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    Free will: limits of a doctrine – Re’eh

    free choiceTheological writers all explain that the doctrine of free will is enunciated in this week’s sidra.

    The problem is that they are uncertain where to place the limits of the doctrine and how to reconcile it with the other doctrine that everything is in the hands of God.

    Wouldn’t it be easier if every religious principle were cut and dried without room for debate, discussion and disagreement?

    I like to quote the analogy which my teacher Isidore Epstein offered by way of answer. He compared the prescribed actions of Judaism with its beliefs and suggested that the head tefillin symbolised the beliefs and the hand tefillin the actions.

    In the head tefillin are four compartments: Epstein said that they represented the range of approaches to the activity of the mind, i.e. philosophy. The hand tefillin has one compartment, which indicated that when it comes to action, symbolised by the hand, there is only one right way to go.

    A similar approach was taken by Eliezer Berkovits, who, speaking of halachah, said we have “a fluid (system) governed by a fixed set of moral values”. We have a fixed set of theological principles too but within these boundaries we have “a fluid system” in which a range of approaches is possible and permissible.

    Maimonides, for example, is as much within Judaism with his rationalistic doctrine of God as are the Chassidim with their emotional approach.

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