Question. Does Judaism believe that human beings really have free will?
Answer. The question has two aspects:
1. Do we choose what to do or are we controlled by God?
2. If we have free choice, does God know in advance what we will choose?
Every Jewish thinker believes that we have free will. However, since some things are clearly beyond our control, Maimonides makes a distinction in his “Eight Chapters on Ethics” between physical and moral decisions.
Physical matters such as whether we will be human or animal, male or female, tall or short, fat or thin, are controlled by God. What is up to us is how we handle the Divine decisions. Hence, though God decides (by means of genes, etc.) whether I will be tall, I decide how to respond to my tallness. Though God decides (often by the use of the instrumentality of other humans) whether some external event will befall me, I decide how to react to the event.
It must be said, however, that sometimes the external event is so severe that my power to react is limited or totally removed, e.g. if I am (God forbid) badly injured or killed by the external event.
The Maimonides distinction, with all its problems, is a way of dealing with the rabbinic saying recorded in the name of Rabbi Akiva,
“Everything is determined, but free will is given”.
One has to add that the way the distinction works depends on who you are. The amount of free will given to a person differs according to their background and experience. No two people have the same genetic inheritance, nor are they all influenced in the same way by the same factors, nor do they respond to events and influences in the same fashion.
The second question asks whether we really have free will if God knows everything in advance.
Among the classical Jewish thinkers, Gersonides says that God’s knowledge is of things in general, not necessarily things in particular. Crescas says that God has total knowledge and man only appears to have freedom. Maimonides says that both doctrines are true (free will and Divine knowledge) but God’s knowledge is different from man’s.
Others add that God’s knowledge is not chronological but is an “eternal now”; or God’s knowledge is actual but not causative (He knows how I will respond but does not force me to act in that way).
Question. Where (and why) does the Torah say that men must grow beards?
Answer. Vayikra 19:27 and 21:5 prohibit the marring of the corners of a person’s beard, generally interpreted as the sideburns that link the hair of the head and the hair of the beard.
This law may have been designed to differentiate Israel from other peoples and pagan cults in which shaving was required or customary. The Talmud regards the beard as a symbol of male dignity, and hence it was a mark of shame to have one’s beard removed or shaved.
Some rabbinic authorities insisted that men should grow beards and not shave at all. Others interpreted the law as applying to the means of shaving and not to shaving as a whole, as what the strict law prohibits is cutting the corners of the beard by means of an instrument with one cutting edge.
We have portraits of clean-shaven rabbis from about the 17th century; they must have used scissors or hair-removing creams. These days orthodox men who shave use electric razors, though not if there is a blade that comes into direct contact with the face.
Some authorities say that the permission to shave applies outside Israel, presumably because Jews there constantly mix in general society and should not appear unkempt, but there are a number of leading Yeshivot in Israel where the students are clean-shaven and many modern orthodox Israelis are without beards.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.