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April 21, 2014

Andrew Silow-Carroll: Passoverkill? Suggestions to make next year's seders even more culturally sensitive

Sara Israelsen Hartley: Seeking the Divine: An ancient connection in a new context

Christine M. Flowers: Priest's execution in Syria should be call to action

Courtnie Erickson: How to help kids accept the poor decisions of others

Lizette Borreli: A Glass Of Milk A Day Keeps Knee Arthritis At Bay

Lizette Borreli: 5 Health Conditions Your Breath Knows Before You Do

The Kosher Gourmet by Betty Rosbottom Coconut Walnut Bars' golden brown morsels are a beautifully balanced delectable delight

April 18, 2014

Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology

Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

Megan Wallgren: 10 things I've learned from my teenagers

Lizette Borreli: Green Tea Boosts Brain Power, May Help Treat Dementia

John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious

April 14, 2014

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time

Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

The Kosher Gourmet by Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon Don't dare pass over these Pesach picks for Manischewitz!

April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review

Are you a biological automaton?

By Rabbi Avi Shafran





'Can't-Help-Yourself books' taking up where 'New atheists' lit let off

JewishWorldReview.com | Like mosquitoes dive-bombing a rock, a swarm of writers are waging a spirited, ineffectual, attack on human free will.

One observer of the spate of recent books arguing that people are biological automatons, James Atlas, calls the genre a mirror image of the so-called "self-help" literature. These new offerings, he drolly notes, are "Can't-Help-Yourself books."

They follow, and complement, the malignant manna of atheist manifestos that dropped from the publishing sky just a few years back. (In fact, one of the new books is by Sam Harris, the author of one of the old ones.) Denying the Creator opens up new vistas of guiltless behavior. Denying our ability to control our actions erases any residual reservoirs of conscience.

Citing advances in neurobiology, the books make the case that our brain chemicals yield who we are and what we do. Choices we make, their authors argue, derive from our nervous systems, not the "I" that each of us feels is part of our soul. We are, in Mr. Harris' words, "biomechanical puppets."


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It is true, of course, at least to a degree, that we are hampered by our biologies, conscribed by inherent limitations in how we act and react to things around us. We are born with (unripe but eventually-to-unfold) personalities, desires, and mindsets.

Even beyond biology, as the Maimonides (Hilchos De'os 1:2, 1:7) explains, our disposition-settings can be affected by our environments and the effects of our previous actions. But the "Can't-Help-Yourself"pushers abandon the fields of science for the marshes of wishful thinking when they leap from the fact that there are things human beings cannot easily, or at all, control to the conclusion that, as Mr. Harris puts it, "Free will is an illusion."

The most accessible modern Torah-source on the topic of human will is likely Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, who in the 1940s served as the founder and Rosh Kollel of the Gateshead Kollel in England and later as the Mashgiach Ruchani of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The volumes of his posthumously published writings and thoughts, under the title Michtav Me'Eliyahu, are a bookshelf-staple of Mussar movement devotees and, in fact, any Jew of cerebral bent.

In his writings, Rabbi Dessler often refers to free will. He conceptualizes the Torah perspective in what he calls the "nekudas habechira"—the "point of choice." His favored metaphor is a battlefield. An invading army, he asks us to imagine, is seeking to advance the line of battle deeper into enemy territory. The enemy pushes back. The territory behind the army is already conquered and secure. The territory beyond the enemy army is currently beyond reach. The dynamic point, the place where gain or loss can take place, is the front line. And that is where the battle must be fought.

Human beings, Rabbi Dessler explains, are perpetually on a front line facing an enemy: the urge to do wrong. There may be much territory behind us, the yield of battles won; there is little or no temptation to succumb to those distant sirens. And there is always territory yet to conquer, some of it out of reach for the moment, realistically beyond the power of our wills. What matters, because it can be engaged, is the front line, the point where change can transpire, where, with the force of our conscious determination, we can make true choices.

Imagine a person born into a larcenous, murderous environment, raised to take others' possessions and lives at whim, and who has done so many times. His "front line" may be the decision to spare the life of the potential victim he now has in his gun's sights. The murderer cannot be expected to choose, at least now, to become a tzaddik, a kind and perfectly righteous man; that is too far from his current state. What he can do, though, is choose to put his weapon down and walk away now. And if he does that, he has won a battle, advanced in life, made a meaningful choice—and is better prepared to face the next one. With enough time and right choices, he can yet achieve saintliness.

As we all can, on our own individual front lines.

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Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine




© 2012, Rabbi Avi Shafran