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The most oft quoted proof from the Torah that humans have free will is a pasuk in Devarim 30:19.

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.

Firstly, I would like to know if this is a chiddush? In other words, without the Torah telling me that I have free will, would I not be able to reach that conclusion on my own?

Secondly, and this seems related to me, can a person tell when they have exercised their free will? (Not everything a person does or seems to choose is in fact a free-will choice. Ramchal in Derech Hashem)

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Yes, it is a chidush. Many people use the escape route, to avoid taking the responsibility of their actions. For example, someone might say, "I was very mean to my wife, but I couldn't help it, because G-d knows what I will do and He didn't stop me, so it's not my fault, and He allowed me to do it." However, we must realize that even though G-d knows what we will do, that does not mean that He made us do it. He truly gives us Free Choice in most areas, and we can't sneak out the back door. Therefore, the Torah tells us that we have free will as a new piece of information, because many would have thought that all is predestined. Along comes the Torah to inform us that we must be mature and realize that no one placed a gun to our heads and said, "You better do this bad action!" He gave us Choice and we used it.

  • It's noteworthy to mention that most scientists will tell you that free will does not exist. The fact that so many people believe that it's false should make it a chiddush. – DonielF Jun 17 '16 at 17:33
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Rav Yaakov Weinberg said that it is not a chiddush that you have free will.

R' Weinberg asked the question why the Rambam put the concept of free will in Hilchos Teshuva, as opposed to in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah. His answer was that free will only becomes a relevant discussion when it comes time for Teshuva. When a person is in the act, it is self-evident and obvious to everyone that they have free will. They can sense for themselves that they are making the choice that they are making. It's only later, when the time comes to take responsibility for their actions, that a person starts to try to explain their way out of it, and say that they really didn't have any choice, and it was beyond their control. The Rambam therefore, in Hilchos Teshuva, dismisses that argument.

As to what R' Yaakov would say is the chiddush of the posuk in light of the above, there are many possible answers, but I'll give one that I remember. The Torah gave a multi-layered choice: Life and blessing, and death and curse. The Torah only tells us to choose life, leaving out blessing. Because the two are not synonymous concepts - one is to see Torah as a positive thing, an important thing, something beneficial. The other is to see Torah as life itself. The Torah tells us to choose life - choose the path in which learning and living Torah is life itself.

  • @Matt I think your first comment was still constructive. But too late. – Y     e     z Sep 21 '14 at 20:21
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If you read the quoted pasuk carefully, you'll see that it isn't actually teaching that man has free will as if that were something that the Torah needs to teach. It's merely saying that, given that man has the freedom to choose, I'm telling you that the decisions that you make are ones of life and death, blessing and curse - so choose the path of life!

The reason why this verse is brought as a proof that, according to the Torah, man has free will, is merely because some people question (or even deny) its existence. Thus, this verse is used to show that the Torah was working with the background assumption that man has free will.

Regarding the Ramchal's opinion: in Derech Hashem (I, ch. 5) he does write that some decisions may be 'forced' מצד גזרה עליונה לשכרו או לענשו, in order to reward or punish him. It seems like those actions, though, would be recognizable to the person as actions that don't originate in his will, but from external forces (like a reflex). It could be that this is the Ramchal's intention in the continuation of that paragraph:

במה שהוא נמשך אחר הגזרה שעליו, יהיה משפטו כשאר עניני העולם, שתנועתם מלמעלה למטה, כפי מה שיניעום הכחות העליונים. ובמה שמצד בחירתו, תהיה תנועתו מלמטה למעלה

The Ramchal also writes (Derech Chochmah 12) that some actions of a person aren't a result of free will, but of מה שטבעו מכריחו, או קיבוצו המדיני - his nature, or his societal/political surroundings. I'm not entirely sure how one would be able to tell this from acting upon other desires according to the Ramchal, but it could be that he'd agree with Rav Dessler's explanations in his many discussions of free will in the books Michtav Me'eliyahu. In a few places he writes that a person's point of free will is where he recognizes what he's supposed to do, but has a perfectly equally strong desire to do what he knows is wrong as he does to do what's right. In what's probably the most succinct formulation (vol. 5 pg 500): בחירה אמיתית מתרחשת רק כשהאמת שהוא מכיר וכח יצרו מתנגשים בקרבו שוה בשוה

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