Friday, March 4, 2016

Choosing vs. Being

A more serious thought about my religion. Responses, sources and resources welcome.
Free will is a knotty problem in Judaism. The way I understand it, what people think of as “free will” is more a “freedom of choice.” I do not have absolute free will because I cannot will myself to fly, or defy other laws of the universe. But in a case where there are a number of alternatives laid out in front of me, I have the freedom to make a choice between them.

This, though, is tempered by the knowledge that God knows what I will eventually choose. I cannot but choose what he knows I will. Does that mean that I have no freedom of that choice? I think not, because, at the moment, I don’t know what I will choose and to my own understanding, at the time when I choose, as far as I know, I could choose any of the alternatives. So freedom of choice is maintained from my perspective.

The question which develops is how the fullest expression of my Judaism should be considered in the light of that freedom. It seems that there are contradictory positions.

On one side there is the idea that the Edenic (pre-fall) notion of closeness to God comes with a complete subsuming of individual will to the point where we are unaware that there is any other way to be. This Romantic notion aspires to be a one-sided coin, where we are “good” but not in contrast with any “evil”; we act morally simply because that’s what we are. Isn’t the goal the removal of the yetzer harah so completely that we don’t realize we are making choices, as we are simply existing in such a pure and refined state that no other way of “being” can even enter our minds? When I am in the middle of my Amidah and my email notification on my phone beeps, I don’t have to think about whether I should check it. It isn’t that I flinch and then remind myself that I should be focused on my prayers. The idea of breaking to look at my phone simply does not rise to the level of my awareness. When I see a cell phone sitting on a desk, I do not have to resist any temptation to take it. It is so automatic in my moral sense that it seems as if the ethical code is synonymous with who I am. Isn’t this the highest form?

Should we be wishing for a state where the Torah is “written on our hearts” and doesn’t have to be taught? Don’t we want to be like the angels, with no thought other than “I am being the only thing that I know how to be” and that “being” is driven completely by our Jewish identity? I recall when a student asked the rebbe in high school, “will there be basketball in Olam Haba” and the answer was “there will be, but you won’t want to play it.” The urge, the want, will be removed. I don’t think twice about cutting my own arm off when I am holding a knife. It just isn’t part of my thought process – not as a temptation I have to resist or even recognize exists. Shouldn’t that be how we want our religion to be? Don’t I want my freedom to choose be a foregone conclusion so that my devotion is untainted?

But on the other hand, we have the cheese burger argument.

I was taught that one should not say “I won’t eat that cheese burger because it is disgusting.” One should say “I would like to, but the religious laws of Judaism prohibit it.” We are supposed to acknowledge the temptation and embrace our resisting of it. We are supposed to be aware of each mitzvah we do as an expression of our religion in order to point out the potential for our not having performed it. We rise higher than the angels because we have that choice. So is this the most sought after form of Judaism: the tortured soul who is constantly struggling but perseveres? Evil exists and it tempts me, but I rise above, and at every moment, know and acknowledge that my rising is as a result of my adherence to an external moral code. Shouldn’t I be exercising that free will/freedom of choice so that I can get credit for having done the right thing?

So which is it? Do I want to have to choose so I can choose right, or do I want to have my religion etched into my being so that I can express my connection with God in a perfect way? Should I, by dint of my religious core, choose good, or simply be good?

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