All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted.
(Ethics of the Fathers, 3:15)
Throughout the generations, many of our sages have expounded on the two
cornerstones of Jewish faith expressed in the above citation from Ethics of
the Fathers: G‑d's all-encompassing and all-pervading knowledge, and the
freedom of choice He granted to man. Much has also been written on the apparent
contradiction between the two: if there are no limits to G‑d's knowledge, how
can man have real choice in his life? If G‑d "already" knows what I
will do tomorrow, is not my freedom to choose nothing more than an illusion?
Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204) writes:
Freedom of choice has been granted to every man.... This concept is a
fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments. As it
is written [Deuteronomy 30:15]: "See, I have set before you life [and
good, and death and evil]"... For were G‑d to decree that a person be
righteous or wicked, of if there were to exist something in the very essence
of a person's nature which would compel him toward a specific path, a
specific conviction, a specific character trait or a specific deed...how
could G‑d command us through the prophets "do this" and "do
not do this,"...? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what
measure of justice would G‑d punish the wicked and reward the righteous...?
One may ask: "G‑d certainly knows all that will transpire... [so] if
He knew that the person would be righteous, then it was not possible for
that person not to be so. And if you say that He knew that the person would
be righteous but it was nevertheless possible that he might be wicked, than
G‑d's knowledge was not complete!" Know that the answer to this
question "longer than the land is its measure and broader than the
sea," and that many great foundations and lofty
mountains hang upon it. But understand well what I am going to say. We have
already explained in the second chapter of The Laws of the Torah's
Foundations that G‑d does not know with a "mind" that is
distinct from His being, as is the case with man whose being and mind are
two distinct entities. Rather, He and His "mind" are one and the
same - a concept that is impossible for the human mind to fully comprehend.
Thus, just as man cannot discover and grasp the truth of the Creator... so,
too, man cannot discover and grasp the "mind" of the Creator. In
the words of the prophet, "My thoughts are not as your thoughts, nor
are your ways as My ways."
Therefore, we lack the capacity to know the nature of G‑d's knowledge
of all creations and all events. But this we know without doubt: that
the deeds of man are in his hands, and G‑d does not compel him to do
anything..."(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance ch. 5)
Rabbi Abraham ben Dovid ("Raavad," 1120?-1198), who wrote many
glosses on Maimonides' work, takes issue with the latter's approach:
The author did not act in the manner of the wise: one ought not begin
something that one is incapable of concluding. He begins by posing a
difficult question, then remains with the difficulty and reverts to faith.
It would have been better for him to have left it as a matter of faith for
the innocent, instead of making them aware [of the contradiction] and
leaving their minds in doubt....
Raavad concludes by saying that "although there is no definitive answer
to this," he had best offer at least "something of an answer" to
the issue raised by Maimonides. The gist of his answer is that G‑d knows what
man will choose, but that this knowledge has no effect on the nature of man's
choice. Rather, it is "like the predictions of the stargazers, who know, by
some other means, what the behavior of an individual will be" but in no way
In his Tosafot Yom Tov commentary on Ethics of the Fathers,
Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Heller (1579-1654) elaborates on this theme, citing the
answer offered by the Rabbi Shmuel Uceda (circa 1575) in his work Midrash
There is no contradiction in the first place. G‑d's knowledge of the
future is the result of His observing the deed that the person is doing.
Just as a person's observation of the deeds of his fellow in no way compels
his fellow's actions, so, too, is it with G‑d's observation of one's deeds.
One cannot argue that because G‑d knows the future actions of man He
therefore compels them, since before Him there is no precedence and
subsequence, as He is not governed by the laws of time.... There is no
"future" in G‑d's reality -- the whole of time is
"present" to Him. So just as our knowledge of the present has no
compelling effect, so, too, His knowledge is always in [His]
"present" and non-compelling....
The Tosafot Yom Tov adds that "indeed, this is consistent with
the conclusion of the Raavad, who compares G‑d's knowledge to that of a
A Few Questions
In light of all the above, several things need to be clarified:
How would Maimonides respond to the Raavad's argument? Why, indeed, begin a
philosophical discussion of an issue to which there is no philosophical answer?
On the other hand, the Midrash Shmuel's contention that "there is no
contradiction in the first place" appears to be well substantiated. G‑d, as
the Creator of time and space, obviously transcends them. From His vantage
point, the whole of time is an open book. To say that He "already"
knows the future "before" we mortals have reached that juncture in our
journey through time, is to speak of His reality in terms that are appropriate
only to ours. In His terms, His knowledge does not precede our deeds -- on the
contrary, it results of His seeing them transpire in our future (much
like the Raavad's hypothetical stargazer who can read the future).
So why does Maimonides not offer this answer? Is there a reason why he would
consider it insufficient? Also, why does the Raavad, who does seem to offer this
answer, refer to it as only "something of an answer" and concede
"that there is no definitive answer" to Maimonides' question? And if
there is a flaw in this answer (as both Maimonides and the Raavad apparently
felt), was the Midrash Shmuel, and the commentaries who quote him, unaware of
Another Kind of Knowledge
The key to all this lies in the lengthy "non-answer" expounded by
Maimonides. Instead of simply saying that we cannot grasp the nature of G‑d's
"mind," Maimonides refers to what he wrote earlier in his work that
"G‑d and His mind are one." Let us examine his detailed formulation of
this point in chapter two of The Laws of the Torah's Foundations:
All existences aside of the Creator, from the highest [spiritual] form to
a tiny gnat in the belly of the earth, all exist by virtue of His reality.
So in knowing His own... reality, He knows everything....
G‑d is aware of His own reality and knows it as it is. He does not
"know" with a mind that is distinct from him, as we know. We and
our minds are not one; but the Creator - He, His mind, and His life are one
from every side and from every angle and in every manner of unity. For were
He to... know with a "mind" that is distinct of His being, there
would exist several "gods" -- He, His mind, etc.... One must
therefore conclude that He is the knower, the knowledge, and the mind all in
one. This concept is beyond the capacity of the mouth to articulate, the ear
to comprehend and the heart of man to truly know....
Thus, He does not know the creations by perceiving them, as we know them,
but rather, He knows then by virtue of His self-perception.... By knowing
Himself He knows everything, since everything relates to Him for its very
In other words, the very attribution of the concept "knowledge" to
G‑d is problematic. The possession of a "mind" and
"knowledge" -- in our sense of these terms -- implies both
imperfection and diversity; imperfection, because something other than myself
(i.e., the knowledge) gives me something that I lack on my own; diversity,
because the state of "knowing" presupposes a minimum of three
components to my being as a knower -- the "I" that is the possessor of
the knowledge, the information I possess, and the tool by which I possess it --
my mind. And if I know many things, the "parts" to compose my knowing
self are multiplied accordingly. True, these components have fused into a single
entity (the knowing I), but G‑d is a pure singularity, not a composite entity.
Maimonides, therefore, states that if we are to ascribe to G‑d the knowledge
of all beings and all events, we must conclude that: (a) His knowledge of the
countless facts that comprise our existence are, in truth, but a single knowing
-- His knowledge of self (since what we call "existence" is merely the
expression of His infinite potential to create); and (b) He does not know
Himself via a "mind" that is a distinct from Him, but that He, His
knowledge and His "mind" are an utterly singular unit.
Chassidic teaching takes this a step further. The act of creation is, in
essence, an act of Divine knowing. In choosing to "know" Himself as
the source of the created existence, the Almighty grants it validity and being.
So ultimately, every created entity is but the embodiment of G‑d's knowledge of
In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi:
G‑d's... thought and knowledge of all created beings embrace, in
actuality, each and every creation; for [this knowledge] itself is its very
life and being and that which brings it into existence from nothingness into
actuality.( Tanya, part II, ch. 7)
According to this, one obviously cannot describe G‑d's knowledge of the
future -- nor, for that matter, His knowledge of the past -- as resulting from
the facts and events of our existence. In fact, the very opposite is true: the
facts and events of our existence result from G‑d's knowledge of them.
But in addition to this singular, all-embracing, creating knowledge, there
also exists another level of Divine knowledge.
In essence, G‑d is wholly untouched by the deeds of man ("If you fail,
how do you affect Him? If your sins are many, what do you do to Him? If you are
righteous, what do you give Him? What can He possibly receive from you?"
--Job 35:6-7). And yet, G‑d chose to be "affected" by what we do: to
take "pleasure" in our accomplishments and to be "angered"
by our transgressions. (Thus we find expressions in the Torah such as, "A
pleasing fragrance for G‑d" (Leviticus 1:9) "They have angered Me with
their follies" (Deuteronomy 32:21) "Beware, lest your heart be led
astray... and G‑d's anger will burn" (ibid 11:16-17).) He chose to give
himself these "traits" in order to enable us to relate to Him in a way
that is meaningful to us.
This phenomenon referred to by the Kabbalists as the tzimtzum
("contraction") -- G‑d is projecting Himself in ways that are
"confining" to His infinite and feature-free essence, assuming
definitive attributes by which to relate to us on our terms.
On this "post-tzimtzum" level, G‑d knows us in a way that is
comparable to the workings of the human mind -- with a knowledge that results
from what we do. At the same time, He also knows us with a higher "pre-tzimtzum"
knowledge: a knowledge that is an inseparable part of His "seamless"
self-knowledge, a knowledge that is not caused by but is the cause of its
contents. Chassidic teaching refers to these two levels as G‑d's "higher
knowledge" and His "lower knowledge."
Knowing the Unknowable
In light of all the above, we can begin to understand various approaches of
Maimonides, the Raavad and others to the issue of Divine knowledge and human
G‑d's manifest effect upon our existence (as well as His "reaction"
to our deeds) is confined to the interaction created by the tzimtzum-constriction
and the "attributes" he assumes in His relationship to us. So on the
most basic level, "there is no contradiction in the first place." G‑d's
"lower knowledge," although unbounded by time, space or any other
limits, otherwise resembles knowledge as we know it. It is the product of His
observation of our existence (whether past, present or future), so there no
reason why it should affect our freedom of choice.
Ultimately, however, G‑d does not know things because they occur. He knows
them by knowing Himself, and His knowledge of them is the source of their very
However, this "higher knowledge" is part of the pre-tzimtzum
reality and, as such, has no perceptible affect on our experience. (Yet at the
same time, it is the ultimate source of everything we are and everything that
happens to us! For "pre-tzimtzum" is also pre-logic -- logic
being just another of G‑d's creations. Here, two "opposite" truths
co-exist in perfect harmony). This is why the Midrash Shmuel and others feel
that it is sufficient to deal with the issue of "Divine knowledge and human
choice" on the level of "lower knowledge."
Nevertheless, the Raavad considers the "stargazer" explanation as
only "something of an answer" for it fails to resolve the
"contradiction" as it pertains to the essence of G‑d's knowledge. The
Raavad, therefore, feels that Maimonides ought not to have begun discussion of
an issue that ultimately extends beyond the parameters of logic.
Maimonides disagrees. He chooses specifically to address the higher level of
Divine knowledge, the level at which "He and His mind are one" and the
workings of "My thoughts" are in no way comparable to those of
"your thoughts." For man must not only believe and know that the
Almighty's reality extends beyond what is rationally accessible to the human
mind -- he must also understand and appreciate the depth of the
supra-rationality of the Divine.
Indeed, if the question of how G‑d's knowledge is to be reconciled with the
freedom granted to man does not arise, this means that our perception of G‑d's
knowledge is limited to its "lower" aspect, regarding which there is
indeed no logical inconsistency. To grasp the truly super-logical nature of G‑d's
"mind" is to understand that it, as His essence, is affected by
nothing, and at the same time, is the ultimate effector of all.