My 6 year old asked me how it is we have free choice if God knows everything in advance, and while I'm so proud of him for his advanced thinking, I am embarassed that I don't know the answer! Can you help? What does Judaism say?
The paradox of God’s Omniscience and man’s free choice, as articulated by R. Akiva in Avot 3:15 “All is foreseen and permission, i.e., free choice is granted”, is very difficult to explain logically. If adults who are capable of thinking abstractly have difficulty penetrating such a mystery, I am not optimistic that young children will be able to be given explanations that will make sense to them. Maimonides, the great Jewish thinker and philosopher, expressed the problematic issue as follows: (Mishneh Tora, Laws of Repentance 5:5) “…We (human beings) do not have the ability to comprehend how the Holy One, Blessed Be He “Knows” all creatures and their actions, but we must know without a doubt that the actions of man are in the hands of man, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He does not Pull him or Decrees for him to do a specific thing…”
However, R. Jonathan Sacks, in his weekly Tora commentary Covenant and Conversation, once offered the following analogy: Think of a sporting event that has been videotaped, and is now being watched after the game was completed. The players participating in the match do not know the outcome or what will be happening over the course of the rest of the game; yet the viewer, if he has already learned the final score and heard about some of the out-of-the-ordinary plays, will know ahead of time what is going to transpire. Could it be that God is the viewer of the videotape of our everyday lives, Knowing the choices that we are going to make, not because He Forced us to make them, but simply because He Operates in a different dimension of time than we do? Even if a six-year-old may not comprehend what it might mean to operate within different temporal universes, adults may be able to at least have a sense of what this might mean.
Of course, the child’s question could become the catalyst for a discussion of intellectual humility, and not always expecting an answer for every question. Which way to direct the conversation will have to be left up to the parent to make a free and independent choice.
The doctrine of free will is one of the basic principles of Judaism. In the Torah (Deut 30:19) it states "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; choose life"). In Pirke Avot, 3:19, Rabbi Akiva declared "Though everything is foreseen by God, yet free will is granted to man." So explain to your son, whose question an excellent one, that he should understand that God's foreknowledge doesn't predetermine man's actions. good or bad. The choice is left to him and your son is able to choose between right and wrong that hopefully you well help him learn, and thus, what he decides to do is what is important. It is his choice.
IF GOD KNOWS ALL AHEAD OF TIME, HOW CAN WE BE CALLED TO ACCOUNT?
A six year old philosopher has asked this thousands of years-old question. And a big one and good one at that! This young person is to be complimented on carrying out a Jewish tradition of asking tough questions about God's ways, a tradition begun by our father Abraham and carried on by great prophets and teachers like Jeremiah, the author of the Book of Job, and the ancient rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah. In a world in which we see a ot of injustice, the Jewish questioning has usually been: If God is Goodness how is it that often good people suffer and bad people prosper. Abraham asked :" should not the Judge of all the earth do Justice?!"
If God is all-knowing (the philosopher's term is omniscient) and knows what we are going to do, how can we be held accountable for what we do since it is all determined ahead of time? If God knows ahead of time, we have no free choice to do good or evil; no free-will.
But Judaism above all, at its roots, does teach free will! Here is the important text of Torah:"... . I have set before you Life and Death, the blessing and the curse! Choose Life!" We CAN choose. Don't we repeat this year after year on the High Holidays and base our Yom Kippur Atonement soul/character improvements on this? We call it T'shuvah. God helps us but it depends on our choice. The prophets and teachers of our people at their best always remind us that we CAN do it. We can choose to do better. It is ,says Maimonides our great philosopher in a tough statement , it is only fools who teach that our acts are pre-determined, we can choose to do what is good and right ;and so we are responsible for what we do.
O K , but how about that understanding about God knowing ahead of time? After all the great Rabbi Akivah himself is recorded as saying(Pirkei Avot 3.19),"All is foreseen ;yet free-will is given."
The first thing we should know is that ideas about God being All-Knowing of what will happen (prescient) come from ancient Greek and Roman thought based on the reasoning that if God is all- perfect and all good , then God must be all-knowing. The ancient rabbis were already influenced or at least challenged by Greek thinking. We find one answer to our question by the sages of the Talmud: "Everything is in the hands of Heaven(God) except our respect(reverence) for Heaven (Berachot 33b)." We can respect the Teachings of God or we can , we have the free will to do so, reject them.
Even more basic. All of Judaism is based on the poetic idea that we have a covenant with God, in Hebrew, a B'rit. Covenant means alliance, pact partnership. God does not know whether we will be faithul to this covenant, whether we will do our part.. God does not have the power to force us to keep the teachings,to do the mitzvot which the Torah teaches. We are always , in fact, everyday in the position of making choices for which we are responsible. God does not ask us to be perfect, but as with anything else we can practice to be better.
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