Finding Meaning in Determinism: How Jewish Thinkers Reconcile the Contradiction between Determinism and Human Purpose

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Natan Oliff

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted . . .

A time for loving and a time for hating; A time for war and a time for peace. What value, then, can the man of affairs get from what he earns? (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 8-9)

Ecclesiates highlights a fundamental tension in Jewish tradition, the tension between determinism and human purpose. Many human efforts are eventually offset in later times. Anyone born will die, and anything planted will be uprooted. Thus, what meaning does planting or even living possess if both will eventually become nullified? Rabbi Jacob Lorberbaum provides a halakhic perspective on Ecclesiastes’s statement: “Since every matter was decreed upon, even the good and bad that was already done and will be done . . . then what gain is there in toiling in Torah and commandments since there is an annulment of choice, as each matter that the prophets prophesied [about] is of necessity before it even exists” (Ta’alumot Hokhmah to Ecclesiastes 3:10; translation mine). According to R. Lorberbaum, the very fact that God revealed the Torah and its commandments makes their fulfillment meaningful. Yet the existence of prophecy and divine foreknowledge in the Torah limits human choice regarding observance. Why would God assign importance to the religious actions of the Jewish people if those choices have limited effect on the future? In a general sense, if God chose to create humanity, then ipso facto humanity possesses a divine purpose. Yet any measure of God’s omniscience, and thereby determinism, reduces the effect and meaning of human action.

One approach in Jewish thought is to employ the moral philosophy of deontology, instead of just consequentialism, to resolve this tension. Consequentialism assesses actions by evaluating their results. Deontology, in contrast, evaluates actions based on a set of moral rules. In other words, deontology determines a deed’s intrinsic morality to the exclusion of its consequences. Determinism and human purpose contradict each other only from a consequentialist perspective, as determinism–by definition–restricts humanity’s ability to influence outcomes. However, deontology provides an alternative criterion to value humanity’s actions. A moral action possesses deontological value even when confronted with a predetermined outcome.

The Deontological Value of Actions

Consequentialist ethics emerge in the rabbinic discussion of the Torah prohibition of Lifnei Iver, or placing a stumbling block before the blind: “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:14; emphasis added). Most commentators interpret “blind” metaphorically,[1] as referring to someone susceptible to sin.[2] The Talmud defines “placing a stumbling block” through a thought experiment centering on the prohibition for Nazirites to drink wine.[3] A Jew and a Nazirite stand across a river, but only the Jew has access to wine. By reaching across the river and placing the wine in the Nazirite’s hands–the Jew transgresses Lifnei Iver–as their action enables and assists the Nazirite in drinking the wine.[4] Conversely, if the Nazirite could previously access wine, then the Jew merely assists the Nazirite in transgressing a prohibition. While a rabbinic decree mandates that Jews prevent others from transgressing prohibitions, assisting does not constitute Lifnei Iver.[5] Accordingly, the Talmud applies consequentialist criteria to classify actions as Lifnei Iver. An act of enabling qualitatively transforms a transgression from being impossible to being highly probable, while assisting only quantitatively modifies the transgression through its acceleration or perpetuation. Thus, actions of Lifnei Iver represent the ability of humanity to change outcomes.

A third scenario introduces deontology into the discussion of Lifnei Iver. If the Jew places wine across the river, but not in the Nazirite’s hands, then the Jew only enables the possibility of transgression without providing assistance. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein categorizes this situation while discussing the status of providing secular Jews with food.[6] In his responsum, R. Feinstein navigates two opposing considerations. Secular Jews will transgress a commandment by excluding the blessing on the food. However, the secular Jews in question assume the status of tinokot she-nishbu, Jews lacking proper Jewish religious education and background. The actions of a tinok she-nishbah do not count as transgressions in this case. Nevertheless, R. Feinstein still considers providing food to a secular Jew problematic even though no technical transgressions occur. His reason is that Lifnei Iver contains two aspects. Intuitively, causing another to transgress results in Lifnei Iver. However, the act of creating a stumbling block itself is problematic, independent of any particular outcome. In other words, R. Feinstein differentiates between the consequentialist and deontological aspects of Lifnei Iver. The prohibition of Lifnei Iver exists not only to protect the metaphorical blind of society, but also to hold Jews to a standard of high character, as the immoral act of placing a stumbling block distances the actor from a virtuous lifestyle. Therefore, R. Feinstein would deem the act of placing wine across the river as Lifnei Iver. Even though it is unclear whether the placing of the wine will cause the Nazairite to transgress, the act is morally problematic in itself.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef expands on the discussion of deontology regarding Lifnei Iver. A Jew asked R. Ovadia if selling Kosher meat during the Nine Days constitutes Lifnei Iver.[7] R. Yosef categorizes the case as assisting, since Jews could already buy Kosher meat from other sources, and assisting does not constitute Lifnei Iver. However, he then quotes the Mishneh La-Melekh, who asserts that assisting does count as Lifnei Iver when the transgression cannot be performed without the involvement of a Jew.[8] Since all Kosher establishments require Jewish supervision, a Jew could not buy Kosher meat without Jewish involvement. Therefore, selling Kosher meat during the Nine Days would be characterized as Lifnei Iver. The Mishneh La-Melekh’s opinion derives from deontological considerations – as selling Kosher meat does not change the result. Regardless of the Jew’s decision to sell Kosher meat, Jewish customers will purchase forbidden Kosher meat through another Jew’s involvement. Like R. Feinstein, the Mishneh La-Melekh utilizes both consequentialism and deontology to classify actions as Lifnei Iver. Yet, for classification, R. Feinstein requires at least an act of enabling–which creates a novel opportunity of transgression that was previously inaccessible to the transgressor. R. Yosef, however, radically suggests that even mere acts of assisting, which do not create any new possibility of transgression, may constitute Lifnei Iver. He asserts that Lifnei Iver extends to actions which simply showcase allegiance or identification with certain morals. In this case, selling Kosher meat during the Nine Days–while not technically changing the quantity or quality of transgressions from the consumers end– symbolically implies a dismissal of Jewish law and practice from the seller’s end. Thus, R. Yosef supports the idea that human action retains its meaning even with predetermined conclusions.

Generally, deontology requires a set of moral rules to assess the value of actions. However, the Book of Esther uses a religious criterion to value actions when Mordekhai convinces Esther to plead for the Jewish people’s salvation. “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis” (Esther 4: 13-14). Mordekhai localizes the consequences of Esther’s decisions to her family’s future, as her choice cannot change the predetermined salvation of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, intervening on the Jewish people’s behalf fulfills her divine mission and thus bestows meaning upon her decision. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik expands the idea of a personalized divine mission, explaining that God creates each person with a specific generation, situation, and talent to fulfill a unique mission.[9] R. Soloveitchik views this concept consequentially because he believes that only the assignee can fulfill their mission. Regardless, Mordekhai employs the concept of a divine mission as a deontological criterion to assess human action. Therefore, an action may draw meaning from abiding by a set of moral rules or by possessing religious significance.

Future Determinism as Providing Confidence in the Present

Another strand in Jewish thought argues that determinism is not only consistent with human purpose, but even strengthens it. God predetermines that humanity will achieve certain goals. Paradoxically, these promises elevate humanity’s confidence in its ability to achieve these goals. Thus, determinism creates a sense of purpose among humanity.

Besides dispelling the erroneous contradiction between determinism and human purpose, Jewish thinkers of this strand also show that determinism bolsters human purpose. Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, who lived during the 20th century, strongly believed in the importance of free will and fought against the modern scientific trend that sought to deny it. Nonetheless–as a student of deterministically inclined thinkers–R. Hutner also sought to incorporate elements of determinism into his writings.[10] In his writings about Yom Kippur, R. Hutner integrates both concepts to solve a logical problem with repentance. From a logical perspective, transgressions cannot be fixed. Once an action was performed, it is forever cemented in the past. How could someone go back in time and uproot a previous transgression?! To solve this problem, R. Hutner turns to determinism, quoting God’s Deuteronomic promise of future repentance and redemption.[11] God’s promise overrides human logic by predetermining a future act of repentance, thus establishing the feasibility of commanding repentance in the present. R. Hutner notes a reversal in this sequence of events. Generally, the feasibility of performing an action comes from its prior commandment. But, regarding repentance, its future occurrence establishes the feasibility of the present command. In other words, because repentance will occur, it can occur. Furthermore, R. Hutner notes that repentance possesses an educational aspect. Humanity despairs of achieving repentance due to its logical impossibility. Thus, any act of repentance demonstrates the possibility of repentance, which increases humanity’s confidence in its ability to repent. Paradoxically, the deterministic promise of repentance increases humanity’s purpose.

A similar assertion that determinism magnifies human purpose appears in the Book of Isaiah. Jewish tradition considers the Book of Isaiah’s portrayal of redemption as optimistic and glorious: “I greatly rejoice in the LORD, My whole being exults in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of triumph, Wrapped me in a robe of victory, Like a bridegroom adorned with a turban, Like a bride bedecked with her finery” (Isaiah 61:10). Thus, the Talmud claims “Isaiah [deals] entirely with consolation” (Bava Batra 14b). However, the last four chapters of Isaiah (63-66) contradict this notion.[12] God redeems the Jewish people, but at a considerable expense. God deals out fiery punishments and only some people survive, as described in the book’s last verse: “They shall go out and gaze on the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me: their worms shall not die, nor their fire be quenched; they shall be a horror to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24). Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein reconciles this contradiction by delineating two types of redemption.[13] Most of the book describes an ideal redemption, resulting from repentance and the achievement of an ideal religious and moral standing. However, the end of Isaiah describes a redemption that transpires only for God’s glory. Many of the Jewish people remain ethically corrupt and religiously unfaithful, and so their meritless redemption comes at a substantial price.

Isaiah premises his message on the assumption that God will redeem the Jewish people, regardless of their future situation. Yet, the details of their redemption hinge upon their merits. Redemption can be glorious and uplifting or gory and dreary. Isaiah preaches to the Jewish people not to worry about achieving the lofty goal of redemption. Rather, they should focus inwards by repenting and mending their ways. Similar to R. Hutner, Isaiah utilizes a future promise as motivation and inspiration. To a downtrodden and exiled nation, the thought of repenting while also achieving redemption seems overwhelming and impossible. Isaiah reassures the people that God intervened by predetermining an unconditional redemption. This promise alleviates the burden of the Jewish people, providing them with a minimized area of concern and an incentive to repent.

The Underlying Motivation for Determinism

The existence of determinism does not necessarily limit human purpose. R. Feinstein and the Mishneh La-Melekh utilize deontology to classify even actions that do not change the outcome as Lifnei Iver. Moreover, Mordekhai and R. Soloveitchik illustrate that the fulfillment of a divine role serves as a deontological criterion for evaluating actions. Other thinkers, such as R. Hutner and R. Lichtenstein, show that determinism strengthens human purpose. R. Hutner shows that God’s promise of a future repentance inspires people to repent in the present. Similarly, R. Lichtenstein emphasizes that Isaiah’s promise of an unconditional redemption relieves the burden of the Jewish people and inspires repentance.

Assigning importance to determinism reflects the fundamental conception that humanity’s inherent limitations require divine assistance. On an individual level, unbounded choice is overwhelming.[14] On a societal level, free will allows humanity to make bad decisions and endanger the divine plan for history. Thus, determinism serves as God’s means of aiding humanity. Mordekhai, R. Hutner, and R. Lichtenstein emphasize that determinism ensures that history fulfills its divine purpose and the lofty goals of salvation, repentance, and redemption. As R. Hutner states, repentance is untenable by the standards of human logic. Consequently, divine intervention ensures that history reaches a good conclusion. Determinism and human agency partner to maximize humanity’s agency and purpose within a good history.

[1] “And before the blind man do not place a stumbling-block.” Before one who is “blind” in a certain matter. If he asks you: “Is that man’s daughter fit for (marriage into) the priesthood?” Do not tell him that she is kasher if she is not. If he asks you for advice, do not give him advice that is unfit for him. Do not say to him “Leave early in the morning,” so that robbers should assault him. “Leave in the afternoon,” so that he fall victim to the heat. Do not say to him “Sell your field and buy an ass,” and you seek occasion against him and take it from him (Sifra Kedoshim 2:14; emphasis added).

[2] Maimonides, in contrast, interprets “blind” in a philosophical and religious sense. A sinner is “blind” because they do not understand the Truth of Torah and its commandments. See Maimonides Commentary to the Mishnah to Shevi’it 5:6.

[3] Avodah Zarah 6a-6b.

[4] Tosafot (to Avodah Zarah 6a-6b) explains that drinking wine is a common, mindless occurrence and so therefore it is likely that this action will lead to the Nazirite drinking the wine. However, performing an action that will probably not lead to sin, such as giving non-Kosher food to a Jew who is stringent about the laws of kashrut, is permitted.

[5] Tosafot to Shabbat 3a. Maimonides holds that even assisting is considered a transgression of Lifnei Iver. This follows from the idea that even knowledgeable sinners are considered blind. See Maimonides Commentary to the Mishnah to Terumot 6:3.

[6] Responsa Igerot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 5:13.

[7] Responsa Yehaveh Da’at 3:38. Traditionally, most Jewish communities treated meat as forbidden during the Nine Days.

[8] Mishneh La-Melekh to Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Malveh u-Loveh 4:2.

[9] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Yemei Zikaron, (Sifriyat Alinar, 1986).

[10] See Dov Finkelstein, “Rejecting, Embracing and Neutralizing Determinism: Rav Hutner in Dialogue with the Izbitzer and Rav Tzadok,” Tradition 51:3 (Summer 2019): 57-67.

[11] Deuteronomy 30:1-10.

[12] Maharsha to Bava Batra 14b notes this contradiction. He provides the unsatisfactory answer that when the Gemara says “entirely” it really means the majority. Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein’s piece (see next note) is a more modern attempt to give a more satisfying answer to this contradiction.

[13] Mosheh Lichtenstein, Netivei Nevu’ah: Mabat El Ha-Haftarot (Sifre Magid, Hotsa’at Koren, 2015). R. Lichtenstein’s position echoes R. Yohanan’s view in Sanhedrin (98a): “And Rabbi Yoḥanan says: The son of David will come only in a generation that is entirely innocent, in which case they will be deserving of redemption, or in a generation that is entirely guilty, in which case there will be no alternative to redemption.”

[14] Recent psychological research delves into the idea that an overabundance of choice paralyzes and impairs the decision making of individuals. See Barry Schwartz, The paradox of choice: Why more is less (New York: Ecco, 2004).

Natan Oliff ( is a software development engineer at Amazon.