Friday, August 14, 2015

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Free Will

The single most important verse in the story we’re reading is Genesis 4:7.
If you do right shall you not excel and if you don’t do right, at the entrance is sin lying down and it thirsts for you but you can master it.
This verse embodies an issue that some other cultures try to go around.
Free will.  “You can master it.”
Some commentators such as Kalisch make this a commandment.  It’s not a commandment.  Gd is teaching Qain a general principle.  It’s possible for Qain not to do what Gd commands, just as his parents didn’t do what Gd commanded.
Gd tried making a commandment before, and it didn’t work.  Now, without pointing Qain back at what his parents did, Gd is saying that Qain can go different ways, and there are consequences no matter how he chooses.
Some cultures try to get around this with the concept of fate.  Oedipus was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, but he was still punished through being exiled from Thebes.  How is that fair?
Torah says differently.  A person’s fate is in his own hands.  Human psychology has lots of ways of rationalizing or pretending that they won’t have to deal with the consequences of what they do.  We think we can achieve what we want even if we do the opposite of what Gd commanded.  Torah is never outdated because it is full of stories of people dealing with the consequences of their decisions.
It’s also true that the 613 commandments don’t affect every last thing we do down to the split second.  That leaves plenty of room for mistakes, on top of the human possibility of ignorance and inattentiveness.  And remember, Jewish law has ways of dealing with all these situations – AFTER the fact.  We are not fated to act one way or another, we just go along and then deal with the fallout.
In Egypt there was a concept of heka, a form of magic involved with the individual controlling the future to his own benefit.
Torah ignores that and not only prohibits behaving like the Egyptians, but also rejects all kinds of magic and miracles as guiding factors for human life.
Torah declares there is a right and a wrong that goes beyond what benefits the individual person.
And in fact all cultures agree with this by having norms or rules or laws or taboos or whatever you want to call them. 

By punishing Qain with exile, not with death, Gd enforces the laws familiar to the people who listened to this story, satisfying them once again that these were ancient laws and that Gd is doing the same thing He has commanded them to do.
And that’s an important feature of Torah compared to other cultures.  Socrates himself points out that Greek culture punished murderers, but at the same time offered sacrifices to gods who were not only murderers but parricides.  In addition, murderers and parricides could get off if their advocates could speak well enough and confuse the meaning of right and wrong; that was Socrates’ main complaint against the Sophists. 
Gd did not promulgate a culture of “do as I say, not as I do.”  He took the high road.
For next week, I want you to read  Genesis 4:18-24.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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