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 these two cornerstones of Jewish faith: 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 anything more than an illusion?

Maimonides 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: `See, I have set before you life [and good, and death and evil]' ... to say: the choice is in your hands.... 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,' `improve your ways' and `do not follow your wickedness'...? 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, of course, knows all that will transpire. Now, before a particular deed was done, did G‑d know whether the person will be righteous or wicked, or did He not know? 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 also 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, as it is written `no man can perceive Me and live,' 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 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...."

Rabbi Abraham ben Dovid (the "Raavad"), 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...."

Rabbi Abraham 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 Tosfos Yom Tov commentary on our mishnah, Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Heller elaborates on this theme, citing the answer offered by the Rabbi Shmuel Uceda 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 Tosfos 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."

Some Questions

In light of all the above, several things need to be clarified:

How would Maimonides respond to the Raavad's argument? Indeed, why 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 merely 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 through His perception of Himself.... By knowing Himself He knows everything, since everything relates to Him for its very being."

In other words, the very attribution of "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."

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. 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 is known 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

We hear the poet exclaim the "sky for height, the breadth of the earth, and the deep—who can trace them out?" But 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. (Indeed, any logical examination of G‑d's relationship to our existence must, by definition, be confined to the post-tzimtzum reality, since all created phenomena, including logic and its laws, are a product of the tzimtzum. Obviously, one cannot talk about "definitions" and "contradictions" when discussing the Creator of logic beyond the point at which He chooses to relate to His creation on its terms.) 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.

But Maimonides 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 believe and understand that the Almighty's reality extends beyond what is rationally accessible to the human mind. 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 one's 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 is the ultimate effector of all.