Monday, October 23, 2006

Life is With People*

One evening last week I took a train home from Hertzlia. The timetable said the train would depart at 9:50, and I got to the station at 9:30, in plenty of time. I was prepared with magazine to read while waiting. Also on the platform was a lovely young woman (LYW) with a small dog, a soldier, and a couple of kippa-wearing young men (KWYM) carrying briefcases and chatting together on the bench we all shared. Five minutes later, a decent-looking fellow (DLF) in his 40's arrived.

After a few minutes of impatient pacing in front of us, DLF walks over to KWYM and politely but quite loudly asks them in Hebrew if they would please answer a question: how could it be that God knows everything and still could or would give men free will? Because it just didn't make any sense to him. How could a man have free will and yet God would know in advance what he was going to do? What was free about that?

The assembled group is stunned. Is this man a nut? Who else would ask perfect strangers such a serious and deep question? But he seems rational, respectful even, clean, not drunk or stoned. KWYM #1 replies a bit defensively that he is not a rabbi, that this is a question that requires a rabbi to deal with. We're all a little disappointed at his cop-out.

DLF was not to be discouraged and repeated his question, becoming slightly more irritated with KWYM for not giving him a satisfactory answer, and looking around to us for encouragement. I was barely following the Hebrew and fascinated. The LYW was smiling, obviously enjoying the back-and-forth, but not about to get swept up into the conversation. The small dog went into hiding under our bench.

KWYM #1 repeatedly insisted that a rabbi was required, and looked around desperately for one to appear. Miraculously, when we weren't looking another KWYM, #3,had sat down behind us, so #1 tapped on #3's shoulder, hoping he would turn around and supply an answer. We were all waiting to hear the reply of KWYM #3, but instead of any wise words, #1 recognized #3 as an old yeshiva classmate of his and there followed the conversation one has when one bumps into an old yeshiva classmate (I imagine): How are you? What are you doing now? Are you married yet? (No) How is so-and-so, our mutual friend, etc. etc.

Meanwhile KWYM #2 decides to make a call on his cellphone. I'm hoping he's calling his rabbi to get an urgent answer to DLM's question, but he's just calling home to tell them to save him some food, he's very hungry.

By this time 9:50 has come and gone, and no train has appeared. At 10:00 a train approaches in and whizzes express, not stopping. By 10:05 DLM has abondoned the free will question and announces a little-known fact: if the train is 20 or more minutes late we are entitled to a full refund on our tickets, which he learned from his wife who works for the railroad, but don't tell anyone how we found out this secret because he doesn't want his wife to get in trouble. No one leaves to get a refund.

Finally, at 10:15, our train pulls in. Our little group disbands, without ever finding out why God gave man free will. But for 45 minutes my magazine went unread.

*Somebody - was it Sholom Aleichem? - said this about life in the shtetl.


Anonymous said...

"How could a man have free will and yet God would know in advance what he was going to do? What was free about that?"

It's not free, you have pay at the ticket office.

claude said...

What a great story. To me this is sooo Jewish, not because they are wearing kippas or the train being late (we have lots of this over here), but just the whole scene and the topic of conversation. Reminds me of stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Thanks

Anonymous said...

We have free will to the extent that God does not control us like puppets.

However we are subject to the natural laws of the universe. If you have perfect knowledge of a person, his history, his characteristics, and if you have complete knowledge of natural law including the laws of psychology, you can predict what someone will do. Does God have this knowledge and does he make these predictions? I don't know.

Does this mean we don't have free will? It depends on how you define free will. No one complains that we don't have free will because our bodies are subject to the law of gravity. Therefore I think it is reasonable to say that we do have free will even though it might be possible to predict our actions.

I don't think it is very useful for humans to try to understand God. It's like a mouse trying to understand a computer. Is it good to eat? Is it a good place to make a nest?

Humankind's idea of God is certainly a result of our own imagination. That is not to say that there is not crative intelligence responsible for the existence of the universe. But it's pretty hopeless for beings with brains that are built to function in a three dimensional world to try to comtemplate the force that created time, space, and everything in it.

Chancy said...

We Presbyterians wonder about free will all the time too;) Predestination and all.

I don't have any answers. I just try and muddle through one day at a time and be kind to dumb animals.;)

Chancy said...

We Presbyterians wonder about free will all the time. Predestination and all.

I do not have any answers. I just try to muddle through and be kind to dumb animals.

Savtadotty said...

Claude, you got it. Where in your experience could such an interchange happen among strangers in a public, place?

Chancy, the topic itself is a profoundly paradox to all, but at a train station? Among strangers?

Liza said...

Actually (speaks one with the voice of far too much Israel Railways experience), the train has to be 30 minutes late in order to get a free ticket. You hold onto the ticket afterwards, take it to the station master, fill out a short form with your address, give it to the station master along with the ticket, and they send you a new one. If it's less than 30 minutes (even 27 minutes), no free ticket. Most regular commuters know the deal (though it's not advertised anywhere that I've seen - we all pass it on via word of mouth, especially if the train is running late), and the guy's wife certainly wouldn't have gotten fired, so clearly, he was going on about nothing.

The question is, did you save your ticket? :-)

Shari said...

I've been a regular commuter for 10 years (Herzliya-Rehovot) and can vouch for Liza. One small correction; you usually get your refund immediately, in the form of an unused ticket of the same value, usuable at any time.

I also love the story because over the years, I've met some good friends on the train, from chatting on the track, etc. Life is suspended for 50 minutes on the way to work, 50 on the way back. These truly are the best times to contemplate the meaning of life and God, no?

Savtadotty said...

Liza, Shari - It never occurred to me to return my ticket for a refund, mostly because I only paid NIS3.50 for it (1/2 price for Senior Citizens!) and that amount just isn't worth the bureacratics, and also because I got so much entertainment out of the wait.

The only other place I remember having this kind of cameraderie was in New York City during disasters: blackouts, subway strikes, and blizzards. I suppose what bonds us this way in Israel is living with perpetual disaster.

tafka PP said...

Hilarious story. One suspects, however, that DLM would not have been satisfied with an answer from KWYM 1, 2, or 3.

Anonymous said...

"Life Is With People" is the title of a book, published in 19062, by by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog about life in the Stetls of Eastern Europe. Amazon gives it five stars.

Udge said...

Wonderful story! It probably couldn't happen anywhere else.

Fascinating comments too. FWIW I think that DLF is equating two distinct and non-equivalent things: foreknowledge and causation. I know that the sun will rise, but my knowledge does not cause it to do so.

I agree with Anonymous Nr.2 that the answer to this question cannot be answered from within the reality in which it is asked.

We experience time as linear, the present moment in which we live moves towards the future like counting the beads in a rosary one by one. God is not bound by time, he "knows" the future in the same way that we know our own pasts.

He sees our "future" free choice to do something that he knows we will do, in the same way that we look back on a free choice we made X years ago: that we now know what that choice was, did not make it unfree at the time.

Liza said...


Really? Cool! At my station (not one of the major ones), I've always had to wait for them to mail the free ticket to me. It makes a lot more sense to take care of it on the spot, and saves them postage. Of course logic has never been a strong suit in this country...

Joy Des Jardins said...

You just never know do you? I guess we all should just be prepared to be quizzed on anything and any given moment....even if it is by strangers. That guy's pretty gutsy. How did he know he wasn't asking someone who could have given him more than he bargained for?

I can just imagine the look on your face when he walked up out of nowhere and asked that question....pretty funny really.