Oral Law Seminar Archives

Annual Adult Education Course 5778: The Paradox of Pharaoh’s Heart: Free Will in Jewish Thought 

Or Zarua congregants generally are avid learners, eager to grapple with traditional and modern texts, from the Torah to the Talmud and beyond, that form the religious and intellectual bedrock of Judaism. Some congregants are also eager to share their learning with fellow members.

For more than a decade now at Or Zarua, congregant Marc Ashley has taught an annual adult education course on several Sunday mornings between Pesach and Shavuot. During this spring period leading up to the yearly commemoration of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the perfect time for contemplation and introspection regarding our religious beliefs and practices, Ashley’s course has covered a variety of core theological, legal and historical issues. With a recurring focus on the origins and authority of the Torah she’be’al peh (the Oral Law in Judaism), we have examined wide-ranging issues including the ideological foundations of denominational differences, parameters of Jewish pluralism, reasons for the commandments, sources of authentic Jewish knowledge, subjective dynamics of halakhic decision-making, and seminal historiography of Yosef Yerushalmi.

The fundamental Jewish principle that we are rewarded and punished by God for the choices we make is premised on the equally core assumption that we have free will to choose to do good or evil. For surely, if our decisions are predetermined by causes beyond our control, God could have no rational basis to hold us accountable for them. Indeed, if divine providence over our lives is all consuming, then free will may be illusory.

To put it in biblical terms: If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and deprived him of the freedom to make his own decision about liberating the Israelites, how was it fair that God punished Pharaoh and the Egyptians with the plagues?

If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then the notion of human free will may not be tenable. And it would be unjust for us to be held accountable for our actions if God has determined them in advance. So which is it – is God omniscient and omnipotent, or are human beings freely capable of shaping their own destinies? Paradoxically, Judaism seems to embrace both concepts concurrently.

God’s control over history plays out on both an individual and national scale. God’s defining role in historical events, implicating people and nations, is reflected in the stories of Passover and Purim. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and miraculously intervened in Jewish history to bring about the Passover exodus. No less miraculously, even if the divine name is absent from Megillat Esther, God seems to have orchestrated Purim’s palace intrigue and collective salvation.

Despite God’s purposeful intervention in the details of history, our tradition also highlights how much of our fate rests in our own hands. The entire system of Jewish commandments, accountability and repentance would be nonsensical if we lacked the free will to decide whether or not to do good. It is in that dynamic – and mysterious – intersection of divine providence and moral decision-making that the paradox of free will comes to life.

Please join us on three Sundays in April and May as congregant Marc Ashley leads his annual adult education course. We’ll survey classical Jewish texts and modern commentaries as we explore the continuing relevance of the provocative topic of free will.

No prior knowledge of any kind is required for these annual adult education courses. Please join us for stimulating discussions of crucial issues in Jewish life, as together we help sustain and nourish a community of learners and learning at Or Zarua.

2018 Sessions – Audio Recordings: