Faith & Trust

Character, Fate, and Free Choice – Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Today, it is widely assumed that personal characteristics and accomplishments do not follow some prefixed destiny. People develop their own character and generate their own accomplishments, depending, if anything, on their social milieu, their education, and their family and life experiences in general. Given the proper conditions and the will to move forward, a person can attain any goal he desires – even those which seem quite distant.

According to this belief, if we could carefully raise a child in the proper environment, giving him or her correct instruction and education, that child will grow up to be healthy, happy, wise, and even rich.

Yet the Talmudic Sages (Niddah 16b)  addressed the question of fate and free will with a simple sentence: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Rashi interprets this to mean:

“Everything comes to a person from the hand of the Holy One blessed be He. For example: short or tall; rich or poor; wise or foolish; white or black; etc. – everything is in God’s hands. But righteousness or wickedness are not within heaven's jurisdiction. These are the direct responsibility of the individual. [God] gave us two choices, and a person must choose to fear heaven.”

However, at what point do all these characteristics become fixed – during a person's life or perhaps even before birth? The Sages answer this question in the continuation of the previous Talmudic text:

“The angel overseeing pregnancy takes a drop [of male seed before conception] and stands it before the Holy One, and says before Him: 'Master of the World! This drop – what will it be [i.e., what genes and traits should I place in this person so that he or she will live according to the destiny you have crafted for him or her]? Strong or weak? Fool or sage? Rich or poor?' But he doesn’t ask Righteous or Wicked. [For only a person's deeds determine his or her righteousness or wickedness; and these depend solely upon each individual.]”

 It is clear that the angel is asking God about a person’s predetermined character traits. For if it were asking about the events that God will bring upon the person in the future, why does it need to clarify the matter before conception has even taken place?

All people are born with certain innate traits, character type, intelligence, and so on, which are fixed by the powers on high. In these, as well as well in the areas of health and economic standing, people are not the determiners.

A person can only make choices about his or her actions in the realm of ethical behavior and the proper observance of God’s commandments, as it says in the Torah (Deuteronomy 30:15-19):

“Know that I have set before you today life and good and death and evil. For I command you on this day to love the Lord Your God, to walk in His paths, and to keep His commandments… Choose life!”

The Torah also says (Deuteronomy 10:12):

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord Your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord Your God and to walk in His paths and to love Him and to serve the Lord Your God with all of your heart and all of your soul.”

Let's see what the world of science has to say about this?

We cite the opinion of Professor Ian Wilmut, one of the world's famous scientists in the field of genetic research, who earned international accolades as the leader of a team who produced the first clone of an adult animal, the sheep Dolly.

Incidentally, the media uproar surrounding the successful “creation” of a sheep or other animals was grossly exaggerated. Only God can create; whereas a human being can never take the place of God.

We must remember that these scientists did not create a sheep out of nothing. They did not even create it from synthetic materials, but from genetic cells removed from the udder of a living sheep. These genetic materials were injected by an electrical spark into the ovum of another sheep which had been emptied of all other genetic material. They then planted this ovum in the uterus of a third sheep. From these cells, created by God, a sheep was cloned. Incredible as this process may seem, it is really only a game of genetic shuffling. In no way was something new created.

Incidentally, we should not forget the inherent dangers of these experiments, that go hand in hand with their potential medical benefits. However, this is a subject for further discussion that spans beyond the scope of our present conversation.

“The popular notion is that what shapes us as human beings is our family background and life experience. We believe that we are born with the potential to do anything – that our children will be talented enough to climb any mountain if only they are given the right conditions in their environment and the clear possibilities of free will. This belief, modern and comforting as it might be, is not supported by the evidence gathered from research on identical twins divided at birth and raised separately under completely different conditions. When these twins meet each other after decades apart, they are astonished to discover that they chose the same profession, married remarkably similar spouses, and even experienced the same illnesses.

Even though these facts may be difficult for many of us to accept, genetic research supports a very conservative view. That is, that our genetic makeup, passed on to us by our parents and our parent's parents, to a very large extent determines even more than our external appearance. In other words, our fate is fixed and our character predetermined even before we take our first breath outside of the womb.”

Anyone who studies the teachings of the Sages will immediately see that the Torah not only preceded the contemporary scientific view represented by Prof. Wilmut; it offers a much deeper and fuller understanding of the issue. The scientific claim that fate and character are predetermined even before we “take our first breath outside of the womb” begs an even more crucial question: If a person is born with a negative character and follows its dictates, should he be punished for his evil deeds? How can people be held guilty of negative behavior if they were predispositioned to act in just that way?

The Torah of Israel gave an answer to this conundrum thousands of years ago: “All is in the hands of the heavens… except for the fear of heaven!”

In other words, the Torah states unequivocally that human personality traits are inborn. Yet, a person can choose to direct his or her character towards positive goals and desires. These choices are demanded of a person, and upon these choices alone a person is judged.

To clarify these matters, we will quote another Talmudic passage (Shabbat 156a):

“A person born under the influence of Mars will be prone to spill blood. Either he will be blood letter (i.e. a healer), a thief [capable of murder] a butcher [who handles shechita ritual Jewish slaying of cattle and fowl for food] or a mohel [ritual circumciser].”

In other words, we cannot complain about this person's character, for he has no control over it. He did not choose to be “hot-headed.” Nevertheless, he is responsible how he uses this trait, and must direct it in a positive way, such as by becoming a mohel, a healer (or a surgeon), or a kosher butcher.

If this person commits acts of violence or murder, due to his innate disposition, he is still held accountable for choosing to direct such traits towards evil behavior. (Here it is worth noting that researchers of criminology have approached this same conclusion.)

A recent book by Professor Daniel C. Dennett (1942-), a well-known philosopher and Co-Director of Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, Boston, deals with the issue of free will – the ability of people to choose their own actions – in light of the prevalent scientific model which claims that entire world operates according to basic, material chain-reactions. According to this theory, even human thoughts are a natural by-product of basic processes of the nervous system and brain.

Dent comes to the conclusions that even according to this view – based on a “determinist” philosophy – a person can still foresee possible benefits or detriments to his actions, and choose accordingly.

For example: A person walking in an open field who is suddenly struck by lighting cannot prevent himself from being injured. However, if this person knows the area well, he knows that it is prone to such lighting attacks at particular times and places. He or she has been granted a clear choice about whether or not to be there. This knowledge and the decisions based upon it can save a person from injury or even save a life.

Similarly, a person can choose the types of deeds he or she performs in the world. Even according to the view that all events follow predetermined patterns, and that human thoughts are the results of biochemical processes, a person is nevertheless aware of his thoughts. Thus, when they begin to form, he can allow them to develop in a certain direction or not, or even to direct them along different lines.

In other words, the scientific perspective of how the world operates does not deny a person’s responsibility for his or her deeds. In fact the opposite is true: According to Dennett, the scientific understanding of free will means that our responsibility for our deeds is increased.

Similarly, the path of ethical self-development, so central to Jewish thought, stresses an individual’s ability to direct his predetermined characteristic traits toward positive goals. For this reason, Jewish texts often speak of middot tovot (literally, “good amounts”) rather than “good character traits” or “bad character traits.” The word “middah” – “amount” – implies that all of one's traits – even the bad ones – can be used for good, if applied at the right time and in the right quantity. For example, jealousy is a negative trait, as it is written (Proverbs 14:30): “Envy is the rottenness of the bones.” But there is also a positive aspect to this trait as stated in the Talmud (Baba Batra 21a) : “Envy among scholars increases wisdom.” (That is, when one scholar is jealous of the accomplishments of another, he will increase his own efforts to learn more.) Pride has a similar status, as it states (Proverbs 16:5): “A prideful heart is an affront to God.” Yet the opposite is also true (Chronicles II 17:5): “And [Joshafat’s] became proud in [following] the God’s ways.”

Finally, the international research project on the human genome recently noted that there are 30,000 genes in each person, not 100,000 as previously thought. According to this data, says biologist Dr. Craig Venter (1946-), founder of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), that tests the findings of that research, “There are not enough genes to justify the differences amongst human beings. We must hold that difference is not only the result of genetic codes, but depends also on our environment and experiences.” Today the community of genetic researchers holds that the way we relate to our life experiences – based upon our own choices – is what activates and/or deactivates the tendencies embedded in our genetic codes, teaching them in which way to act.

An additional important factor appears in the Talmud (Shabbat 155b) : The power of repentance, prayer, charity, and good deeds that can change the fate of any person – even in areas which are entirely “in the hands of heaven,” such as income, health, and even life and death. For instance, the Talmud recounts several instances of individuals who were slated to die – based upon astrological predictions – yet who remained alive, due to some good deed or Torah commandment that they performed, such as giving charity, which saved the life of another.

Here we speak of phenomena beyond the realm of nature, even though we know these truths to be a part of everyday reality in our own time.

Research into the effects of prayer on human health has begun only recently. See the journal Time to Think  for the impressive words of Dr. Larry Dossey and Dr. Jeffrey Levin on scientific evidence concerning the connection between prayer and health. See also the evidence gathered by Dr. Elizabeth Targ, Clinical Director of the Psychosocial Oncology Research Program at California Pacific Medical Center. In addition, a professional study was performed on 393 patients at San Francisco General Hospital proving that patients for whom people prayed needed fewer antibiotics and respiratory care than those individuals for whom no one prayed, with their mortality rate also being lower. This research was reported in the American publication New Realities in May-June 1990. In September 1999, the American Heart Journal – considered one of the most reliable sources in the field of heart research – published a double-blind study of 990 patients in the intensive care unit for heart patients showing that patients for whom people prayed over a period of four weeks suffered 10% less complications – such as chest pains and heart attacks – than those patients for whom no one prayed.


Adapted from The Revolution by Rabbi Zamir Cohen

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