Fate and Free Will in Judaism: Pharisee, Sadducees and Essenes

Friday, April 24, 2009

During the last centuries B.C.E., Judaism seems to have experienced a certain diversification. Different groups with widely varied beliefs regarding the essence of God and God’s role in this world appeared on the scene. Our sources describe at least three different groups.

What is interesting is that the Jewish historian Josephus uses the Greek term for “philosophies” or “schools of thought” when he describes these groups.

These groups appeared on the scene in the last centuries B.C.E. One group, called the Sadducees, believed in a God who was totally removed from any active involvement in this world. God does not determine or preordain human affairs. There is no such thing as fate. Man has absolute control over his deeds. If there is something called reward and punishment, they would claim that these are the immediate results of human action. They are the direct consequence of how man behaves, not the retribution of an external all-powerful force. This group also denied any form of resurrection of the dead.

A second group, which Josephus calls the Essenes, frequently associated with the authors of some of the Death Sea Scrolls, maintained almost the total opposite of Sadducean teaching. At least regarding free will and fate. They claimed that everything was preordained by God. Man really has no choice or free will to act as he wishes.

The third group, also mentioned by Josephus, is called the Pharisees. They seemed to have chosen a middle path. For many of us, choosing the middle path sounds very pleasing to the ear, but in fact, the conclusions of this path are really the hardest to understand.

They believed that everything that occurs is the will of God, and nevertheless, man has free will to choose between evil and good. Any child who hears that statement is obviously going to ask the crucial question. If God knows everything, I obviously do not have free will. If he knows things in advance, they were all determined before I made any choice.

The Pharisees’ approach attempted to reconcile an omnipotent and all-knowing God with man’s power over his actions as the only justification for receiving either reward or punishment. If man has no free will, there is no justification for reward or punishment.

The attempt to reconcile these two was embraced by most mainstream Jewish thinkers. The rabbis of the Talmud put it in a very simple way: “All is in the hands of God, save the fear of God”.

There is a touching rabbinic legend that describes how at the moment of a child’s conception, the seminal crop which would develop into that child is brought by an angel. The angel brings this seminal crop before God and asks of God what would become of this crop. Would it be a person strong or weak? Wise or foolish? Rich or poor? The angel only refrains from asking one question: would this person be wicked or righteous? It is forbidden to ask that, because that is in the hands of the child himself.

The understanding of the nature of reward and punishment also seemed to cause problems for Jewish thinkers throughout history. The biblical book of Job realizes that the righteous frequently suffers, while the wicked thrives. By Second Temple times, this seems to have been partially resolved by assigning much of man’s reward to a future existence, a world to come. The evil man may thrive in this world and the righteous man may suffer, but this world is nothing compared to the world to come. In that ultimate world, true reward and punishment would be dispensed.

The Sadduceess probably found no overt allusion to a future life or a world to come in the Bible, so they denied the idea totally. For them, everything ceases in this world. With man’s death, there is no afterlife of the soul. This is very interesting, the Saduccean teaching, that God is removed from this world and that there is no afterlife, is very close to the Greek philosophy of the Epicureans. The Epicureans claimed that men should strive for wellbeing in this world, the phrase in Greek was ataraxia. You should strive for wellbeing in this world because there is nothing after this world.

I think that it is not by chance that the rabbis chose as the epitome of the heretic the name Epicurs. In fact, it was this Epicurean philosophy that denied almost all of the basic tenets of Pharisaism, which would develop into Rabbinic Judaism.