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It is said that God cannot affect people's free will and that is why he does not manifest himself directly. However, what about psychiatric problems in this category? They somehow alter people's ability to assert themselves, obsessive disorders of some nature that harm them like always washing their hands causing skin problems or even wasting money. In Exodus 4:11 it is said that God is the one who makes the blind or gives sight, who makes the dumb and the deaf. So would he also be responsible for penalizing, so to speak, mental problems of a nature that affect people's power of choice? This would not be resolved as just an organic temptation as a sexual need that has to be mastered as in the case of Amnon, worse than even this type of thing can be framed in health problems and not be merely a moral weakness. So how is it to judge people with this type of problem and the issue of free will spiritually speaking since no earthly court would impute guilt to these qualified people with these disorders.

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  • "It is said that God cannot affect people's free will". Where is this said? How would Gd be limited from affecting His creation?
    – Dude
    Mar 29, 2023 at 1:51
  • If he can affect then how justice will be meted out to that person in relation to what he commits against other people or himself? I've seen contortionist explanations to fit pharaoh's free will with God's sovereignty and this dispute raises more questions than solutions.
    – Thales
    Mar 29, 2023 at 2:07
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    Well, it is even said that God fulfills the rabbinical decrees or that the decree of Rabbi Guershom tied God to the Jewish people forever and even if he wants to divorce he cannot because the Jewish people as the wife have to give consent, so God is tied to his creation and obeying his determinations? The principle is the same.
    – Thales
    Mar 29, 2023 at 2:11
  • The Ramban explains clearly that Gd gave back paro's free will rather than take it away. The miraculous plagues plus the fear instilled by Moshe speaking to him took away his free will and it was given back to him so he could make an objective decision. No not the same idea at all and I think you don't understand free will. It doesn't mean the ability to do whatever you want. It means the ability to make a choice in areas Gd gave us this ability which is only in regards to Torah prohibitions.
    – Dude
    Mar 29, 2023 at 9:56
  • But what objective decision is reached in the midst of the death of his firstborn son?
    – Thales
    Mar 29, 2023 at 10:32

4 Answers 4

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Great question!

The Machneh Yisrael 2:1 says something stunning about those who are handicapped (or have mental disorders). He says that those who are handicapped (or have mental disorders) are people from previous gilgulim (reincarnations) who did many sins. They eventually died, and instead of getting punished in shamayim, they were sent into another gilgul to get their punishments here (which is a lesser degree of punishment). They were afraid that they would cause more sins (as they did in the previous gilgul) so they begged to be in a reincarnation in a body that is handicapped (or that contains mental disorders), so they would barely do any sins, and also pay their punishments in this world.

Based on this, we can say that it's actually in the benefit of those who are handicapped (or have mental disorders), it's what they want for their own neshama. The Gemera in Makkot 10b says, בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה מוליכין ,אותו “along the path a person wishes to proceed, one leads and assists him.” Even though this is only speaking about the body, I would apply it to the neshama as well, which desires to suffer the punishment in this world (and thus not have free choice) then suffer a greater punishment in shamayim. Thus, Hashem is not responsible, but on the contrary, since He is helping the person for his better good, one should thank Hashem for this.

Now it is very hard for that handicapped/mentally disordered individual and his loved ones to understand this, but after time/hard work one can come to appreciate what Hashem has done for them. This is the famous teaching of Rabbi Akiva in Brachot 60b, כל דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד, “Everything that God does, He does for the best.” (the Gemera shows how this line takes place in a story with Rebbi Akiva himself). Along the same lines, Nachum Ish Gamzu in Taanit 21a says, גם זו לטובה, this too is for the good (thus his name Ish Gamzu, and the Gemera as well brings many stories involving Nachum Ish Gam Zu showing the same idea).

Hope this helps!

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  • Avishai very inspiring, and the מחנה ישראל literally brought me to tears!! Its a מצוה לפרסם! I would just say that perhaps Reb Akiva was able to understand this because he was a disciple of Nachum Ish Gamzu (see Tosefta Shevuot 1:4 Reb Akiva darshened ריבוי ומיעוט and not כלל ופרט because thats what נחום איש גם זו taught him). Not a coincidence that Rebbi and Talmid shared together this beautiful trait. May we all achieve this kind of אמונה ובטחון! Mar 29, 2023 at 15:59
  • Thanks @shayachagigah, it was indeed a big chidush for me too. Nice point on the relationship between Rebbi Akiva and Nachum Ish Gamzu! Mar 29, 2023 at 20:42
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An earthly court would have difficulty imputing guilt to people with mental disorders. However, it's not impossible to do so. The court might be convinced that despite having some form of mental disorder, the crime was too egregious for the person not to have been aware of the difference between bad and good; and will find the person guilty of the crime.

But in all cases God knows the truth about the person, and He is the true judge. Claims that the person is mentally insane, and is therefore not guilty, will be determined by God Himself.

Did the person commit the sin solely due to his mental illness, or did he really intrinsically have the capacity/capability to refrain from doing the sin, but was unwilling to engage his Yetzer Hara in battle?

If he has the status of "shoteh" (שוטה), God will exempt the person from punishment, since he is considered "Anuss" (אנוס), and the sin was committed under duress of his illness.

Otherwise, Hashem might find him culpable for his actions.

At the end of the day, it's up to Hashem to judge the person, and not our job to do so.

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  • The issue is more God's interference in the free will of people with these problems, if it is a disease and it has been proven that way, to what extent does this relate to the free will intact so that sin or not is possible and even the right of person to decide for himself whether he prefers holiness over the other side?
    – Thales
    Mar 29, 2023 at 2:37
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    @Thales Just because someone has been "diagnosed", doesn't mean that the diagnosis was accurate. Mental health is not a precise science. There are no blood or other lab tests to show a mental illness, and classifying mental illness is a more subjective endeavor. Psychiatric diagnoses all use different decision-making rules, and there's a huge amount of overlap in symptoms between diagnoses. In addition, almost all diagnoses mask the role of trauma and adverse events in the person's condition. In the end, God is the only one who knows the truth if the person still has Free Will or not. Mar 29, 2023 at 3:03
  • But if there are these diseases, even from a subjective point of view, they exist and affect the person's free will. The question is not whether God will judge this individual based on the mental history he has had here, but how does free will relate to these health issues? Did all people who came into being have free will intact?
    – Thales
    Mar 29, 2023 at 10:34
  • @Thales Sometimes people get sick, such as having a stroke or Alzheimer's, and they might be unconscious or in a coma for an extended amount of time, and their free will is definitely impacted. Some people are born mentally deficient, (Down's syndrome, autistic). I posit that this must be the will of God, to reduce these people's cognizance. They are not regular people who lost their free will. They are damaged people. Mar 29, 2023 at 16:44
  • I wasn't going to go into this field here but I will. People who were born blind and deaf go through this life without sins right? Since for them to know that it is a sin it is necessary to hear the law or at least read it, the vision is also the door to many temptations, if it does not have the temptation it is canceled
    – Thales
    Mar 29, 2023 at 18:23
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According to Rav Dessler's Qunterus haBechirah (Discourse on Free Will, found within Michtav meiEliyahu), many if not most of our decisions are not free willed. For example, I would hope none of us even consider shoplifting that watch near the exit to the department store. That decision is done preconsciously, weeded out from among our options with no conscious thought. However, when it comes to stealing far more money by lying on one's tax forms, there far more people need an effort of will to resist.

Our nequdas habechirah (decision point) is like a battle front. The battle only rages where the two opposing forces meet. It is only in areas where I have competing desires and goals where I have to think about my choices and decide among them. And then, like a battle-front, each good decision moves the front a bit in that direction, and each sin makes the next sin all that much easier. (Until naaseh lo keheter -- it becomes the the person as if it were permissible.)

Because people are born with differences in innate middos, born with different family environments, encounter different people and live through different events, we all have our nequdos habechirah in different places. And what Hashem judges us on is how far it moved and in hwich directions, not where it is now. This is why the tinoq shenishba, the one Hashem placed to grow up in a home that didn't teach Torah values, is not judged for decisions that had no way of knowing and internalizing that were sins.

This is true of all of us. The mentally ill are simply a more extreme case. Their nequdos habechirah start off in a different place, further from mine than most mainstream peoples'. And they face different challenges. But they have the same task we do... to move the nequdas habechirah closer to the decisions Hashem's "Image" ought to be making.

Back when he was a child and lived at home, my son Shuby and I would go to shul together. Shuby has Down Syndrome. So I wind the tefillin for him, help him with the berakhos, etc… We had a conversation one morning, which started with him declaring me “the boss of the tefillin.” When I explained that tefillin weren’t something I came up with, that it was Hashem’s idea, he asked me why Hashem told us to put on tefillin. I started thinking of a formulation he could understand, and it was difficult.

Shuby isn’t playing life by different rules than the rest of us. My difficulties explaining the purpose of tefillin to Shuby are no different in kind than my own limitations understanding their full purpose. That I may reach the same limited comprehension as most others who ask the question is only a statement of quantity — qualitatively it’s the same.

The most transcendental quality of man is our very ability to transcend. Our lives may not compare to much in the face of G-d, if it were not that He entered with us (and Noachides as well) into a covenant, giving us the means to continually go beyond today’s limitations.

A person is not a better sculptor because of the quality of his materials. As we saw from Rav Dessler, it is all about how we progress, not where we progress from.

After all, Rachmana liba bai — Hashem wants our heart. And who can say “vetaheir libeinu” or "veyachad levaveinu“, that we should have pure and united hearts to serve the Ribbono shel olam, better than the boy who would run up to greet me when I get home from work, bouncing with joy he just can’t contain? Or who fidgeted with excitement when mom brings home something for him — even if it’s just a new pair of socks? Who better captured the wholeheartedness we find in Rivqa, when she gets so lost in meeting Yitzchaq he falls off her camel? Or of Yitzchaq, as he stood there praying?

For a number of years, Shuby would double-check with me every night before going to bed, by making three diagonal strokes with his finger across his arm, while saying “Tomorrow we…” I may comprehend a bigger negligible sliver of why Hashem commanded us to wear them. He excitedly anticipates going to shul and putting on tefillin.

That is a perfection I can only aspire to.

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The Chachamim say that everything is in the hands of heaven except fear of heaven (Berachot 33b and Megillah 25a). One thing we have to know is that ultimately, we are guaranteed our choices between good and evil. However, it is true, as brought by Rav Dessler in Michtav me-Eliyahu, we all have a different "level" of free will, meaning there are some things we are expected to be able to choose between, and some things that are currently beyond our level. Many people wouldn't be able to murder, but they also wouldn't be able to concentrate on every single word of prayer. This deals with your point about people having very strong temptations that others don't have and how we should judge them, and resolving it with Chazal's original statement will be made at the end of this answer, although a simple answer is, we can all climb that ladder to the point of never being able to sin.

Hashem chooses everyone's station in life, and what his service is meant to be, what area of humanity he has to master and conquer in the service of Hashem. Each is calculated according to vast calculations only Hashem is capable of (see Daat Tevunot by Ramchal). This might mean that the best thing for this person might be to have almost no free will, and there is a purpose for that (and in some cases, perhaps none at all - this the Arizal says is because we have multiple incarnations in this world and a person might sometimes come down here to atone for something, as Avishai's amazing answer deals with, or make up something and complete free will would not be required - see Shaar HaGilgulim). This deals with people who have severe mental impairment.

To understand this more deeply though, we have to realise why exactly Hashem gave us free will.


So, given all this, how do we salvage the statement of Chazal? This is a very good point, and is dealt with in Chassidus. See this shiur for example, or Likuutei Sichot vol 19 pp. 279-281 on this Rashi (the second one). To summarise (badly, I highly recommend the shiur), we can think of free will on 3 levels:

  1. The realm of decisions, between good choices and bad choices.
  2. The realm of choosing how we identify ourselves.
  3. Truly choosing God.

When it comes to 1, it's arguable if that is really a "free" choice. Many arguments are made against it in philosophy and it is currently an unsolved problem (see the original Stoics et al). According to Chabad Chassidus, they are basically correct; this is not truly free will and it can't be. There will always be the decision that makes the most sense and one would always choose that. All those types of decisions are based on some sort of reasoning.

Choosing an apple, one will choose which looks tastier, or bigger. Failing that, one will choose whichever is closer. Failing that, one will choose which one is nearer to his good hand. Failing that, he will just flip a coin (which is not a choice!). When it comes to moral decisions, one has to climb the ladder to 2 to get his reasoning.

2 takes us closer. A person is ultimately free to choose how he identifies. A person in a prison can still choose to identify as a free man, a free man stuck in some walls. A person can decide if he wants to be a good person pursuing good, or decide if he wants to be a wicked person out for destruction. Again though, it is a little dubious - a person will make this decision based on some sort of reasoning. The choice will be completely influenced by that reasoning, and therefore it is not truly a "free" choice.

Therefore, we have to go to 3. We can't explain it at all, nor can we truly understand it but that doesn't mean we haven't got anything to say about it. We know that God is completely uninfluenced. Nothing can tell Him what to do; this is the God of Avraham. Therefore everything He does is a truly free will. He does it based purely on Himself. This is something we can put into words but can't really grasp. At the same time, we sort of can grasp it because this is how we feel about ourselves. We feel that our will is our own, and get that idea. He used that choice to choose us.

Hashem has instilled into our Divine soul this power to be able to choose Him, not in a classical choice between options (what other options is there?)... Another way to put it - we are completely free to express who we are. I am me, and me chooses Hashem. When I choose Hashem, I do it because that is who I am, not because it makes sense, or there's a good reason, or I am coerced in any way.

This I believe is what Chazal mean. Hashem decides every last detail of our lives, what gender we are, what time we are born in, what religion we are born to, what colours we like... The only thing He will not choose for us is choosing Him. My wife also makes most of the decisions in my life, but she can't choose that I be her husband! Even if she could, she wouldn't; that's not a husband. We are all given a unique battle against this truth: we all would choose Hashem in a heartbeat, but to bring out the reality of that, we are given 1000 reasons to not choose Him, and by overcoming that, we get to truly own that choice.

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