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Divine foresight and free will

For some two thousand five hundred years philosophers have been trying to answer the ancient question of divine foresight and free will.

  1. A.   An ancient question

For some two thousand five hundred years – from the days of Aristotle until our own days – philosophers and thinkers from all religions have been trying to answer an ancient and serious question – the question of divine foresight and free will:  How is it possible that man is free to act as he wishes if G-d knows ahead of time what he will choose?  For example:  One might decide to lift his right hand.  Did G-d know that he was going to lift his hand before he did?  If G-d did know – then the he did not have free will. And if G-d did not know –  then G-d is not omniscient.  Divine knowledge and human choice apparently contradict one another.

We find among the sages of Israel a number of approaches in treating this subject:

Gersonides claimed that divine knowledge does not contradict human free will since it does not include those acts that are a result of free choice.  In his opinion, there is no denigration in suggesting that G-d does not know some certain specific things.  It would be denigrating to suggest that He does not know things that are knowable, but those things that depend on choice are essentially unknowable.  Therefore, there is no deficiency in His not knowing them.

R. Hasdai Kreskas disagreed sharply with Gersonides’ understanding, since it is not possible to limit divine knowledge in any way.  However, as a result of this, he ended up limiting the meaning of human choice: “All is known on the side of our ultimate cause, but it seems to be choice from our side”.  G-d created in man an awareness of choice, yet in reality man does not have free will.

About this approach, R. Don Yitchak Abarbanel writes (in his commentary to Genesis 18:20): “And I was startled to see that this pious rabbi escaped the burning fire of heresy of some of the commentators, only to fall into it in the end.”  That is to say, R. Hasdai Kreskas tried escaping the heresy of Gersonides only to fall into an even worse heresy.  He wanted to save omniscience, and ended up diminishing the concept of choice. Therefore R. Abarbanel decides that we must return to the approach of Maimonides in this matter.

  1. B.   Maimonides’ opinion

When Maimonides approaches the question of omniscience versus free will in his introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers, he states: “Therefore listen to what I say and contemplate it deeply – for this is without doubt the truth“.  Maimonides emphasizes that in his words we will find a fundamental direction for thought that will save us from the shortcomings of other methods.  Let us look at his words in the Laws of T’shuva (5, 5): “Know that the resolution to this question [can be described as follows]: ‘Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.’ Many great and fundamental principles and lofty concepts are dependent upon it. However, the statements that I will make must be known and understood [as a basis for the comprehension of this matter]:… The Holy One, blessed be He, does not know with a knowledge that is external from Him as do men, whose knowledge and selves are two [different entities]. Rather, He, may His name be praised, and His knowledge are one.  Human knowledge cannot comprehend this concept in its entirety.  Accordingly, we do not have the potential to conceive how The Holy One, blessed be He, knows all the creations and their deeds. However, this is known without any doubt: That man’s actions are in his [own] hands and The Holy One, blessed be He, does not lead him [in a particular direction] or decree that he do anything…

We could understand Maimonides’ answer as suggesting that this question is so deep that we do not have the possibility of answering.

Yet with a more exact reading of Maimonides’ words it becomes clear that he wanted to give us an answer to the question.  In his words, there is no need to look for an answer, since this is an invalid question.  We can relate to deep questions in two manners:  The first way is to say that it is a good question and then to check and see if we have an answer or not.  The second way is to say the question, as asked, cannot be called a question.  If, for example, one were to ask if an orange is bitter or sweet, this would be a proper type of question that merits an answer.  But if he were to ask if the light from the lamp is bitter or sweet, this would not be a question at all, since ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ are definitions relating to the sense of taste while light belongs to the sense of sight.

So too with the question of omniscience and free will:  From Maimonides’ words it is clear that he wishes to negate the possibility of asking the question.  It is impossible to ask if free will contradicts divine knowledge since man has no understanding about what divine knowledge really is.  Maimonides turns to Aristotle’s work “Metaphysics” for support.  There Aristotle claims that divine knowledge is identical to the Divine itself.  It is not an external addition of information.  Just as man cannot fathom the essence of the Divine, he cannot fathom the essence of His knowledge, and he is therefore unable to assert that there is a contradiction between this concept and the concept of free choice.

Let us put it another way: In Maimonides’ opinion it is impossible to speak using positive terminology about the essence of the Divine, since to do so would mean to create a system of comparisons between the Divine and the world.  The only terms we can use to describe the Creator are “negatively ascribed attributes” – we negate from the Divine elements that we find lacking in the world (and it would even be appropriate to negate from him virtues as well since these too are lacking with respect to Him, but human language permits the use of terms of praise for the need of human service).  Therefore, we can conclude with certainty that G-d is omniscient since this is actually a negative attribute – nothing is unknown before Him.  But we have no way of understanding the statement, “G-d knows“.  We cannot use terms of knowing or not knowing in relation to He who is beyond all knowing or not knowing.  If we were to ask a child, for instance, “Is it worthwhile to be Prime Minister?”  He might answer:  “Do they play marbles in the Prime Minister’s house?”  This is the criterion whereby he will consider the question.  Clearly this is not a suitable criterion, but it is his level of understanding.  So too, any talk of knowing or not knowing in relation to the Divine tries to point at something beyond us, since man’s concepts are limited in relation to the infinite.

Whenever man speaks of the Divine he must not take his speech too seriously.  The argument about whether G-d does or does not exist is in actuality a petty one, since it is impossible to contain the Divine in people’s concepts of “exists” or “does not exist”.  Just as we cannot discuss about G-d whether He is bitter or sweet, we cannot say that He exists or does not exist.  It would be ridiculous to claim: “My friend does not believe, because he doesn’t believe that G-d is a thousand meters tall…”  The moment someone says with complete seriousness that he thinks G-d exists, he automatically awakens opposition in the other, who senses that such a statement is invalid.  R. Abraham Isaac Kook (the first chief rabbi in the Land of Israel and among the greatest Jewish thinkers in the modern era, 1865 – 1935) explains in several places that the principle duty of heresy is to purify man’s pettiness surrounding his conceptions of the Divine.  It is not that the nonbeliever is saying that the statement ‘G-d exists’ is incorrect, but rather that the statement ‘G-d does not exist’ is equally incorrect.  This is why King David states in his psalms (Psalms 65:2): “For You silence is praise”.  When we wish to speak about the very being of the Divine, it would be best to remain silent.

The basic question for which Judaism provides an answer is not whether or not G-d exists, but rather whether or not revelation exists; whether or not prophecy is within the realm of possibility.  The moment one begins to think about the Divine, he creates a theology, and in every theology there is an aspect of idolatry.  In other words, a Jew cannot say anything about the Divine, but he can say with certainty that the Divine speaks.  It is the experience of the prophetic encounter that constitutes the true relationship of Judaism to the concept of Divinity.

  1. C.   All is foreseen; yet free choice is granted

In truth, the first sage in Israel to speak of the question of knowledge and free will was R. Akiva.  In the Ethics of the Fathers (3: 15) he states: “All is foreseen; yet free choice is granted.”  According to Maimonides’ explanation of this Mishna, “all is foreseen” means that G-d knows everything ahead of time, and “free choice is granted” means that the choice is given to the hands of man.  R. Akiva did not resolve the issue, but rather put before us two facts:  Know that free choice is true – “free choice is granted”.  And know that Divine knowledge is true – “all is foreseen”.  Instead of attempting some philosophical excuse, he simply gave us the conclusion.  This somewhat reminds us of the argument among physicists about whether light is an electromagnetic wave or a particle.  The conclusion was that light is both.  Man does not have the capacity to mentally visualize this understanding to himself, yet nonetheless it is the truth, for there are two ways that light can be measured.  The same can be said of the question of knowledge and free choice:  We have distinct intellectual knowledge that the Divine certainly knows all.  And we have empirical experiential knowledge that man is free to choose.  We must accept both of these pieces of data together.

In actuality, the meaning of ‘Divine knowing’ for us is only by way of negation – nothing escapes the knowledge of G-d.  Yet the manner by which all is revealed before Him is beyond our grasp.

  1. D.   A double reading into reality

It is on the basis of Maimonides’ words that R. Tzaddok the Kohen from Lublin (great rabbi of the Chassidic movement, 1823 – 1900) introduced a deep idea (Tzidkat HaTzaddik, 40).  According to him, the moment that Maimonides freed our thought from attempting to solve the question of omniscience and free choice, he enriched us with a double reading of the Torah and of reality as a whole.  It is possible to read both the Torah and reality as a whole from the point of view that is based on the fundamental assumption that man has free will, according to which there is no need to mention Divine knowledge.  And, it is also possible to read both the Torah and reality as a whole with the fundamental assumption that G-d knows everything ahead of time, and in this manner one need not mention free choice.

Let us look at one of the difficult events during the generation of wandering in the desert, the sin of the Golden Calf.  According to the view that is based on the idea of free will, G-d, in the giving of the Torah, prohibited making and bowing down to statues. The Children of Israel chose nonetheless to make a Golden Calf and bow down to it.  Since they transgressed the Divine command, it was necessary for our master Moses to shatter the first tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and only after G-d forgave the sin of the Children of Israel did they receive the second set of tablets.  This would be the first reading of the story, and its title would be, “The Second Tablets – After the Fact”.  Had the Children of Israel not sinned, the first tablets would not have been shattered, and the second set would never have come to the world.

According to the reading based on the assumption of Divine foresight, however, we would have to say that G-d wanted to give the second set of tablets, but they could not be given unless the first were first shattered.  Thus, the Children of Israel had to make the Golden Calf so as to cause Moses to break the tablets.  The title of this story would be, “The Second Tablets – From the Outset”.  According to this reading, the sin of the golden calf was part of the divine plan.

There is a famous law of logic: two opposites cannot coexist in one object.  A door, for example, cannot be both open and closed at the same time.  Yet, since the Creator is the source of all reality He is also the source of all categories of thought.  Thus, He is not bound by them.

In day-to-day life we are obliged to invoke the reading that is based on free choice, since the reading based in Divine foresight might lead to deviations from morality.  One might perform all kinds of abominations and claim that his deeds were merely part of the Divine plan. 

  1. E.   Moving between points of view

We must add one more necessary component to the approach of R. Tzaddok of Lublin.  R. Abraham Isaac Kook teaches us that our ability to move from one point of view to the other is connected to the concept of t’shuva – returning to G-d or repentance.  So long as one has not repented from his sin, he is subject to the world of choice – the possibilities had been laid before him, the choice was his, and he is judged by his choice.  Yet when he does t’shuva and turns back to G-d he can then rise to the point of view of divine foresight.

How so?  So long as the individual has not gone back from his sin, his will is still intertwined with that sin.  He loves the evil deed he performed, and he is therefore judged for it, for the act is his.   Yet the moment he does t’shuva and regrets the act, he uproots his will from the deed.  He will no longer perform such acts, and wishes that he had never done so in the past.  When this uprooting of the will from the deed takes place, the act falls back under G-d’s “responsibility”.  Thus he becomes completely good – G-d wanted the act to appear in the world and he was part of the general plan.  This is exactly the point of passage to the reading of reality that takes place according to the idea of Divine knowledge.

Let us explain this further:  Man can claim that all of his evil deeds actually belong to G-d, since it is He that gives existence to creation at every moment, and it is He who gave him life at the time of the transgression.  However, this is not true, since the will of man stands in between G-d’s granting existence to the act and the act itself.  The individual that sins desires evil of his own free will, and this constitutes a kind of screen placed between the act and the will of G-d.  Therefore G-d says to him:  Since you want the act, you are responsible for it.  If you do not desire the act, then remove your will, and it will then be incorporated back into the viewpoint of the Divine. 

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About Rabbi Oury Cherki

Rabbi Oury Cherki
Rav Oury Cherki was born in Algeria in 1959 and grew up in France, and he made Aliyah in 1972. He studied at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, which was founded by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. He performed his military service in the artillery branch of the IDF. He studied with Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Rav Shlomo Binyamin and Achlag. Rav Cherki heads the Israeli department of Machon Meir, and he is the Director of Brit Olam - the Noahide World Center.He teaches in many places throughout Israel. Rav Cherki is the spiritual leader of the "Beth Yehuda" community in Kiryat Moshe (Jerusalem). He has written many books on Jewish thought and philosophy.

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