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Three classical approaches to the paradox of divine knowledge and human choice in the light of chassidic philosophy

Divine Knowledge and Human Choice

Divine Knowledge and Human Choice

Ethics 3:15


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, or 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 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,"1 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."2 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 determine it.

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 Shmuel:

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 stargazer."

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 it?

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 being.

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 it.

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.

The Tzimtzum

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 choice.

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 existence.

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.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Menachem s, teresa September 4, 2011

Rambam talking pre-tzimtzum? This article seems to be saying that the Rambam, when referring to G-d as the Knowledge, Knower, and Known applies pre-tzimtzum.

But doesn't the Alter Rebbe in Chapter 2 of Tanya say that the Rambam must be talking about a post-tzimtum level?

I can't link to the Tanya, but it is available on Reply

Billy Akers Thaxton, VA February 5, 2011

One more thought All the teachings are accurate, G_d as the creator of time is free from it's limitations. We are here to learn perfect obedience to G_d. He knows how to teach us and we need time to learn. We must of our own free will choose obedience to Him. We must search the Torah so our choices please Him. Knowing the future G_d knows what choices we make and how we fare in Judgment. This fact, that He knows, by no means excuses us from our responsibilities to study and make the right choices. We don't know our future and can make wrong choices by searching the Torah we learn to make right choices and prove to ourselves that we love G_d's law and that Law brings us the blessings He promises for obedience. Adam was given the choice and even told, to take the Tree of Life. He instead took the Tree of Knowledge, deciding to make his own laws refusing G_d's instruction. Adam's choice revealed to him what was already known by G_d. Abraham learned obedience to G_d when he offered Isaac. Reply

yehoshua werde brooklyn, ny December 26, 2010

sources It would really be a wonderful service if Rabbi Tauber would put the talk's source for his essays so one could do further research his fascinating essays, Reply

Anonymous UK December 13, 2009

"Why, indeed, begin a philosophical discussion of an issue to which there is no philosophical answer?"
because if you don't start looking for the answer then you don't know if there is an answer. Many philosophical discussions have no ending-answers.
Mosiach Now! Reply

Anonymous August 25, 2008

Without understanding one cannot truly come to trust in G-d:
There are many people out there, many books written, all claiming to be the true word of G-d and contradicting one another a thousand fold; how are we to find the real G-d that we may place our trust in him? Will the true truth please stand up?
G-d gave us humans the gift of understanding that we may distinguish between darkness and light and discern the truth. We must use that gift to comprehend the true greatness of the true G-d, to understand that G-d is not limited by the bounds of logic; we must not throw it away.
On a deeper note: G-d created the world that he may have a 'dwelling in the lower realms' - He does not desire to impose himself on us transcendently, but to be revealed immanently within our hearts and minds. The greatest level of human achievement is the intellectual knowledge of G-d and its application.
As the torah states explicitly "It is not heaven... but in your heart that you may do it". Reply

Rosina August 4, 2008

Mans limited knowledge Which brings up the point that, since Torah say that HIS ways are higher than our ways, and HIS thoughts are higher than ours, why do we place so much value to the thoughts of "wise sages" and the like; are they not human? were we not commanded to trust in G-D with all our hearts and lean not upon our own understanding? Reply

Anonymous London, UK August 21, 2007

Freedom of Choice within "Higher Knowledge" To clarify:
If I understand correctly, the point Maimonides is making is that while G-d's knowledge of his creations is the source of their very existence (and by defult all their actions), at this level G-d is not limited to the demands of logic ("as His essence, is affected by nothing").
If so he can chose to bestow free-choice even under the above conditions. Reply

Anonymous December 17, 2006

It gives me comfort in the belief of free will. Although I didn't completely follow what was in this article, the idea that G-d's 'knowledge' is based upon knowing the complete time spectrum, is a concept I can understand and accept. I do believe that predestination and free will can exist together. Every decision and choice one has the free will to make but, the choice is based upon actions and decisions of the past, the present and how one believes it will affect the future. The effect on the future is the component that comes from the inner fiber of the person and I beleive that this is G-d's gift to each of us. This gift guides us to make the right choice. Reply

Anonymous Singapore June 16, 2005

praise Dear Sir or Madam,

I came upon your website by chance, and must say that I find it very interesting. The advice you give seems to be just what I was looking for too. Keep up the good work! Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.
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