Dvar Torah: Judaism and determinism

Rabbi Mordecai Miller of BSKI

by Rabbi Mordecai Miller

One of the most eye-opening classes I was privileged to attend during my years at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institue of Religion, Cincinnati, Ohio was the elective given by Professor Chanan Brichto.  His subject was the opening chapters of Genesis (1 through 4): (From the Creation through Cain and Abel).  There were nuggets of information that I picked up that have remained treasures in my store of knowledge to this day.

One such “nugget” has to do with the story of Cain and Abel.  After God “pays attention” to Abel’s offering and “pays no attention” to Cain’s, Cain “is much distressed and his face fell.” (Gen. 4:5)  God responds to Cain’s reaction with a somewhat cryptic, statement couched in the style of Biblical poetry (parallelism):


“Why are you distressed,

And why is your face fallen?

Surely, if you do right,

There is uplift.

But if you do not do right

Sin crouches at the door;

Its urge is toward you,

Yet you can be its master.” (Gen. 4:6,7)

Dr. Brichto explained the last couplet by contrasting Biblical Tragedy with Greek Tragedy.  In Greek Tragedy, man has no choice but to follow the “caprice of the gods” and still face the consequences. In other words, no matter what, Oedipus will kill his father and sleep with his mother… and face the consequences of these acts which were predetermined by the gods.  That is “Greek” Tragedy.

In Biblical Tragedy, as defined by this statement in Genesis, the tragedy of man is that he is capable of controlling his impulse to commit evil acts… and yet he still choses to commit those acts! (Cain, sadly, pays no attention to God’s words and kills Abel. (Gen. 4:8))

This fundamental philosophical issue remains with us to this day in a modern iteration.  How do we choose to view human behavior?  Do we use behavioral science, which may identify genetic and other conditions that predispose a person to certain types of behavior, and say that since the individual is “by nature” predisposed to making such choices, he or she has no control and therefore cannot be held accountable for making such choices; or do we say that despite such predispositions, humans are still capable of freely making such choices and are therefore accountable for their choices!

It ultimately depends on how we answer this question, posed so many thousand years ago, by God to Cain!

Rabbi Mordecai Miller serves Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel congregation in Richmond Heights and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.