Shira Weiss

Shira Weiss has taught Jewish Philosophy at Stern College, Yeshiva University since 2004.  She holds a PhD in Medieval Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University where she researched R. Joseph Albo's concept of choice in his philosophic exegesis.  She was awarded an NEH fellowship for college professors on Free Will and Human Perfection in Medieval Jewish Philosophy and has authored several articles in Mitokh HaOhel.  Additionally, she holds an EdD and serves as Assistant Principal at The Frisch School, Paramus, NJ.

Philosophical Investigation of the Biblical Motif of Hardened Hearts

The hardening of Pharaoh's heart is a major motif, recurring twenty times, throughout the Exodus narrative and has led to much debate among scholars regarding the philosophical concept of free choice. In the first five plagues, Pharaoh (or his heart itself) is the agent of the hardening. However, from the sixth plague onwards (with a noteworthy exception), it is God who hardens Pharaoh's heart. Approaches regarding whether or not God deprived Pharaoh of his free choice, as well as the nature of God's justice and Pharaoh's moral responsibility have been contested. Why would God force Pharaoh to resist His will and then hold him accountable for his coerced disobedience? Classical exegetes, medieval philosophers and modern biblical scholars have devoted much attention to the interpretation of this challenging text. In an effort to reconcile the divine hardening with justice and human free choice, some say that Pharaoh first hardened himself and thus deserved God's hardening as a deserved punishment for his earlier offenses. Others say that ancient Hebrew idioms found in biblical statements are not to be interpreted literally, since the biblical text replaces the proximate cause (Pharaoh) with the ultimate agent (God). Accordingly, God merely permitted Pharaoh to choose to resist His will, but the bible omits Pharaoh's autonomy and describes God as the (ultimate) cause of the action. Whether God's hardening was a direct supernatural deprivation of human free choice or an indirect allowance of intermediate causes to "harden" Pharaoh can be debated. However, subjecting the text to a literary and philosophical analysis, with sensitivity towards language (three different expressions hzq, kbd, and qsh are used to depict Pharaoh's stubbornness throughout the narrative), as well as philosophy regarding what constitutes free choice, may elucidate this perplexing biblical motif.