The World Makes No Sense
Chapter 5, Law 5
"Perhaps you will say, does not G-d know all that will be before it occurs?
Does G-d know that this person will be righteous or wicked, or does He not?
If He knows that this person will be righteous, it is impossible that he
will not! And if you will suggest that He knows this one will be righteous
but it is still possible he will be wicked, then G-d does not know the
"Know that the answer to this question is longer than the land and wider
than the sea, and many great fundamentals and lofty mountains depend upon
it. But you must know and understand the [following] matter which I state.
"We already explained in the 2nd chapter of the Laws of the Fundamentals of
the Torah (Law 10) that G-d does not know [matters] with a knowledge which
is outside of Himself as human beings -- whose selves and knowledge are two.
Rather, He, blessed be His Name, and His knowledge are one. Human
comprehension is not able to perceive this matter clearly. And just as man
does not have the ability to perceive and discover (lit., 'find') the
essence (lit., 'the truth') of his Creator, as it is stated, 'For a man will
not see Me and live' (Exodus 33:20), so too man does not have the ability to
perceive and discover the knowledge of his Creator.
"This is as the prophet stated, ''For My thoughts are not as your thoughts,
and your ways are not as My ways,' says the L-rd' (Isaiah 55:8). And since
this is so, we do not have the ability to know how G-d knows all the
creations and their deeds.
"However, it is known without doubt that the deeds of man are in his hands,
and G-d neither draws him nor decrees upon him to do such and such or not to
do such and such. And not only from a received tradition is this known to
us, but with clear proofs from works of wisdom. On account of this it was
stated via prophecy that man is judged for all his deeds according to his
actions whether good or bad. And this is the fundamental upon which all the
words of the Prophets are based."
In this law, the Rambam discusses one of the primary philosophical
difficulties with the concept of man's free will. If man truly has the
ability to decide his fate, the future must be indeterminate. What my future
holds must still be up in the air, since it is up to me to decide what I
This, however, conflicts with the notion of G-d's infinity, an even more
fundamental premise of Judaism. If G-d is perfect and all-knowing, how can
we say man's future is up for grabs? G-d *knows* what I will do tomorrow,
whether I will choose good or bad! How can we truly say I have free will? I
*must* do what G-d already knows I will do. How do I truly have a choice?
Before I begin, I should note that this quandary was the focus of a mishna
in Pirkei Avos (3:19): "Everything
is foreseen, yet free will is given." The Sages recognized how vexing an
issue this is, and so established -- without further elucidation -- that as
difficult as it is for us to comprehend, the two concepts coexist.
In a simple sense, when I first heard this question well over 30 years ago,
I thought the answer was quite simple. Just because G-d *knows* what I will
do does not mean He *makes* me do it. He just knows the decision I will
When we think about this more deeply, however, this is not really
sufficient. Much greater personages than my high school self (no matter how
well I did on the SAT's) have been plagued by such issues. Somehow, as soon
as G-d knows with certainty what I *will* do, I really no longer have a
choice whether or not I will do it. It is *already* decided. There is
nothing I can do about it except follow my pre-written script.
R. Avraham ben Dovid of Posquieres, known as the "Ravad" after the initials
of his name, was one of the foremost Torah authorities of 12th century
Provence (southern France). Among his many scholarly works is a collection
of critical glosses he wrote on the Rambam's Mishne Torah (the work we are
studying now). On this law, the Ravad makes the following comment (paraphrased).
The author did not accustom himself in the ways of the wise, for a person
should not start a matter if he does not know how to conclude it. He,
however, raised a question and left the matter with a difficulty, stating
rather that we must accept it on faith. He would have been better leaving
innocent people to their innocence, rather than stirring up their hearts
with doubt. Perhaps one time skepticism will enter their minds on account of
The Ravad then proceeds to offer his own suggestion (which I won't discuss)
-- though admitting himself that his answer is hardly adequate.
The Ravad thus feels that the Rambam should not have even raised this issue
if he could not fully address it. Why muddy up formerly innocent minds with
such philosophical conundrums? All it will do is get our brains tangled up
in unanswerable questions, perhaps even causing us to wonder if the whole
thing makes sense altogether. Such mental flights of fancy will gain us
I'd like to offer two responses to the Ravad. The first was made by my
teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu &
www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig). The latter is my own humble suggestion.
R. Zweig observed that the Ravad felt that the Rambam basically just
admitted the issue is unanswerable. If so, asked the Ravad, why muddy the
waters? In truth, however, the Rambam *is* answering. He explains that G-d's
knowledge is not like man's: He and His knowledge are one. How is that
distinction relevant? The point is that G-d is infinite and above time. G-d
exists in a realm where time -- as well as space -- do not exist. They are
no more than G-d's creations to begin with. Thus, when G-d knows the future,
it is not the "future" He knows. His knowledge -- which is a part of Himself
-- exists only in G-d's infinite realm. It has not yet entered the realm of
time and so what He is aware of cannot even be termed "future".
Say, for example, I would be told that my every future action is written
down in a book sitting on a bookshelf in Buenos Aires. I would have no free
will. It may be in a place I will never go near, but the knowledge exists
and is recorded in this world. Anyone else can pick up the book and "know"
what I will do tomorrow. (Hopefully, it will not be a very exciting book.
Over the years, I've come to realize that a "boring" life is the best life.)
Thus, my future is not indeterminate but a determined course of actions
which I *must* do, whether I wish to or not.
By contrast, what G-d knows I will do tomorrow is not knowledge which has
entered this world. G-d exists in a realm unbounded by time or space. What
G-d knows about the future is not knowledge about the *future*. It is
knowledge on a level in which there is no time -- as inexplicable that is to
the human mind. And so, what G-d knows is not "known" in any sense we can
comprehend -- and thus in no way contradicts man's free will. There *is* no
book that says, "Tomorrow Dovid Rosenfeld will do X." It says, "This is the
sum total of who Dovid Rosenfeld is / was / will be" -- none of those tenses
actually meaning anything in G-d's world.
Therefore, it is true that the Rambam admitted that this answer is not
really understandable to the time-bound human brain. But as he makes clear,
there *is* an answer. It is just that just as man cannot truly understand
G-d, he cannot truly comprehend G-d's wisdom (also a part of Him). But as a
matter of fact, it does help knowing just what it is we cannot understand!
An important consequence of this principle is our understanding of prophecy.
When a human being receives a prophecy from G-d, what has happened is that
G-d's knowledge of the future has departed G-d's infinite Self and entered
the realm of man. At that point, it is determined knowledge. It is a future
which *must* come true -- whether we cooperate with it or not. It *has* to
happen because the future has already been stated.
(Note however, that often prophecies are purposely vague and poetic, leaving
room for their fulfillment in any number of possible ways. See also the
Rambam in the Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah 10:4, who states that a
negative prophecy -- that some tragedy is destined to occur, *can* be
averted through our repentance. Although as things stand, such punishment is
destined to occur, if we repent beforehand G-d will reconsider and decree a
different future for mankind instead. In fact, the very purpose of such
prophecies is to stir us to repent before disaster strikes.)
I have a brief comment of my own to add. The Ravad was bothered by the fact
that the Rambam raised a question which he felt the Rambam could not
adequately answer. And so, continues the Ravad, it would have been better
not to raise the matter at all. Now I wonder about that. I'm just not so
sure that as inquisitive human beings we can be satisfied with not even
raising difficult questions. It is not in our nature to just blissfully
ignore the pondering of our existence, the difficulties of the world. If
there is a G-d, how can there be evil? How could G-d have allowed X to
happen? Did He will it? Did He control it? Did He know about it? Does He
care? Does G-d have a plan for humanity? Why did He create such a world
knowing it would contain such evil and injustice? Of course we'll ask
questions we cannot answer. Of course we'll go beyond what man is supposed
to fathom. But that's just how we are. We cannot live any other way. And I
don't think G-d would have chosen us as His special nation if we were any
different. We want to know. We want to understand. We want to make sense of
the world, to feel good about the universe and our place within. We cannot
just distract ourselves all the time, going through life with blind,
mindless faith. Our minds will be plagued with unanswerable questions. And
we will not rest.
In the Book of Koheles (Ecclesiastes), King Solomon is eternally plagued by
the injustices he finds in the world. He, wisest of all men, attempts to
make sense of the way G-d allows the world to run and finds nothing but
frustration. The world is beyond our understanding; the more we attempt to
unravel the more frustrated we get. He rather advises that we live in
blissful indifference to such matters: "Enjoy life with the wife you love
all the days of your emptiness that He has granted you... for that is your
portion in life and in your toil which you exert beneath the sun" (9:9).
Just do your job and live out your life. Be thankful and enjoy what you
have. But don't try to make sense of the world. If anyone could have, it was
me -- and I failed miserably.
In one of many verses, King Solomon expresses his terrible frustration at
the end of the first chapter: "I applied my mind to know wisdom and
knowledge... I knew that this too is a vexation of the spirit. For with much
wisdom is much frustration, and he who increases knowledge increases pain."
The more we know the more frustrated and overwhelmed we will be. Far better
to be blissfully ignorant.
One of the greatest and most insightful of the Chassidic Masters, the
Kotzker Rebbe, added a very few words to Solomon's despair: "But even so!"
That is just how we are. Yes, we must recognize our limitations and once in
a while know when is time for silence (ibid., 3:7). But when all is said and
done, we can be no other way.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org