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    Free will – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Does Judaism believe that human beings really have free will?

    free choiceA. The question has two aspects:
    1. Do we choose what to do or are we controlled by God?
    2. If we have free choice, does God know in advance what we will choose?

    Every Jewish thinker believes that we have free will. However, since some things are clearly beyond our control, Maimonides makes a distinction in his “Eight Chapters on Ethics” between physical and moral decisions.

    Physical matters such as whether we will be human or animal, male or female, tall or short, fat or thin, are controlled by God. What is up to us is how we handle the Divine decisions. Hence, though God decides (by means of genes, etc.) whether I will be tall, I decide how to respond to my tallness. Though God decides (often by the use of the instrumentality of other humans) whether some external event will befall me, I decide how to react to the event.

    It must be said, however, that sometimes the external event is so severe that my power to react is limited or totally removed, e.g. if I am (God forbid) badly injured or killed by the external event.

    The Maimonides distinction, with all its problems, is a way of dealing with the rabbinic saying recorded in the name of Rabbi Akiva, “Everything is determined, but free will is given.”

    One has to add that the way the distinction works depends on who you are. The amount of free will given to a person differs according to their background and experience. No two people have the same genetic inheritance, nor are they all influenced in the same way by the same factors, nor do they respond to events and influences in the same fashion.

    The second question asks whether we really have free will if God knows everything in advance.

    Among the classical Jewish thinkers, Gersonides says that God’s knowledge is of things in general, not necessarily things in particular. Crescas says that God has total knowledge and man only appears to have freedom. Maimonides says that both doctrines are true (free will and Divine knowledge) but God’s knowledge is different from man’s.

    Others add that God’s knowledge is not chronological but is an “eternal now”; or God’s knowledge is actual but not causative (He knows how I will respond but does not force me to act in that way).

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