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" implies 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
coexist. Do we truly have free will if G-d already knows which path we will
choose? We will expand on and discuss this fundamental issue G-d willing in
two weeks. First, however, I would like to discuss the concept of free will
According to Maimonides (Mishne Torah Hil' Teshuva Ch. 5), the concept of
free will is one of the great philosophical pillars of Judaism. The entire
concept of reward and punishment -- that G-d rewards us for our good deeds
and punishes us 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; see
http://www.torah.org/learning/mlife/LOR5-2.html). The following is a loose
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 asserts 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 be righteous and 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 heaven, but it is not
my worry. And more important, there is no reason I must behave in order to
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 race?)
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). The statement sounds flippant but the intention is really
quite clear. Virtually everything that happens to us is decreed in 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 to atone for our transgressions 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, godless 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 to 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 salvation? We seem to be doing a heckuva
job of that already today.
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 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?
Well, I seem to have typed myself into one nice corner this week! Yes, G-d
willing, I hope to answer all of this -- or at least present a cogent and
logical approach of 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 insightful as Pirkei Avos subscribers). Please hang in
there... One more week! ;-)
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.