Bechira: Freedom of Choice in Judaism by Dr. Harold Lifshutz
Volume 1 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1987 | Tishrei, 5748)
An experience which is common to all Jews when they are confronted with the traditions observed around simchas, deaths and Jewish holidays, is an acute awareness of one?s own Jewish background and roots. At such times one is provided with the opportunity to examine, even challenge, his/her religious beliefs, the opportunity to exercise one?s freedom of choice or, in Hebrew, bechira.
Bechira in the Torah
The concept of bechira or human freedom is repeatedly emphasized in the Torah and stands as a basic concept in Jewish philosophy. Moses in Deut. 30: 19 states, ?I have placed both life and death before you, and you should choose life.? Man?s freedom to choose is what makes him unique as a human being. Animals, of course, are not provided with the capacity for rational thought which is necessary for making a cognitive choice. When people forgeit this opportunity, when they abdicate the ability to choose, then they forfeit the very characteristic that distinguishes them from animals.
Bechira in High Holiday Liturgy
In the High Holiday service (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) we recite a special prayer written by Rabbi Amnon of Mayence called U?netaneh Tokeff. This beautiful poem catalogs the many areas of human life which are in God?s hands: ??who shall live and who shall die?who will grow rich and who shall become poor?? etc. It appears from this prayer that the individual person has little choice in life. The truth that Judaism teaches is that we do indeed have little choice when it comes to the materialistic considerations in life. Some people work long hours and poorly invest their money, while others work minimally for years and then suddenly obtain a windfall. Obviously the material and financial fortunes of a person are not completely under the individual?s control.
Kavannah and Free Choice
However, bechira (freedom of choice) refers to a person?s choice to act or not act in ways G-d wishes one to. What such a conscious choice implies is not just performing G-d-s commandments (mitzvot) in a perfunctory, habitual manner. The concept of kavannah (purposeful intent) provides one with the opportunity to exercise bechira in his/her actions. Mitzvot should not be performed in a rote manner but with deliberate intent to fulfill the divine wish. This is what sanctifies an action and raises it to the level of the Divine. Maimonnides states that one should not refrain from eating forbidden foods because one doesn't like them, but rather he should refrain from them because the Torah forbids them. Though the action is the same there is little merit in avoiding certain foods as a matter of preference or habit.
Kavannah and Everyday Life
Intent,and hence bechira, is important in all our daily activities. For example, blessings were established prior to eating foods to assist people in establishing a volitional intent in the simple act of eating. Thus the Rabbis established blessings before eating in order to acknowledge G-d as the provider of all sustenance. Blessings can remove daily activities from the realm of the routine and elevate them to a conscious, thoughtful act. Kavannah can transform a person into a thoughtful, purposeful individual who is able to exercise his freedom and has the capacity to master his own life throughout all of his daily activities.
It is this time of year during the holiest month of the Jewish calendar that we are again confronted with new opportunities to exercise free will and bechira. If we do so we will not only become more truly human, but also come a little closer to the Divine.
Dr. Harold Lifshutz is psychologist practicing