Free Will vs. G-d's Foreknowledge
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given. The world is judged
goodness, and all is according to the majority of deeds."
Last week we discussed the concept of man's free will -- and the apparent
contradiction with the belief that G-d controls all events in this world.
This week I'd like to deal with yet another well-known philosophical
quandary alluded to in our mishna: man's free will versus G-d's
Our mishna begins by stating "Everything is foreseen" -- meaning that G-d
knows in advance every event which will occur in this world. It then
continues, "free will is given" -- that man is given free reign to act as
he chooses. The question raised by Maimonides and many other thinkers
(both Jewish and Gentile) is as follows: If G-d knows the future and every
act we will do for the rest of our lives, do we truly have free will? Do
we truly have a choice how we will behave? It is already known, so to
speak, that I will sin at a particular time and place. And if so, is there
any possible way I can avoid it? I'm going to do it! G-d knows it
already! There is no humanly possible way for me to alter my predetermined
future! And so, isn't my life merely a meaningless exercise -- a futile
performance of an already-written and predetermined script?
Further, the question goes, if I do not have any real control over the
actions I will do, how can I be held accountable for them? I have no
choice -- literally! And if my fate is out of my hands, how can G-d punish
me for my deeds? And so, not only is free will compromised but so is yet
another great pillar of Jewish theology: reward and punishment.
Maimonides discusses this issue briefly here, and in greater detail in
some of his other works. He does state here how fitting it is that such a
profound topic is discussed by none other than R. Akiva, one of the
greatest scholars of the period of the mishna. (R. Akiva's name appears at
the start of Mishna 17; both Mishnas 18 and 20 begin with the words, "He
used to say..." It is a curious aside why Pirkei Avos did not choose to
attribute this mishna (#19) to him as well -- even indirectly. But it is a
safe assumption that he is the author here as well.) The Talmud states
that all the major works of Jewish law of the period of the Mishna,
including the Mishna itself, are based on R. Akiva's teachings (Sanhedrin
86a). It further states that Moses himself, in a prophetic vision,
recognized that R. Akiva's scholarship would be greater than his own, and
even asked G-d why He did not give Israel the Torah through R. Akiva
rather than himself (Menachos 29b).
I believe there is another reason for the appropriateness of R. Akiva
here. Our tradition teaches us that R. Akiva was an unlearned shepherd
until the age of 40. At that age he passed a stream in which water was
slowly dripping down onto a rock. When he noticed that the water had over
time carved a hole in the rock, he reasoned that with slow but continuous
effort he too could penetrate the Torah's unfathomable teachings. That --
together with his wife's encouragement -- was the inspiration R. Akiva
needed to embark on his career of greatness.
Not only is R. Akiva's life a personal story of the triumph of the human
spirit, it provides us with another possible explanation why he authored
this mishna. R. Akiva was a person who first experienced Torah study as an
adult -- and not a young one at that. Such a person will certainly have to
overcome great disadvantage and do much catching up -- and R. Akiva did so
extraordinarily -- but in a way, he will be at an advantage. He will take
nothing for granted. He will ask and tackle the tough questions of life
which others fail to notice -- simply because that's how things have been
as long as they can remember. R. Akiva, the quintessential "ba'al teshuva"
("returner to the faith"), was to seek -- and find -- truth and meaning
where others saw nothing but the ordinary.
Maimonides in his Mishne Torah (Hil' Teshuva 5:5), when he discusses the
quandary of free will versus G-d's foreknowledge, begins by stating that
this issue is "longer than the land and wider than the sea," and that many
fundamental truths depend upon it. He then explains as follows: G-d's
knowledge is not external to Him, as is man's. And, just as man cannot
comprehend G-d's essence, he cannot comprehend G-d's knowledge. Therefore,
although it is beyond our understanding how G-d can be aware of an
indeterminate future, His awareness is as removed from our universe as G-d
Himself and thus in no way impacts on the reality of free will. Thus, our
futures truly are our own to decide. G-d's knowledge of our eventual
decisions is so to speak not yet a part of this world -- and has not
assumed a form which impinges on the independence of this world. And so,
as far as our world is concerned, the future is still wide open.
Contemporary thinkers have demonstrated the wisdom behind Maimonides'
approach with our knowledge of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Time as we
know it is relative; it is not a constant. It is an invention of G-d just
as are space and matter, and its apparent rate of passage is affected by
external factors such as gravity and velocity. G-d Himself exists outside
the times-space continuum, it being merely one of His many creations. He
therefore does not know the future because He ??foresees its
occurrence, but because it is no more removed from Him than the past or
One of the names the Torah employs to refer to G-d consists of the Hebrew
letters yud-hey-vuv-hey. These letters constitute a contracted form of the
Hebrew words "was - is - will be" ("haya, hoveh, v'yihiyeh"). This conveys
the sense of G-d's eternality, not in the sense that He exists forever but
in that He is above time altogether.
The same is true regarding space. Our Sages teach: "G-d is the 'place' of
the world; the world is not His place" (Bereishis Rabbah 68:10). G-d is
not contained within physical space, just as He does not exist within
time. Time, space and matter are all different forms of G-d's creations --
as man understands fully (or at least vaguely) only today -- and in fact
are all different manifestations of the same phenomenon. We who are
confined within the imaginary world of the time-space continuum are simply
incapable of truly comprehending G-d, much as we are incapable of
comprehending what is beyond the "end" of the universe, or what
existed "before" the world was created -- or as primitive man was capable
of understanding what lay "after" the edge of the horizon, for that matter.
A good treatment of this issue is found in The Science of G-d, pp.
161-5, by renowned physicist and scholar Gerald Schroeder. He observes
that light is the one creation which too is above time. Light waves (or
theoretically anything traveling at the speed of light) are not bound by
time. (Light, as all forms of energy, can enter the world of time by
transforming into matter through E = mc2.) Prof. Schroeder thus sees
significance in that fact that "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3) was G-
d's first utterance of creation. As he writes, "Light is... the
metaphysical link between the timeless eternity that preceded our universe
and the world of time, space and matter within which we live."
(As an aside, I strongly recommend his book, in its groundbreaking
treatment of many apparent contradictions between Torah and science.
Though aspects of his theories are not without controversy, the primary
theme -- undeniable to anyone with intellectual honesty (IMHO) -- is that
the more science understands of the universe and the natural world, the
closer it comes to converging with the millennia-old teachings of the
Torah and Jewish tradition.)
Rabbi Avraham ben Dovid of Posquieres (known as the Ra'avad) of 12th
Century Provence authored a collection of glosses on Maimonides' Mishne
Torah. Here he suggests a different approach, perhaps less philosophical,
which he too admits does not do justice to the question. He writes that G-
d's foreknowledge does not decree; it is only foreknowledge. He compares
it to astrologers who predict the future. Although astrologers may often
predict accurately, man, with his free will, can overcome the influence of
the stars, as well the influence of friends, family and background. G-d
knows these influencing factors and our abilities to overcome them. He
even knows the final decisions we will make. But He does not decree; He
The Ra'avad also levels a criticism against Maimonides: He was not wise in
posing a question which he himself admits is beyond man's ability to
answer. Better to not have raised the issue and stir doubts in many
formerly innocent, upright hearts.
The response to the Ra'avad -- and presumably Maimonides' position --
would seem to be that we Jews are just not that way. We ask. We question
anything and everything we are commanded and all that G-d does to us. Do
we always receive the answers? Are we even capable of comprehending them?
This week's class -- as well as last week's -- are yet a few indications
that all question will never be fully answered. But a questioning mind is
one which is seeking truth. It may be troubled, it may be plagued with
questions that do not give it rest, but it is searching. It is a mind
which houses a soul -- one which seeks its Creator. And that soul, in its
search for truth and G-d, will ultimately be directed to the source it so
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.