Free will in Judaism is the capacity to choose between different courses of actions, words or thoughts—not due to outside influence, internal nature or any sort of personal preference. Just a balanced choice between right and wrong.

This notion that human beings can exercise their own free will when making moral decisions is axiomatic to Judaism. And the conflict between human free will and the omnipotence of his Creator is a pervasive theme in the Jewish narrative of history.

It’s a paradox thatHow can G‑d endow human beings with free will and remain G‑d? Jewish thinkers have wrestled with for thousands of years: How can G‑d endow human beings with free will and remain G‑d? Many explanations have been offered, and we’ll touch on some of them later below.

Morality and Free Will

The Hebrew Bible is a story of G‑d’s interaction with man. G‑d rewards those who listen to His will and help perfect His world; He chastises those who disobey and destroy it. The choice to do one or the other is clearly in our hands. “Behold,” G‑d says, “I have placed before you good and evil, life and death. Choose life!”1

Without a belief in free will, none of this would make sense. There could be no instructions, no reward, and no chastisement.

Judaism is replete Judaism is replete with the belief that there is no room for despair. But change is not possible unless we have the autonomy of free will. with the belief that there is no such thing as failure, no room for despair. As low as a person has fallen, as fiercely as his appetite and addictions have taken control of him, he can always turn around and clean up his mess. G‑d shows patience to those who sin, because He believes in the human being and in his capacity to change. He is “a G‑d compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.”2

But change is not possible unless we have the autonomy of free will. The ability to turn yourself around can come only from within you.

Indeed, without free will there would be no purpose to life. We live meaningful lives through our willful, proactive decisions to care for the world in harmony with the will of its Creator.

Free Will In Genesis

Who has free will and who does not?

Throughout classic Jewish literature, absolute free choice is the domain of G‑d alone.Throughout classic Jewish literature, absolute free choice is the domain of G‑d alone. He chooses that heaven and earth should exist, He chooses their design and He chooses the story they tell.

Human beings are created “in G‑d’s likeness.”3 This means that, like G‑d, we are endowed with the capacity to do as we please—despite what what our Creator would like us to do.4 And indeed, after Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we read that explicitly: G‑d says, “Verily, this human being is unique, that he has his own mind to choose between good and evil.”5

Unlike G‑d, we are limited by the nature of the world G‑d has created. We can’t choose to grow wings and fly, or to change winter into summer.

Neither can we foil—or interrupt for a moment—G‑d’s plan for His creation, or even our personal destiny.6 As Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended me harm. God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.”7

What we can choose is whether to obey the will of our Creator, to ignore it—or even to go beyond it. By doing so, we can choose our role within the story—whether good things happen because of us, or despite us. We can decide how deep, how profound the story will be, and how high it can reach—through good deeds, through prayer, and by turning our lives around.8

In other words, we can make moral choices within G‑d’s story. G‑d’s plans, after all, can unfold in innumerable ways.9 But it is the Creator, not us, who decides what that story is. As Rabbi Chanina, an ancient sage of the Mishnah, taught, “All is in the hands of heaven, except for the awe of heaven.”10

Do Animals Have Free Will?

What about other forms of life? Other organisms are called a living “nefesh.”11 That’s generally translated as a “soul,” but it carries with it the meaning of willful agency. Animals are willful. They are not automatons.Unlike the wind, water and other elements, they move, eat and behave willfully. They are not automatons.12

Nevertheless, they are limited by their G‑d-given distinct nature and instincts. They may have very strong wills, but not truly free will. They may have strong personalities, but they are not able to override or change their character. Animals may perform destructive acts, but they cannot be considered morally culpable.

That is the domain of human beings alone, who carry an endless repertoire of character, and a mind that is capable of seeing choices and overriding impulse.13

When Do We Have Free Will?

When choosing between an orange and a grapefruit, or between a Honda Civic and a Toyota Corolla, the human being is not really much different than the animal. We’re making choices and exercising our will, but these are not entirely free choices. We either determine these choice by what makes more sense to us, or what feels right—or arbitrarily.

It’s when we come up against a moral decision It’s when we come up against a moral decision that pits two sides of us in conflict that a truly free choice may occur.that pits two sides of us in conflict that a truly free choice may occur. One part of us desires that which is self-serving and self-gratifying. Another part of us desires that which is the right thing to do just because it’s the right thing to do—despite the sacrifices involved.14

That’s what makes it very difficult to determine when we are actually exercising our free will. What is a real choice for one person is a natural choice for another.15 That’s why the final arbiter of these matters can only be “the one who knows the hidden things of the heart”16 —i.e. G‑d Himself.

Free Will Vs. G‑d’s Will

As mentioned above, Jewish thinkers have struggled with several serious questions that arise out of this axiom of free will. If G‑d were just another deity, no big deal. But Genesis describes a G‑d who brings the entire universe into existence out of the void.Things exist and events happen only because He so wills, and the essence of each thing is nothing other than that will. Things exist and events happen only because He so wills, and the essence of each thing is nothing other than that will.

If so, how could a creation of G‑d’s will have the capacity to do something other than G‑d’s will?

The ancient sages were certainly not naive to this irony—as we see from the teaching of Rabbi Chanina cited above.

Maimonides, the great 12th century codifier of Jewish law and thought, asks the question rhetorically, writing, “Could there then occur something in the world other than that willed by its Maker?”

And then He simply pulls the carpet from under his own question: Fire burns because G‑d wills it to burn. Water flows because G‑d wills it to flow. So, too, human beings have free will because G‑d wills us to have free will. There is no contradiction.17

Free Will Vs. Omniscience

But under the carpet lies another question:

For G‑d, will and knowledge are closely related.18 Just as nothing can exist without G‑d willing it to exist, so nothing can occur without G‑d knowing it will occur. If so, G‑d knows what we will do with our free will.

G‑d knew that Adam and Eve would eat of the wrong tree in the garden, that the Children of Israel would make a golden calf, and that humanity would generally mess up His world more than nasty bugs in the vegetable patch.G‑d knew that Adam and Eve would eat of the wrong tree in the garden, that the Children of Israel would make a golden calf, and that humanity would generally mess up His world more than nasty bugs in the vegetable patch. If that’s already in His knowledge, how could be held accountable for doing that which He had already planned in advance?

Again, the conundrum is an ancient one. In the cryptic, but pithy words of Rabbi Akiva, a Jewish sage of Roman times, “All is foreseen, but permission is given.”19

Virtually every Jewish theologian has grappled with the issue of divine foreknowledge and our free will. Some explain it away simply: Knowing something is going to happen does not cause it to happen. Sure, we can’t do otherwise. But that doesn’t mean we are forced by that knowledge.20

This is not difficult to understand. There are cases where we, too, can predict the future with a high degree of accuracy.

For example, let’s say I’m holding a fine porcelain vase. I ask you, “What will happen if I let go of this vase?” You answer, “It will fall to the ground and break.”

So I let go of the vase, and what do you know, it falls to the ground and shatters.

Can I sue you for the worth of the vase? I’m sure you’ll agree my case would shatter in court even faster than that vase on the floor.

G‑d is beyond time. For Him, all has already occurred. G‑d is beyond time. For Him, all has already occurred.His knowledge of the future is similar to our knowledge of the present. That knowledge is not a cause to our deeds, but an outcome. So too, G‑d cannot be held responsible for our misdeeds simply because He knew about them beforehand.

Yet, not all are satisfied with this solution. For one thing, it smacks of anthropomorphism (the tendency to impose human characteristics onto G‑d).

You predicted that the vase will fall to the floor and shatter based on past experience. But life in general, and human beings in particular, are inherently unpredictable. God knows what we will choose not based on precedent, because He is beyond time. For Him, everything has already happened. If so, how can we compare our knowledge to His?

Furthermore, this solution ignores the real problem: When we say “G‑d,” we mean the true reality from which everything emerges. How is it possible that something could emerge out that ultimate knowledge and yet make its own decision?

Alternative proposals have been made, some of which I hope to discuss in another essay. Some attempt to compromise either the extent of G‑d’s knowledge21 while others question the reality of our free will.22 Small wonder that there are those who insist that we are better off leaving this mystery to simple faith, since intellectual prodding can only create more confusion.

Free Will and the Limits of Human Understanding

Certainly the most original approach is that of Maimonides.23 Maimonides refuses to leave the matter to faith, but neither does he assert that it can be Maimonides refuses to leave the matter to faith, but neither does he assert that it can be understood. Rather, he explains to us just why a human mind is incapable of resolving this problem with clarity.understood. Rather, he explains to us just why a human mind is incapable of resolving this problem with clarity.

We are creatures of dualities. When you say, “I think,”—even before the “therefore”—you’ve immediately created a duality: There is you, and there is your act of thinking. All your thoughts are of things you have seen or constructed from past experience. Over time, you gain new knowledge, and you change and grow from this knowledge.

For G‑d, none of that holds. When we say He say “G‑d is One,” we don’t just mean that there is only one of Him; we mean that He is a perfect unity. In Maimonides’ words, “He is the knower, He is the knowing, and He is the knowledge.” G‑d knows all that is, was and will be through knowing Himself. There is no change, no duality. He is not affected in any way by the events of time. When G‑d thinks, there is only G‑d.

Maimonides quotes the prophet Isaiah, who says in G‑d’s name, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”24 Our thoughts remain just ideas until we do something to make them real. G‑d’s thoughts, on the other hand, bring life into existence. Indeed, they bring existence into existence.

The two are related: Because G‑d’s thoughts are one with Him, therefore they give existence and life.

Can we fathom how such a G‑d creates existence and knows all of it? Can we imagine what it is like to be a perfect, non-binary oneness? Certainly not. Maimonides lays down a general rule: We can only imagine that which exists within ourselves.

One thing we can say: It’s not the sort of cause and effect that we know of in a binary universe.

Case closed. From afar we see a thing well enough to know that it is beyond our grasp. Maimonides leads us to the cliff’s edge of human understanding.

Nonetheless, centuries later, the school of Chabad took steps further along the same path, providing metaphor that opens the mind to a greater understanding of what it is exactly that we cannot understand.

If you’re interested in walking some of those steps, continue on to The Paradox of Free Choice.

… and in upcoming weeks, yet more discussions on some of the crucial issues of free will and life as a human being.