Lazer Gurkow

Do We Have Free Choice

If G-d knows what we will choose before we choose it, do we have free choice? We discussed this question several times, but I want to deal with it differently this time.

  1. Time Travel
    In the past we explained that we have free choice and G-d only knows in advance because He can see the future. Suppose you traveled into the future, observed us choose something freely, and returned to the present. You would know our choice before we make it, would we have free choice? Of course, we would. Your knowledge before the fact would stem from the choice. The choice would not stem from your knowledge. You just got a preview of the post-fact knowledge because of your time travel.[1]

This is a good answer, but it is not the entire truth. You see, G-d’s knowledge is not like ours. G-d’s knowledge of my choice is not based on my choice. That would suggest that my choice is independent of G-d and He only knows my choice after I make it. (Except that He can pull off the time travel trick.)

The truth is that everything exists inside of G-d. I, my brain, my will, and my choices, are all part of G-d. He knows my choice as He knows Himself. Thus, it is incorrect to say that He only knows our choices because of His advanced knowledge. He knows our choices because He scripted them. How then do we reconcile His predeterminism with our free choice?

  1. The Relationship
    Suppose it is your birthday and you know for a fact that your husband is bringing flowers. You know it because he does it every year like clockwork. You also know it because the florist called you to inform you that he is on the way. You know exactly what he will bring, but does that lessen your pleasure? It lessens the surprise, but not the pleasure.

The fact is that despite your knowledge, he still made that choice freely. He was oblivious to your foreknowledge. It did not impact his choice. He made the choice because he loves you and wanted to celebrate your birthday. That is all that matters to you. In your mind, you knew, but in your heart, you were thrilled. Though you knew it, you were touched because he thought about it.

G-d is not just a secret puppet master who pulls hidden strings. G-d loves us and told us how we can make Him happy. Every day He watches us carefully to see what choices we will make. The fact that He knows what we will choose is immaterial because we are oblivious to His foreknowledge. As far as we know, we choose freely. This is all He cares about. My child loves me and chooses to make me happy.

On an intellectual level, G-d knew in advance. On an emotional level, it doesn’t matter because we didn’t feel compelled. We experienced it as a free choice; therefore, G-d appreciates it and regards it as a choice made freely. So, do we have free choice? On an intellectual level the answer might be no, but on an emotional level, it doesn’t matter. We have free choice to make Him happy.[2]

  1. Free To Do As He Wants
    Having presented the dichotomy of the intellectual and the emotional, let’s broaden and deepen the idea. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) tells us of an episode in which Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua held a debate. A voice thundered down from heaven declaring Rabbi Eliezer correct. Rabbi Yehoshua replied that this is not how Jewish law is formulated. G-d gave the Torah to us mortals and told us to establish law by majority vote. The sages voted on the matter and the majority agree with Rabbi Yehoshua.

Amazing; G-d tells us that Rabbi Eliezer is right, yet the halachah of the Torah is that Rabbi Eliezer is wrong. How can that be? Yet, the Talmud tells us that G-d smiled and said, “You bested me my children, you bested me.” How can we best G-d? Isn’t G-d infallible? How can we, mortal beings, understand better than G-d?

The answer is that we are not smarter than G-d. If we were as smart as G-d, we would likely have understood His point of view and agreed with Him. It is precisely  because the sages did not understand Rabbi Eliezer’s point of view that they disagreed with him. But because they were in the majority, their view prevailed. But wait, is this not wrong? Why should the majority view prevail if it is wrong?

The answer is that they did precisely as G-d wanted. G-d does not want our sages to rule as they were told. G-d wants our sages to rule according to their understanding. And G-d wants the Torah law to be determined on the basis of the majority rule.

What do we have here? A contradiction between G-d’s knowledge and G-d’s desire. G-d knows what is right and wrong. But G-d doesn’t want the law to dictate the law. G-d wants the law to be determined by the majority’s understanding. This means that the majority produced a law that was in accordance with G-d’s desire even if it was not in accordance with His understanding.

Thus, G-d observed, “You bested me, my children, you bested me.” I know the truth. I even informed you that Rabbi Eliezer was right. But you didn’t do what I know to be right. You did what I wanted you to do. In other words, by asserting your own opinion, you did what I wanted—you thought for yourselves. (This is only relevant to a Sanhedrin ruling on matters not legislated by the Torah.)

This tells us that sometimes we can do as G-d knows and sometimes we can do as G-d wants.

To Change His Foreknowledge
How does this relate to our question, do we have free will? G-d knows my choices before I make them. Even so, I have the power to overrule His foreknowledge by doing as He wants rather than as He knows.

Suppose G-d knows that I will eat pork today. There can be nothing more concrete than this fact. It is written in Divine stone, as it were. Yet, G-d doesn’t want me to eat pork. He did not Create that pork so that I would eat it. He Created it so that I would not eat it, and thereby fulfill His commandment to keep kosher. I am now faced with a dilemma, to do as He knows or as He wants.

As I ponder this question, G-d hovers over me and awaits my answer. Why does He wait, He already knows, doesn’t He? Yes, He knows it on an intellectual level. But He wants me to change His script. By giving us Free Choice, G-d enabled us to overwrite His script. This is because we are not overruling G-d’s knowledge, we are obeying G-d’s will.

Imagine that. I have the power to change the script that G-d wrote for me. My hands are never tied. We have free choice. Does that mean that G-d is fallible? Absolutely not. G-d desired all along that I overrule His script. I can either go with His script and make Him right or I can override His script and make Him happy. I choose to make Him happy.[3]

[1] Rabbi Moshe Almshonino, Ethics of our Fathers, 3:15. See also Likutei Sichos v. 7, p. 367.

[2] See Toras Chayim, Parshas Toldos ch. 15.

[3] Keser Shem Tov, Hotzaah Chadashah, pp. 216–217.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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