Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), pp. 133-4.
It cannot be maintained that there is a special hasidic doctrine of free will. The hasidic sources, when referring, as they do frequently, to human freedom, generally content themselves with simply repeating the standard Jewish teaching that man is free; otherwise there would be no meaning to the constant appeals in the Torah for man to do God’s will. Philosophical speculations on this theme are rare in hasidic literature.
When such masters as R. Barukh of Kossov and Tzvi Elimelekh of Dynov do examine the old theological problem of how human freedom can be reconciled with God’s foreknowledge, they do so only in order to stress the impotence of the human mind when confronted with the tremendous mystery of the divine nature. This most stubborn intellectual problem is, in fact, used to reject intellectualism in favor of simple, unsophisticated faith, of belief in the absurd, because it is absurd.
Following the Kabbalah, a number of hasidic masters point to the freely choosing will (ratzon) as reflecting the highest of the Sefirot in the divine realm, that of Keter (Crown), which is placed above the head, more elevated than Hokhmah (Wisdom) and Binah (Understanding). Man’s free choice is said to come from a deeper level of his being than his reason. There is thus no reasonable explanation of either God’s free choice of Israel or of Israel’s response to God, Israel’s martyrdom for its faith affronts common sense, but it stems from the free, selfless love that defies logic.
In spite of its constant emphasis on God as the All, Hasidism is normally completely faithful to the traditional Jewish belief in free will. How human autonomy is compatible with God’s omnipotence is a great mystery, but that it is compatible is accepted by virtually all the teachers of Hasidism, as it was for their rabbinic predecessors.
The sole exception is the tzaddik of Izbica, R. Mordecai Joseph, author of Mei HaShiloah, in whose scheme religious determinism has a definite place. For this thinker the talmudic saying “All is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven” is only true of life as humans see it before the messianic redemption. With the advent of the Messiah, the truth will become revealed that all along man’s religious and ethical deeds were ordained by God, that, in reality, “All is in the hands of Heaven, even the fear of Heaven.” Obedient to his views, this thinker’s interpretations of some of the biblical characters as spurred on to commit their sins by a kind of divine destiny for them was a source of grave offence to his contemporaries.
J. G. Weiss, “The Religious Determinism of Joseph Mordecai of Izbica” (Hebrew), pp. 447-453.