Thursday, 11 Oct 2012

Written by Esther Hugenholtz

Spoilt for Choice

For those of you have spent time in the United States of America, I have the following question: have you ever been to an American supermarket? And better yet: have you ever walked through the cereals aisle? I remember I almost had a nervous breakdown when I wanted to buy a box of cornflakes in a New York supermarket. There were rows and rows of colourful, loud boxes offering one permutation or another of breakfast cereal. I simply didn’t know what to choose and ‘froze up’. The phenomenon of stressful human responses to abundant choice is what psychologists call ‘decision making fatigue’, a scourge of contemporary Western society.

Quite a bit of research has gone into decision fatigue and studies have shown that “people who had more choices were often less willing to decide to buy anything at all, and their subsequent satisfaction was lower when they had been confronted with 24 or 30 options than when they faced six options.” Ultimately, the decision becomes counterproductive. People may be tempted into making the wrong decision (impulse purchase) or no decision at all (decision paralysis).

Ironically, I suffered from decision fatigue when confronted with the task of writing a d’var Torah on Parashat Bereishit. I simply couldn’t choose. There are so many great topics and themes, of moral substance, of existential nature and of mystical quality. Hadn’t everything already been said and written about Bereishit? This parashah spoils us for choice.

This is doubly ironic because one of the overarching themes of Bereishit is choice and freedom of choice. The basic idea of Judaism is that if we accept the premise of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God, then that God has to limit Himself (or Herself) in order to accommodate human reality. If God limits His love, then we must believe in an evil God, and we might as well be moral atheists. If God limits His knowledge, then we must believe in a blind Deity, and we might as well embrace scientific materialism. So the only option left to us is to accept that God limits His power and Himself in order to allow for free will and human agency (also, not mitigating God’s omnipotence would leave us trapped in a determinist divine dictatorship). Hence, the doctrine of free will is paramount to both Tanakh and philosophical Judaism. As Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah:

‘This matter [of there being a free will] is a very important principle, and is a support of the Torah and meritorious deeds, as it is written, “See, I have set before you on this day life and good, and death and evil”. It is also written, “Behold, I set before you on this day a blessing and a curse”. This is to say that one has the free will to do what one wants, whether it is good or bad. It is for this reason that it is written, “O that there were such a heart in them”, i.e. the Creator does not force or decree upon anybody to do good or bad, but lets them choose.’ (Hilchot Teshuvah – Laws of Repentance – 5:4).

The consequences, as we know, are the stuff of history – the highs and lows of human nature, balancing between the beasts and the angels.

And so Adam and Chava were made to choose. ‘Vayetzav Adonai Elohim al ha’Adam lemor, mikol etz hagan achol tochel, ume’etz hada’at tov va’ra lo tochal mimenu ki bayom acholecha mimenu mot tamut’ – ‘And the Eternal God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”(Gen. 2:15)

Predictably, perhaps, they made the ‘wrong’ choice – they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Tomes and tomes have been written about the ‘wrongness’ of their choice and it is one of the cardinal theological discourses between Judaism and Christianity. Where classical Christian doctrine has interpreted the Genesis account as proof of original sin, classical Judaism has always held fast to its position of choice. Did God then, set them up for failure? Again, it depends on one’s definition of failure. Without choice, Adam and Chava would have remained automatons. This would not have been a genuine relationship between God and humankind where both devotion to higher principles and freedom of choice inform our actions. Perhaps God Himself had no choice but to plant the Tree of Knowledge?!

What is more psychologically interesting is that perhaps Adam and Chava suffered from decision fatigue. After all, the Torah tells us that ‘mikol etz hagan achol tochel’ – that they could eat from ALL the trees, except for one. Overwhelmed by such choice, Adam and Chava did what was both simplest and ultimately against God’s command: eat from the one tree they were prohibited from. This is what experts call ‘impaired self-regulation’. They could not regulate their desires and caved in to transgression. They had to make a mental trade-off: either be swamped away by the dense richness of all the succulent fruit of Gan Eden or home in on one deceivingly simple choice.

Our world is both a Garden of Eden and a barren wasteland. For a large majority of the world’s population, decision fatigue is overshadowed by limited choice and by the sheer need to survive on a daily basis. But for us, caught between the cereal aisle and social media, decision fatigue is both a decadent and inescapable reality that compromises and alienates our human dignity. Like Adam and Chava we must think carefully and not be guided by our impulses. Perhaps if we simplify our lives a little and pause a little to reflect on our needs, rather than our impulses, then we can redeem the First Couple through good choices and reshape history, in addition improving our own lives and those of the human community as a whole?

Esther Hugenholtz
Student Rabbi at Leo Baeck College

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.