The World Into Which We Are Born

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The World Into Which We Are Born and the Freewill We Have

I recently realized I have not been directly noting the parsha on which R. Arama is commenting in these she’arim, a disservice to him, who was assiduous about tying his philosophical/ hashkafic comments to the series of events in the parsha. I’ll try to do better going forward.

The Claim Righteousness is in Our Hands

For Parshat Chayyei Sarah, he has only one sha’ar (the parashiyot until now spurred multiple she’arim), about freewill—a fortunate topic for us to encounter during Elul, as a sense of freewill is crucial to repentance.

The topic can lead to many questions, most prominently, how to reconcile it with Divine foreknowledge.  R. Arama makes a stand for human freewill, despite his recognition much of our reality is shaped, he says by mazal. The word literally means the stars, an expression of the belief in astrology we have seen before. For us, the question translates equally well if we substitute heredity and environment for mazal. Same question: born with certain genes into a certain familial and socioeconomic reality, how much freewill can we have?.

R. Arama opens with Niddah 16b, where R. Chanina bar Papa reads a verse in Iyyov to tell us the angel in charge of pregnancy brings every fetus before Hashem, Who decides whether it will be wise or foolish, rich or poor, etc. The Gemara adds the angel does not ask whether the baby will be righteous or evil because, as another R. Chanina said, all is in the hands of heaven other than fear of heaven.

Indications of Predetermination

R. Arama reminds us of his view the Torah refers to wives in terms of the internal inclination towards the physical and wives in the human sense.  Either one can help a man (he is writing from a male perspective, sorry; the ideas will easily translate after he finishes) or lead him down an improper path, such as Adam, Shimshon, and Ach’av, what led Kohelet to bemoan the bitterness of a woman who entraps her man in the wrong temptations.

The choice of human wife seems a function of genetics and environment, though—if he’s born into a good family, with the means to find the “best” wife, he’ll be in a better position than the “lower” born. More, Sotah 2a says a man’s wife is predicted before he is born, another example of seeming predetermination.

For more evidence of predestination (and, therefore, less freewill), he notes Shabbat 156a says the star’s alignments at a person’s birth affect his/her predilections, and R. Chanina—who said all is in the hands of Heaven other than fear of Heaven—also held yesh mazal le-Yisrael, the Jewish people are affected and shaped by mazal  (the stars, genetics, environment, etc.).

Circumstances Affect Fear of Heaven

On Mo’ed Katan 28a, Rava says number of children, length of life, and wealth are a function of mazal, with examples of Amora’im, rabbis of the time of the Gemara, who had hugely different life circumstances despite being largely similar in their righteousness and wisdom.

This particularly bothers R. Arama, because Shabbat 92a restricts prophecy to a person wise, strong, and wealthy; if those are governed by mazal, it seems the ability to achieve prophecy is as well, restricting people’s religious horizons. Avot 2;5 quotes Rabban Gamliel the son of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi’s aphorism a bur, a complete ignoramus, cannot be a yerei het, one who fears sin.  Wealth and strength (or power), however, protect people from being such ignoramuses, seemingly easing their way to fear of sin.

With all the ways life is predetermined, some affecting a person’s ability or likelihood to be righteous, how could Niddah say Hashem does not predetermine who will be righteous or evil?

Lest we underestimate the seriousness of the problem, R. Arama reminds us of his view “all of Torah” stands on the belief in freewill.

Predetermined Does Not Determine

Mishle 13;4 speaks of lazy people who want much but get little. R. Arama attributes it to their failure to make the efforts necessary for good goals. Aristotle too said our fate does not control us, an idea R. Arama calls divrei Elokim chayyim, words of the Living Gd, high praise indeed.

He means we all start with certain circumstances and tendencies, even as we have options for how to react. We can allow our instincts to lead us, or we can fight them with our intellects and freewill, train ourselves to act differently. When the instinct/implanted tendency is good, we would be advised to indulge it; where evil, we should resist it, train ourselves away from it.

Heredity and environment are a starting point, he is saying, from where we have the choice, and in that sense have freewill. Those of us who choose poorly, give in to our baser natures and predetermined qualities, choose to be evil, cause it to ourselves. The text in Shabbat he had cited before ends with R. Ashi pointing out a person born under a star the Gemara believed caused a person to be bloodthirsty might end up being a doctor (much of which, in those times, involved blood-letting), a shohet (a ritual slaughterer of animals), or a mohel, who performs circumcisions. R. Arama reads the Gemara as well to be saying the person can use his/her intellect and awareness of the torah’s values to channel his/her tendencies in positive ways.

Although I’m skipping some of the ways he demonstrates the point, he closes his insistence a person’s merits can help him/her overcome his/her fate largely or totally by pointing again to Shabbat 156a, where Hashem tells Avraham to relinquish his reliance on astrology, because Hashem can move the offending star, changing Avraham’s future completely. Few of us might be Avraham, but his example shows us the extent to which we can overcome fate.

He gives many obvious examples; a slightly less obvious one is his idea of a peti, a fool, being able to become wise. Mishle 13;20 tells us how, holeich et hacamim yehkam, one who walks with the wise will become wise. Regardless of talent, R. Arama seems to be saying, cultivating a relationship with the wise will help a person become wise.

He then of course reads it back to the original Gemara he raised, about the fetus, the Gemara’s conclusion now clear: Hashem does not say whether the fetus will be righteous or evil because the person chooses him or herself.

The Matriarchs Bringing Better Perfections

R. Arama’s next section makes a point not completely consonant with the idea he has just presented, it seems to me. He says the two “wives” he’s understood a man to have—the “wife” he’s born with, his inclination to the physical and how he balances it with his intellect, and the woman he eventually marries—naturally tend towards each other. [It’s an idea I think I’ve heard psychologists hold, too, people tend to marry spouses of a similar emotional/maturity level.]

With our Patriarchs, Avraham’s innate goodness brought him a wife who fortified it, producing Yitzchak, born even better and more perfected.

R. Arama throws in a line about Avraham I find interesting. He says Avraham’s good starting point, a foundation he enhanced with his many good deeds, led to his finding Sara. A point we have seen in earlier she’arim as well: we can foster or suppress our inborn tendencies, and our choices affect the kind of spouse we eventually marry.

Yet the more he emphasizes Avraham’s fortunate starting point, his conern with marrying a woman who added and fostered perfections, leading to Yitzchak, the more he seems to me to undermine his insistence on freewill. To me, it returns some of the problem to the table—if those born rich find excellence more easily, we don’t have true freewill, we have freewill relative to our starting points. A weaker version than he seemed to be endorsing before.

[These are ideas I have known for a long time, before I saw R. Arama articulate them so well. On this pass through, I am still troubled by this aspect. A child born in a ghetto, with no functional parents, member of a discriminated minority has freewill, yet still has a qualitatively longer row to hoe than one born with many privileges. I assume R. Arama would also think Hashem adjusts the scale of judgment to account for our starting points and how we handle the cards we’re dealt, but he does not here say it.]

The Importance of a Good Wife

The idea explains Avraham’s concern with finding the best wife for Yitzchak (the reason this issue is alive in Chayye Sarah, where Avraham sends Eliezer to find Yitzchak a wife), to continue the process. Producing Ya’akov, a man so perfected, his offspring could all be part of the Jewish people (the rabbinic phrase is mitato shelemah, his bed was whole, because all his children were found worthy).

In R. Arama’s view, the perfection then lasts throughout history, with all Jews worthy of membership in the people, as long as they are careful about whom they marry. A bad marriage can ruin it however—he points to Moshe Rabbenu’s sons, whom tradition thinks ended poorly, and Yehoram b. Yehoshafat, II Melachim 8;18, who married a daughter of Ach’av, and was led down the path of the kings of the Northern Kingdom.

As far as R. Arama has gone, people are born with predetermined qualities, yet have the freewill to combat them where needed. Next time, we will see him complicate the picture a bit, show another reason it’s still better to be born with advantages, then move on to other important topics in Parshat Chayye Sarah.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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