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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Master plan or free will?

One of the interesting sub-themes raised by a few people in yesterday's comment thread was the issue of whether life and death were part of some master plan (meaning controlled by a Higher Power), or simply random events (meaning controlled by human free will).

It's funny that in the midst of this discussion (but unrelated to it), I received an email from a friend inviting me to participate in a discussion of the actions - perhaps more correctly 'inaction' - of an English soldier in WWI; Private Henry Tandey.  In light of the [perhaps] coincidental timing of the email, I've decided to invite you all to the discussion:

For most of you the name Henry Tandey won't ring a bell, so allow me to provide some background information:

According to records from his Regiment (The Green Howards), Private Tandey spent the 28th of September, 1918 helping to capture a French village called Marcoing from the German forces holding it.  During the fighting for the village and its crossing...

"His platoon was held up by machine-gun fire.   He at once crawled forward, located the machine gun with a Lewis gun team and knocked it out.   On arrival at the crossings he restored the plank bridge under a hail of bullets, thus enabling the first crossing to be made at this vital spot.   Later in the evening, during an attack, he, with eight comrades was surrounded by an overwhelming number of Germans and, though the position was apparently hopeless, he led a bayonet charge through them, fighting so fiercely that thirty seven of the enemy were driven into the hands of the remainder of his company.   Although twice wounded, he refused to leave until the fight was won."

For these actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross, 'the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces'.

However, during that same campaign (some historians argue whether it was that day at Marcoing or a few days earlier at another battle site called 'Menin Cross Roads'), Private Tandey encountered a wounded German Lance Corporal... raised and aimed his rifle... and in a moment of mercy decided not to fire.  The German soldier nodded his thanks and the two men rejoined their units.

One of the most common questions asked to teenagers in youth groups (especially Jewish ones) intended to spark moral/ethical discussions is whether, given the opportunity to travel back in time, they would go back and kill Adolph Hitler (his name should be obliterated).   This question never fails to trigger (pun intended) lively discussions about free choice, the dangers of toying with history and even whether we have the ability to wrest control of G-d's intended plans away from Him.

However, for Private Tandey the question was not some academic discussion point intended to make suburban teenagers calibrate their moral compasses.  As he had admittedly done on several previous occasions, he opted not to kill a lighly wounded soldier... a man who turned out to be a Bavarian Lance Corporal named Adolph Hitler.

After WWI a famous photograph depicting British soldiers of the Green Howards regiment bringing wounded soldiers to a first aid station was turned into an even more famous painting.  The setting for the photo/painting is somewhat under dispute as it could have been either of the two battle-sites mentioned above.  However, this question of location is only somewhat important to the story since both Tandey and Hitler were certainly present at 'Menin Cross Roads' and almost surely also at Marcoing.

In the early '30s, Hitler heard about the famous painting that was now hanging in the Officer's mess of the Green Howards Regiment and requested it for the conference room in his newly built mountain retreat.  The reason he wanted the painting is that in the photo from which the painting had been rendered, Hitler clearly recognized the British soldier who had spared his life. 

The regiment sent him the painting with very polite greetings.

When Neville Chamberlain came to visit Hitler in the days leading up to WWII, Hitler pointed out the soldier in the painting to him... told him how that soldier had spared his life... and asked that Chamberlain convey his good wishes to the man (which according to several historical accounts - including Tendey's family - he promptly did) upon returning to England.

I've shared this story with you today because whether this event took place at 'Menin Cross Roads' or Marcoing, both Tandey and Hitler were quite certain that it had happened. 

For Hitler it was one of many near-death experiences in which he perceived that G-d had interceded on his behalf (as with later assassination attempts), indicating that he was destined to do great things. 

For Tandey, he had to live the rest of his life (he died in 1977) knowing that but for a moment of mercy... the smallest squeeze of a trigger... tens of millions of lives might have been spared.

As if I didn't have enough to keep me awake at night, I now have an opportunity to ponder this continuation of yesterday's discussion of whether the events in our world are entirely a result of free will or if they are, in fact, part of G-d's master plan? 

And of course, how do we live with the possibility that whatever we decide might be 100% wrong?

First World War.com
Green Howards Regiment archives


Posted by David Bogner on May 18, 2006 | Permalink


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This is where we are lucky to be observant Jews. What does the halacha say about killing a wounded soldier? Is it permissable or not? If you follow the law, then you need not have regrets later.

Posted by: westbankmama | May 18, 2006 12:51:26 PM

There are some problems connected with this example. First, it is one of those war legends, and historians have all reasons to believe things were never as they are believed to have been (e.g. Hitler, according to archives, was found to be on leave on that particular day when Tandey spared a soldier's life, historians argue). It's great fodder for the what-ifs and how-coulds, but the problem with it - it brings no valuable solution, because it is a futile discussion about things that likely never happened that way. Both Hitler and Tandey were convinced they had met - but whose belief triggered whose conviction, and upon which circumstances really?

With a history of antisemitism not only in Germany, it would have been a question of time and place, more than anything else. If not the megalomaniac Hitler, then any other psychopath. It is not so much the question about Hitler the evil, but about Jews being the target of centuries of prosecution and humiliation: tolerated at the highest, but never appreciated.
If you argue the way you indicated, you could as well go farther back that trail and speak in favour of abortions. Neither Hitler's mother, in this case, nor Tandey could have known whom they were meeting (i.e. a future psychopath).
Tandey, moreover and no matter who the man was whose life he spared, acted according to conventions. He spared the life of a wounded enemy who no longer was able to properly defend himself.

It is easy to look backwards and spot mistakes and lament over apparent failures - "magic moments of humanity". However, and unless science prooves that it's not so, time doesn't move bilinear (psychologically, that's why mankind developed time machine phantasies), and that's why it is so important to train a sound sense for moral and ethics in the present, to be able to reasonably act in the present and from then on. Just don't train this sense with examples that are unreasonable.

Posted by: a. | May 18, 2006 12:58:31 PM

Westbankmama... If you've ever met a soldier who has taken a life... even in full accordance with rules of engagement and current conventions, the term 'no regrets' will not likely be the words he or she uses to describe the experience.

A. ... The records dealing with Hitler's unit were destroyed by allied bombing, and the historian who claims to have found records showing Hitler was on leave the day of the battle has yet to actually produce the documents. The prevailing theory these days is that the two actually met at the earlier battle... an understandable mistake since they were only a few days apart and Tandey says he spared the lives of wounded soldiers on several occasions during that campaign. That having been said, I agree it is probably futile to play the 'what if' game because time really only works one way. But there is still the issue of whether our actions and deaths are entirely a result of our choices in life or whether they are sometimes directed as part of a larger plan. We see many times in scripture of Prophets being given a peek at the future of the Jewish people, which would suggest that at least some free will was being withheld so that their trajectory through time towards the prophecy they saw wouldn't be altered.

Posted by: treppenwitz | May 18, 2006 1:56:45 PM

How about Master Plan *and* Free Will? That's the Catholic take on it, according to my understanding. Our catechism (sounds like our version of your halacha) says: "To G-d, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of "predestination" [i.e. master plan], he includes in it each person's free response to his grace."

This approach draws a distinction between the preordaining of human actions vs. knowledge of human actions. Knowing about something doesn't mean you caused it to happen. And, where we see a series of human actions over time, I think G-d sees them all at once, regardless of time.

It's good, in my opinion, to be patient and realize we have a very limited view of the overall plan.

Posted by: Steve Bogner | May 18, 2006 1:58:13 PM

My understanding is that prophecy is contingent. For instance, the Prophet Yonah goes and tell Nineveih "yall'll be overturned in 40 more days." No ifs, ands, or buts. This was the decree. Of course, though, the people of Nineveih repented, and the prediction didn't come true.

It's like quantum physics (props to Springbird) — God will point out to you where you seem likely to be headed, or where you should try to be headed. It's up to us to make positive prophecies come true, and negative ones not come true.

Posted by: Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) | May 18, 2006 2:52:03 PM

Oh boy! Talk about waking up in a hurry. Hindsight is always one of those things you can only learn from. Tandey was acting on his personal convictions which I find admirable.

Hitler apparantly was shown mercy many times throughout his life. Instead of learning to pass that mercy on to others, if feed into his homicidal visions. That may have been the lesson that G-d was trying to impart to Hitler, extend mercy to all as it was extended to you.

There are many Jewish thoughts about G-d's Master Plan v Free Will.

Some believe that G-d watches every moment in our lives. This, to me, negates free will and the conviction that we are created in His image. Why create us if we are to be mere automatons with no control over our lives?

Every morning, I pray "who has called me to be free". We have the guide that shows us how to live our daily lives, the Torah. We are to be conscious of every thing, from the food we eat to how many times a day we pray.

But we have to make the choice to live this way.

One of the things I've been reading about is the term Chosen People. It is said that we were the third or fourth group of people that G-d tried to make His pact with. No one else wanted the job! Maybe the lesson from that is again we all have to make the choice to live our lifes filled with the wonder of His creation, to treat others with kindness, to strive for justice. He gave us the tools on how to live. It's up to us to follow them.

I'm still lerning and I'm sure that my rabbi will be issueing more books for me to read! It's a journey of a lifetime.

Posted by: seawitch | May 18, 2006 3:12:06 PM

Classical Jewish thinkers (Rambam et al.) view the paradox of "G-d's Master Plan vs. Man's Free Will" as just that -- a paradox: G-d's "foreknowledge" is causative (as opposed to being passive), and man's free will is absolute (except when we are explicitly told otherwise -- e.g. when G-d "hardened Pharaoh's heart").

We are not expected to be capable of understanding how these two incompatible ideas can exist in the same universe. We are just expected to accept that they are both true.

In terms of "what are we supposed to *do* about it?"... The Orthodox Jewish response is that our job is to do G-d's will as revealed to us in the written and oral Torah. Nothing more (the rest is G-d's business) and nothing less (that is purpose of our existence).

Posted by: wogo | May 18, 2006 3:44:41 PM

I believe in both G-d's Will and Free Will. Having said this, I also believe that obedience is what G-d cares more about than outcome. If I take this particular story as factual, as evil and destructive as Hitler was (that's an understatement), I believe G-d also cared about Private Tandey's actions. We are all held to account by G-d for our actions, or in this case inaction. On the surface of it, being human and all, I would have appreciated Tandey pulling the trigger to avoid so much human suffering. However, it may be fallacious to say that The Shoah became a reality due to this one man's inaction. There may be other more cause-effect situations in Hitler's life that are more linked.

Trepp, I really enjoyed this post. I have thought of this before, but in a more general way. The movie Butterfly Effect treats this issue (not regarding Hitler, but about changing the past and how it affects the present) and I think they did a very good job showing how even the smallest change can produce outcomes you'd never expect.

Posted by: Tracey | May 18, 2006 4:08:47 PM

Could you find a more difficult question to ask? THIS is what you are doing during this bout of insomnia? Call Dr. Bean and have him send something over.

Poor Tandey - regardless of whether he did or did not spare Hilters life, imagine living with the belief that you missed the opportunity to stop a war that killed tens of millions.

Posted by: lisoosh | May 18, 2006 4:15:16 PM

I'm in no way qualified to answer this question. I am not religious. I only know what I believe. Why would G-d's plan be to see millions of people die in such horrific ways? Are you saying that G-d only loved Hitler, and so spared his life? People have complete free will and they are the one's who make a mess of things.

Posted by: Cruisin-mom | May 18, 2006 4:31:43 PM

If we look at our tradition we see moments in which man argued with G-d.

The moment that sticks out in my mind is that Avraham argued for mercy for the people of Soddom and Gomorrah.

I don't think that he could have done this without free will.

Without free will there is no difference between adults and children. All we become are little toys.

Posted by: Jack | May 18, 2006 5:33:54 PM

I would have to say that of all the interesting viewpoints prsented over here, I'd have to agree with Steg's. Tandey did the best he could with the opportunity he had - and his conscience is clear. Hitler did the WORST he could with the opportunities he had, and will be judged accordingly. I don't see any moral hindsight dilemma here, really.

Posted by: Irina | May 18, 2006 8:22:47 PM

You may remember, Jacob got the Mitzvah ... and a broken hip. It comes with the deal.

Short answer to the moral conundrum: The world is not about to run out of evil people. Tandey's sparing Hitler's life made no difference. If not Hitler, any of many millions of other people would have volunteered. We choose, but God decides.

Posted by: Bob | May 18, 2006 8:59:40 PM

I'm not about to get into the Free Will discussion,but just want to point out that the choice Tandey faced is NOT the same as the theoretical one "faced" by the suburban teenagers.

In the hypothetical time travel scenario, the teenager knows exactly who Hitler is, what he will become, and what could be averted if Hitler is killed beforehand.

Tandey had no such foreknowledge. For all he knew, the German in front of him could be a madman who would bring about the murder of millions . . . or the great-grandfather of the person who will someday discover an easy, cheap way to prevent dysentery, thereby saving the lives of millions of children every year . . . or just a guy with no dramatic future at all.

Posted by: Sarah | May 18, 2006 10:24:45 PM

This is interesting, because it highlights the existence of Free Will, Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa - responsibility and accountability.
Under the hypothesis that this story is true and accurate:

Private Tandey choose out of MERCY not to shoot a wounded enemy soldier - he acted correctly, there really is no doubt about that.

The enemy soldier A.H. was given another chance at life - and he decides later to squander it, to use his 'borrowed time' to do what is evil - this cannot be the responsibility of another.

Doesn't Yechezkiel 18 tell us this?

Private Tandey only assumed culpability (unfairly so) after the fact - hind-sight is always 20/20.

Posted by: Shadow Bear | May 19, 2006 4:21:48 AM

How about the master plan to unleash Photo Friday. ;)

Posted by: Jack | May 19, 2006 10:23:11 AM

I imagine we must constantly be missing opportunities every day that could stop evildoers from doing evil. Like maybe not reporting someone for a wrongdoing who goes on to do far worse. Which seems to me to be the equivalent of the soldier who fails to do his official duty and shoot an enemy soldier. There was a moment like that in "Saving Private Ryan" where the German soldier spared went on to be responsible for the deaths of some of the rescuers' platoon. And of course we are all constantly missing opportunities for doing more good; perhaps by failing to give some small encouragement that could make all the difference to an individual with potential but lacking self confidence.

So perhaps the implication of Private Tandey is that we should be thinking less about solving evil by taking out individual evildoers and more about putting our energies into building societies that don't let themselves be seduced by evildoers? Shabbat shalom to everyone.

Posted by: Judy | May 19, 2006 12:24:56 PM


Hi Trep!

It has been a good few months since I have had any time to look at your blog and the first one i see is Gone Where from Wednesday.

I love the way you deal with these so difficult of issues. But, man, they are so heavy!

I have in the past learned many of the traditional Jewish treatments of these issues, but still I am left unable to express myself in this area or deal with them in myself (maybe I am just still a kid). Your posts here and the comments on them are great and so insightful...

I hope that all is well with you and yours.

Shabbat shalom!


Posted by: NN | May 19, 2006 1:39:12 PM

The Tandey/Hitler conundrum is dealt with in the Midrash (don't ask me which - I don't remember). In Genesis, when Ishmael is dying of thirst in the desert, G-d answers his prayers. The Torah says that G-d "listened to the voice of the child as he was then." Midrash points out that Ishmael went on to live a less-than-exemplary life - and others point out that a large number of his descendents believe in flying airplanes into buildings, blowing themselves up in pizza parlors, etc. However, none of that was relevant to the child Ishmael "as he was then" - he was just a child, he prayed sincerely, and G-d spared him. Private Tandey had nothing to feel bad about - he spared Private Hitler "as he was then." What Hitler did with his life thereafter was not Tandey's fault. As for G-d's Plan vs. Free Will - that's a whole 'nother discussion. All the best - have a Good Shabbos.

Posted by: Psachya | May 19, 2006 5:05:49 PM

Hey, could YOU have forgotten it's Friday?? Where are my pics? I need my pics. Pics! Pics! Pics!

Posted by: Lioness | May 19, 2006 6:36:13 PM

[See, bad behaviour never pays off. Well, except for cursing of course. Either way, here's the most important bit: shabbat shalom!]

Posted by: Lioness | May 19, 2006 6:37:33 PM

I know I haven't really been responding to comments on this thread and I feel bad about that. But this is really a case of me being way out of my depth and also being really interested in how others view the topic. I appreciate all the diverse viewpoints you have offered.

Posted by: treppenwitz | May 21, 2006 5:20:21 PM

i respect what you have sead about my great uncle private henry tandey, i hate to hear that people have been saying that he litterally started world war 2 by not executing hitler on the spot, thanks for your comment.

Posted by: Russman47 | Nov 10, 2006 2:42:41 PM

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