louisjacobs logo Registered UK Charity No 1139099
t. +44 (0)20 7566 5070
e. Click here to email us directly

Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will


by Rabbi Louis Jacobs
Conservative Judaism 34,1 (Sept-Oct. 1980), 4-16.

If God knows beforehand how man will conduct himself in the future, how can man be free to choose? This problem has long exercised a powerful fascination over the religious mind. In medieval Jewish thought the problem is known as that of ????? ('knowledge' i.e., God's foreknowledge) and ????? ('choice' i.e., human freedom to choose). It being generally acknowledged in Judaism that the doctrine of God's omniscience embraces the sure and certain knowledge by Him of all future events and it being generally accepted as axiomatic that human beings are free, at least within limits, to pursue good and reject evil, the problem arises of how both beliefs can be mutually compatible and simultaneously held.

If, long before a particular man is born, God knows down to the last detail and with complete certainty all the deeds that man will perform during his lifetime, how can that man possibly be free to do otherwise'? To deny God's foreknowledge seems to suggest ignorance and limitation in God and hence appears to be incompatible with the belief in God's utter perfection. To deny human freedom, on the other hand, seems to make nonsense of the Jewish religion which contains innumerable appeals to man to choose the good and which informs him that he will be rewarded for so doing, but punished if he chooses evil. From the Middle Ages down to the present the problem has been considered by a succession of Jewish thinkers.

It is widely held that the problem has been stated by Rabbi Akiba in the Mishnah (Avot 3:15). In its usual translation Akiba's saying reads: 'All is foreseen ( (??? ????and (or 'but') freedom (of the will to behave as one chooses) is given (?????? ?????).' But it is by no means certain that the translation 'All is foreseen' is correct. The Hebrew word ???? may mean here 'seen' not 'foreseen', the significance of the saying being to call attention to the fact that God sees all that men do now, without referring at all to God's ability to see into the future. (1) The saying may be no more than an admonition to man to conduct himself worthily since God sees all his deeds, and since man has the freedom to choose well. It is, in any event, extremely unlikely that Akiba is referring to the problem of foreknowledge and free will, which he seeks to solve by stating that both are true in a way we cannot grasp. The consideration of abstract metaphysical problems of this kind is foreign to the concrete, 'organic' (2) type of rabbinic thought. Only by reading into it medieval modes of speculation can Akiba's saying yield the idea it is conventionally held to be postulating.

Maimonides, however, in his commentary to the Mishnah, does understand Akiba to be saying that both beliefs are true: God has foreknowledge and yet man is free. (3) In his Mishneh Torah (Teshuvah 5:5) Maimonides writes that it is beyond the power of the human mind to grasp how God's foreknowledge can be reconciled with man's freedom of choice. Yet even though the human mind cannot see how both beliefs can be true, it is necessary for the believer to accept both beliefs as true. Maimonides is not content to state it as a great mystery and leave it at that. He proceeds to demonstrate that the problem is due to the mistaken notion that we can fathom the mind of God, whereas, in reality, we are quite incapable of attaining any kind of comprehension of the mind of God.

If God's knowledge were of the same order as human knowledge, albeit of infinitely greater degree, then, indeed, such knowledge of future events would be totally incompatible with human freedom. (4) The truth is, argues Maimonides, that God's knowledge is never of something external to Himself. Human cognition involves the person who knows, the process of knowing and the thing known, but in God knower, knowledge and that which is known are one. This must be so since it cannot seriously be maintained that God acquires knowledge of that of which He was previously ignorant. God is a Knower, He is never a Learner. It follows from this that human beings can have as little comprehension of God's knowledge as they can have of God Himself since God is His knowledge and His knowledge Him. What Maimonides appears to be saying is that it is a logical impossibility for human foreknowledge to be compatible with human freedom but God's foreknowledge is part of God's knowledge in totality and this is identical with God Himself. We can have no 'knowledge' of God's knowledge, not even the 'knowledge' to declare it to be incompatible with human freedom. (5) 'Since this is so,' concludes Maimonides, 'we are incapable of knowing how the Holy One, blessed be He, knows all creatures and all deeds but this we can know without any doubt, that a man's deeds depend on him alone, God neither influencing him nor compelling him to do that which he does.'

R. Abraham Ibn David of Posquieres (d. 1198), the Rabad, in his stricture to this section of the Mishneh Torah, writes:

Says Abraham: This author did not follow the practice of sages according to which no man should embark on an enterprise he cannot bring to a successful conclusion. He began by raising problems but left the problems unsolved, falling back on faith. It would have been better for him to have left the unsophisticated in their innocence without introducing doubts into their minds, perhaps causing them to entertain heretical thoughts for the time being. Even though there is no completely convincing solution to this problem, it is right to suggest here some kind of answer. So I say: If a man's virtue or his wickedness depended on the decree of the Creator we would then be obliged to say that His knowledge is His decree and then, indeed, the problem would have been extremely severe. As it is, the Creator has surrendered His power to control man's life by giving this power to man himself. Consequently, God's foreknowledge is not determinative but should rather be compared to the knowledge the astrologers have, who know by external means what will happen to this or that person. It is well-known that the Creator has made every event, great or small, depend on the stars but, at the same time, He endowed man with reason to help him escape the fate decreed by the stars and from this results man's capacity to be virtuous or wicked. The Creator knows the force of the star and its times so that He knows whether man will possess sufficient power of reason to enable him to escape from the fate decreed by the star. Such knowledge is not determinative. But all this is really worthless.

Rabad accuses Maimonides of falling back on faith. But, if faith is the only solution, why raise the philosophical problem at all? As we have noted, however, Maimonides does offer a solution, by examining what is involved when we speak of God's knowledge. Maimonides does not simply say, as Rabad accuses, that we cannot see how foreknowledge and freedom are compatible but we must believe by faith that somehow they are. Maimonides rather says that by philosophical analysis of the whole concept of God's knowledge we must arrive, by reason not by faith, at the conclusion that the problem is really a pseudo-problem in that it proceeds by postulating a knowledge in God that is akin to human knowledge.

Rabad's own solution is that God does not decree beforehand how a man must behave. To be sure, God does know beforehand how man will behave but such knowledge is not determinative. Raabad, unlike Maimonides, is a believer in astrology. He adopts the standard medieval view that man's general fate is determined by the stars but holds that, since Judaism considers man to be free to choose the good, God has endowed man with reason, i.e., with the skill and talent to escape from the domination of the stars in those areas where his choice has moral significance. God does know beforehand whether in each particular instance man's reasoning powers will be strong enough to enable him to escape the fate decreed by the stars but this kind of knowledge is not determinative. Rabad concludes, nevertheless, that his solution is really worthless, evidently because it is extremely difficult to see how certain foreknowledge, even of the kind Rabad postulates, can fail to be ultimately determinative.

Gersonides (1288-1344), who holds that if logical contradiction is to be avoided then either belief in God's foreknowledge or belief in human freedom requires qualification, adopts the very radical solution that God does not, in fact, know beforehand the particular choices man will make. (6) God knows all there is to know but if man is really free to choose them, by definition, the actual choices he makes are unknowable before he makes them and this cannot fall under the scope of divine omniscience. It is not to ascribe ignorance to God to say that He does not know that which, by definition, is not knowledge. Gersonides makes the claim that his view alone makes sense of the biblical passages which refer to man's freedom but which imply that his choices are known to God beforehand. God does know the future in a general sense. He knows all the possibilities open to man and all the various results of particular choices. What He does not know is which particular choice man will make in each instance. No other representative Jewish thinker in the Middle Ages has been prepared to qualify so drastically the doctrine of divine omniscience. Theologically this reduces the power of God to such an extent that the Supreme Being of Gersonides' scheme would not be recognized by the majority of believers as the God in whom they believe. Husik, (7) discussing Gersonides' view, says that it 'is surely very bold as theology, we might almost say it is a theological monstrosity.'

Hasdai Crescas (1340-1416), like Gersonides, believes (8) that it is logically impossible to maintain both that God has complete foreknowledge and that human beings are completely free, but, unlike Gersonides, Crescas is unwilling to limit God's foreknowledge in any way and consequently finds his way out of the dilemma by limiting human freedom. For Crescas, man is not fated to choose a particular act but it is determined, nonetheless, by virtue of God's foreknowledge that he will, in fact, choose it. Man's choice is guided by the promise of reward for doing good and the threat of punishment for doing evil. Thus what is determined by God's foreknowledge is the whole process by means of which man arrives at his particular choices.

There would be no justice in God granting reward to the righteous and punishing the wicked if rewards were in the nature of gifts for virtuous living and punishments were deprivations for evil living. Rewards and punishments are only the means by which a man is spurred on to lead a virtuous life and to reject a vicious life, operating as cause and effect. Crescas is fully aware of the difficulties inherent in his solution. He discusses why, since every human act is determined by God's foreknowledge, a distinction is made in Jewish law between voluntary acts, for which there is reward and punishment, and involuntary acts. Crescas tries hard to fit the distinction into his scheme. There is no point in rewarding or punishing acts done under compulsion since the whole purpose of reward and punishment, as Crescas has argued, is to influence man's choices. It can hardly be said that Crescas has offered an adequate solution to the problem. Alone among the medieval Jewish thinkers, Crescas prefers the determinative position.

Isaac b. Sheshet Perfet (1326-1408), in a responsum (9) on the study of philosophy, is severely critical of Gersonides' solution to the problem. In another responsum, (10) Perfet replies to the question addressed to him by Amram of Oran who wished to know how the opinion of Rabad, which Perfet does not attack, differs from that of Gersonides, which he does attack. Perfet has no difficulty in distinguishing between the two views. Gersonides holds that God does not, in fact, know beforehand how man will choose in each particular instance. This cannot be correct, says Perfet, since presumably He does know the particular acts once they have been performed (otherwise, how can He reward virtue and punish vice) and it would follow, if Gersonides is correct, that God acquires knowledge of which He had previously been ignorant, which is a theological impossibility.

Rabad, on the other hand, holds that God does know beforehand the particular choices of man but that His foreknowledge is not determinative. Perfet notes that Rabad is himself less than satisfied with his solution. Perfet then attempts a solution of his own. If it were simply the bare act man performs that is known beforehand to God then, indeed, man would not be free. What God knows beforehand is not the act alone but the act together with man's free choice to perform it. God knows beforehand how man will choose in his freedom. It is not the foreknowledge that determines the choice but the choice which determines, as it were, the foreknowledge. God knows beforehand how man will choose in his freedom so that man is completely free to choose. But while Perfet seems to think that this is the best and most adequate solution to the problem, it is no real solution since the difficulty remains, as with Rabad: how can God's foreknowledge fail to be determinative.

Simeon b. Zemah Duran (1361-1444), in his commentary to the mishnah of Rabbi Akiba (11) spells out the problem and Maimonides' solution. Duran writes:

According to this explanation the great problem arises to which the Gentiles have addressed themselves. This is: If God knows beforehand how men will behave, how can man be free since the divine foreknowledge embraces the deeds eventually carried out and it is impossible to change it? Consequently, there are two opinions among them on this question. The first is that God has no knowledge of what man will do and man is entirely free to do as he chooses. This is the opinion of the Greek sages but not of our sages of blessed memory, who say (12): 'How do we know that God knows what will be in the future? Because Scripture says, "And this people will arise and go awhoring"' (Deuteronomy 31:16). The second opinion is that man has no freedom of choice and all is determined by the decree of the Creator. This is the opinion of the Arabic sages (of the Ashariya sect) who believe in determinism. Such an opinion is contrary to our Torah, which says 'Choose life, therefore' (Deuteronomy 31:19). Man cannot be commanded to choose unless he is free so to do. Our teacher Moses (Maimonides), of blessed memory, rules that God does know the future beforehand but that this knowledge has no coercive power over man. Although, so far as our knowledge is concerned, such a thing is impossible, God's knowledge is not like our knowledge, there being no point of comparison between them, since God and His knowledge are one and the same. Just as He is incomprehensible to us and we cannot know His nature, so, too, His knowledge is beyond our comprehension.

Thus Duran accepts that Maimonides is not simply throwing up his hands in despair but is offering a solution, albeit one that we cannot fathom or, rather, is pointing out that the problem is not a real problem because we can say as little about God's knowledge as about God's nature.

Yom Tov Lippmann Heller (1579-1654), in his famous commentary to the Mishnah, Tosafot Yom Tov, in the section on Rabbi Akiba's saying, defends Maimonides against the stricture of Rabad. The latter criticizes Maimonides for raising an extremely difficult problem for faith without providing an answer. Maimonides, says Heller, simply follows Rabbi Akiba, who similarly provides no answer, his intention being to teach that the solution is as Maimonides says, beyond man's ability to grasp. Heller quotes in this connection the famous commentary to Avot, entitled Midrash Shemuel, by Samuel b. Isaac Uceda (16th century), which invokes the mystical idea of the Eternal Now to solve the problem.

God does not see beforehand what man will do in the future. God sees all future acts of man being done now. If A sees B performing an act now, the fact that A sees B doing that act obviously does not interfere in any way with B's freedom to do it. This is how God sees all acts, future as well as past and present since God is not in time but beyond time. Moses Almosnino (d. ca. 1580) is quoted as suggesting that this idea is implied in what Maimonides says. When Maimonides seeks to distinguish, in this connection, between God's knowledge and human knowledge, this is precisely what he means. God's knowledge is never of the future since God is beyond time and His knowledge is always of the present. The reason we have difficulty in reconciling God's foreknowledge with human freedom is because we are incapable of grasping how God's knowledge can always be in the present. This is because, as human beings, we are bound by the time process. That is why Maimonides reminds us that in the nature of the case we cannot have any comprehension of God's knowledge. It is, of course, more than a little unlikely that this is what Maimonides means. Certainly there is no reference anywhere else in the writings of Maimonides to the mystical Eternal Now. (13)

The Moroccan kabbalist, Hayyim Ibn Attar (1696-1743) attempts a solution of his own in his commentary to the Pentateuch, Or hahayyim. (14) Ibn Attar's ideas are clothed in mystical language and are obscure, but what he seems to be saying is that there can, indeed, be no human freedom where there is divine foreknowledge. In order to give man his freedom God voluntarily relinquishes His foreknowledge. Ibn Attar appears to hold that God's omniscience is not compromised by His voluntary surrender of His foreknowledge since it is voluntary.

Moreover, Ibn Attar continues, God does not surrender His foreknowledge so far as the deeds of the righteous are concerned, from which it follows that man's good deeds are not performed in complete freedom and he deserves no reward for them. The righteous have grounds to protest God's rewarding them for their good deeds but 'no one complains against his own interest.' This is a very curious theory of religious determinism for the righteous and freedom for the wicked. Ibn Attar claims that Maimonides is saying the same thing. It is impossible for man to surrender his knowledge - self-induced ignorance is a contradiction in terms. But what is impossible for man is possible for God in His omnipotence. Again, it is hardly likely that Maimonides shares the views of Ibn Attar and, judging by Maimonides' general stance, he would have been greatly shocked by them.

A full-scale treatment of the problem is found in the work Amud ha'avodah (15) by the hasidic master Barukh of Kossov (d. 1795). Barukh cleverly reads Maimonides' views into the verses:

Why sayest thou, o Jacob,
And speakest, o Israel:
'My way is hid from the Lord,
And my judgement is passed over from my God.'
Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard
That the everlasting God, the Lord,
The Creator of the ends of the earth,
Fainteth not, neither is weary?
His discernment is past searching out.
(Isaiah 40:27-28)

That is to say, Jacob says: either my way is hid from the Lord (i.e., God has no foreknowledge) or my judgement is passed over from my God (i.e., man is not free and cannot, therefore, be judged by God for his deeds). To this the prophet replies, as does Maimonides, that God's discernment is past searching out (i.e. we are incapable of comprehending the great mystery since God's knowledge is beyond all human comprehension). Barukh quotes the saying (16): 'A fool is a sage in his own eyes, A fool is a sage in his own eyes.' The first sentence should be read as it stands. The second should be read: 'A fool in his own eyes - is a sage,' the sage seeing himself as a fool. Both sentences imply that the truly wise know that they do not know.

Barukh proceeds to discuss which type of unbelief is the more serious, denial that God has foreknowledge or denial that man is free. At first glance, he observes, it would seem that to deny God's foreknowledge is worse, touching as it does on the doctrine of God's complete perfection and imposing limits on God's powers. Yet, on deeper reflection, Barukh continues, it can be seen that it is worse to deny human freedom. The man who denies human freedom will eventually reject all religion and all religious doctrine, including the belief in God's foreknowledge. By denying human freedom, one would be bound to deny the truth of the Torah since the Torah appeals constantly to man as a being capable of free choice. The result will be that such an unbeliever will give up his study of the Torah.

But the man who believes in human freedom, though he denies God's foreknowledge, will continue to study the Torah and this very study will eventually convince him of the truth that God does have foreknowledge. As his mind becomes more mature through his studies he will discover how solutions are found to what seem to be insoluble problems so that, as Maimonides says, although he will never know the answer to this particular theological problem (of how God's foreknowledge can be reconciled with human freedom), yet he will no longer be tempted to deny that God has foreknowledge simply because the solution to the problem is beyond his grasp. This, claims Barukh, is the meaning of the idea mentioned in the Midrash (17) where God is made to say, 'Would that they had forsaken Me but kept My Torah, for the light therein will restore them to the good.' It is preferable that they give up belief in God's foreknowledge for the time being, but keep His Torah, rather than continue to believe in God's foreknowledge but deny human freedom and eventually give up the study of the Torah.

In an earlier work, (18) Barukh has a lengthy excursus on the problem. Here he takes issue with two earlier attempts - by Moses Alshekh (d. ca.1593) and Immanuel Hai Ricchi (1688-1743) - at solving the problem. Alshekh, as expounded by Barukh, puts forward the idea that God's foreknowledge is so subtle and infinitely refined that it can have no influence on man's free choice. Barukh gives the illustration of the lever which can lift huge loads when operated by a human being yet the one who invented the lever could not lift these loads merely by thinking of the lever's operations. This, of course, does nothing to solve the problem. If God's foreknowledge is really certain, why does it not determine man's choice, infinitely subtle though that knowledge is? Barukh evidently does not see this as an objection but has another objection we shall note presently.

Hai Ricchi's solution is basically the same as that of Ibn Attar noted earlier. God surrenders His foreknowledge in order that man should have freedom of choice and all things are possible for God, including the surrender of His foreknowledge. Barukh demolishes both solutions, those of Alshekh and Hai Ricchi, on the basis of the verse, 'And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee; and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart' (Exodus 4:14). Here God tells Moses that his brother Aaron will come out to meet him and Aaron will rejoice that Moses had been chosen by God. Now, argues Barukh, the clear implication of this is that Aaron exercised his free choice in rejoicing at the good news that Moses had been chosen, even though God knew of it beforehand and told it to Moses beforehand. Here, neither Alshekh's solution nor that of Hai Ricchi applies since here God's foreknowledge was expressed in speech to Moses (and was not, therefore, so subtle that it could have no effect on human conduct) and there was no surrender of the divine foreknowledge.

Barukh proceeds to elaborate on the Eternal Now solution, as found in Heller, Uceda and Almosnino, with elaborations of his own. The division of time into past, present and future is due to the workings of the human mind, but for the mind of God past, present and future are seen in a single glance, as it were. God always sees man acting 'now' with his free choice. Since we are involved in the time process we cannot grasp adequately this tremendous idea, which is why Maimonides notes that the solution is beyond the grasp of the human mind.

Another hasidic master to deal with the problem is the anti-rationalist thinker Zevi Elimelekh of Dynow (1785-1841). Zevi Elimelekh was a lifelong opponent of the Mendelssohnian enlightenment, considering it dangerous to faith. A problem such as ours, to which there is no solution, attracted this author, providing him with ammunition in his attack upon 'reason.' Here, at least, he argues human reasoning is sterile and only simple faith can be our guide. In his Benei Yissakhar, (19) Zevi Elimelekh advances the argument that God has intentionally concealed the solution to our problem so that men should believe solely by faith. Those who follow the good life solely because their reason so dictates cannot excuse their sins by saying, 'Because of God's foreknowledge we are not free,' since their sole guide, human reasoning, is powerless to solve the contradiction. Since they hold that they are free because reason so tells them, they are not entitled to claim immunity from punishment on the grounds of faith. But the Jewish people, the faithful believers, know that they are free only because of their faith (which alone guides them and helps them to live with the contradiction between their freedom and God's foreknowledge). Since their very freedom is accepted by them on faith, it is right that God shows them mercy and treats them as if they had not sinned in full freedom. Or, as Zevi Elimelekh puts it:

God in His mercy and in His desire to justify His people, behaves in His relationship with them in His quality of mercy, higher than reason. For reason is justice; it is just and reasonable that those who disobey the king's commands of their own free choice should be punished. But in connection with this very matter of reward and punishment God has concealed even from the wise how punishment can be justified for sins committed as a result of bad choice since God knows it all beforehand. But the children of Israel believe in it by virtue of the Torah, the Torah of mercy, higher than reason. It follows automatically that, even from the point of view of justice, it is only right for their sins to be pardoned and for mercy to be shown to them.

Thus Israel deserves to be punished for sins committed only because it is so stated in the Torah, not because it is 'reasonable.' But in the realm of the Torah all is mercy and pardon. By concealing the solution to our problem, God provides, as it were, a built-in excuse for those who worship Him in faith.
One of the most profound hasidic thinkers, Aaron of Starosselje (1766-1826) discusses our problem in terms of his own hasidic philosophy. Aaron belonged to the Habad school of Hasidism, a school which draws a distinction between man's view of the universe and, as it were, God's view of the universe. In his treatment of our problem, (20) Aaron appears to be saying that the difficulty is caused by our failure to appreciate this distinction. From our point of view, in which the universe is seen as enjoying an existence independent of, or at least separate from, God, there is no foreknowledge and man is therefore free. Time is real from our point of view. There is past, present and future.

However, we must not think of God knowing in the past what will happen in the future. In Rabbi Akiba's mishnah, it is said not that God knows but that God sees. The real problem is not that of foreknowledge versus free will, but rather of the very notion of foreknowledge. Such a temporal term only has meaning from our point of view. To ask how the idea of foreknowledge can be present if there is no time sequence at all from God's point of view, is to do no more than to restate the problem of how there can be a finite universe at all if God is all. The truth is that we do not know and cannot possibly grasp this mystery. Aaron calls it a pele, a 'marvel', impossible for the human mind to grasp.

The novelty in Aaron's thought (while basically a variation of the Eternal Now solution) is that he sees the problem of foreknowledge versus free will in terms of the wider problem of the very existence of a finite universe. This latter problem is, indeed, an insoluble mystery, 'higher than reason' in Aaron's terminology. But once this mystery has been accepted as an act of faith, there is no further problem of foreknowledge versus free will, for in speaking of foreknowledge we are speaking of that which really belongs to the category of God's point of view, whereas in speaking of free will we speak from our point of view. From God's point of view, 'before' creation, one cannot speak of 'knowledge' at all. At this stage, one we are forbidden to contemplate, all divisions, including those which stem from man's freedom of choice and including the very distinction between good and evil, are in the category of one simple force. It is only when the divine light is progressively screened so that the finite universe appears to enjoy an existence separate from God that the detailed divisions come into being. All the divisions exist, as it were, in potentiality from the beginning, but it is only as a result of man's free choice that these become actualized or revealed.

Two more recent thinkers of the traditionalist school who consider our problem at length are: Meir Simchah Kagan (1843-1926), (21) Rabbi of Dvinsk in Latvia, and Joseph Leib Bloch (1860-1930), Rabbi and Head of the Yeshivah in Telz, Lithuania. (22) Meir Simchah Kagan first examines and rejects as unsatisfactory the various solutions to the problem advanced by earlier thinkers, and then remarks that we are obliged to fall back on Maimonides' statement that we cannot know the answer because God's knowledge is really God Himself and of God's nature we can have no comprehension whatsoever. To ask the question is akin to asking what is the true nature of God. This does not mean, as the Rabad suggests in his critique of Maimonides, that Maimonides has been unwise in stating a problem and then replying that there is no solution. Maimonides is not, in fact, saying that there is no solution. Maimonides is saying, rather, that the solution, bound up as it is with the nature of God, is utterly beyond the scope of the human mind. Meir Simchah points to certain mathematical problems that are insoluble, so that even in this world the idea of an insoluble problem is logically meaningful.

Joseph Leib Bloch refers to midrashic statements (which he takes literally) which state that certain prophets not only foresaw the future in broad strokes, but the particular acts of unborn individuals as well. Bloch finds such statements exceedingly puzzling. We can accept Maimonides' argument that somehow, in a way we cannot understand, God's foreknowledge can be compatible with human freedom of choice. But the prophets were human beings and their foreknowledge of particular events, as stated in the midrashic passages, was a purely human foreknowledge, existing in a human, not a divine, mind. It is extremely difficult to understand how this human foreknowledge can be compatible with human free will.

Bloch, too, invokes the idea of the Eternal Now. He refers to the kabbalistic view that time and space have no independent existence and claims that modern philosophers (is he referring to Kant?) have called attention to the purely cognitive nature of time and space. Bloch writes:

We know that the whole idea of time only enjoys existence according to our perception. But from the point of view of the higher reality there is no time in the sense of past, present and future but all is in the eternal 'present.' It follows that, in reality, God's foreknowledge does not precede man's free choice. It is rather that they both take place simultaneously. Relative to our mode of apprehension we are obliged to depict it as if all human beings had been created from the beginning and all deeds have been carried out and in that very moment each human being has chosen his way of life, so that knowledge never precedes choice. Rather, it is that whoever will be righteous in the future had already chosen the righteous way from the beginning. It follows that there is no contradiction between God's knowledge and human choice. Such a contradiction only appears to us as real because we are bound by time and so experience God's knowledge as prior to human choice. But in the 'eternal present' it is quite possible for both knowledge and free will to exist simultaneously. Understand this!

All this concerns God's foreknowledge. But what of the question Bloch raised concerning the foreknowledge of the prophets as stated in the Midrash? How can this be at all compatible with human free will? Although he takes the midrashic statements literally, Bloch argues that these statements do not mean that the prophets have the same kind of foreknowledge as God. That would be a sheer impossibility. What the midrashic statements imply is that the foreknowledge of the prophets is part of God's creation. The prophet gazes into the future to see the whole of God's plan unfolding and in this sense he can foresee the deeds of a particular individual in particular circumstances. Nonetheless, that individual can change his destiny, as seen by the prophetic vision, through the exercise of his free choice. The prophet's foreknowledge is not of the same order as God's foreknowledge. It is conditional. What the prophet sees is the unfolding of the divine plan as determined by the natural order implanted by God. The man who strives to be righteous can elevate himself above the whole natural order, including the events which the prophet foresaw.

All the thinkers we have mentioned either belong to the Middle Ages or are completely traditionalist in outlook and so operate within medieval categories of thought. The problem does not seem to have bothered modern Jewish thinkers at all. There are no doubt a number of reasons for this. First, there is the tendency among some moderns to think of God in terms of process or as the impersonal ground of being or the force that makes for righteousness. The God of these thinkers is not a Being with knowledge and will. If the problem of free will is to be discussed by these thinkers it must be along the general philosophical lines of determinism versus free will, not of foreknowledge versus free will. It has neither foreknowledge nor any other kind of knowledge. Even those thinkers who see no reason for abandoning the traditional concept of God tend to be more pragmatic than theoretical, concerned far more with the implications of theology for man's spiritual life than with abstract considerations regarding the divine nature.

Again, both the existentialists and the linguistic philosophers have a deep mistrust of metaphysics in general so that our problem becomes irrelevant 'cosmic talk' for the existentialists and a pseudo-problem for the linguistic analysts, who would presumably argue that the language used in our speculation cannot be 'cashed' and is therefore logically bankrupt. Those of us who still believe in the traditional doctrine of God, i.e., in God as a Person, as more than a He, to be sure, but not an It, and who still wish to see religious truth grounded in reason, still find the problem not only fascinating but relevant to our religious quest. We might fall back on an elaboration of the Eternal Now idea, especially as a result of more recent investigations into the paranormal and the possible ability even of humans to transcend the time barriers. But we are on safer grounds in following the example of Maimonides and the idea put forward by Aaron of Starosselje. As believers we affirm what is, after all, the greatest mystery of all, that this finite universe, full of darkness and error as well as light and truth, is the creation of the All-good, Omnipotent and Omniscient. In a way we cannot see in this life, God, in the language of the Lurianic Kabbalah, has withdrawn in order to give man a degree of autonomy. In this area, as in others, it is very hard to believe in God but it is harder still not to believe in Him.


  1. Mahzor Vitry, Hurwitz-Berliner, ed. (Nuremberg, 1923), p. 514, understands the mishnah to mean that although God sees men doing evil, He does not interfere with their choice. See Urbach, Hazal, (Jerusalem, 1960), pp. 229-230, who remarks that he has only found the use of ??? in the sense of gazing into the future in the amoraic literature, never in the tannaitic. It is worth noting that the whole of this mishnah bears all the marks of an interpolation. It has no connection with the previous saying of Rabbi Akiba in the mishnah nor with that which follows it and it is not prefaced, as they are, with the introduction 'He used to say' (??? ??? ????). Furthermore, the meaning of ???? is uncertain here. In Avot 1:10 and 2:3 ???? means the ruling power, i.e., the Roman government. On the other hand, in Mekhilta, Weiss, ed., p. 54b, the saying of our mishnah, ?????? ????? does occur in connection with the theme of man's freedom of choice. Cf. Charles Taylor's notes to his edition of Avot (Cambridge, 1900), pp. 152-153.
  2. See the writings of Max Kadushin on 'organic thinking,' e.g., in his The Rabbinic Mind, 2nd. ed. (New York: Bloch Pub., 1965). Cf. George Foot Moore, Judaism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), Vol. I, p. 454: 'That man is capable of choosing between right and wrong and of carrying his decisions into action was not questioned, nor was any conflict discovered between this freedom of choice with its consequences and the belief that all things are ordained and brought to pass by God in accordance with his wisdom and his righteous and benevolent will. The theological problem of the freedom of the will in relation to the doctrine of divine providence and the omniscience of God did not emerge until the 10th century, when Jewish thinkers like Saadia (d. 942) heard around them on every hand the Moslem controversies over predestination.' Saadia (Beliefs and Opinions, IV, 4) touches on our problem and simply says that God knows the final outcome, without elaborating on the matter.
  3. Maimonides here refers to his argument that man is free as stated in his Eight Chapters, Maimonides' introduction to Avot.
  4. Maimonides elaborates on this theme of the total difference between divine and human knowledge in his Guide, 111:20.
  5. In that case, why call it knowledge? Maimonides would probably reply, in order to distinguish it from its contrary, ignorance; see Maimonides' development of his doctrine of negative attributes, Guide, 1:51-60.
  6. Milhamot, 111.6.
  7. A History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), pp. 345-346. Centuries later, a thorough-going religious determinist emerged in the person of the hasidic master, Mordecai Joseph of Izbica (d. 1854). This thinker's religious determinism is based not so much on the question of God's foreknowledge as on the question of how there can be any human freedom since God is in complete control of His universe, even, according to Mordecai Joseph, of man's moral life. Man, he holds, has been given by God the illusion that he is free, otherwise he could not worship God. For an acute analysis of the thought of this master (wrongly stated to be Joseph Mordecai, instead of Mordecai Joseph) see Joseph Weiss, 'The Religious Determinism of Joseph Mordecai of Izbica' (Hebrew) in the Yitzhak Baer Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem, 1960), pp. 447-453. For Mordecai Joseph, it is not so much a question of God's knowledge versus human free will, as of God's will versus human will.
  8. Or Adonai, II, 4:5
  9. Responsa, Ribash, No. 45, photo-copy of Daiches, ed. (New York, 1943).
  10. No. 118.
  11. Magen Avot (Leghorn, 1763).
  12. Sanhedrin 90b.
  13. For Jewish thinkers who discuss the Eternal Now, see my A Jewish Theology (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd. 1973), pp. 86-92.
  14. Or hahayim, in Humash Rav Peninim (Jerusalem, 1969), on Genesis 6:6, Ibn Attar tries to read this into Maimonides and he takes strong issue with Rabad, saying, 'may God forgive him.' This is said to have aroused the ire of Mordecai Joseph of Izbica (mentioned above, note 7) who is reported to have remarked, 'He also interferes in everything,' i.e., he (Ibn Attar) is also trying to 'get in on the act.' This remark is said to be one of the reasons for the break with the Kotzker Rebbe on the part of his disciple, Mordecai Joseph, see A. Markus: Hahasidut, translated M. Shenfeld (Tel-Aviv, 1954), p. 244.
  15. Amud ha'avodah (Josefow, 1883), pp. 221-225.
  16. From the medieval work Ben hamelekh vehanazir.
  17. Jerusalem Talmud Hagigah 1:7 (76b); Lamentations Rabbah, Introduction
  18. Yesod ha'emunah (Josefow, 1883), pp. 141-159.
  19. Benei Yissakhar, Tishri, Ma'amar, 7:5, various eds.
  20. Sha'arei hayihud veha'emunah (Shklov, 1820), Vol. II, Sha'ar 3, chapter 38. See my study of Aaron's thought: Seeker of Unity (London, 1966), pp. 103-105.
  21. Or Same'ach to Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (various eds.), Vol. I, pp. 12a-14a.
  22. Shi'urei Da'at, Vol. II, Lecture 8 (Tel-Aviv, 1953), pp. 93-103, delivered originally as a lecture in the Yeshivah of Telz in 1928.


Publications, Articles and Reviews
Publications, Articles and Reviews

Our aim is to provide every one of the 500 articles of the LJ bibliography. Rabbi Jacobs' teaching ›


View on-line 30 hours of Rabbi Jacobs teaching. Plus videos of Friends lectures.


Lectures and discussions from
2006 to date.

Community and Controversy

Community and Controversy

Access archives. 100's of scrapbook searchable pages on-line.