Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks addressed the topic of free will and responsibility at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston before an audience of about 350 on Sept. 10.
“Each one of us has free will,” said Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain. “If you want to act well and be a tzadik [righteous person], you’ll find you are able. If you are inclined to be a rasha [wicked person], you’ll find you are able.”
He contrasted the Jewish idea of free will to the Greek idea of fate and the Christian idea of original sin.
“Nothing is predestined. We have absolute free will,” said Sacks, speaking on the Thursday before Rosh Hashana. Calling free will “a fundamental principle and foundation of the Torah,” he added that nothing in Judaism makes sense without it, in particular the idea of punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous.
Sacks, author of more than 25 books, is the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University and the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University.
The talk was presented by Yeshiva University with support from Kushner, Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David and Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange, Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center and Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph, and Congregation Israel in Springfield.
YU arranged for Sacks’s appearances in New Jersey and the next day at a synagogue on Long island.
“The Yeshiva University community is not bounded by walls; it is bounded by shared commitment,” said YU president Richard Joel, in a statement. “It’s an exciting time to share Professor Lord Jonathan Sacks with this wonderful community.”
In his talk Sacks gave an impassioned endorsement of the importance of Jewish day schools (and a jokey dismissal of supplementary schools). He described being invited to dedicate a Jewish day school in England at the exact time he was scheduled to attend a luncheon with England’s prime minister at Chequers, the official country retreat.
“I opened a siddur,” he said, and saw a prayer about support for the local government. But then, he went on, “I turned the page” and found the verse stating that “the whole universe depends on the sound of Jewish children learning.”
“It was the future of society versus the future of the universe. I had to say, ‘Sorry, Mr. Prime Minister. I have to open a Jewish day school.’”
And to great applause, he pointed out that during his tenure as chief rabbi, from 1991 to 2013, day school enrollment in England rose from 25 to 70 percent.
Sacks used examples from Jewish sources as well as neuroscience, literature, history, psychology, and occasionally Jewish humor to elucidate his thesis, that “with freedom goes a unique sense of responsibility.”
“Nearly all other cultures attribute success to themselves and blame failures on others,” he said. Adding that Judaism does the opposite. “We attribute success to Hashem and for failure we blame ourselves.”
As an example, he cited the theme of the High Holy Day Musaf service, “For our sins we were exiled from the land.”
He offered the story of Judah as an example of how humans can change when they accept responsibility for past failures. Judah, who sold his brother Joseph into slavery, would many decades later offer himself as a slave to ensure the freedom of his brother Benjamin.
Sacks also cited the examples of King Saul and King David. “Both sinned, both are rebuked, and both say ‘Hatati, I have sinned.’ But Saul lost his kingship and David had it for all time. What’s the difference? Saul did not say ‘Hatati’ immediately.”
Moses, too, admitted his failure to God.
“That’s what we are charged to do: To say we are not perfect,” said Sacks. “Be honest with God. You can’t hide. The second you admit failure, Hashem puts his arms around us because he has faith in us even when we lose faith in ourselves. It’s the 14th article of faith: Accept responsibility and don’t blame others.”