The story of Joseph and his brothers, described in the Torah portion of Vayeshev, presents many problems. Classical biblical commentators interpret the conflict between Joseph and his brothers in diametrically opposite ways. Some commentators interpret it literally—the brothers were guilty of conspiring to kill Joseph and, ultimately, selling him into slavery, for which they were held accountable.[1] In fact, the brothers admit their guilt:

And they said one to another: ‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear. . . .

Genesis 42:21

Others take the view that these events were predetermined by G‑d. Indeed, in the Covenant Between the Parts, G‑d reveals to Abraham that his descendants will be strangers in a foreign land. Furthermore, Joseph himself consoles his brothers after he reveals himself:

And now be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither; for God did send me before you to preserve life.

Genesis 45:5

And later, comforting his brothers after Jacob’s death, Joseph repeats:

And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.

Genesis 50:20

Joseph asserts that it was divine providence that brought him to Egypt, relieving his brothers of culpability for selling him into slavery.

So, did the brothers exercise their free will—and therefore were culpable—in selling Joseph, or did G‑d preordain it, and, if so, does it remove the culpability from the brothers? Rabbi Akiva gives his famous answer in the Ethics of the Fathers: “All is foreseen, yet choice is given.” How is it possible? Jewish thinkers, philosophers, and mystics have debated the paradox of free will and divine foreknowledge for millennia. However, a review of various opinions on this subject is outside the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that the more-or-less standard answer on which most Jewish thinkers converge is that divine foreknowledge does not in any way affect our actions.

Here, I focus on one answer that offers an interesting and original take on this paradox. It was offered by a medieval rabbi, philosopher, and Torah commentator, R. Isaac Arama.[2] In his commentary on this Torah portion, he writes:

God has granted men the freedom of choice to do good or evil. At the same time, everything that happens is directed by divine providence. To understand this apparent contradiction, one is to understand the distinction between particular actions, and the outcome which results from them. Numerous individual actions will produce a certain outcome. But those same actions could also have produced a different outcome; alternatively, the same outcome could have also resulted from a different set of actions. The individual actions are by human choice; the outcome is the sole province of God.

This principle is well illustrated by the story of Joseph and his brothers. The descent of Jacob’s family to Egypt was foretold at the Covenant Between the Parts and was inherent in the primordial divine plan. Yet the human actions which produced this outcome—Jacob’s preferential treatment of Joseph, the brothers’ jealousy, the brothers’ sale of Joseph into slavery—were freely chosen. This is why the brothers were fully responsible for their actions and had to atone for their sin, notwithstanding the fact that everything they did was in the end revealed as having produced the outcome plotted from Above.[3]

Akeidat Yitzchak

Let us analyze R. Arama’s position. First, he separates the actions of men from the outcome and breaks the causal link between them. Men freely choose their actions for which they are held accountable. The outcome, however, is predetermined and foreseen. This idea was proposed earlier by Jewish philosopher Hasdai Crescas (1340–1410/11). Crescas grappled with the theological paradox of how free will could be reconciled with divine foreknowledge and providence. His solution proposed in Or Adonai was to argue human actions have a degree of free choice, but outcomes in the world are preordained by G‑d’s foreknowledge. So there is a “decoupling”—people possess freedom of moral choice internally, but what ultimately happens externally is determined by divine will. This attempted to resolve how moral responsibility could coexist with a G‑d who knows and plans the course of the world. There is both real human volition and deterministic scripting of consequences.

Breaking the causal link between human actions and their outcomes may be shocking at first blush. Recall, however, that causality suffers the same fate in quantum mechanics. Measurements of quantum systems cannot be predicted from prior states, only probabilistically described after the fact. The act of measurement uniquely disturbs what was there before, violating the classical sense of causality.

Furthermore, in R. Arama’s words, “Numerous individual actions will produce a certain outcome” and “alternatively, the same outcome could have also resulted from a different set of actions” can be interpreted to mean that human actions are random vis-à-vis the outcome. Let us note that determinism, which excludes randomness, also excludes any free will. Therefore, some philosophers argue that randomness or uncaused indeterminacy may be necessary for genuine freedom of choice and human agency.[4] If human choices were entirely deterministically caused, this would undermine any cohesive notion of free will or self-directed agency. Randomness introduces an openness to outcomes. Introducing indeterminism and probability distributions allows models of decision-making where consciousness can potentially steer outcomes based on internal reasons and valuations. The unpredictability afforded by randomness also makes room for creativity—generating novel connections and ideas less constrained by cause-effect chains. Quantum scale randomness may get biologically amplified to macroscopic uncertainty. Most interpretations of quantum theory require some inherent randomness in physical events. Elements of chance furnish key ingredients for rethinking free will, imagination, and conscious volition in more complex models aligned with quantum theory.

I believe that randomness is indispensable for free will. To freely choose between good and evil, between any two opposite choices, both must be equally feasible and equally probable. Imagine you have two choices of ice cream in front of you—chocolate and vanilla. You equally like both, and they cost the same. Both options are available, and no extrinsic factors influence your choice. Only in this scenario is your choice truly free, which seems completely random to outside observers. Since R. Arama maintains that human beings do indeed possess freedom of choice, that must mean that human beings act randomly.

The outcome, however, is deterministic—“the outcome is the sole province of God.”

Let us now juxtapose this against the behavior of quantum-mechanical wavefunction. As we know from quantum mechanics, the evolution of the wave function guided by the Schrödinger equation is completely deterministic. The results of the measurements, however, are completely random. All the wave function can do is allow us to calculate the probability of a specific outcome while the outcome remains random.

As we see, inanimate matter, which has no agency, acts in ways opposite to how human agents act. The law guiding the behavior of subatomic particles—the Schrödinger equation—is completely deterministic, and so is the evolution of the wave function. The result, however, is completely random. When it comes to human beings who possess agency, the situation is reversed—their actions are random, but the result is deterministic.

Why is this significant? This surprising conclusion that inanimate matter and conscious agents operate on very different laws incompatible with each other may help shed some light on the so-called hard problem of philosophy—the problem of consciousness.

The “hard problem of consciousness” in philosophy refers to the difficulty of explaining subjective first-person conscious experiences in terms of objective physical processes. Philosopher David Chalmers formulated this issue in his seminal 1995 paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”:

Why is all this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life?… Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.[5]

In this passage, Chalmers argues that no mechanistic explanation seems capable of accounting for the emergence of experiential awareness and qualia—the sensations comprising conscious experience.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel also famously argued in his 1974 paper “What is it Like to be a Bat?” that the subjective character of consciousness precludes it from being reduced to physical systems:

If physicalism is to be defended, the phenomenological features must themselves be given a physical account. But when we examine their subjective character it seems that such a result is impossible.[6]

So, the hard problem refers to a conceptual gap between subjective qualities of consciousness and configurations of the physical brain and nervous system. The issue persists as a central debate in philosophy of mind.

While I agree with Nagel and Chalmers that physical processes in the brain cannot account for subjective inner experiences, their reasoning is not proof of the explanatory gap—it is more of the description of the gap. Seeing how anything physical in our brains can account for subjective inner experience is very difficult. Nevertheless, this difficulty does prove that it is impossible.

There are deep connections drawn by philosophers between the phenomenon of conscious inner experience and the capacity for agency. Having a subjective experiential point of view generates a sense of selfhood—a distinct perspective anchored in the feeling of conscious awareness, which serves as the seat of personal identity. Qualitative experiences, especially of emotions, desires, pains, and pleasures, motivate individuals towards purposive action aimed at maximizing satisfaction. So, the content of consciousness guides behavior.[7] The stream of conscious intentions and deliberations allows for self-reflection and self-directed adjustments of behavior toward fulfilling goals, enabling a sense of free will or volition.

Phenomenologically, even basic bodily movements seem to be initiated consciously as the subjective “I” that produces agency through my consciousness directing the body.

Thus, the conscious inner life is intertwined functionally with the agency by forming an executive ego capable of reflective choice. Consciousness and agency have an intimate kinship.

This brings us back to the earlier realization that agents behave according to a different set of laws than objects of inanimate matter. The former behaves randomly vis-à-vis a deterministic outcome, whereas the latter evolves deterministically towards a random outcome. These incompatible ontologies exclude the possibility that the agency (and subjective inner experience of conscious agents) can be reduced to the physical properties of the brain. This proves that the gap between the mind/consciousness and the brain is unbridgeable. We owe this conclusion to the penetrating insight of a medieval biblical commentator, R. Yitzchak Arama, and his illuminating explanation of the paradox of free will and divine providence as reflected in the story of Joseph and his brothers.


[1] This is the view of Rashi, Rava bar Mechasya in Talmud, Midrash Tanchuma, Alshich,  R. Acha in Midrash Rabbah, R. Yudan in Midrash Tehilim, Maharal, Keli Yakar, and others.

[2] Isaac ben Moses Arama (1420-1494), a Spanish rabbi, philosopher, Kabbalist, and biblical commentator, author of classical commentary on the Torah, Akeidat Yitzchak (Binding of Isaac).

[3] R. Isaac Ramo, Akeidat Yitzchak. (Translated and quoted by R. Yanki Tauber in his introduction to Vayeishev, The Book of Genesis, (Open Book Press: New York, 2023).

[4] Philosophers who have argued for incorporating randomness or indeterminacy as a necessary ingredient for genuine human free will and agency include Robert Kane who develops an “indeterminist” model of free will where conscious choices involve neural events that are “partially indeterminate,” introducing randomness that gets resolved by the efforts of the wil, see Robert Kane, The Significance of Free Will (Oxford University Press: 1996); Randolph Clarke, who outlines an “agent causation” view tied to ontological indeterminacy, where the causal power of conscious agents is not reducible to physical events, allowing room for intrinsic randomness in willed acts, see Randolph Clarke, Libertarian Accounts of Free Will (Oxford University Press: 2003); Mark Balaguer who defends a “libertarianism about free will,” where conscious choices involve appropriate kinds of quantum indeterminacies that open up space for willful determination; see Mark Balaguer, Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem (MIT Press: 2010).

[5] David Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1995 2(3), pp. 200-219.

[6] Thomas Nagel, “What is it Like to be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review, 1974, 83:4, pp. 435-450.

[7] This comports with the Kabbalistic notion of the partzufim Atik Yomin (the “Ancient of Days,” which is pnimi’ut HaKeter—the inner aspect of the sefirah of Keter) and Arich Anpin (the “Long Face,” which is chitzoniut HaKeter—the external aspect of the sefirah of Keter). In Lurianic Kabbalah, Atik Yomin represents taanug (“delight”), whereas Arich Anpin represents ratzon (“Desire”). Desire that guides the behavior of an agent is, in turn, driven by the delight—the subjective experience of pleasure.