Can God regret?

           “God regretted making humans on earth, and God's heart was saddened" (Genesis 6:6)
                                 
                                                            Rabbi Allen S. Maller


How can the Torah state that "God regretted making humans"? God must have known that creating creatures with free will would result in many of them choosing to do great evil.

Yet just because God knows that some, most, or even all humans will sin, it doesn't mean that when it actually happens, God will not feel sorrow and regret.

New parents know that not all the hopes and dreams that they have for their children will happen. Yet when a child grows up to be a violent, mean, or cruel person any normal parent will express disappointment and regret at such an outcome. Some parents will blame themselves; some parents will blame the environment; and some will blame bad genes.

However, all parents who have more than one child will acknowledge that children differ in their personalities and in their temperaments from the time they are babies.

Midrash Genesis Rabbah 27:4 presents two very different portraits of God reflecting these different parental responses. According to Rabbi Judah, God thought "It was My mistake that I created humans below as a terrestrial (animal) being; had I created them in the higher realms, they (like angles) would not have rebelled against Me."

But angles lack free will. They are just agents of God. They can fail, or fall short in their assignment, but they cannot rebel, conscioncely choosing evil over good. Satan is an angle who has the job of tempting people: without temptation how will we or anybody else know how good we can be? Satan is not a rebellious angle. The temptation of Satan is a necessary part of free choice.

But people always yearn to have their cake and also to eat it. They ask why can't Satan be weakened? Why can't humans be genetically wired to resist most temptations? Why didn't God weaken the wild, angry, violent, selfish tendencies (called by the Rabbis the Yetzer ha-Ra) that reside within us?

Why not reduce our free will and program us to be like bees, ants, termites and other social insects that have lived successfully on earth for over fifty million years.

Rabbi Aivu actually supports this view and teaches that God "...regrets creating humans with a Yetzer ha-Ra, a wild. untamed inclination, for had God not so created humans, they would not have rebelled against God."

But Rabbi Levi has a more positive take on human failings. He knows that the Hebrew verb nakham has a double meaning; regret and consolation. Rabbi Levi conjectures that God is "…consoled by making humans as God did, for (eventually) humans will be placed in the earth," i.e., humans are mortal and subject to burial.

Thus each generation, no matter how evil it is, will die out and be followed by a new generation. So there is always hope that future generations will improve things. Indeed, history proves that evil empires and institutions do not last forever.

We also learn from this verse that God responds to human actions and cares very deeply for us. This is a very important lesson. It is the bases for a positive and optimistic view of human nature and human society which in turn leads to greater efforts to improve ourselves and our society.

I have always been surprised that the school of Hillel, which wins the debate 90% of the time, lost the following debate: "For 2 years, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel debated whether God should have created humankind. Shammai's school said it would have been better if people had not been created; Hillel's school held the opposite view.

Finally, they voted and the majority decided that Shammai’s school was right and it would have been better had humans not been created. But since they were created, each person is responsible for examining their own past and future deeds" (Talmud, Masekhet Eruvin 13b).

Many questions are raised by this passage. What might the debate have been like? What arguments would have been offered in the first century? Did the victory of the school of Shammai's negativism lead to the ill fated revolt against the Romans that led to the destruction of Jerusalem? What arguments could be offered today? Are extreme ecology people the modern students of Shammai? Does pessimism lead to fatalism and passivity?

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