A Moment Of Disobedience

What Does It Mean To Have Free Will?

In the stark opening moments of Disobedience , the film adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s 2006 debut novel, a weighty question is posed: What does it mean to have free will?.

In an Orthodox synagogue in Hendon, London – the men draped in prayer shawls, the women wearing hats and sitting in the balcony above – the ailing communal leader Rav Krushka tells his congregants that God made the angels, beasts and humans. The angels operate purely on the word of God, with no will and no desire. The beasts operate purely on instinct.

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“And what is this man and woman?” Rav Krushka asks. “We have the power to disobey. We are in possession of free will. We must choose the tangled life we live.”.

When I first read the novel Disobedience years ago, I was part of a Modern Orthodox community, intent on quieting a constant press of questions. Could you will yourself to believe in the theological assertions with which you were raised? And if you couldn’t, could you – should you – force yourself to remain inside a world in which you do not believe, for the sake of community, for the sake of family, for the sake of upholding who you were supposed to be?

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