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Free Will
Yom Kippur 5773-2012
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

Yom Kippur, 5773/2012 - Free Will - ©Rabbi Jack Moline

Last night we talked a little bit about the moral sins that we address on Yom Kippur. I have one more sin to discuss with you today, and you will find it peculiar coming from someone who lives in contemporary society and not walled-off in some segregated traditional society. I want to suggest that we must be on guard against the sin of denying God.

I know from talking to plenty of you that you consider such denial something positive and enlightened. But before you prepare yourself to pick up where Christopher Hitchens left off when he departed for the world-to-come he didn't believe in, hold your horses. I think you skeptics and agnostics may wind up being my biggest allies.

The foundational story of our tradition begins with the creation of the world. Once the world was formed and separated into land and sea, sun and moon, birds and fish, Adam and Eve settled into the Garden that was to be their perpetual home. God gave them permission to eat of anything growing in the garden except for one tree - the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

You know what happens next. With more than a little egging on by the snake, the woman and the man eat from the forbidden tree and are expelled from the Garden of Eden.

There are religious traditions that believe that act to be the original sin. But as I have advocated from this pulpit more than once, the transgression was more of timing than substance. God fully intended to give humanity that knowledge of good and evil when God was ready to do so. And the best evidence I can muster is the act itself. Eating from the tree was an act of free will. Free will was not a result of eating from the tree, it was its cause.

God created human beings in the image of God. Nothing that is a part of us was unintentional. Our taste buds, our appreciation of music, our differentiation of colors, our delight in sexual activity. God saw it all and it was very good indeed. And our ability to obey or disobey God - free will - was part of that creation as well. Otherwise, what would have been the point of instructing the earthlings about what they could and could not eat? God could have simply built them to avoid the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Thousands of years later - millions if you want to be scientific about it - our more recent and particular ancestors stood at the foot of Sinai. And there they received the Ten Commandments. Each of those commandments reflected the inherent gift of free will. "You shall" implies that you might not. "You shall not" implies that you might. And God did not invent the sins just to be able to give the commandments - we had been making those decisions since we ate from the tree.

By the way, not just Jews were endowed with free will. In spite of the depiction of various tribes as having inviolable character traits, Midianites, Moabites, Egyptians, Romans, Christians, Muslims and other assorted goyim all manage to present us with evidence to the contrary. Jethro counsels Moses. Ruth is grandmother to David. Queen Heleni becomes the patron of the rabbis. Justin Bieber says the Sh'ma. Everyone has the ability to make his or her own decisions about life's necessary choices. If there is anything that distinguishes the human being from all other earthly creations it is the ability to exercise free will. Perhaps some animals can be trained to make certain decisions, but the capacity to choose is the universal gift to human life.

To deny that capacity in any human being is to deny the equality of that person to every other human being. To deny that free will is an essential determining aspect of human life is to deny the image of God in which we claim to be created, for God, too, did not have to create this world or the inhabitants therein. It was a matter of free will.

And for you agnostics out there, let me add, "However it was accomplished."

And yet there is a cottage industry of individuals who are attempting to persuade us that there is no such thing as free will. I am not talking about people who have suffered a trauma that has impacted their reactions to the world. I am not talking about individuals struggling with compulsive behaviors, including addictions, that interfere with their decision-making ability. I am not talking about members of our human family who have a chemical imbalance in their systems that redirect their sense of values or reality. Our brothers and sisters in such distress need our help to reclaim their full ability to exercise free will.

I mean instead the merchants of venom who have put forward the notion that the influence of others -- others they have mostly deemed evil -- has the ability to permanently short-circuit the free will, the responsible decision-making ability, of public figures. And I am sorry to say that some of you in this room have been middlemen for that nonsense, or I wouldn't use this opportunity, this sacred day to call it to your attention.

I want to illustrate my point first with the saga of Huma Abedin. I suspect that most of you know that Ms. Abedin is deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Clinton. And until recently, her most public controversy was being married to and pregnant by former Congressman Anthony Weiner, a free-will decision that earned her a lot of sympathy when Mr. Weiner made his own free-will decisions about how to use social media.

Quite obviously, as the person most focused on the day-to-day activities of Sec'y Clinton, Huma Abedin has a highly sensitive position. Enough of you have had to clear security for a government job that you know how necessarily intrusive the investigations are.

And yet, as recently as this past summer, nearly four years into her service to the State Department, Ms. Abedin's ability to think for herself was questioned by a member of the United States Congress. The evidence of her unreliability had to do with her Muslim background, her particular Muslim background. Father, mother and brother were all described - and documented - to be either fundamentalist believers or out-and-out Islamists who supported the violent overthrow of the United States government. The inference was that she was a mole, placed in the highest levels of the State Department - even completing her cover by marrying one of the most pro-Israel Congressmen in the history of pro-Israel Congressmen, and carrying his baby just to divert attention from her own nefarious mission.

To the credit of other members of Congress, and most especially Sen. John McCain, most people were having none of that nonsense. But the accuser, and the amateur investigators who provided the information, would not back down.

I want to illustrate my point second with the man who would be President of the United States, Governor Mitt Romney. Just this past weekend, a column in the Washington Post - on the religion page no less - purported to illustrate how Mr. Romney's upbringing as a Mormon was the origin of his dismissal of large segments of American society as dependent and irresponsible. Spending better than half her column inches on a questionable description of the Mormon Church's teachings about the value of hard work and independence, and ignoring the generous and incredibly dignified way that the Mormons care for those in need whether they are Mormons or not, Mr. Romney was pitifully portrayed as a man unable to see past the indoctrination of his youth.

Perhaps it is a little early for anyone to jump to his defense, and I suppose it is too much to expect that a prominent Democrat will speak out about this religious stereotyping in the midst of a close election campaign, but the inference is clear: Mitt Romney is a prisoner of his circumstances and unable to see past the presumptions with which he was raised.

And I suppose it will not surprise you that my third illustration is the President of the United States. Can you believe that there are still plenty of people in this country who not only believe that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, as if that in and of itself is a problem, but that he was inculcated by his father and the few years he spent in school in a Muslim country with anti-American values that have survived the all-American upbringing he had in Kansas? And some of those same people incongruously believe that this secret Muslim had his ability to distinguish between right and wrong eliminated by his exposure to and affection for a charismatic pastor whose church he attended for twenty years.

Not even repudiation by Sen. McCain in the last hours of the 2008 campaign - when he could have benefited from keeping silent - has been enough to persuade some people that Mr. Obama could not resist the attempts to take away ability to speak his own mind with honesty and integrity.

Now, I am obviously not trying to persuade you that any of these people ought to be or ought not to be in the positions they hold or aspire to hold. And I am most certainly not telling you that in this, the greatest country for personal freedom in the history of humanity, you do not have a right to believe that Muslims, Mormons or Christians have some special powers over their adherents. Goodness, you have the right to believe whatever you want.

But just because you have the right to believe it, doesn't mean that it is right to believe it. To accept the cynical view that exposure to, even nurture by, a particular combination of influences disables the capacity of a person to think for herself or himself, to choose between good and evil, between right and wrong, is to deny the foundational gift of God to humanity: the inherent faculty of free will.

Of course, of course, we cannot separate ourselves from our formative influences. Of course, of course, a person's background and professed beliefs are relevant to the decisions that an individual makes later in life. But the root of prejudice, the root of discrimination, the root of bigotry is the stereotype that attributes indelible patterns of thought and behavior to someone infected by the differences of their place of origin.

A God-fearing Jew may not deny God in such a way. A Jew whose sense of identity is forged by an outrage about anti-semitism may not imitate the ways of the anti-semites in such a way. A Zionist whose anthem affirms that, like all other peoples, we have the right lih'yot am chofshi, to be a free people, may not insist that we are the only such people, neither collectively nor individually.

And I will go one step further. It is impermissible in our tradition to put a stumbling block before the blind. Our sages understood this prohibition symbolically as well as literally. You may not offer an alcoholic a drink. You may not exploit a hungry person for a noxious behavior before feeding him. And you may not take advantage of the misguided and false beliefs of others with snide and subtle reinforcements of those beliefs.

Do you remember the Tylenol scare of many years ago, when bottles of the pain reliever were poisoned? Shortly after the pharmaceutical company went beyond the requirements of the law to ensure the safety of its product, a competitor ran a commercial for their own pain reliever, comparing its effectiveness to Tylenol. After the earnest spokeswoman praised her own product, she intoned, "And Tylenol can cost so much more," only she slurred the word "cost" just enough so that it sounded like "Tylenol can cause so much more."

How is that different from people who slyly reference the more mysterious aspects of Mormon theology when discussing Mr. Romney? How is that different from people who insist on calling the President Barack Hussein Obama, just like that, protesting with feigned innocence - "Hey, it's his name!"?

My friends, if the influence of religiously pious parents and teachers and charismatic rabbis were that effective, those of you who grew up in traditional homes or have been sitting in this sanctuary for the past twenty years would be keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and learning Torah every day, whether you would have otherwise chosen to do so or not.

If Jews did not have free will there would have been no Talmud, no Maimonides, no Spinoza, no Hassidism, no enlightenment, no Conservative Judaism, no Zionism and Agudas Achim would have been an Orthodox shul where men and women sat separately, girls were educated only to be housewives and Elisheva would never be allowed inspire us with her voice.

If human beings did not have free will, there would have been no Christianity, no Renaissance, no Reformation, no United States of America, no abolition of slavery, no universal suffrage, no civil rights movement, no marriage equality, and there would be no point to democracy which is, after all, free will validated, legislated and institutionalized.

And every one of those accomplishments, every one of those free-will choices began with someone who was raised with strong values and strict norms looking at the world of his or her parents and teachers and saying, "Good as this might seem, there is another way and I am going to follow a different path." Those people were not exceptions to the rules. They were very ordinary in at least one sense, the same sense that each of you is very ordinary: they were endowed by their Creator with an unalienable attribute. They each had free will.

Without the presumption of free will, the endeavor of diplomacy, of the State Department allegedly infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, is futile. People, even heads of state, even dictators, even rabid bigots willing to pronounce in front of the United Nations and the world press the intent to commit genocide, are presumed to have the capacity to decide to choose differently. Before we give up the belief that they will exercise that capacity and choose the good over the evil, the right over the wrong, we must exhaust the opportunities to persuade them. That's what diplomacy is.

Those who deny the existence of free will in any human being deny the humanity of that human being. And then, because such a person is of a lesser order than the rest of us. He or she and anyone subjected to the controlling influence of the evil so represented, is expendable.

Isn't that, after all, the very hard lesson of our people's history at the hands of others? Isn't that, after all, the very terrifying lesson of what Israel and the rest of the non-Persian world are being threatened with by the government of Iran?

Free will can be used to choose wrongly. A person who makes such a choice must take responsibility for the choices freely made. We are outside of Eden because of a wrong choice. Wrong choices, evil choices must have consequences.

But you know what? Without the presumption of free will, the endeavor of Yom Kippur, the reason you are here today, is a sham. The holiest day of our year is not given over to celebrating a miracle. It is not a pedagogic ritual to teach us how to behave - most of us won't repeat the fast, the full day in synagogue, the confessions or the abstinence until we gather again in a year. It is not for the purpose of fundraising, or political organizing, or recruiting for good causes, in spite of the way it is treated by plenty of organizations.

Today is given over to affirming that every human being has free will and can choose to do the right and the good. And if that choice is made, then the wrong choices, the bad choices, the evil choices in the past can be forgiven. Verse after verse of our sacred Scripture, our liturgy, our contemporary poetry reminds us, as Ezekiel insists, "As I live, says the Lord God, I do not desire the death of the wicked, but that he abandon his ways and live!"

You are here today to exercise your free will, because the holiest day of the year is given over to celebrating that capacity, to teaching us again that we can choose, to recruiting us for the cause of righteous choosing, individually and collectively.

Rejecting this message, suggesting that any woman or man, absent disabilities beyond their control, lacks the capacity to exercise free will is the denial of God - however you imagine God. And anyone who makes such a suggestion about other individuals, or about other groups of individuals, or, how much the more so, any faith community, misses the essential point of Yom Kippur and the people who observe it.

A lot of years ago, Steve Bodzin said to me that I always seemed to be kvetching in my High Holy Day sermons. He asked me if there wasn't some positive message I could convey every now and then. I took that comment very seriously, and I have tried to have such a positive message whenever I can. That year, as now, I found it in the Book of Jonah. If you stick around for a while, you will hear it during mincha. Resisting God's call, Jonah ran from the task of proclaiming the power of free will to the sinful residents of Nineveh, a city filled with non-Jews. Angry and resentful, he eventually capitulated, and to his astonishment - and even his momentary disappointment - the citizens of Nineveh, from the king to beggar, and even the animals, turned from their wicked ways and made a free will choice to do better.

So I leave you with this prayer. May it be your blessing to choose as well as the non-Jews of Nineveh chose. And may it be our blessing to produce in you in this generation, and every generation to come, another Jonah. Ken y'hi ratzon.

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