Chapter Eight (Part 2)
Some people insist that we're impelled by birth, circumstance, upbringing,
or makeup to do one thing or another: that we're wired from the first to
follow through on only certain, limited options. But Rambam insists that
we're not. We're more likely to do this or that, to be sure; but we're
never pressed to do anything, as he'd explained.
Now, many today would argue against that and say that we're indeed very
likely, even fated to act certain ways. After all, they argue, we're born
with specific genes and a particular chemical makeup, and we follow a long
line of family-related "givens", so we're surely going to come to this or
Don't think, by the way, that this line of reasoning is completely
original; astrologers had long thought like that. (In fact, astrology was
once considered to be quite sophisticated and insightful, and was taught *
as a science* in universities for centuries.) It had been thought in the
past that the "star" we were born under fated us to do things. As Rambam
explained it, astrologers "imagined that a person's birth date determines
whether he'll be lofty or flawed and that one is compelled to act
Not true, Rambam insists; * nothing* we do or don't do is preordained.
We're bound to have a certain hair color and to be of a certain body type,
but none of our actions are predetermined from birth. In truth, "your
actions are in your own hands, no one compels you to do anything, and
nothing other than yourself ever inclines you toward a character virtue or
He then goes on to explain how problematic it would be to argue that we're
impelled to act one way or another. After all, "if you were compelled to
act the way you do, then all the Torah's imperatives and prohibitions
would be in vain and utterly meaningless, since you wouldn't be free to do
as you wish". That is, how could you be charged to do or not do anything
if you had no choice in the matter?
The other point is that if our actions were indeed beyond us, then "all
study, education, and practical training would be in vain, too, since
something other than yourself would be compelling you to do something in
particular, to be familiar with a particular subject, or to exhibit a
All reward and punishment for things we'd done "would be utterly unfair"
Rambam adds. "For if a person killed another because he was forced or had
to kill, and his victim was forced or had to be killed, then why should
the killer be punished?"
"And how could it ever be said that G-d, who is just and fair, punished
someone for doing something he was compelled … to do?" Besides, "any
precautions we'd take, like building houses (against the elements),
procuring food, running away when frightened, etc. would be meaningless"
he adds, "since what was decreed to be simply had to be".
The idea that were forced to act one way or another is thus "nonsense,
utterly meaningless, counter-intuitive and illogical" Rambam concludes.
We're free to do as we see fit – and thus held responsible for all that we
do. At bottom it comes to this: G-d has authorized us to be adults,
morally speaking, with all the freedom and responsibility associated with
that. If we're wise, we'll bask in the rights and privileges of our
adulthood and avoid the snares.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and Torah.org