People pray ahead of Yom Kippur on the roof of a seminary overlooking the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City in 2012..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A central element of Yom Kippur is the concept of free will. Unless one concedes that people have free will, Yom Kippur makes no sense. For on Yom Kippur we are asked to repent for our sins. If free will were an illusion and our sins resulted from circumstances beyond our control, like fate or destiny or the chemical makeup of our brains, there would be no point in holding people accountable for the bad things they do. And repentance would have no moral worth, because none of us would be able to change the courses of our lives. Contrition as well as resolutions for the future would be meaningless.
Yet in our age the idea that human beings have free will is under attack. In the field of geopolitics, we tend to view humans’ actions as a product of cause and effect relationships. When groups commit acts of aggression, for instance, we tend to attribute this behavior to various factors such as poverty, oppression, or a lack of opportunities.
Often our political leanings determine how we interpret the causes. Those of us who are ideologically situated on the Left tend to believe that US policies in Iraq and its support for Israel or Israeli policies toward the Palestinians or the “occupation” are the factors fueling militant Islamists’ violence. If only America had stayed out of the Middle East and if only Israel had given back all of the West Bank...
Those on the Right, meanwhile, see a lack of American military intervention or the failure of Israeli leaders’ conviction vis-à-vis the Arabs as the problem.
The Obama administration should have intervened earlier or more forcefully. Israel should have annexed Judea and Samaria and unapologetically resorted to extreme military force instead of being so concerned about world opinion.
Both views share the mistake of denying people in the region their own agency. After America’s pullout, Iraq did not have to deteriorate into sectarian violence.
The fight against Bashar Assad did not have to be led by al-Qaida-affiliated groups. Palestinians did not have to vote Hamas into power and don’t have to continue to glorify terrorists or incite against Israel.
The tremendous discounting of human agency is evident in other fields as well. Globalization processes have brought the world closer together, creating a literal “global village.” One might think that Internet technologies that make nearly every location in the world accessible would be empowering. The ability to connect across borders and across cultures opens up new opportunities for cooperation. Challenges such as economic inequality and environmental destruction can, in theory, be addressed and remedied more effectively than ever before.
But globalization has also made us exceedingly more aware of the enormity of the problems we face and how small and inconsequential we are as individuals capable of solving those problems. Confronted by the tremendous destruction caused to the environment by huge international conglomerates in cahoots with national leaders, what impact can the individual possibly have? Why bother to use our cars less, to stop using plastic shopping bags, or to separate our plastic and paper garbage if we are an infinitesimal speck on the face of the globe? Our sacrifice means nothing.
Yet we must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of despair. As Dr. Martin Luther King put it, “We must refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present condition makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.” In Judaism that “oughtness” is referred to as tikun olam and it is based on the premise that humans have free will.
Militant Islam is neither a product of objective circumstances nor a result of Western inaction. Rather, individuals exercising free will have the power to stop it. And while global problems such as environmental destruction are daunting, despair means forfeiting our ability to mitigate them.
On this Yom Kippur, a holy day that celebrates human agency, we must remember this and never lose hope in humans’ ability to heal themselves – and the world.