By Rabbi Michael Satz.
Rosh Hashanah Morning 2016
I’ve now been living in Canada for two years, but I have been married to a Canadian for 10 years. Now, I am a proud American, but I love living in Canada, especially now. When I first met Janice we, of course, had many conversations, and when I get to know someone, I like to find out their taste in music. I don’t remember how it happened, but we had a discussion about the best songwriters, and she brought up Leonard Cohen. I figured it was because of Canadian pride. I knew of some of his work, but I had never really given it a deep listen. So, my future Canadian wife gave me some CDs of the beloved Canadian bard. I was hooked. (Have you heard the newly released “You Want it Darker” with the Hazzanut? Maybe a sermon on that later.) So, I would like to begin this sermon with some of Cohen’s most memorable lyrics:
“Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
Like a worm on a hook
Like a knight from some old-fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee.”
Words from great poet/songwriter can be understood on many different levels, so I would like to talk about what these great lyrics can mean for the High Holy Days:
A bird, a symbol of freedom, not flying and not in its natural place—a tree or the ground. The bird is restrained. When we think of singing in a choir, we think of joy, but our singer compares himself to a drunk—someone who has no inhibitions, so seemingly free, but also does not make choices clearly, and then he is in a choir—a group that limits his individuality. And then Cohen sings, “I have tried in my way to be free.” The key here is “tried” and “my way”. The worm is trapped. The knight is part of a book—the authors has the power.
Freedom vs. determinism. On Rosh Hashanah God is Author, Master, Sovereign, (Masculine) King. Who shall live and who shall die, who by water and who by fire (another Cohen song) and all. Are we free? Do we have free will, choices? Or, are we like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir?
Jewish tradition says . . . (Whenever someone says, “Jewish Tradition says . . .” you can probably find a text that says something else.) I’m going to say this anyways. Jewish Tradition says: seemingly contradictory things.
This past Shabbat we read these words of Torah from D’varim (and we Reform Jews will read them again on Yom Kippur): “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life–if you and your offspring would live by loving the Eternal your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God.” God tells us to choose. Now, if we don’t choose life, it isn’t a great alternative, but this text uses the language of choice. You are free.
But, then, we have the famous case of Pharaoh. I’ve had great conversations with bar and bat mitzvah kids about this. We think we as humans we have control over our thoughts, choices, and actions, and then we learn that God intervenes, so says the Torah. “Then the Eternal said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these signs among them . . .” In other words, Pharaoh might want to let the Israelites go, but God is going to put a stop to that to prove something. Is Pharaoh then morally responsible? If no, why is he getting punished? So, do we have choice, are we robots, or does God just play with us whenever the Divine will wants to?
Now, on to our ancient Rabbis. Rabbi Akiva famously says, “Everything is foreseen, and freewill is given . . .” If God knows the future, are we really free.
Rabbi Chaninah says, “Everything is in the hand of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.” Now this rabbi is limiting our free will. God controls everything except our choice to be governed by God’s mitzvot–God’s commands.
Finally a medieval example of this confusing problem. The Rambam answers the free will/determinism problem this way in his laws of repentance: “. . . we do not have the power to know how it is that the Holy Blessed One knows all the creations and all the actions. But know without a doubt that a person’s actions are in his/her hands, and the Holy Blessed One does not pull him/her or decree for him to do so . . .”
God is in control, knows all, and we are free and morally responsible.
This is not only a problem in Jewish thought since the days of the Torah. Western philosophy and science have been debating the issue of human freedom of choice for millennia. Are our “choices” merely outcomes of a chain reaction of cause and effect?
Scientists today have a lot to say about this. I’m quoting from a recent article in the Atlantic by the philosopher Stephen Cave: “Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientist to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories and dreams.
“We know that changes to brain chemistry can alter behavior [like a drunk in a midnight choir]. . . The same holds true to brain structure: Cases of ordinary adults becoming murderers or pedophiles after developing a brain tumor demonstrate how dependent we are on the physical properties of our gray stuff.”
I’m reminded by my classmate Rabbi Geoffrey Mittleman of the example of the former mayor of San Diego Maureen O’Connor. A few years ago she was charged with the theft and laundering of over $2 million dollars from her late husbands foundation to cover gambling debts. Mittleman: “But there’s a wrinkle to this story. Apparently, O’Connor had had a brain tumor, which was removed in 2011. And neurologists tell us that depending on where a tumor is, some of its effects might be an increase in dopamine or serotonin, which cause a desire for immediate gratification and pleasure, or could hinder the workings of the frontal cortex, which regulates our ability to control our impulses. O’Connor’s lawyer argued that the tumor impacted her ‘logic, reasoning and judgement.’ At a press conference, she said that ‘Most of you know, I never meant to hurt the city . . . There are two Maureens–Maureen No. 1 and Maureen No. 2. Maureen No. 2 is the Maureen who did not know she had a tumor growing in her brain.’”
So, is Maureen responsible for her actions? Like Pharaoh, should she get punished? Are our actions just brain chemistry?
Here’s some more science to confuse us more from the Atlantic: “Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already know that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.”
So, am I choosing to say these words to you tonight, or is my brain just responding to a chain of events?
There are philosophers, like University of Haifa’s Saul Smilansky, who believe that we cannot let people know that we don’t have free will. Psychologists have shown that “Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another.”
So, is freedom and choice just a myth that we need to tell ourselves so that we will be good? Not exactly. Many philosophers today are what we would call compatabalists. Contemporary philosopher Julian Baggini writes, “A more realistic notion of free will requires us to be honest about our limitations. Of course we are the products of our parents’ genes and the societies in which we grew up. Of course much of what determines our actions goes on unconsciously. Of course we cannot, and could never, be the ultimate authors of our being, working from a blank page. But none of that means we cannot have forms of freedom worth having.
“True freedom means starting from where we are, recognising all the things about us which we didn’t choose and cannot change. Then we need to take responsibility for who we are and work with it. We need to fight the coercion of those who try to make us act according to their own interests, rather than our own. We need to challenge those opinions we have simply taken on without question, and take proper ownership of our views. And we need to check our tendency to act automatically on whatever desires we happen to have, and only follow those which we endorse on reflection. Perfect, absolute freedom is an illusion. But there are degrees of freedom, and the more we take control of our own lives, the more of it we have. Free will is not a capacity we all just have – it is always a work in progress.”
Baggini sounds like he could be speaking from Jewish tradition: “All is foreseen and free will is given.” We are not totally free, and yet we have aspects of freedom.
The 20th century Orthodox Rabbi Elyahu Dessler really drives this home in his discussion of the Mussar concept of bechira which means “choice” but is defined by Dessler as the borderline in a person between the Yetzer HaRa (the evil inclination, our base instincts) and the Yetzer HaTov (our good inclination). “For example, one may have been brought up in an environment of Torah, among people who devote themselves to good deeds. In this case, his behira-point will not be whether or not to commit an actual sin but whether to do a mitzva with more or less devotion and kavvana. Another may be brought up among evildoers of the lowest grade, among thieves and robbers. For him, whether or not to steal does not present any behira at all; his behira-point might be on the question of shooting his way out when discovered.”
All lot goes into bringing us to the point of choice that we have no control over–genes, environment, the people around us, education, advertising–but, here we are in the present, what do we do? “All is foreseen”–all that brought us her and the universe only has so many options in front of us “and free will is given”–we work with all the baggage we have and the “work in process” in front of us. For Dessler, the point is to continually make the right choices, in our limited way, so that we get to the point where doing good is no longer a choice–it’s just determined. Back to Leonard Cohen, “I have tried in my way to be free.”
So, here we are at 5777. In some ways, if we are going to repair our broken relationships, our broken hearts, our broken world, it will only happen by happenstance–cause and effect, a great chain of being. But, looked at in another way, with our limited free will, with our choices, we set in motion events that have consequences for the world. What choices are we going to make this year?
Like a baby still born
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reach out for me.
But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee . . .
Oh like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.