Sunday, October 09, 2005

Pharaoh and the Freedom to Will the Good

© Berel Dov Lerner. Originally published in Le'ela December 1999, 11-13.

Judaism passionately insists on the truth of two seemingly contradictory doctrinal claims: divine omnipotence and human freedom. On the one hand, any limitation on God’s power would constitute an affront to divine perfection. On the other hand, a denial of the notion that humans are the free authors of their thoughts and actions would drain the central concern of Judaism, i.e. the performance of God’s commandments, of its ethical and religious value. In order to avoid the conclusion that God is unable to affect our volitions, human freewill is usually viewed as resulting from God’s voluntary decision not to exercise His power over us. As Rabbi Akiva said, hareshut netuna (Avot 3:19), God grants us leave to do and think as we please.

Leaving aside the question of this solution’s philosophical validity, its scriptural validity has been the subject of longstanding concern for Judaism. The major source of scriptural difficulty derives from the notion of God’s “hardening” or “strengthening” someone’s heart. This expression appears to refer to God’s interfering with the reasonable course of someone’s thinking in order that they choose to act in an irrational and imprudently evil fashion. While scripture speaks of God similarly affecting the hearts of other biblical characters (see, for instance, Deut. 2: 30, Josh. 11: 20), the notion is first and most extensively used in reference to the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Several times during the course of the Ten Plagues, Pharaoh appears prepared to give into Moses’ demand that the Israelites be let out of Egypt, only to have his heart “hardened” by God (Ex. 9: 12; 10: 20, 27; 11: 10). His resolve strengthened by divine intervention, Pharaoh stands firm against Moses and so invites further catastrophes upon Egypt. Finally, when the Jews leave Egypt, God once more interferes to insure that Pharaoh sends his troops out after them (Ex. 14: 8), a decision which leads to the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea.

Many exegetes, both ancient and modern,[1] have tackled the problem of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Maimonides offers one of the classic Jewish solutions to this problem. He explains in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Teshuva 6: 3) that God did in fact interfere with Pharaoh’s moral autonomy, but that this was appropriate because Pharaoh belonged to the class of exceptionally evil people to whom the possibility repentance is denied in order that they not escape punishment for their terrible deeds. In the present essay I shall forward an explanation of why Pharaoh was particularly deserving of such treatment. My basic contention is that God’s tinkering with Pharaoh’s inner thoughts must be understood against the wider role of what might be called “mind control” in the story of the Exodus.

It is important to note that God is not the first character in the Exodus story to blatantly interfere with human autonomy. Interference with the human will is not a uniquely divine prerogative; it is an option available to anyone who is able to apply the requisite physical force. Indeed, the whole point of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt was not economic, but rather it served as a technique for the control of an entirely different aspect of thought and behavior. Allow me to approach this ultimately quite obvious point in a round about way.

The Torah describes the work done by the Jewish slaves in Egypt as being b’farekh (Ex. 1: 13,14). This term is usually translated as "harsh" or "rigorous". The word reappears later in Leviticus 25:43 (and again in 25:46), in a verse limiting the powers of a master over his Hebrew slave: "You shall not rule over him ruthlessly [b'farekh], you shall fear your God."[2] Since the word b’farekh appears in a legal context, it requires a positive halakhic definition. Maimonides (Hilkhot Avadim 1: 16) states:

It is forbidden to work any Hebrew slave with rigor [b'farekh]. And what is rigorous work? It is work without a set limit, and unnecessary work whose only purpose is to keep him busy.

According to Maimonides, the category of avodat parekh includes work which has no genuine economic purpose. Such indeed was the nature of the drudgery performed by the Israelites in Egypt. Although the Egyptians obviously enjoyed the fruits of Israelite labour, originally and in essence the enslavement of the Jewish people was not instituted with an eye to Egyptian economic interests. Rather it was imposed as a shrewd method of social control, a strategy to change Israelite family life in order to address the threat of a burgeoning Jewish population. Pharaoh himself proclaims:

Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us, then, deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies in fighting against us and gain ascendancy over the country (Exodus 1: 9-10).

The “solution” is arrived at immediately:

So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses (Ex. 1: 11).

This particular attempt at shaping the Israelite psyche does not succeed. Pharaoh’s taskmasters do not break the Jewish will to bring forth new life (Ex. 1: 12). However, Jewish resistance to the intended effects of Pharaoh’s policy should not blind us to the very real limitations of human self-determination. The Israelites of scripture are not absolutely self-determined existential heroes. Rather, they are imperfect human beings who must struggle for control over their own lives and minds. Jews have never blinded themselves to this aspect of their existence. Although Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Teshuva (5: 2) that, “every human being may become righteous like Moses our Teacher”, anyone acquainted with his ethical works must know how aware he was of the psychological and social impediments to self-directed spiritual development.[3] In Exodus, the Torah makes us aware just how fragile human freedom can be.

The background of the incident to which I refer begins with Moses’ qualms regarding his ability to serve as God’s spokesman to the Israelites:

But Moses spoke up and said, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The Lord did not appear to you?" (Ex. 4:1)

God replies by supplying Moses with a series of "signs" which will demonstrate the authenticity of his mission:

The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he replied, “A rod.” He said, “Cast it on the ground.” He cast I on the ground and it became a snake; and Moses recoiled from it. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and grasp it by the tail” – he put out his hand and seized it, and it became a rod in his hand – “that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, did appear to you." (Ex. 4: 2-5)

In the subsequent verses, God instructs Moses how to perform additional signs, instantly afflicting and curing his hand of leprosy (4: 5-7) and changing water from the Nile into blood (4: 9). Moses’ planned meeting is a great success:

Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. Aaron repeated all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, and the people were convinced. When they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites and that He had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage (Ex. 4: 29).

So far we have a story which reflects respect for the autonomy of human reason. Moses realizes that the Israelites must be offered convincing evidence of the authenticity of his mission. The Israelites properly assess the signs presented to them by Moses and correctly concluded that God has decided to redeem them from slavery. The great medieval scholar, Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet, reads these passages as a veritable celebration of the independence of human thought:

To Israel, the heir of the religion of truth, the children of Jacob, the man of truth…it is easier to bear the burden of exile than to believe in anything before it is thoroughly and repeatedly examined and all its dross has been purged away, even though it appears to be a sign or a miracle. The undeniable evidence for Israel’s love of truth and rejection of anything which is doubtful can be seen in the relationship of Israel to Moses. In spite of the fact that they were crushed by slavery, yet when Moses was told to bring them the tidings of their redemption, he said to the Lord: “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The Lord did not appear to you?”[4]

While Moses is troubled with the epistemological niceties surrounding the reception of his message of hope, Pharaoh’s response to Israel’s new faith in the redemption is brutally practical. He simply commands its forceful destruction:

Let heavier work be laid upon the men, and let them keep at it and not pay attention to idle chatter (Ex. 5: 9).

The Torah explicitly dissuades us of any illusions regarding the invincibility of the human spirit. Oppression can destroy even the most rationally justified faith. In a later meeting with the Israelites, Moses tries to repeat his message of coming redemption, “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Ex. 6: 9). Religious conviction is not immune to the arguments of the taskmaster’s whip.

What does all of this say for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? It should now be clear why the peculiar nature of Pharaoh’s evil cried out for such special treatment. Pharaoh was a tyrant who brutally tried to rob people of their innermost freedom. He attempted to extinguish the Jew’s very will to continue the chain of life, and at one point, succeeded in closing their minds to the words of God. How fitting, then, that he too should have the final degree of moral obtuseness forced upon him. The Pharaoh who would destroy, in others, the possibility of faith, was himself made unreceptive to God’s message, and in this found his downfall.

[1] Joseph Albo's Sefer HaIkkarim 4: 25 offers an important alternative to Maimonides' interpretation. Recently, Pharaoh's hardened heart has attracted new interest among philosophers of religion. See Eleonore Stump, "Sanctification, Hardening of Heart, and Frankfurt's Concept of a Person", Journal of Philosophy 85:8 (August 1988): 395-420, Norman Kretzman, "God Among the Causes of Moral Evil: Hardening of Hearts and Spiritual Blinding", Philosophical Topics 16: 2 (Fall 1988): 189-214, and David Schatz, "Hierarchical Theories of Freedom and the Hardening of Hearts", Midwest Studies in Philosophy XXI (1997): 202-224, which explicitly favors Albo's interpretation over its modern competitors.
[2] All biblical quotations are from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia and New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1988).
[3] See, for instance, the drastic efforts which Maimonides says must be made in order to neutralize evil societal influences in Mishneh Torah, Deot 6: 1.
[4] Responsa no. 548, as translated in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is not Alone: a Philosophy of Religion (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1951) pg. 159 in footnote.

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