Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Berachot 33b: Is Fear of Heaven Our True Expression of Free Will?

I finished reading the Talmud portion of the day (Berachot 33) a few hours ago. I would be lying if I said there was a degree of frustration with what was going on in the passages. One line I found brought up mixed feelings:

ואמר רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים

And Rabbi Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven.

According to this Talmudic passage, the only choice we have is whether we have the free will to serve G-d out of fear (יראת), based on Deuteronomy 10:12. The first issue I have here is that יראת is commonly translated as "fear," although a closer translation would be along the lines of "reverence" or "awe." The second issue is that if you look at the rest of the verse in Deuteronomy, it ends with "loving Him and serving Him with all your heart and all your soul." While I don't deny the importance of having a sense of awe about G-d, I find that love needs to be the ultimate goal in one's spiritual practice.

If taken literally, this passage severely limits the idea of free will. Although I believe that belief in G-d has the potential to change one's behavioralism, fear in Heaven is not the only factor in one's free will. Free will extends well beyond a reaction to one's perception of G-d. This verse seems to conclude that "serving G-d" guarantees good behavior, and after observing enough people and looking at enough history, I know that is certainly not the case.

On the other hand, I know that the Talmudic rabbis were known for using literary devices, particularly hyperbole, to make a point. The rabbinic literature teaches us there are multiple mitzvahs that are so important that following them is as if the entirety of Torah were fulfilled. Those included, but were not limited to, tzedakah (Bava Batra 9a), not speaking lashon hara (Tosefta, Peah 1:2), wearing tzitzit (Menachot 43b), and circumcision (Nedarim 32a). A strictly literal reading not only contradicts many Jewish teachings, but also common sense. I will assume that Rabbi Chanina was using a literary device to emphasize the importance of recognizing the "fear of Heaven." From what I can gather, what Rabbi Chanina was trying to convey is that the choice that ultimately matters is how the aforementioned reverence for G-d affects our behavior.


  1. I disagree with your conclusion that "serving G-d guarantees good behavior". The passage only says that one's fear (or awe as you will) is up to the individual. The implication being that one's actions are therefor not left to the individual. A classic example would be the story of Yehudah and Tamar. Obviously Yehudah's fear of G-d was on par with the greatest, yet his physical action was to sleep with a woman he thought was a prostitute. I believe the meaning of this passage is that it is our job to want to do the right thing to the best of our abilities and G-d will do with us, what He KNOWS is the best thing to do. For that we have the passage in Makos 10b:
    בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה מוליכין אותו
    In the way a person wants to go, he is brought.

    1. Dear Why Kay,

      I never said that "serving G-d guarantees good behavior." First, Nachmanides was famous for saying "one can be a scoundrel within the Law." Second, my take from the passage was that R. Chanina was emphasizing that yirat Hashem is an important catalyst for serving G-d. Finally, I think free will plays a much more important role than what is implied in this Talmudic portion.

    2. The statement I was quoting was
      This verse seems to conclude that "serving G-d" guarantees good behavior, and after observing enough people and looking at enough history, I know that is certainly not the case.

      I was actually trying to point out, that in connection with the second passage I cited as well as the story of Yehudah and Tamar, it seems that while a person has free will, that this freedom is not necessarily extended to his actions.

      There is actually a really wonderful speech from Rabbi Akiva Tatz on free will that can be found here.