Judaism and Free Will

In a speech called "Free Will--The Real You," Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz talks about the Jewish concept of morality and how we are held accountable for our choices. Essentially what he says is that a person is held responsible for their moral decisions at the level where they stand--no higher and no lower.

What that means is that everybody is understood to inhabit a certain spiritual level. They would not normally do things that are either "beneath" them or too spiritually elevated for them. Therefore, they would not get rewarded for not doing something beneath them, nor would they be punished for not doing something above their level. But they are held accountable for moral decisions which are at their level of understanding.

Tatz gives the example of a mugger, who has grown up and spent all his life mugging little old ladies. The mugger sees a little old lady crossing his path, and next to her on the ground is a half a brick. It is "expected" that the mugger will do what he has always done, and mug the lady. For that he incurs no special spiritual punishment. (Of course, on earth, in a Jewish or any court of law, he would be punished and held accountable for mugging her. This is necessary so that society can function.) But in heaven, he is spiritually accountable for his real choice--whether he will simply take her purse, or hit her on the head with the brick first and knock her unconscious, then take the purse. If he resists the temptation to hit her on the head with the brick, that is considered a spiritual victory. Conversely, if he hits her with the brick, he is punished, because he could have chosen not to.

What this means for us is great hope, for we are not measured against some abstract spiritual ideal. Rather, we are only measured against ourselves. We all have the capacity to grow spiritually, from whatever level we stand at today. So there is no excuse for failing to try--no matter how low we may feel our level is or how trivial our moral choices may seem.