, Greek wisdom and the Oral Law flourished during the same era because each represents a greater focus on the human element in wisdom. R. Hutner writes in an analogous fashion about deterministic currents. The proper manifestation of these currents occurs in a loss of freedom during the ultimate redemption, whereas the mistaken application denies freedom in our current state of existence.


According to R. Hunter, we base Jewish chosenness and singularity on our freely chosen decisions. Thus, Jewish distinctiveness at the end of days is more problematic, since that utopian era lacks free choice. R. Hutner argues that this tension finds expression in the gemara at the beginning of Avoda Zara (3a) in which the gentiles protest our divine favor at the end of days. God gives the nations of the world a test through the mitzva of sukka, which they fail. Sukka stands for Jewish singularity, which explains the element of unique joy and repentance in the simchat beit ha-shoeva.


Even our distinctiveness at the end of days stems from choices we made earlier in history. The same gemara in Avoda Zara says: “The one who toils before Shabbat can enjoy the food on Shabbat.”  An understanding of Sukkot as the victory march after the atonement of the High Holy Days (Vayikra Rabba 30:2) works well according to this idea. Only those who freely chose repentance can experience the unique joy of the Sukkot celebration.[4]


On this point, R. Hutner deviates sharply from R. Tzadok.  R. Tzadok was willing to limit human freedom and frequently writes of Jewish chosenness as rooted in the ontological order much more than in human choices. R. Hutner rejects both of these points when he emphasizes human freedom and insists on viewing even eschatological singularity as a product of choice.


R. Hutner depicts the ideological clashes with both Greece and Amalek as revolving around issues of freedom and necessity. Our tradition includes a complex approach to Greek culture. On the one hand, our sages say that Greece darkened the eyes of Israel (Bereishit Rabba 2:4). On the other hand, they speak of bringing the beauty of Yefet into the tents of Shem and they permit the translation of the Torah specifically into Greek (Megilla 9b). R. Hutner explains that God’s will is manifest in the creation of the world and in the giving of the Torah. The first was performed through asara ma’amarot while the latter contains asseret ha-dibrot. Creation relates to the world of necessity and scientific laws, whereas revelation introduces the world of choice and freedom, since commands assume one’s freedom to adhere to a directive. 


The Greeks focus their attention on the natural order, thus becoming trapped in the world of compulsion and abandoning the fundamental Jewish principle of human freedom.  At the same time, the Greek approach emerges from involvement in one of the essential manifestations of the divine will. Therefore, our attitude to the Greeks includes a good deal of ambivalence.[5]


R. Hutner’s discussion of Amalek notes the false religious attraction of determinism. Chazal say that everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven (Berakhot 33b), setting aside one area of life from divine control. A religious thinker might view removal of this one exception as adding honor to Hashem.  Would it not increase divine honor to attribute everything to God? This argument fails because freely chosen subservience actually reflects a higher level of honor. Negating the exception to “everything is in the hands of heaven” truly diminishes divine glory.


Agag, the Amelakite monarch, approaches Shmuel with “ma’adanot” (Shmuel I 15:32). Some commentators interpret this as “in chains”; others maintain it means “with delight.” R. Hutner explains that combining the two interpretations reveals the false claims of Amalek. They depict the chains of determinism as a delightful addition of honor to God. As noted, this seemingly reasonable claim produces the precisely opposite effect and reduces kavod Hashem.


An aggada about shekalim (Megilla 13b) enhances the analysis. The gemara says that the half-shekalim collected for the Temple overcome the full shekalim that Haman set aside for Achashverosh. R. Hunter contends that the unit of halves indicates a sharing of responsibility between humanity and God, whereas Haman’s complete unit reflects the attempt to attribute everything to God.[6]


A famous midrash about God’s creating the world takes on fresh meaning in R. Hutner’s portrayal. The midrash says that God wanted to create the world solely with the attribute of judgment, but then needed to integrate the attribute of mercy. The standard understanding of this midrash explains that since human sinfulness could not withstand absolute justice, God must use forgiving compassion. R. Hutner suggests an alternative reading. A world of strict justice lessens the degree of freedom because experiencing a direct correspondence between sin and punishment would cause us to feel less free to make choices. Thus, the addition of mercy actually enhances freedom.[7]


Along with affirming the crucial importance of freedom, R. Hutner also expresses reasonable fears of its misuse. The gemara concludes that “it would have been better for man to not have been created” (Eruvin 13b). This seems quite shocking, especially since God looks at the entire created order after fashioning man and declares it to be “very good” (Bereishit 1:31). R. Hutner’s explanation begins with the gemara that refers to the area beyond divine control as “yirat shamayim.” Why term this area “fear of heaven” rather than “love of heaven?”


R. Hunter explains that freedom induces fear due to the danger of making wrong choices. A person who fears sin wants to remove the possibility of sin and wishes to nullify freedom. At the same time, he understands that canceling choice renders service of God impossible. Thus, a religious person simultaneously desires the absence and the presence of free choice. R. Hutner contends that viewing these twin feelings as contradictory reveals a failure of understanding; they are both authentic impulses coexisting in the religious psyche.


Our liturgy incorporates a request not to be tested (Berakhot 60b), while Tanakh includes a desire to be tested (Tehillim 26:2). When R. Akiva was dying a painful martyr’s death, he said that he waited a lifetime for a chance to fulfill the directive to love God with one’s entire soul. Yet, the same R. Akiva prayed daily to not be put to the test.   Only those genuinely afraid of trials earn the right to eagerly anticipate them.


An analogy to the world of pesak illustrates the point. R. Hunter tells the story of a scholar afraid to begin rendering legal decisions. Another rabbi tells him, “Who should render religious rulings, a person unafraid of the responsibility?” Weighty circumstances call for both fear of responsibility together with resolutely confronting the challenges. 


The first impulse finds expression in the idea that “it would have been better for man not to have been created.” Fear of sin includes a desire to remove any possibility of sin. But this impulse eventually gives way to a sense that the creation of man was “very good.” Only the existence of choice enables the world’s goodness. We experience the full power of the “hava amina” and the “maskana.[8]


The same duality explains a difference between two of our patriarchs. Chazal say that the ashes of Yitzchak from the akeda are collected on the altar (Vayikra Rabba 36:5). They also tell us that Yaakov never perished (Ta’anit 5b). Yitzchak remains alive but, on some abstract plane, dies on Mount Moriah. Yaakov represents the polar opposite, dying in our corporeal world while remaining alive on the abstract plane.   


R. Hutner views the akeda as a concretization of the “better to not have been created” impulse.  An angel ultimately instructs Avraham not to kill his son, but the force of that “hava amina” remains. The midrash conveys this idea when it speaks of Yitzchak’s collected ashes on the altar. Yaakov, on the other hand, destroys the “hava amina.” From the time of our third patriarch, we function with the principle, “Even though he sins, he is still a Jew [lit., he is still Israel]” (Sanhedrin 44a). This principle creates an area exempt from the dangers of human freedom - no choice can remove a person’s Jewish status.  Death stems from the sins we chose due to our human freedom.  Since Yaakov initiates an area of sanctity immune from freedom, Yaakov never truly dies.[9]   


As he did regarding the end of days, R. Hutner sees the value of an existence without choice as predicated on previous choices. 


From Yaakov and onward, there exists a pillar free from the dangers of choice because all the currents of rebellion in the world cannot remove this pillar.  Nonetheless, this sanctified pillar is all service and choice, since our patriarch’s service out of freedom created this necessary Jewishness.[10]


R. Hutner is willing to grant value to elements of life untouched by choice, but only when those elements are themselves the products of human freedom. The choices of three patriarchs generated an identity unaffected by choice. The entire human history of choices eventually leads to an eschatological existence without freedom.


The importance of freedom also emerges from a close analysis of the Rambam’s thought. The Rambam emphasizes the significance of free will in chapters five and six of Hilkhot Teshuva but does not mention this principle in Hilkhot Yesdoei Ha-Torah, nor does he list it among the thirteen fundamental principles of Jewish belief. R. Hunter questions an unusual formulation in which the Rambam says that we know of human freedom not only from religious tradition but also due to human reason (Hilkhot Teshuva 5:5).  Why does Rambam emphasize this?


R. Hutner suggests that our tradition sometimes gives weight to the nature of human experience even if that experience does not reflect physical reality.  For example, Torah sources may relate to our round earth as something square with four corners.  If so, a person might think that Jewish tradition only affirms human freedom as a reality of human experience but not as the actual truth of the matter.  Therefore, the Rambam stresses that human reason affirms this belief. In doing so, he clarifies that we truly believe in human freedom and do not merely posit it in accordance with human experience.


The term “belief” indicates something we affirm even when lacking empirical knowledge. Since we experience our freedom all the time, we can not apply the term “emuna” to the principle of human choice. Therefore, the Rambam does not list freedom among the thirteen principles and he does not include it in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah.  Yet those omissions do nothing to diminish the crucial nature of this belief.[11]


R. Hutner offers another rationale for why the Rambam discusses free will in Hilkhot Teshuva.  Every commandment presupposes freedom, since the concepts of commandments and of reward and punishment loses all meaning absent human freedom. Freedom serves as the foundation for all mitzvot. But when it comes to repentance, freedom is more than the foundation of the mitzva; it is its very essence.  Repentance includes both regret for past transgressions and acceptance of the yoke of heaven for the future. One cannot regret past deeds unless they were freely chosen, nor can one accept something for the future in a world of compulsion and necessity.  In R. Hutner’s terminology, freedom is not the foundation of repentance, but the very building itself.[12]


[1] R. Hutner cites the Ramban, Devarim 30:6, for an elaboration of this idea.  

[2] Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 43.

[3] Ibid., p. 71.

[4] Pachad Yitzchak, Yom Ha-Kippurim, no. 8.

[5] Pachad Yitzchak, Chanuka, no. 4.

[6] Pachad Yitzchak, Purim, no. 29.

[7] Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashana, no. 4.

[8] Ibid., no. 7.

[9] Pachad Yitzchak, Shabbat/Sukkot, no. 19.

[10] Ibid., p. 222.

[11] Sefer Ha-Zikkaron Le-Maran Ba’al Pachad Yitzchak zt”l (Brooklyn: Noble Book Press, 2008), Reshimot, no. 29.

[12] Ibid., no. 30.