For a few Tuesdays last semester a Chabad rabbi joined with a few of N.C. State’s Hillel students and spoke with us about issues in contemporary Judaism. Not to be confused with contemporary Jewish issues such as Israel, people leaving the faith, and the degradation of traditions, he instead led us through discussions about the modern significance of Yom Kippur, suffering, and free will.
It’s obvious, then, why I thought of him when I read today’s teaching.
3.19 Another teaching of Rabbi Akiva
Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged favorably, yet all depends on the preponderance of good deeds.
We each felt a little confused by what we’d been told about free will, mainly because of how it was stated, but I still walked away feeling I had learned a few things about Judaism–and being that I feel most alive while learning, I enjoyed this greatly, even if personally I may disagree with the conclusions we derived.
Regardless, I rationalize this like I do most things: I look at it scientifically. Now it doesn’t always seem that science and faith should complement each other, but I think that’s a product of culture, not compatibility. If the God I believe in is the God that exists, the order that was placed upon the universe–the order we divine through science and mathematics–is the same order that governs our relationship with him. Otherwise, how else could we know God, in any capacity, if his rules diverge completely from our own? We coexist, and although his level of existence goes beyond ours, on some plane we share together in the practice of religion and spirituality.
We all know water flows along the shortest path when pulled down a hill; likewise, there is an entire principle of least action that states natural movement always occurs upon the path requiring the least energy to traverse. There’s another idea (I forget precisely where) that posits the notion that, immediately before an action, the universe somehow tests the set of all possible results given the variables in place and then proceeds with the one requiring the least energy to do. It’s why people don’t float away contrary to gravity–because objects (including people) possess the least energy when pulled to the lowest point possible. It’s why you sway to the side when a car takes a turn; it’s why you cut across the grass to cut off a corner. It’s a natural, inherent part of the world we live in–that which requires the least is easiest to do–and we do not deviate from this.
In this sense, assuming as I do that part of God is equal to the entirety of the universe, God therefore does foresee all things–but here’s where we diverge slightly from this principle because I don’t think God intervenes to ensure every possible human action is by nature the simplest (how else could we all have gone through times in which we’ve done very challenging things and fought successfully against the current?).
Here I have only showed how God foresees everything–I’ve yet to relate it to our sense of free will, and after saying all of this, it may be hard to reason how we have any will at all–if processes always proceed along the path of least action.
To this I deviate from physics. The rules of physics govern natural processes–that is, the motions of object that do not have any cognitive ability; they merely proceed as nature tells them to proceed. Humans are different. We possess the cognitive skills to go against these natural laws; we may not be able to break them, but we can certainly circumvent them or else twist them to do our bidding. Whether or not we morally should do so is a question best left for another talk and, perhaps, for another author.
Since we possess this cognitive skill, we are free to choose any path we wish–in our construct of reality, we each stop being a variable and act in sync with or in opposition to the occurrences around us. However this may be, God still sees each possible outcome, but because we have free will, we can choose an outcome other than that of least action. The universe, only being able to respond to variables without having any power to actively change them, must then reevaluate its current state and adapt to a new set of paths.
All in all, by synthesizing principles from both science and faith, we are able to give rational backing to the idea that God foresees all things while we, as humans, are granted free will.
The next part posits the notion that the world is judged favorably, but this judgment rests upon the preponderance–a fancy way of saying the superiority of force or influence–of good deeds. At first this may seem counter-intuitive, or at least obvious: If the good outweighs the evil, then surely the world would be judged favorably.
But it isn’t that easy, is it?
Can you tell me how often there are featured news stories about the good things that happen in the world? We might on occasion see a short clip of someone doing something good, but as a whole, the news reports the bad–and the news isn’t alone in doing so. The entirety of all storytelling lies upon the foundation of conflict. Whether this is internal, external, personified or otherwise, this very fact alone shows us what entertains us most is the trouble we face. We might say we love those happy endings, but somewhere in this cognition of ours, we wouldn’t care a thing for any happy endings if we didn’t adore the bad things that allow them to happen.
So, culturally and perhaps as a species, we’re perpetually focused on the bad, not the good. But how does this relate to the teaching?
I think this relates in an unexpected way, not by making us think about the physical as we had to do in the first part, but by forcing us to think about what goes beyond the physical–God himself. If God judges us upon the superior quality of goodness over evil, this reminds us that God is more concerned with goodness than evil. A godly world is not necessarily free from evil, says this notion, but instead a godly world is one in which goodness is cherished and glorified many times more so than evil ever could be–and for that, he will judge us favorably.
A mind not adept at noticing patterns might wonder why Rabbi Akiva would put these two teachings together. The first tells us we possess free will, even though God foresees everything. The second tells us God is more concerned with goodness over evil in the long run–the very long run, perhaps. However, when we juxtapose these as I have, it changes from a lesson about the power and interests of God to a lesson about our power and intent as humans. It tells us not just what we’re capable of doing, but also what we should do.
Recognizing our freedom to follow any path we choose, Rabbi Akiva saw the importance in reminding us that regardless of our potential, at the end of the day, we should always choose to add goodness to the world, for when we do, we need not God to judge us favorably, for already the world will exist in our combined favor.