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.

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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.