Sunday, March 29, 2015

Jewish Thought: Man (Part IV) - The Human Will

Rav Leibowitz

We have identified man’s sophisticated intellectual faculty - his ability to “understand” and “conceptualize” - as the “image of God.” This is the force that provides man with his elevated capabilities and procures for him an exalted level in the hierarchy of creation. But there is another significant human capability that we must address.  Interestingly, this capability is itself a product of man’s unique intellectual abilities described thus far.

Let’s return to the verse in Bereshis that teaches us that man was created in the “image of God.”  Unlike Rashi, R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (d. 1926) provides a different explanation of this unique quality given to man at creation.    

The “image of God” is the ability to make completely free willed decisions – without instinctual influences, rather based on will and unhindered intellect (Meshech Chochmah, Bereshis 1:26). 

According to R. Meir Simcha, the “image of God” is man’s free will.   But where does man’s free will come from?  

In our discussion above regarding man’s intellect, we noted that two of the most significant elements of man’s intellectual faculty are (1) his ability to use his mind consciously, i.e. not only instinctually, and (2) his ability to think abstractly and theoretically, i.e. not only practically.  It is these two elements that provide man with his free will. 

To explain: The abstract mind has the ability to discern differences.  “Without intellect, differentiating is impossible.”[1]   Discerning differences, man can distinguish between things he encounters and classify things he studies.   As the only creation possessing the ability to differentiate, only man can consciously apply his intellect to situations and choose – free of his instincts – how to act.  In other words, Man is unique in creation in his ability to consider different options, something which by definition requires abstract thinking, and then actually make a conscious decision based on his intellect.  Hence, a direct outgrowth of man’s elevated intellect is that he is a free willed being.   

But the relationship between the intellect and free will is not only one directional. It is certainly true that the gift of intellect begets free will.  But with free will, man is then empowered, and challenged, to choose what to do with his intellect.  Man must choose what to do with his time, and most significantly – where to invest his intellectual capabilities?  Toward achievement of which goals should man dedicate his intellectual faculties?

The decision where to invest his intellect is an integral part of man fulfilling his elevated role in the world and assuming his elevated position in the hierarchy of creation.  We noted earlier how man can easily be mistaken for a sophisticated animal due to similarities in anatomical makeup and instinctual behavior.  However, this error is perhaps more forthcoming when one observes man’s free-willed decisions, that is, his volitional actions and pursuits. 

What are the pursuits of man?  If one’s primary focus in life is the consumption of food and drink, or preoccupation with sleep or carnal pleasure, or the building and remodeling of his shelter, it is hard to identify mankind as occupying a distinct level of creation. Such behavior indicates that a human being is merely a sophisticated member of the animal kingdom, but not a human that is essentially unique and elevated.

To truly be unique and elevated man must make decisions to pursue elevated pursuits.  It cannot be that mankind was granted an elevated intellect to solely function as a more sophisticated animal.  Rather he was given elevated capabilities so that he can make decisions and engage in pursuits that far transcend those of the animal kingdom. 

Common sense dictates that it is absurd and simple false to claim that the purpose of man is merely to eat, drink, have marital relations, or build shelter… for these actions are also performed by many of the other creations.  (Rambam, Hakdamah la-Mishnah). 

If man chooses to use his intellectual abilities to merely pursue the actions engaged in by the animals, so then he is squandering his elevated faculty.  Man is not just a better  animal.  He is an inherently different creation.  His elevated capabilities are there to distinguish him as an inherently unique creation.  

What emerges, then, is an extremely significant point.  Man’s raw intellect is not enough to secure him an inherently elevated level in creation.  If he is to use his intellect simply for “animal pursuits,” so then he has not distinguished himself as a being that occupies an inherently elevated position in the world.  For sure, man’s intellect can lead him to engage in those pursuits that are not unique to mankind – such as consumption of food, reproduction, amassing of property, and building shelter -  in a way that is far more sophisticated than when animals engage in such activity.  But perfecting these “shared” pursuits cannot procure for man a distinct level in creation.[2]

Rather, man must use his free will to choose to dedicate his intellect towards fields of study and activities that transcend the animal kingdom.  He must chose to use his elevated faculties for elevated purposes.   

Man’s True Elevation

Accordingly, we see that R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk does not actually disagree with Rashi.  Rashi’s focus was on the immediate result of man being blessed with the “image of God.”  He correctly identifies that man was given unique intellectual faculties.  But R. Meir Simcha simply takes this one step further.  He adds that with all of its elevation notwithstanding, the engagement of the intellect alone is not enough.  The intellect alone is not man’s elevation, but it rather empowers man to be elevated.  With his free will man must choose where to invest his intellect, and if he chooses to invest it in areas that will propel him to transcend the animal kingdom, so then, and only then, he is truly elevated.

Our suggestion that the combination of intellect and free will are man’s true elevation is stated by R. Yitzchak Arama in his Akedas Yitzchak,

[Man] was originally created from the dirt of the earth… Then [God] blew into him the “breath of life” – which is the Godly intellect that gives [man] intellectual abilities in order to choose good. (Akedias Yitzchak, Sha’ar 8)

We thus emerge with two important conclusions.  The first:  Man’s elevation is not only his intellectual faculties, but also the result of his intellectual faculties: free will. The second is that man is not simply elevated.  Rather, he is equipped to be elevated.  He has the potential to be elevated.  But to truly assume his elevated position in the hierarchy of creation he must utilize his elevated capability of free will to choose to be elevated. 

This is what the Torah teaches, “Behold I have placed before you today life and goodness, or death and evil... You shall choose life!”  (Devarim 30, 15-19).  Man is charged by God to choose.  It is incumbent upon man to utilize his free will to choose to pursue human life and assume his elevated position in the hierarchy of creation.    

[1] Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachos, 39b .  This is the reason that at Maariv following Shabbos or Yom Tov we recite Havdalah during the beracha of “Ata Chonen le-Adam Da’as.” Man’s intellect is the source of his ability to differentiate.
[2] This does not mean that attainment of food, reproductive activity, and construction of shelter are not vital necessities for man.  Indeed, they are absolutely necessary and indispensable to human life.  Moreover, these activities certainly require intelligence.  Animal also perform them using their instinctual intelligence.  Yet, hopefully, when man eats, drinks, procreates, and build shelter it is done in a more sophisticated fashion than when members of the animal kingdom engage in such activities.  When man chooses to use his abstract and theoretic mind toward these same “animal” activities, his eating habits and food choices are healthier, his constructed shelter is more practical and comfortable.  But if obtaining such results were the reason man was granted his elevated intellect, then he simply would be a more sophisticated animal.  He would be one who engages in “animal pursuits” – better.   

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