What do we mean when we say that all men are free? These words have a legal connotation which has found its way into the Bill of Rights, stating that all men are free as long as their actions do not impinge on the freedom of another person. The exact boundary between conflicting freedoms will be set by specific laws.
However, the legal statement has nothing to say about independent character traits of people. Why do I make the choices that I do? Do I have a tendency to act the way I do because of the influence of factors over which I have no control? We can say that legal freedom is given to a person specifically because it is hard to believe that he is truly free, and it would therefore be patently unfair to demand that he act in a way that is different from his natural tendency.
The approach which denies that man is truly free is called determinism. This approach has taken several forms. One of these is astrology, which feels that the fate of a person is set by the status of the stars at the moment of his birth. There is also biological determinism, which feels that everything depends on genetic factors, and Greek fatalism, which believes in blind fate. Islam believes in prior fate, in that everything is set in advance by a decision of the Creator, or psychoanalytical determinism, which searches for the roots of behavior in basic trauma of childhood, or the historicism of Karl Marx, which blames everything on a class war. There are also some who claim that human behavior depends on effects of society, education, or other factors.
As opposed to all of these approaches, the outlook of Judaism stands out with all its power. It views man as a completely free being with respect to the choice between good and evil. Rambam bases this approach on four points: (1) The very fact that the mitzvot exist assumes that sin is possible (see Shemona Perakim, Chapter 8). (2) Reward and punishment would be unjust if there were no free choice. (3) Study. (4) Preparation to ward off damage.
However, we are still left with one basic question. The very fact that we are born into the world is an act of coercion. And here we have a surprising fact in the Talmud which completes the picture. “All of the products of creation agreed to be formed – they were asked if they wanted to be created and they replied in the affirmative.” [Rosh Hashanah 11a, and see Rashi]. That is, every creature chose the conditions under which it would exist and the space where its free choice would have an expression – and this took place before it was created, at a stage where the difference between its own will and that of the Creator was not yet defined. And this includes the choice of belonging to a specific nation – to Israel or to the other nations.
This idea can be seen in the Mishna: Against your will you are created, born, live, die, and give a reckoning of your deeds (Avot 4:29). The unavoidable chain of events begins with “being created.” This corresponds to the stage where a fetus has reached forty days after fertilization (Sanhedrin 91b). That is the point when the biological recognition of existence begins, and not before.
Source: “THE ROOTS OF FAITH: Basic Tenets of Jewish Philosophy” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato (Zomet Institute). See: http://www.zomet.org.il/eng – Mishpatim 5777, issue 1662.