If G‑d is the Primal Cause, doesn’t the buck stop there? How can we be held responsible for our actions, if everything is from Him?

The Short Answer:

Defining G‑d as the primal cause is highly problematic.Once you've defined G‑d in any way, He's no longer G‑d.

So saying that G‑d creates worlds in a way of cause and effect is not entirely true. Rather, we speak of "something from nothing." Or, in other words, ontological leaps.

A Little Longer Answer:

Let's go back to the classics. In The Book of Knowledge, the classic giant of Jewish codifiers, Maimonides, explains that the free choice of every person is a major principle and the pillar of the Torah and of Mitzvot. Torah means that G‑d instructs us. Mitzvah means He commands us. And then He rewards and/or punishes and metes out justice with compassion. None of this is imaginable without first assuming that we have free choice. Maimonides then goes on to describe how some of us may ask,

Doesn't the Holy One, Blessed be He, know everything before it occurs? Does He know that a certain person will be righteous in his life, or does He not know? If He knows that this person will be righteous, then it is impossible that he will not be righteous. And if you tell me that He knows this person will be righteous, but the person may nevertheless become wicked — then you are saying He does not know the matter clearly!

Maimonides then writes,

"Know that the answer to this question is longer than the measure of the earth and wider than the sea. There are many major principles and lofty mountains dependant upon it. But you must realize and understand this that I am about to tell you:

"We have already explained in the second chapter of the Laws of the Foundation of the Torah that the Holy One, blessed be He, does not know with a consciousness that is external to Him as do human beings. With us, we and the contents of our consciousness are two things. But with Him, may His name be exalted, He and that which lies in His consciousness are one.

Now, just as it is not within the capacity of a human being to grasp and discover the true reality of the Creator, as it is written, 'For no man can see Me and live,' — so it is not within the capacity of a human being to grasp and discover the consciousness of the Creator. This is what the prophet said,' For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.' And since this is so, we do not have the capacity to conceive how the Holy One, blessed be He, knows all the creations and events. But we do know without any doubt that the deeds of every person are in the hands of that person. The Holy One, blessed be He, does not force him or decree upon him to do what he does.

"Not just by received tradition do we know this, rather there are clear proofs with erudition. And because of this it is told to us through prophecy that each person is judged according to his deeds: Did he do good, or do bad? And this is the trunk of the tree upon which all the words of revelation (i.e. the Torah and the subsequent prophets) hang."

Now, there is a mystery here, which everyone who studies these words of Maimonides asks: Why ask a question if you don't have an answer? And furthermore, isn't the answer a simple one, given by many classic philosophers, Jewish and otherwise?

Simply put, Maimonides is not skirting the question; he is providing an answer.

Talking about G‑d as a primal cause is an anthropomorphism. As one philosopher wrote, "G‑d made Man in His image, and Man returned Him the favor." Human perception and cognition functions by viewing each thing as an outcome of an antecedent state. We build stories in our minds: First this happened, and because of that, this happened, and so on. These stories are essential to our survival — without them we would be at a complete loss concerning what to do next in any given situation. In fact, many psychological disorders can be traced to the subjects incompetence in constructing coherent storylines for his reality. Conversely, human progress is inherently tied to our capacity to develop linear, sequential stories — through the development of language, written symbols, phonetics, mathematics, printing, calculus, etc..

Basically, the world of humankind is one of cause and effect. We cannot imagine otherwise.

Not so, the Creator's world. As Maimonides writes, "His knowledge is not like our knowledge." Our knowledge is of things outside of ourselves. In our mind, first a thing was not, and then it is. It became. And so we ask,"From where did it become?" And we relate it back to the thing that was immediately before.

In our mind, there is a multiplicity of things out there and we need to tie them together with causal linkage.

In the Creator's mind, there is only a single whole. True, He is conscious of all things. His consciousness is their very existence. All things are nothing more than a manifestation of His consciousness of them. But in His knowledge, the terms cause and effect are irrelevant — because these terms imply that there is more than one thing. But how could one thing cause another when there is no other? How could His consciousness be the cause of something, when there is nothing but His consciousness?

It may help to try to imagine one essential aspect of the creation, that is time from the perspective of its Creator. In His consciousness, time exists — because He desires it to exist. But does it exist as a unidirectional sequence of events? Does He have to wait for things to happen? Obviously not. Rather, as the Zohar describes, "He sees all things from beginning to end in a single glance." From that view, what meaning does cause and effect have?

In summary, for Him there is no such thing as an event becoming, since all is there before Him. Neither is there a multiplicity of things. Not even a duality of Him, the Cause, and us, the effect. Rather, there is nothing but a single oneness, in which the terms cause and effect have no relevance.

In the language of Kabbalah, this is called the Encompassing Light. In the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman unlocks the true meaning of this term, asserting that it cannot mean encompassing in the sense of surrounding from the outside — because everything is contained within and pervaded with the encompassing light. Rather, it is saying that the Higher Consciousness encompasses all knowledge as a single whole, wherein all things lie at once, without this being higher and this lower, this before and this after.

Creation Without Cause

This is the same Higher Consciousness that we discussed in a previous section. In the order of things, it acts as the source of everything that exists within the realm of the Lower Consciousness — which includes our subjective world. But, as we shall see, just as there is no cause and effect within the realm of the Higher Consciousness, so too the created worlds do not extend from it in a way of cause and effect.

Why is it that the Encompassing Light cannot be called a primal cause to Creation? Because when we say something is a cause to an effect, we mean that the effect is crouching there within its cause in potential, waiting to happen. But, in the Encompassing Light, as we explained, there is no potential for anything to be at all. The question is then: If so, how does anything at all come to be?

In fact, this is just another route to the puzzle that perplexed so many philosophers and Kabbalists: How, from simple oneness, do we arrive at this fragmented, multifarious world?

It was the Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, who provided a solution. He taught that, yes, from the Infinite Light it is impossible to arrive at a finite world. So G‑d just put that reality aside and made room for another one. Only once that void was established did He then draw a trickle of the first reality into the second, and from there created a world. He called this process tzimtzum, roughly meaning contraction.

When you boil it down, the Ari's answer comes to this: G‑d just did it.

Creation, then, occurs not as a logical process of cause and effect. What exists now is not just an inevitable emanation of what existed before. Rather, it is a deliberate act, originating from a place that is entirely unpredictable, beyond Cause. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes,

"He who is not the effect of any cause, Whose existence is only of His own Being, He alone can bring something out of the absolute absence of anything, without any cause preceding it." (Iggeret HaKodesh chapter 20)

What made G‑d? Nothing. He just is. What made G‑d create a world? Nothing. He just did it. Same G‑d.

In 1905, long before the uncertainty principle lay the axiom of causality on the execution block, Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch wrote a description spanning the gamut of the cosmic creative process. Applying metaphor from creativity within the human psyche, he illustrated how each step along the route from the primal thought of being to the mundane activity of this world is an artificial leap from what came before. Each step is entirely unpredictable, even impossible, within the realm that is before and beyond that step. Even where there appears to be a causal order, it is only superficial. Looking deeper, each step must be understood as a deliberate act, without precedent, originating with a primal consciousness that stands far beyond cause and effect.

Indeed, this so closely matches the human experience. We are constantly surprising ourselves, with no clue, where did that idea come from? why did I react that way? who spoke those words that came out of my mouth? Psychologists have demonstrated that we are better at predicting the behavior of others than at predicting our own. In the realm of creativity, including scientific discovery, the phenomena is even more pronounced. As Robert Pollack writes,

"Moments of insight in science are not reproducible, neither is their occurrence modeled by any hypothesis of its own. As scientific insight cannot be harnessed to the engine of experimental testing, each occurrence may as well be a gift from an unknowable source. Good ideas emerge in the mind of a scientist as gifts of the unknowable. They are not, as data are, simply trophies of a struggle with the unknown" (Pollack, Robert, 2000, The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith, Columbia Press, page 15).

It turns out the human psyche is in the image of G‑d, after all. In other words, as so many of the commentaries explain, in the image He used to create heaven and earth: A paradigm of unprecedented leaps and untraceable bounds, originating from that which can only be described as The Unknowable. That Unknowable is the essence of what the Jew worships as G‑d.

The Unknowable breathes within each of us the breath of life and with the power of that breath we choose life.


Have I answered all the questions? I hope not. It would be a rather dull world if I could. In fact, if youve read this with any mental focus at all, you should have a hundred times as many questions as when you started.

Hopefully, the explanations I have presented above from the works of our rabbis have demonstrated that the dictum of free choice and absolute monotheism is not an absurdity, albeit neither entirely fathomable.

If there's any one point to gain from all this, it is the most practical: That we each have ownership of our destiny.

"As you can see, I have placed before you today life and good, death and evil... therefore, choose life!" (Deuteronomy 30).