The movie asks if events that occur in our lives are somehow destined or whether stuff just happens. The angle that especially bothers me is whether people are somehow programmed or destined to have a particular kind of relationship to God.
On Thursday, this came up in a conversation with a Christian friend. Without giving away anyone’s identity, I’ll just say we were talking about another friend of ours, a secular Jew. We’ll call him Jeremy. It happens that still other friends of ours — a Catholic, a smattering of Evangelical Christians, an Orthodox Jew — have all been “working on” Jeremy. Basically, to put it crudely, trying to convert him.
My observation was that there’s something about Jeremy’s personality that makes me think it’s highly unlikely anyone will succeed. For all that Jeremy is interested in deep, ultimate, even spiritual questions, he doesn’t seem to have the “piety” gene. His raucous impiety is something that all his friends and admirers enjoy about him.
My Christian friend, with whom I was discussing this, is a bit of a Calvinist. Meaning, he believes in predestined salvation or damnation. As a Jew, I can’t accept such an idea. The Mishnah puts the matter this way: “Everything is foreseen [by God], yet freedom is granted; the world is judged with goodness, and everything is according to the preponderance of [good] deeds” (Pirke Avot 3:15).
What made me realize I had to blog about this was when I looked at my bookshelf tonight and “randomly” my eyes fell on a review copy of a forthcoming book I received in the mail from Oxford University Press this week. The title? Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine
, by Peter J. Thuesen.
The connection to Passover is that over the Sabbath, I was reading commentaries on the Song of Songs, which is part of the liturgy of the intermediate Sabbath of Passover. This book of the Hebrew Bible is traditionally understood as a parable about the tempestuous love affair between God and Israel. Verse 1:4, in which Israel speaks to God, reads, “Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.”
An anomaly in the grammar caught the attention of one traditional commentator, who explained that “Draw me” is in the singular because God’s call to us emanates equally, but the next phrase is in the plural, “we will run after thee,” because the response of every individual will vary according to…what?
At the same time, we all know people like Jeremy. I’ll give you an analogy: professional sports. I have always found watching sports or following sports results in the news a supremely boring activity. I will never be interested in sports, no matter how much I might wish otherwise. I don’t wish it, but even if I did.
We all know people who seem to lack that spiritual gene. We also know people who seem absolutely called not simply to spirituality but to a particular religion or a particular variation on that religion.
Because I wrote a book called Why the Jews Rejected Jesus
, I often get emails from adherents of Messianic Judaism or other Jewish Christians. A Jewish-born woman wrote to me recently and said she was dissatisfied by her life as Christian, that she didn’t care for liberal Jewish denominations, but at the same time, she wrote “I will NEVER be an Orthodox Jew.” She found the worship service too chilly and intellectual.
That’s a different blog post. Judaism is emphatically not merely about worship services. However, I had a very hard time knowing how to respond to her. It was not her intellect that was speaking to me in her email. It was her personality. Her personal response.
Is personal response subject to free choice? That’s my question for you. I have a theory about what in nature this may be comparable to.
One thing we can say for certain, on the basis of what we know from the Hebrew Bible, is that certain personal predispositions precede our emergence into the world. Jacob and Esau, in their mother’s womb, were already who they would become more fully as adults — Jacob moved by Godliness and Esau by idolatry.
The easy answer is that God gave Esau his temperament in order to provide him an opportunity to overcome it. So too with the rest of us who struggle with temptation. Fine. Yet this doesn’t explain why some folks really appear to be asleep spiritually, numb, insensible to spiritual stimulation. They may have been that way since childhood. They know no other orientation to the world.
To continue the sleep analogy: Can a sleeper awaken himself?