Friday, 18 August, 2017 - 8:21 am


In the 20th century, as brain scanning technology was rapidly developing, many scientists began to question, and ultimately reject, the notion of free choice. Looking at brain scans they argued that everything the human being does is determined by the physical properties of our brains. 

As a recent article put it:

we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.[1]

What’s most interesting about this argument is that it is as old as human history. In the first story in the Torah, in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we discover that the first to make the claim that a person has no free choice was none other than the serpent.

The serpent engaged Eve in conversation and planted within her a morally dangerous idea. As the Torah tells us:

Now the serpent was cunning, more than all the beasts of the field that the Lord God had made, and it said to the woman, "Did God indeed say, 'You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden?'" And the woman said to the serpent, "Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat. But of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, God said, "You shall not eat of it, and you shall not touch it, lest you die.'"[2]

Reading the conversation between the serpent and Eve the most important word is the word that does not appear. If we turn back to the verse that describes how G-d forbade the fruit if the tree of Knowledge the Torah says:

And the Lord God commanded man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it."[3]

There is a crucial difference between the verb the Torah employs to describe the prohibition of the tree of knowledge and the verb the serpent employes. The Torah uses the verb commanded - “And the Lord God commanded man” - while the serpent uses the verb said - “Did God indeed say”. While it is easy to overlook this seemingly subtle change, in fact, the serpents chief claim lies within this change.[4]

What is the difference between “commanded” and “said”? Command implies free choice, for there is no meaning in issuing a command about something that the recipient of the commandment has no control over. “G-d said”, by contrast, does not imply free choice. In the story of creation, all through the first chapter of Genesis, the Torah uses the phrase and “G-d said” - “and G-d said let there be light”, “and G-d said let there be a firmament” - to describe the creation of natural phenomena that have no free choice at all. When deliberately substituting “G-d said” for “G-d commanded”, the serpent was telling Eve that the human being is essentially no different than an animal, that she too, like the serpent and like the rest of nature, doesn't have choice regarding her actions. When the serpent said "Did God indeed say, 'You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden?'" he is asking Eve did G-d indeed say, did he create you to naturally be attracted to and unable to consume the fruit of the tree? Eve, accepted the terms imposed by the serpent and in all her discussion she does not refer to the prohibition as a commandment. She does not tell the serpent clearly and explicitly that the human being is indeed unique for he/she was created in the Divine image and blessed with the potent ability to choose freely.  

Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation and ate the forbidden fruit; yet the underlying mistake was succumbing to the idea that they were just like the serpent. That the human is no more than a sophisticated animal trapped by its instincts.

In the midst of Moses’s final words to his beloved people, Moses repeatedly emphasizes the idea that is the foundation of any code of morality, namely, that we were endowed by our creator with the freedom to chose our own path, thus we are responsible for both our failings as well as our triumphs.

As Moses says in the opening phrase of this week’s portion:

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.[5]

The choice is yours. 


[1]  /2016/06/ there’s no such thing as free will

[2] Genesis 3:1-3.

[3] Ibid. 2:16:17.

[4] See Malbim to Genesis 3:1.

[5] Deuteronomy 11:26. 

Comments on: Choice?

Alex Troy wrote...

Excellent analysis.