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Parshas Eikev (5772)

Just How "Free" is our "Free Will"?

On the verse in this week’s Torah portion in which Moses tells the Jewish people, “Now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your G-d, ask of you? Only to fear the Lord, your G-d …” (see Deuteronomy 10:12), Rashi quotes the Talmud in Berachos 33b which derives from this request that “everything is in the power of Heaven [i.e. preordained by G-d], with the exception of [whether a person will have] fear of Heaven”.

What this basically means is that, according to mainstream Jewish philosophy, each and every one of us has absolute free will to be righteous and to “fear Heaven”, or to be wicked and to sin against Heaven. In the Torah’s worldview, free will is essential, for without it, we would be mere robots, and our whole existence in this world would be without meaning or purpose.

The only problem with this is that it is a pillar of our faith that G-d is All-Knowing and must therefore have complete foreknowledge of everything that man chooses to do, which would seem to contradict man’s free will. After all, if G-d “knows” that I am going to do the mitzvah of giving tzedakah (charity) to a poor person even before I do it, how can I be said to have “chosen” to do it of my own free will, and be rewarded by G-d for doing it?

This paradox is referred to in the Rabbinic literature as the question of Yediah, G-d’s foreknowledge, versus Bechirah, man’s free will, and has been discussed by virtually all the great Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers over the centuries and millennia.

The well-known liturgical song Yigdal, which some Jews recite upon entering the synagogue at the beginning of the Shacharis (Morning) Prayer Service, and which summarizes the ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ expounded by Maimonides in his Commentary to Mishnah (Sanhedrin chap. 10), highlights this philosophical paradox in the following stanzas towards the end of the song:
He [G-d] scrutinizes and knows our hiddenmost secrets;
He perceives a matters’ outcome at its inception.
He recompenses man with kindness according to his deed;
He places evil on the wicked according to their wickedness.

I would like to share with you a classic approach to resolving this paradox, one that was first offered by Saadiah Gaon (in Emunos v’Deos 4:4) and later by Rabbi Yitzchak bar Sheishes (in Shu”t Riva”sh 118).

They explain that the entire question is based on a faulty premise – that G-d’s foreknowledge is the cause of man’s future actions, so that it would be impossible for man to choose anything other than that which G-d knows man will do.

However, there is another possibility - that man’s free will alone is the ultimate cause of his actions, and that G-d’s “foreknowledge” is merely a result of His ability to see man’s free-will decision in advance.

Allow me to illustrate this complex idea with the help of the following analogy:

Imagine that you are sitting near the window of your 3rd floor apartment, watching a man who is standing on the street corner below right next to an old lady who is waiting patiently to cross the busy street. You are very curious to know whether or not this guy is going to help the old lady get to the other side. So you hop into your time machine and travel 3 minutes into the future and you see that he actually helped her out. You then go quickly go back in time to the present, at which time the guy has not yet helped the old lady. Does your knowledge of the fellow’s future decision in any way affect or cause his choice right now? Actually, the exact opposite is true. You only know now what he is going to choose later because you went ahead in time and saw his totally free-willed decision!

Now maybe we human beings don’t have time machines (yet!) with which we can travel into the future to see what choices people will make and then travel back to the present – but G-d certainly can do this! As the Yigdal song mentioned above tells us: He perceives a matters’ outcome at its inception. In other words, G-d is above time and space, so that He can see past, present and future in one instant, and He knows in the present what we will choose in the future because He sees our free-willed decision right now.

In summary, according to the approach of Saadiah Gaon and the Riva”sh, G-d’s foreknowledge is only a result of his ability to know man’s decisions in advance, and in no way contradicts his absolute free will.

So it turns out that man’s free will is truly “free” after all – the way G-d ordained it to be!

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