A manual of Jewish belief (a guide to real Judaism) for the thinking individual.

Copyright © 1977 by R' Avi Shafran

[Web Page Last Revised: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 02:32 PM ]


Chapter 6. Free Will and Foreknowledge

Concerning the problems that arise from the fact that G~d is omniscient, Maimonides wrote: "If we were to try to understand in what manner this is done it would be as if we tried to be the same as G~d and to make our knowledge identical with His . . ." The most disturbing of these problems is the reconciliation of G~d's foreknowledge, a direct result of His omniscience, with man's free will, both factors being necessary truths in Jewish thought. Maimonides, usually expertly helpful in matters of philosophical elaboration of basic dogmata, seems here at a loss for imparting to us an explanation of a tenet essential to the Jewish concept of G~d, namely, His omniscience. To pursue the matter further it is necessary to first state formally exactly what the contradiction in concepts is and why it must be resolved.

The entire Torah, or book of divine law, is the guiding light which teaches men what they must do to achieve their purpose in life. Therefore, since G~d gave us this code, it must be accepted that man has a choice to do either good or bad. If this were not the case, then why would sinning bring disfavor upon a person? נHe had no say in the matter! It must therefore be assumed that each human being has control of himself in all that he does during his lifetime. G~d, by the very meaning of the concept, is without fault or blemish. His knowledge is infinite and all-encompassing. It would be ridiculous to propose that G~d doesn't know what will happen in the future. It is part of His essence that He knows what a man will do even before the man does.


The necessarily true concepts of foreknowledge and free will seem impossible to reconcile. The existence of free will in man seemingly destroys the idea of divine omniscience, and, if the latter is accepted the former becomes automatically impossible.

Are we to merely accept without question both concepts, laying the blame for their apparent contradiction on our admittedly incapable brains? Are we to think that Maimonides is telling us to do so? Not necessarily.

Since the Torah trusts human reason, all basic concepts essential to the establishment of the religion's G~d-concept must, at least in a general way, be acceptable to our minds. One obvious method of destroying an argument is through the removal or disproof of a factor that is necessary to the logic of the argument. The previously stated contradiction consists of two logical arguments, one of which has a definite f law.

It will become evident to one who ponders the matter deeply that in one of the arguments something was assumed that not only has not been proven, but is necessarily false. The error is in the word "foreknowledge", specifically in the prefix "fore-" which indicates that G~d knows what is to happen before it actually does occur. The entire difficulty rests upon the concept of time. The solution lies in the rejection of that product of our imaginations which we label "time". Through this method the solution to our problem is certainly not hard to formulate in words, for it is by all means logical and sensible to theorize that time exists for man only and is a human-oriented fallacy of the mortal mind, having no place or pertinence in issues concerning G~d and His knowledge.

The concept of G~d's being above time finds widespread support in biblical and post-biblical Jewish literature and one famous Jewish philosopher and Biblical commentary of the Middle Ages even explained the first words in Genesis, "In the beginning" as meaning "in the beginning of time for man" (the object of the phrase is absent from the text). There is no such thing as time, truthfully thinking, and ergo there can be no such concept such as foreknowledge or predetermination, since such concepts are dependent upon the universal application of time, the fallacious factor.

Though everything that has been stated is in accordance with the rules of logic and common sense, the final idea, at first glance seems hard to accept. This difficulty which the human mind entails upon confrontation with what has been proposed is perfectly normal and is due to the rather obvious fact that time does very much exist for us, and the notion of timelessness, because it has never been experienced, is rejected by our common sense which, once more, is exactly that, common. Perhaps a rather far-fetched analogy will be helpful.

Picture if you will a pack of playing cards. If the edges of the cards were to be decorated with pictures of a sequential nature, say a man running, then one could stack the cards in an orderly pile and flip their edges with one's thumb, causing a the picture to "move" in sequence. An observer would witness something happening, a man running. This is similar to the nature of time and everyman's place is among the cards, on a different card each instant of his life. In this respect man is part of the sequence of time and totally incorporated in it. To him, yesterday is gone; tomorrow unborn.

Now, if the cards were to be spread out on a table so that each picture in the sequence were to be visible to the observer in one glance, since he is standing over the table, then we have G~d's "point of view". For this observer the time factor in the sequence is nonexistent. He sees everything in one instant. The concept of G~d being figuratively "above" time is not a new one. It is mentioned by none other than Maimonides himself, in the same work quoted above. He speaks of time as being among "the things created", meaning to say that time is also a creation and that G~d is not subject to it but rather above it. This fact was noted before but should disturb us, for finding it in the writings of Maimonides proves that he was familiar with the idea of timelessness. Why then does he not mention the reconciliation that we have just proposed?

The answer is really very simple. Maimonides is not telling us to rely on blind faith and not attempt to understand the relationship between free will and foreknowledge. Rather, when he notes the inadequacy of the human mind, he does so only with respect to the imagining, or comprehension of timelessness.

For this concept of timelessness is among those certain ideas that are beyond our imaginations and cannot be comprehended because they have never been experienced. However, these principles still are acceptable because they are logically sound. It is only that there is a point where our intellectual abilities separate from our imaginational capabilities.

It is, incidentally, interesting to note that this very concept of the non-absolutism of time and the possibility of timelessness is a basic result of modern relativity theory.

So, in conclusion, we have the free will of each man dictating what he does and does not do. Therefore when he does that which is wrong in the judgment of his Creator he is liable to punishment. Each man is the sum of his good and bad deeds and G~d sees this. Since there exists for man an element we call "time", as far as man is concerned, G~d knows what will be done before it is done. However, in reality (G~d's point of view), there is no such thing as time and therefore we can say that G~d knows what is, and we needn't say more, for the past and future are automatically incorporated in G~d's "present."

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