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Does the Kabbalah Acknowledge Free Will?
A deep dive into one of life's grand mysteries.
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– J. G. Holland
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Like a great piece of classical music, most big ideas need to be slowly and carefully unpacked to savor their full import. I invite our readers to remain undaunted by these challenging yet rewarding concepts. Take it slow, go step by step, and enjoy this carefully crafted piece.
The Free Will Conundrum
The online Encyclopedia Britannica defines free will as “the supposed power or capacity of humans to make decisions or perform actions independently of any prior event or state of the universe (1).” Sounds simple enough. But whether free will actually exists or is an elaborate illusion which only feels real has long been debated and rages on in the philosophical and scientific literatures.
With some notable exceptions (2-5), the majority of contemporary physicists, philosophers, and neuroscientists subscribe to a “closed” physical universe wherein all phenomena, be they material or psychological, are bound by natural law as it is currently understood. In its most orthodox iteration, this Weltanschauung denies the reality of free will and the possibility of top–down causation. It asserts that all conscious acts are the end-products of events strictly determined by a cascade that originates with quantum mechanics and “ascends” by supervenience or emergence through classical (Newtonian) physics, chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, neurobiology, and psychology.
In this schema, the brain’s neurochemistry underpinning our sense of agency or volition is an inescapable consequence of a chain of prior (unconscious) physicochemical reactions traceable in principle back to the Big Bang. In this context, the illusion of freedom must be truly pervasive because, ironically, even the staunchest reductionists (materialists) still insist on erecting legal institutions to administer justice when by their logic, perpetrators should never be held personally accountable for their crimes!
Where does Judaism weigh in on the free will debate? Does the Torah acknowledge human free choice, or does it not? The answer to this query is largely contingent on Judaism’s take on the very nature of consciousness, which I elaborated in a previous issue of Beyond Belief (6). In that article, I argued that the Jewish mystical tradition—the Kabbalah—supports an ontology of consciousness that is panpsychist in essence (that all Created things manifest at least some modicum of consciousness) and informed by the tenets of panentheism (that there exist immanent and transcendent aspects of God and consciousness).
This model understands consciousness to be holographically and hierarchically organized, relativistic, and capable of downward causation (6). The current essay builds on the metaphysics discussed in our earlier work to present a Kabbalistic perspective on the free will conundrum. I will attempt to demonstrate that the Kabbalah construes free will to concomitantly exist and not exist depending on frames of reference and modes of awareness.
2. Orech and Oivi—Complementary Modes of Awareness
In my previous installment (6), I indicated that the “overlap” or “degree of enclothment” among the five created Worlds (Adam Kadmon, Atzilut, Briah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah) and among the ten Sefirot (Divine “forces” or “attributes” comprising all objects and events populating these Worlds) diminishes, and divisiveness within the Creation grows, with increasing spiritual “distance” from the absolutely unified Ein-Sof (Godhead).
The “downward” stretch of reality into states of progressively greater disunity is regarded by the famed Kabbalist, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (1720-1777) (7, 8) and others (9) as movement into Orech (אורך) or “vertical” descent. This is metaphorized as the downward extension of an inverted telescope in Fig. 1A/B. Orech represents the natural “top–down” unfolding of the Creation necessary for the advent of apparent separateness, evil and free will (10-13).
Contrariwise, as one “ascends” the Kabbalistic hierarchy, conceptually or as a consequence of the Mitzvot and Tikkunim (positive deeds, rectifications) performed by humanity, there is “movement” from Orech (partition) into states of increasing unification or Oivi (עובי; “horizontality”) as depicted by upward retraction of the telescope depicted in Fig. 1C. In extreme conditions of Oivi, in opposition to Orech, the Creation’s hierarchical scaffolding dissolves and all things are perceived as spiritually equidistant from (“horizontal to” or united with) the Godhead.
Fig. 1. A. Reference configuration of the Kabbalistic superstructure. Joints of the telescope symbolize degree of “overlap” (enclothment) among Sefirot and Worlds. B. “Descent” of Creation into Orech (increasing apparent disunity and “distance” from Ein Sof). C. “Ascent” into Oivi (progressive revelation of wholeness and the indivisible Light of Ein Sof) (14)
Before considering the implications of Orech and Oivi for the free will conundrum, it may be helpful to flesh out these pivotal Kabbalistic concepts with several examples. In (6), we encountered the following instantiations of “shifts” from Orech into Oivi:
(i) The initial act of Creation (Tzimtzum) was explained as a withdrawal of the Ein-Sof’s Infinite Light, leaving behind precisely those quantities and qualities of Light required to eventually bring into being the unique Worlds, objects, and events specified by the Will of God. By analogy, the reader was invited to consider the necessity of lowering the power of a trillion-watt light bulb to 100W in order to render perceptible the discrete pieces of furniture in a room. Importantly, the drop in wattage required for us to perceive finite furniture items is only true from our surface perspective—that of Orech. From God’s penetrating point of view, the bulb continues to blaze undiminished (hidden state of Oivi).
(ii) In our discussion of the Kabbalistic Principle of Interpenetration, we noted how a far greater perception of unity was achieved by the simultaneous co-mobilization (parallel processing) of the Sefirah Chesed (lovingkindness) in every nook and cranny of the cosmos (Oivi) than may be realized by the consecutive, “serial” activation of Chesed within each individual deca-Sefirotic assembly (Orech).
(iii) As a third allusion, let us re-visit Rachel and Jacob, whom we encountered in our earlier deliberations on the Kabbalah’s perspective on love (6). From the vantage of Orech and drawing on the Kabbalah’s holographic Principle of Interinclusion (6, 14), we saw Rachel as a circumscribed individual who, upon sharing positive experiences with Jacob, began to identify with (reveal or “render explicate” in the terminology of physicist David Bohm; 1917-1992) the mini-Rachel ensconced as a fractal within Jacob.
The critical emphasis there was on the word “reveal” because from the vantage point of Oivi, there never was nor can there be any interruption of her connection (Kabbalistic Principle of Interpenetration; reminiscent of quantum entanglement (6, 14)) with the countless mini-Rachels strewn as fractals throughout the entire cosmos (including the one within Jacob). From the holistic standpoint of Oivi (as in Bohm’s Implicate Order), Rachel is the sum total of all her scattered “selves,” period. Only in Orech-consciousness (or Bohm’s explicate order) is there the semblance of Rachel as a confined entity manifesting greater interpenetration with relatives and lovers than with acquaintances and strangers.
Additional examples illustrating the relationship of Orech and Oivi drawn from Midrashic literature and common life experience were originally presented elsewhere (14, 15) and are briefly reiterated here:
(iv) Invoking the symbolism of mathematics, we move from Orech to Oivi and towards greater expressions of wholeness whenever we collapse a Gematriyah (sum of numerical values of the letters comprising a Hebrew word) to its numerical diminutive (Mispar Katan). Thus are the 613 Mitzvot grounded in the more fundamental Ten Commandments (6+1+3=10), which in turn branch out from the singular Will (Keter Elyon) of the One God (1+0=1). Perhaps to convey this truth, the sages indicated that the Ten Commandments were initially uttered as a “single word” (16).
We can take up a second mathematical example, this time evolving from wholeness (Oivi) to partition (Orech): As described previously (6, 15), at the outset of Creation, there was the unified Light of the Godhead, the Ohr Ein-Sof, symbolized by the number “1”. Prior to the creation of “things,” God withdrew his Light (act of Tzimtzum) from a “central point” thereby giving rise to the first Void (Makom Panoi). The Etz Chaim (seminal work of Lurianic Kabbalah) teaches that this Void “was in the shape of a perfect circle”: היה עגול מכל סביבותיו בהשוואה גמורה (17).
Why specify this (or any other) geometry in “spiritual space” when there is no inkling yet of physical shape or dimension? One may conjecture that the circle denotes “zero” and the relative absence of Light within the Void—the inception of “nothingness.” From God’s point of view and from the holistic perch of Oivi, adding zero to one (1 + 0 = 1) complies with the dictum “regarding the Creator, no change occurred from before the Creation to after”: שלגבי הבורא לא חל שום שינוי בין קודם הבריאה ואחריה (18) explicating the passage in Malachi, “I am the Lord, I do not change”: אני ד׳ לא שניתי (19).
But from our mundane or “bottom–up” perspective of Orech, deployment of a zero after a one yields ten, not one! In other words, Orech-consciousness, in contradistinction to Oivi, perceives multiplicity or divisiveness—ten Sefirot to be exact—emerging from unity through the medium of an intervening nothingness (much as a prism diffracts white light as a spectrum of colors).
(v) According to Jewish tradition, the orbs of the sun and moon were initially created on par with one another (state of Oivi). God subsequently diminished the moon (Miyut Ha’yareach) and rendered it a passive recipient for the sun’s light—a “descent” from Oivi into Orech. In the Messianic era, the moon will regain its original stature: וקיימא סיהרא באשלמותא – “the moon will be established in its completeness” (20), a reversion to (better, the augmented revelation of) Oivi, and function in harmony with the sun as שני מלכים משתמשים בכתר אחד: “two monarchs sharing a single crown (21)”.
Have you ever wondered why it is that the silhouette of the moon superimposes so precisely on the sun’s disk in the course of a total solar eclipse? Is the exquisite offsetting of the sun’s ~400-fold greater diameter than the moon by the former’s ~400-fold greater distance (22) a mere cosmic fluke? Or might this “co-incidence” hint at a more profound spiritual equivalence of these heavenly bodies as intimated in Jewish Aggadic (homiletic) writings and as glimpsed through the lens of Oivi?
In the afore-cited examples of Orech and Oivi, the italicized statements provide essential clues regarding the Kabbalah’s understanding of the free will conundrum and the nature of paradox in general. The Kabbalah adopts two seemingly disparate approaches to comprehending the organization and unfolding of reality: a familiar hierarchical arrangement (Orech) emphasizing progressive diversification and distinctiveness and a less-intuitive “cross-cutting” mode (Oivi) hinting at the Creation’s underlying cohesion.
But at any given instance, which system does the Creator employ to weave the fabric of the universe and regulate its workings? The answer, according to the Kabbalah, is both. At a more fundamental level of understanding, the Kabbalah insists that there really are no “moving parts” and that the flow of Divine Light along serial (Orech) and parallel (Oivi) tracks are concomitant and contingent more on shifts in conscious awareness than any realignment of the underlying metaphysics. Plainly spoken, both the Creation’s unified and particularized dimensions are co-extant and equally real.
The significance of this Orech–Oivi simultaneity for inculcating genuine and often penetrating Kabbalistic insight into the nature of reality cannot be over-emphasized. It is a powerful intellectual tool capable of resolving, or at least providing a useful paradigm to assimilate and analyze, numerous philosophical, scientific, and theological enigmas. Take, for example, psychologist and philosopher Adrian Nelson’s perplexing statement that
“the Big Bang and the ultimate destiny of the universe are
really one primordial singularity of existence, and that our
relative spatiotemporal reference frame is what creates
their apparent duality (23) .”
This is certainly true in the Kabbalistic sense as we shift our consciousness from the gestalt perspective of Oivi (the perception of “…one primordial singularity…”) to that of Orech (“…their apparent duality”). Another striking example is the quantum physicist’s embrace of the paradoxical nature of light. Modern science has grown comfortable with the notion that light exists simultaneously as both a wave and a particle, with one or the other facet revealed by the consciousness of an observer.
The Oivi-Orech divide can be illuminated by re-phrasing this account of the physical duality of light in Kabbalistic terms: “The Creation exists simultaneously as both a seamless whole (Oivi) and as a collage of countless particulars (Orech), with one or the other facet revealed by the consciousness of an observer (15).” In a very real sense, Oivi and Orech describe a “wave function”—ostensibly the spiritual counterpart of the Schrödinger equation—before and after its “collapse.”
The Kabbalistic understanding of time is similarly paradoxical: In accord with the holographic Principle of Interinclusion—positing that all of Reality is recapitulated in each of its parts (6, 14, 15)—the entire past, present, and future is etched within each and every fragment of time. In the familiar Kabbalistic World of Asiyah, where Orech-consciousness predominates, the lion’s share of Divine Light remains hidden (within the higher Worlds), ensuring that we experience the revelation of time (the present moment) in short consecutive segments.
A transposition from Orech to Oivi would entail the “unpacking” (revelation) of all of space-time concealed within any given temporal fragment and engender profound awareness of the hidden unicity of the Creation. An equally bewildering temporal paradox manifests in the modern scientific idea of a “Block Universe,” otherwise known as “Eternalism” (Fig. 2). The latter is a highly counter-intuitive consequence of Einstein’s Special Relativity, indicating that time, although perceived to progress linearly in everyday life, is not absolute and that the same event experienced by one being as occurring “now” already happened in the timeline of another and has yet to materialize for a third (24, 25).
Fig. 2. The Block Universe. Presentism (top) implies that only the present moment is real. The Block Universe or Eternalism (bottom) derives from Special Relativity and posits that all points in time and space are co-extant. The Block Universe is compatible with Kabbalistic notions of space-time as viewed from the holistic perspective of Oivi. Modified from https://www.resetera.com/threads/presentism-oreternalism.107854
We will shortly explore how an appreciation of Orech-Oivi simultaneity permits a reality whereby autonomous human agency and free will both exist and do not exist depending on one’s frame of reference. A nuanced understanding of the metaphysics responsible for this dichotomy, however, presupposes some familiarity with an ancient Kabbalistic construct referred to as the “Unknowable Head,” as discussed in the following section.
3. Free Will and the “Unknowable head”
In Kabbalistic Panpsychism (15), I described how human consciousness mirroring the panentheistic Mind of God both suffuses and transcends the confines of the material brain and that the supernal Sefirah, Keter is the vehicle mediating extra-corporeal awareness. More precisely, the nexus between intrinsic or neural-based and trans-personal consciousness may be associated within a unique construct within Keter termed the Raisha D’lo Ityadah (acronym RADLA; רדל״א) or “Unknowable Head” (26-28). For any deca-Sefirotic assembly, be it that which constitutes a World or a person, the RADLA is stationed immediately “outside” the frame of reference under consideration (Fig. 3).
This configuration necessarily renders the RADLA opaque to human understanding—“a head that is unknowable (Lo Ityadah) and not merely unknown (28).” We previously presented evidence based on parallel statements recorded from leading Kabbalists and 20th-century physicists that the operations of the RADLA are astonishingly consistent with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (29, 30). According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal; 1707-1746), all possible outcomes devolving from a Schrӧdinger wave-like probability curve are rooted in the RADLA (28).
As in Young’s famous two-slit experiment (31), only when assayed consciously (measured) do these possibilities “collapse” into one or another classical realities. In the lowest World, Asiyah, the possible outcomes are relayed by the RADLA to the lower nine Sefirot of the Kabbalistic ladder where, after transduction by Malchut (the 10th Sefirah), a choice is revealed which materializes as a discrete physical entity or event within the familiar macro-world (Fig. 3).
The RADLA veil and the Uncertainty Principle set a limit on what can be known (ontic as opposed to epistemic uncertainty) and establish that the observed reality is “selected” in a seemingly random manner. For readers who may be mathematically inclined, the RADLA can be thought of as a “Markov blanket”—a formal statistical object which confers boundaries upon individual entities, thereby distinguishing them from their surroundings. Markov blankets minimize the free energy and limit entropic decay of the enveloped entities permitting autonomous activity far from the equilibrium of the embedding matrix (15, 32).
From this point on, however, quantum mechanics and the Kabbalah part ways—dramatically. While the former conceives of the final selected product as a truly random occurrence, the Kabbalah maintains that this indeterminacy is only true from our perspective because a vital Keter-Malchut axis described at length elsewhere (15) ensures that the items and processes of Creation are in complete alignment with the Will of the Creator (a property of Keter) (33). Let us take a simple example to illustrate this point (Fig. 3):
(i) God decrees that an object or event comprising the sequence A-B-C-D be brought into existence.
(ii) The Willed outcome encoded by the Ohr Ein-Sof “descends” to the level of the RADLA where from our vantage point, it appears scrambled as a probability curve encompassing all combinations of A, B, C, and D.
(iii) Unable to permeate the RADLA membrane, we cannot directly discern Divine Intent. What we encounter instead is a superposition of possible outcomes, which upon observation, collapses to the product A-B-C-D. The latter appears to us (and to quantum theoreticians) to have been chosen entirely at random among numerous (in this case, 24) possibilities. The Kabbalah disagrees and insists that the intended outcome A-B-C-D was pre-ordained by God and guaranteed by the actions of the Keter-Malchut axis (34) in accord with the dictum סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה “Last in deed, first conceived (Sabbath liturgy)”.
Fig. 3. The “Unknowable Head” (רדל״א) and its implications for quantum mechanics and the free will paradox. See text for details.
The above is not to say that we inhabit a rigidly mechanical universe. The Abrahamic faiths contend that God’s Will is mutable and impacted by our deeds and prayers. Only once a Divine decision is taken the outcome is secured a priori notwithstanding its manifestation of randomness and unpredictability on the screen of human perception. Viewed from the unified perspective of Oivi, the cosmos we know may be the finely-tuned product of a Divinely-collapsed “universal wave function” chosen from an infinitude of potential realities.
In support of this notion, the Ramchal states that “the Omnipotent One observes the entirety of Creation as a unified whole: ועל הכללות הזה מביט הכל-יכול בכל יכילתו בכלל אחד (35)”. From the vantage point of Orech, there are nested within this grand collapsing field a vast hierarchy of Ketarim (plural of the Sefirah Keter), each containing a RADLA aspect. Sealed off by these RADLA barriers, human consciousness encounters at each decision fork a smear of potential outcomes which, accruing from the act of observation, assumes a single trajectory in apparent stochastic fashion (but despite the unpredictability, remains pre-determined).
From God’s vantage point and the holistic slant of Oivi, there is no free will, not for the reasons promulgated by the reductionist community (Section 1) but because the Keter-Malchut connection underpinning reality ensures that even the most palpably “random” outcomes are at their most fundamental level Divinely pre-ordained.
From the above considerations, we may surmise that the RADLA curtain enables humankind to emulate God’s Creativity (Imitatio Dei) on a microcosmic scale (by transmuting the potential to the real) while at the same time blinding humanity to the Divine Blueprint informing the unfolding Creation in a manner that preserves our sense of free will. For all intents and purposes, our choices are kept “free” by operating within the confines of the RADLA—absent which human consciousness would be thoroughly inundated and commandeered by Divine Intent (as may transiently be experienced during prophecy (15, 29)).
Conceivably, by insulating our tiny “bubbles” of consciousness from the Mind of God, the Markov blanket-like behavior of the RADLA prevents the decoherence of superpositional states (36) and abrogation of all semblance of free agency which might otherwise accompany universal (Divinely-inspired) wave function collapse. Thus, the Kabbalah expounds free will as both existent and non-existent—a paradox. From the “vertical” perspective of Orech, where reality is intuited in bottom–up, hierarchical fashion, free will remains fully engaged by every meaningful definition of the term and we are justifiably held responsible for our actions. To think otherwise would render the Biblical exhortation החיים והמות נתתי לפניך הברכה והקללה ובחרת בחיים: “I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse; therefore choose life” (37) a complete non sequitur.
In contradistinction to the assumptions of the reductionist community, the Jewish mystical tradition maintains that the universe is not physically “closed” and that the human spirit, fashioned in God’s Image, may impel matter to move. Personal decisions logically construed as rigidly pre-determined in Oivi-consciousness are simultaneously experienced as indisputably real, at times agonizingly so, in Orech. The Kabbalah is perfectly at ease with paradoxes of this kind which are adjudged as intrinsic (non-illusory) characteristics of the fabric of Creation no less so than the wave–particle duality of light considered in Section 2.
Under no circumstances would the Kabbalah permit dismissal of our mundane sense of agency (or consciousness in general) as an epi-phenomenon as Daniel Dennett (38) and other material reductionists would have us do. To wit, the Kabbalistic formulation developed here may be loosely consistent with a strand of philosophical compatibilism allowing for the coexistence of theological determinism and free will (39, 40).
Both the Kabbalah and contemporary science teach that paradox, far from being exclusively epistemic in nature (“if only we were smarter…”), is an integral feature of the very tapestry of reality. Is there any value in attempting to incorporate such counter-intuitive insights into our daily experiences? Perhaps we should simply ignore these ontic paradoxes as we go about our lives—for does it really matter to a non-physicist whether light is particulate, wave-like, or both?
Whether free will exists or not, on the other hand, could have enormous implications for ascertaining personal responsibility and how society should best respond when confronted, for example, with sociopathic, unethical, or criminal behaviors. In Kabbalistic Panpsychism (15), I opined that a “healthy” Torah outlook requires that attention be paid to (one should intellectually “toggle” between) both sides of the Orech-Oivi dichotomy, as enlistment of either perspective alone is insufficient.
I argued that a worldview restricted to Orech-consciousness, as practiced by many materialists, is unacceptable to Judaism because it denies or marginalizes God or numbs the practitioner to the wonder of the Creation’s unified infrastructure. A disproportionate preoccupation with Oivi-consciousness would similarly fall short given Judaism’s emphasis on Tikkun Olam—humankind’s obligation to actively engage and repair the numerous “deficiencies” inherent to physical existence.
Perhaps the free will dilemma may be gainfully approached by analogy to how we cognitively assimilate the “linear” unfolding of our existence within Einstein’s Block Universe and the Kabbalah’s treatment of time (Section 2): Just as a deeper recognition of the eternal or “block” nature of time has little practical impact on our daily lives (after all, we still strive to learn from past mistakes and plan future vacations), so too should we conduct our worldly affairs—e.g., rewarding good and punishing evil—assuming bonafide autonomous agency (as bestowed upon us in the World of Asiyah) without undue concern for their pre-ordination in more ethereal realms.
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