Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 3:19: On Freedom

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

One of the oldest existential questions that have vexed the minds of rational beings is the dialectic between free will and fate. Is humanity bound by a supernal force that dictates every action, or is the consciousness of the human mind the ultimate captain of moral decisions? It is a query that philosophers and theologians dedicate their lives to unraveling. The ancient Jewish Sages, too, pondered this.

Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given. The world is judged with goodness, and everything depends on the majority of one’s actions.

In a turn toward age-old theological questions, this mishnah touches two divine characteristics: omniscience, the supposed all-knowing force, and benevolence, the force of pure and inherent good. One characteristic might contradict the other or counter a normative interpretation of the Divine.

So, two distinct problems are addressed in this passage. First, if God is all-knowing, how are humans truly free? The mishnah says that though God knows what humans will choose, humans are nevertheless free to make individual decisions. Jewish tradition is adamant about this spiritual paradox: humans are absolutely free, and God knows in advance what we will choose.

Second, God-as-judge and God-as-protector are in tension here; here, justice and mercy are presented as dual ends of the spectrum, though there is more substance present here on second glance. If God is a judge of truth and justice, how can God also be merciful, compassionate, and all-loving? Here, too, this paradox is true: God is both the God of truth and justice and the God of mercy, compassion, and love. That such paradoxes are unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved may be beside the point. The questions themselves are to drive us to strive toward the impossible peak of unambiguous truth about the ways of God and the universe. Our goal is to acquire as much knowledge, and as much hope, as we can and then to apply the values we discover to our ethical selves. When we speak of all people of the world “serving God,” we may, in a universalistic sense, mean that we’re all striving toward moral goodness, to emulate moral perfection.

We have an ethical imperative not just to realize our freedom but to expand it and actualize it. Abraham was told to depart from “your land, your birthplace, your father’s house” (Genesis 12:1)—that is, to liberate himself from the various pressures to conform. Each of us must be prepared to depart from our upbringing, break from conformity, and depart from the familiar. Warren Bennis, a twentieth-century thinker on leadership, writes, “By the time we reach puberty, the world has reached us and shaped us to greater extent than we realize. Our family, friends, and society in general have told us—by word and example—how to be. But people begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be.” Embracing our freedom is an ethical imperative that requires us to regularly rethink all of our commitments.

Our negative emotions constitute another form of enslavement. Holding resentment is like holding on to a hot coal; waiting to throw it at your enemy, you burn yourself. Negative emotions, like hatred or bigotry, can be crippling. Our spiritual work, all the more imperative for activists who are often responding to forces of evil, tyranny, injustice, and oppression, is to transform those negative emotions to positive ends, while harnessing the energy and releasing the negativity.

The knowledge that we are free, while also realizing that God knows what we will choose, should inspire humility. This sense of humility doesn’t have to be paralyzing, nor should it impede us on our spiritual journeys. Rather, this is an empowering humility, which inspires courage. Our freedom is a gift to be actualized. In this mishnah, right after we are reminded that we are free, we are told that God will judge us compassionately. God will be gentle with us because we will strive to do our best with our freedom.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

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