The Denial of Free Will in Hasidic Thought

According to some Hasidic thinkers, human free will is an illusion; God causes all human actions.

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According to medieval mystic Isaac Luria, God needed to contract before creating the world. Some Hasidic thinkers conceive of this as an "epistemic" contraction, a withdrawal in the realm of knowledge and perception, which caused the perception that God is separate from the world--which, as discussed in this article, has ramifications for the free will debate. The other key concept explored below, relevant to the denial of free will, is the importance of intention over action per se. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Freedom and Moral Responsibility: General and Jewish Perspectives, edited by Charles H. Manekin and Menachem M. Kellner (University Press of Maryland).

There were at least two distinct clusters of ideas in Hasidism congenial to the denial of free will in one form or another, and which historically exerted pressure in that direction. The first was the Hasidic interpretation of the tzimtzum (Divine "contraction") in the kabbalistic thought of Isaac Luria, [known as] the "Ari." The second was the devaluation of action in Hasidism in favor of the purity of intention and devotion, coupled with quietistic sensibilities [i.e. religious sensibilities that laud the annihilation of ones will].

There Is Nothing Separate From God

According to the Ari, prior to Creation "all was filled from the undifferentiated light of the Einsof (the 'Infinite' [i.e. God])," and "there was no place vacant" for the Creation. Thus, at the very start of Creation the Einsof contracted into itself and withdrew its light to the outer edges of its being in order to make "empty space" available for the Creation.

As expounded by the great theoretician of Hasidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, in a formula of far‑reaching authority, this contraction was not a literal withdrawal of creating a metaphysical possibility for an ontologically separate world. It was an epistemological "withdrawal" only. This is to say that there was created an epistemic distance, a state of cognitive alienation of the Creation from the Einsof. There was created the illusion that the world was ontologically separate from the Einsof [i.e. that the world had existence independent of God].

But this was not the real truth. In fact, everything is itself in some deep and mystical way, one with the substance or with the light of the Einsof, however dimly felt and however far removed.

Schneur Zalman uses the metaphor of the rays of the sun coming from the sun to illustrate his epistemological interpretation of the "contraction." The sun‑rays have no ontological status [independent existence] apart from the sun. They are the sun, reaching to a particular place at a particular time.

Free Will is Part of the Illusion of Separateness

So it is for the Creation and the Einsof, except for one difference: in the case of the Creation, relative to the Infinite, the "rays" have never really left the sun. There exists no metaphysically real principle of individuation of a ray (creature). What exists is merely a consciousness of "rayness" (creatureliness), when in fact all the fire and all the light (all of the substance of what is real), are really within the undifferentiated mass of the sun (the Einsof) itself.

As far as the Einsof is concerned, there is no difference between before Creation and after, since the Einsof does not suffer from the illusion of individuated creatureliness.

The purpose of creation is for the "existent" to annul itself:

The purpose of creation is that there shall be an abode [for God] in the lower worlds. That there shall be an existent, and the annihilation of the existent…That there shall be an annihilation of the existent to nothingness. (Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, Liqqutei Torah, pt. 5, 28)

This Hasidic, allegorical doctrine of tzimtzum put metaphysical pressure on saying that there really was no free will, and that the consciousness of free will was only part of the illusion of creaturely separateness that has no basis in reality. Free will is only an appearance. When we cognize from within the appearance we experience our free will. However, were one to achieve the bittul ha‑yesh, the nullifying of selfness, of a separate consciousness, then free will would disappear along with the consciousness of separateness.               

Admittedly, this line of argument makes free will no more illusory than tables and chairs, in which case perhaps there would be no special point in singling out free will as mere appearance and illusion. But there has been a continuing tendency in Hasidic discourse to move in and out of the realm of appearance and the realm of reality, without clearly demarcating the boundaries of the discourse.

God Causes Our Actions, But We Control Our Thoughts

A second cluster of ideas congenial to the denial of free will starts with the pronounced Hasidic valuation of inwardness over action[…]

Reb Zadok [Zadok HaCohen of Lublin, a disciple of Mordechai Joseph Leiner (the Izbicer Rebbe), who believed that humans do not cause their own actions, also] denies free will in the strong sense of teaching that none of our acts result from our own volition; God is the true agent of human deeds. There is no human agency in the world of action. However, there is freedom with regard to the mental attitude we take with regard to our actions.

This is well illustrated by the following passage:

Repentance [Literally: "return"] means to return the matter to God, which means to say that one realizes that God does everything…And in this way, after repenting one turns one's willful sins into merits. (Zidqat ha-Zaddiq, sec. 100)

A similar thought is expressed more graphically in the following passage:

From the Baal‑Shem Tov…there is a parable of a person who decided to test his wife, so he made himself appear to her as a sea captain, and grabbed her and enticed her. But she refused, until he forced her to agree to him. Afterwards, she came to him with a broken heart and revealed the matter to him. Her husband then said to her, "It was I, and you never committed adultery with another." Thus shall God clarify the sins of Israel, that all was from God. And so I heard from our Master, Teacher, and Rabbi, Blessed be his memory, from Izbica, the interpretation of the verse, "You were rebellious with God (Deuteronomy 9:8)," for it should have said, "against God." But the meaning is that God will make it clear that when we were rebellious it was also with God, and from Him it issued. (Pri Zaddiq, 4.236-237)

Recognizing the Folly of Free Will

And in the following passage the denial of freedom is linked with our inner attitude towards our actions:

Free choice is only from the perspective of this world, and lasts only as long as one cleaves to materiality and does not cleave entirely to Him, be He blessed, and so has not reached the perfection of freedom, which is to cleave to the living God entirely. For when one reaches that level one realizes the truth that there is no freedom and it is not due to your righteousness and the straightness of your heart. Haughtiness comes from the lowliness and the material in a person…For were he to recognize that God is with him and that his own intellect is from God, there would be no place for haughtiness…It turns out that the humility of a person is his greatness, when his soul cleaves to his source. And haughtiness comes from the body, which is far from God, and from whose perspective freedom of choice exists, and from this comes the haughtiness, as though he makes an effort and chooses the good. (Taqanot ha-Shavin, 26)

The latter text may well be based on the following statement of the Izbicer in his Mei ha‑Shiloah in which he comments on the Talmudic statement that in Temple times the High Priest never suffered a nocturnal emission on the night of Yom Kippur, when he was to enter the Holy of Holies on the morrow. Such an occurrence, (literally in Hebrew: "a nocturnal accident"), would have rendered the High Priest ritually unfit for the Temple service. The lzbicer writes:

Had the High Priest...thought for even a minute that he himself had any power and existence of his own, he would have suffered this impediment, which is called by the Torah "an accident." That is, when a person thinks that there is accident in the world without Divine plan, and thus a person thinks that he himself has power of existence of his own, this is haughtiness with which a person is haughty…thinking that he has power to influence events. (Mei ha‑Shiloah, 2.37)

The impression that one chooses the good is a false impression. In fact it is solely our presuming that we can execute an action that goes against God. It is likewise an illusion of freedom that we really perpetrate sinful acts against God.

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Yehuda I. Gellman

Professor Yehuda I. Gellman is a lecturer in philosophy at Ben-Gurion University. He is the author of Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief.