Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

God’s Foreknowledge and Free Will Sotah 18 Psychology of the Daf Yomi

Our Mishna on Amud Beis tells us that according to Rabbi Meir, one of the oaths that the Sotah takes is about her future behavior:

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר: אָמֵן שֶׁלֹּא נִטְמֵאתִי, אָמֵן שֶׁלֹּא אֶטָּמֵא.

Rabbi Meir says that “amen, amen” means: Amen that I did not become defiled in the past, amen that I will not become defiled in the future.

The Gemara elaborates:

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר: אָמֵן שֶׁלֹּא נִטְמֵאתִי וְכוּ׳. תַּנְיָא: לֹא כְּשֶׁאָמַר רַבִּי מֵאִיר אָמֵן שֶׁלֹּא אֶטָּמֵא שֶׁאִם תִּטָּמֵא מַיִם בּוֹדְקִין אוֹתָהּ מֵעַכְשָׁיו, אֶלָּא: לִכְשֶׁתִּטָּמֵא — מַיִם מְעַרְעֲרִין אוֹתָהּ וּבוֹדְקִין אוֹתָהּ.

The mishna states: Rabbi Meir says that “amen, amen” means: Amen that I did not become defiled in the past, amen that I will not become defiled in the future. With regard to this it is taught in a baraisa (Tosefta 2:2): When Rabbi Meir said: Amen that I will not become defiled in the future, he did not mean to say that if God knows that she will become defiled in the future, the water that she drinks now evaluates whether she will be unfaithful and passes judgment on her from now. Rather, he meant that in the event that she becomes defiled in the future, the water that she drinks now will destabilize her and evaluate then whether she was unfaithful.

The Rambam in his commentary on the Mishna adds a cryptic line:

והשם הוא היודע

And Hashem is the one who knows.

This additional statement begs analysis. Yes, we understand that God is omniscient as an obvious article of faith, but what the is Rambam emphasizing over here and why does it matter? What, in this Gemara, is dependent on Hashem knowing the future? As we saw, the Gemara tells us that the waters of the Sotah do not predict her behavior, rather, they remain dormant inside her, and should she choose in the future to commit adultery, they will then bubble up and punish her at that time (we might compare this to a virus that is dormant, waiting for some stimulus to activate it). In other words, she will not be punished for her future behavior until she actually chooses to do so. If she does not follow that behavior, no matter what is in her heart right now, she will not be punished. If anything then, Hashem’s knowledge of what a person will do is actually beside the point, because she is not held liable for their future behavior, until she actually makes that choice.

As we know, a fundamental principle in Judaism is that there must be free will in order to be liable for reward and punishment.

As Rambam says in Laws of Repentance (5:5):

שֶׁמָּא תֹּאמַר וַהֲלֹא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יוֹדֵעַ כָּל מַה שֶּׁיִּהְיֶה וְקֹדֶם שֶׁיִּהְיֶה יֵדַע שֶׁזֶּה יִהְיֶה צַדִּיק אוֹ רָשָׁע אוֹ לֹא יֵדַע. אִם יֵדַע שֶׁהוּא יִהְיֶה צַדִּיק אִי אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיֶה צַדִּיק וְאִם תֹּאמַר שֶׁיֵּדַע שֶׁיִּהְיֶה צַדִּיק וְאֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיִּהְיֶה רָשָׁע הֲרֵי לֹא יֵדַע הַדָּבָר עַל בֻּרְיוֹ. דַּע שֶׁתְּשׁוּבַת שְׁאֵלָה זוֹ אֲרֻכָּה מֵאֶרֶץ מִדָּה וּרְחָבָה מִנִּי יָם וְכַמָּה עִקָּרִים גְּדוֹלִים וַהֲרָרִים רָמִים תְּלוּיִים בָּהּ אֲבָל צָרִיךְ אַתָּה לֵידַע וּלְהָבִין בְּדָבָר זֶה שֶׁאֲנִי אוֹמֵר. כְּבָר בֵּאַרְנוּ בְּפֶרֶק שֵׁנִי מֵהִלְכוֹת יְסוֹדֵי הַתּוֹרָה שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ מִדֵּעָה שֶׁהִיא חוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ כִּבְנֵי אָדָם שֶׁהֵם וְדַעְתָּם שְׁנַיִם. אֶלָּא הוּא יִתְעַלֶּה שְׁמוֹ וְדַעְתּוֹ אֶחָד וְאֵין דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם יְכוֹלָה לְהַשִּׂיג דָּבָר זֶה עַל בֻּרְיוֹ. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁאֵין כֹּחַ בָּאָדָם לְהַשִּׂיג וְלִמְצֹא אֲמִתַּת הַבּוֹרֵא שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות לג כ) “כִּי לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי” כָּךְ אֵין כֹּחַ בָּאָדָם לְהַשִּׂיג וְלִמְצֹא דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל הַבּוֹרֵא. הוּא שֶׁהַנָּבִיא אָמַר (ישעיה נה ח) “כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְרָכָי”. וְכֵיוָן שֶׁכֵּן הוּא אֵין בָּנוּ כֹּחַ לֵידַע הֵיאַךְ יֵדַע הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים וְהַמַּעֲשִׂים אֲבָל נֵדַע בְּלֹא סָפֵק שֶׁמַּעֲשֵׂה הָאָדָם בְּיַד הָאָדָם וְאֵין הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מוֹשְׁכוֹ וְלֹא גּוֹזֵר עָלָיו לַעֲשׂוֹת כָּךְ. וְלֹא מִפְּנֵי קַבָּלַת הַדָּת בִּלְבַד נוֹדַע דָּבָר זֶה אֶלָּא בִּרְאָיוֹת בְּרוּרוֹת מִדִּבְרֵי הַחָכְמָה. וּמִפְּנֵי זֶה נֶאֱמַר בַּנְּבוּאָה שֶׁדָּנִין אֶת הָאָדָם עַל מַעֲשָׂיו כְּפִי מַעֲשָׂיו אִם טוֹב וְאִם רַע וְזֶה הוּא הָעִקָּר שֶׁכָּל דִּבְרֵי הַנְּבוּאָה תְּלוּיִין בּוֹ:

One might ask: Since The Holy One, blessed be He, knows everything that will occur before it comes to pass, does He or does He not know whether a person will be righteous or wicked If He knows that he will be righteous, [it appears] impossible for him not to be righteous. However, if one would say that despite His knowledge that he would be righteous, it is possible for him to be wicked, then His knowledge would be incomplete.

Know that the resolution to this question [can be described as]: “Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.” Many great and fundamental principles and lofty concepts are dependent upon it. However, the statements that I will make must be known and understood [as a basis for the comprehension of this matter].

As explained in the second chapter of HilchosYesodei HaTorah, The Holy One, blessed be He, does not know with a knowledge that is external from Him as do men, whose knowledge and selves are two [different entities]. Rather, He, may His name be praised, and His knowledge are one.

Human knowledge cannot comprehend this concept in its entirety for just as it is beyond the potential of man to comprehend and conceive the essential nature of the Creator, as [Exodus 33:20] states: “No man will perceive, Me and live,” so, too, it is beyond man’s potential to comprehend and conceive the Creator’s knowledge. This was the intent of the prophet’s [Isaiah 55:8] statements: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways, My ways.”

Accordingly, we do not have the potential to conceive how The Holy One, blessed be He, knows all the creations and their deeds. However, this is known without any doubt: That man’s actions are in his [own] hands and The Holy One, blessed be He, does not lead him [in a particular direction] or decree that he do anything.

This matter is known, not only as a tradition of faith, but also, through clear proofs from the words of wisdom. Consequently, the prophets taught that a person is judged for his deeds, according to his deeds – whether good or bad. This is a fundamental principle on which all the words of prophecy are dependent.

Therefore, we must wonder what was the Rambam adding in our Mishna, “Hashem knows”. Even though that is true, the Sotah is allowed to make her choice in the future and not punished right now, no matter what God knows about her in future until she actually commits to sin. I believe the answer to this depends on the following question. We were taught in Sotah 26a,  based on the verse (Numbers 5:28):

וְאִם־לֹ֤א נִטְמְאָה֙ הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וּטְהֹרָ֖ה הִ֑וא וְנִקְּתָ֖ה וְנִזְרְעָ֥ה זָֽרַע׃

But if the woman was not defiled and [she] is pure, she will be cleansed and shall bear seed.

If the woman is innocent, as a compensation for her ordeal, she is rewarded with fertility and children.

We therefore might ask, if the woman was innocent at the time, but far in the future she would end up committing adultery, and then be punished for it as per Rabbi Meir’s prescribed oath, what would happen then? Would she first merit becoming pregnant and having children because, after all, she was innocent at this time, or that would be some kind of subversion of justice and instead, the waters of Sotah will not bring her this benefit. I suggest that the Rambam in his commentary on the Mishna here is responding to that problem. He is saying that such an eventuality would not occur, because God in His great omniscience would block the waters of Sotah from causing her to become miraculously pregnant, even though at the same time he would not punish her for her future actions, unless she chooses to do so.

Now the whole idea of whether or not God can know a future event which is contingent upon human choice, is generally speaking accepted as a paradoxical truth, and matter of faith, as we saw above in the Rambam’s Laws of Repentance. It is noteworthy though, that there are a minority of legitimate Jewish thinkers who take a different approach. Ralbag in Milchamos Hashem (Book 3, 4-6) cogently argues against the philosophical non-tenability of the Rambam’s position, and also shows how it is possible, according to Jewish thought and scripture, for it to be true that God does not have to know the future in a particular sense. Ralbag sees the role of prophets as not telling the future, but rather telling the future, as it might be unless people make more careful choices and/or repent. (Ralbag gives an example Tzidkiyahu to repent and not take a certain action that otherwise would lead to military defeat, Yirmiyahu 38:17-18. Of course a popular example is from Yonah’s prophecy to the people of Nineveh. They are told that Nineveh will be destroyed, if they don’t repent. This is not a vision of the future; it is a prediction of a particular kind of future that will occur if they do not repent.)

Ralbag believed that it is not a deficiency of God to not know something down to the absolute outcome that is contingent, because something that is contingent does not exist in its final state. It is not a shortcoming to not know something that doesn’t exist. Furthermore, God’s knowledge is of a more complete nature, which we shall explain shortly. When one has a more complete nature of knowledge, even if it encompasses a detail that is not recognized by the very nature of its completeness, it is not a shortcoming. For example, we can know in a general sense that numbers are infinite. and by definition, there is no end to an infinite number. A literal approach to God’s omniscience would argue that somehow God knows all the numbers infinitely to the end, even though, as we said, there really is no end. However, Ralbag would argue that all God has to know, is the concept of the infinity of the number, which we can grasp to some extent in our intellectual imagination as well. There’s no need to know this “final” number, which, anyhow should not exist because it’s infinite. Furthermore, there is a philosophical problem with God knowing a particular event. Since the event has not yet occurred, when it does occur, God’s awareness of this would constitute a change. God’s knowledge is complete and cannot change, otherwise God and His knowledge would be two separate things and subject to addition and subtraction, but God must be one and not composite. Otherwise, God subject to growth and change, which would imply, higher levels of perfection, or deterioration. Rambam argues that somehow or another God’s complete knowledge entails the moments before existence, existence, and then passing of existence of the particular event, so there is no lack of knowledge on God’s part and no change since he sees the entire sequence. The problem is, by definition how can something that didn’t occur be known? And if it is known, that in and of itself could represent a lack of knowledge, because knowing something that is not real, is not really knowing something, is it? In fact, it is knowing something false. On the flipside, if you argue that the future somehow exists beyond God’s awareness how can there be free choice? (Which was the question raised by Rambam himself above as we saw in Laws of Repentance 5:5.)

There is a mysterious verse (Bereishis 18:21) describing God’s reaction to Avraham’s pleas to spare the people of Sodom:

אֵֽרְדָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָ֛הּ הַבָּ֥אָה אֵלַ֖י עָשׂ֣וּ ׀ כָּלָ֑ה וְאִם־לֹ֖א אֵדָֽעָה׃

I will descend now and see, if their wailing which has come to Me is indicative of their conduct; destruction [shall come upon them]. If not I will know.

What does it mean that, “God will go down and see”? Also, what does it mean, “I will know”. I will know what? What would God know that he did not know before?

Ibn Ezra, in his usual enigmatic style, comments:

כי האמת שהכל ידע כל חלק. על דרך כל. ולא על דרך חלק

God who is All knows the individual in a general rather than in a detailed manner.

Ibn Ezra seems to be saying that God’s knowledge is complete by knowing all contingencies, and thereby knowing in a certain sense what will occur as every form of possibility, but not dictating the future.

Ralbag on that verse explains that if the Sodomites choose to repent, then “my providence will attach to them and save them.” It would seem that Ralbag’s understanding was that there was some calamitous natural event (planet buster asteroid?) that was doomed to befall the people of Sodom. Only through repentance could they merit a supernatural intervention. So the idea here is that natural forces were going to destroy the people of Sodom and God is aware of all contingencies. At the same time, if the people repent, they could somehow tap into divine providence and enlightenment that would allow them to escape in a similar fashion to how Lot escaped. That is most likely Ralbag’s intention, instead of a more dramatic, miraculous salvation, such as the destruction being overtly averted, because in general, Ralbag’s position about miracles is that they come as a result of divine enlightenment through the intellect. Miraculous inspirational ideas come to the person as opposed to miraculous physical interventions. But that is for another discussion at a different time (see Milchamos Hashem Book 4:1-7, and Ralbag Iyov 33.  The Active Intellect, a divine emissary of God, receives emanations from God but then translates them in a more dynamic, temporal and physical manner to engage with the world.)

It is notable that Ramban reacted strongly to Ibn Ezra’s formulation, rejecting it as a heretical and infantile philosophy. Since he came before the Ralbag, we can surmise that he would have reacted similarly to the Ralbag’s idea, if he had seen it. It is no wonder that some critics re-named Ralbag’s Sefer Milchamos Hashem (which translates as “Wars of the Lord”) into “Milchamos Im Hashem” “Wars against the Lord”!

The normative Jewish belief is not in accordance with Ralbag or Ibn Ezra. However, it is interesting to note that in the Rambam’s formulation of the 13 Principles of Faith, (found in his Commentary on the Mishna (Introduction to Perek Chelek), although God’s omniscience is mentioned, as a principle of faith, nothing is said about His knowledge of the future:

היסוד העשירי

כי הוא הש”י יודע מעשיהם של בני אדם ואינו מעלים עינו מהם לא כדעת מי שאמר עזב ה’ את הארץ אלא כמו שנאמר (ירמיהו ל״ב:י״ט) גדול העצה ורב העליליה אשר עיניך פקוחות על כל דרכי בני אדם וגו’ וירא ה’ כי רבה רעת האדם בארץ וגו’ (בראשית ו׳:ה׳) ונאמר זעקת סדום ועמורה כי רבה (שם יח) זהו מורה על היסוד העשירי הזה:

The tenth principle is that God, may He be blessed, knows the actions of people and does not ignore them. Not like the opinion of the one that said that ‘the Lord abandoned the earth,’ but rather as it is stated (Jeremiah 32:19), “Great of counsel and mighty of works, as Your eyes are open upon all the ways of people, etc.”; “And the Lord saw that the evil of man was mighty upon the earth, etc.” (Genesis 6:5); and it is stated (Genesis 18:2), “the yelling of Sodom and Ammorah, as it was mighty.” And this is what indicates this tenth principle.

Yet, we do find that in the Yigdal liturgy, which is a 13th Century poetic rendition of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, it states:

צוֹפֶה וְיוֹדֵֽעַ סְתָרֵֽינוּ, מַבִּיט לְסוֹף דָּבָר בְּקַדְמָתוֹ:

He scrutinizes and knows our secrets. He beholds the end of a thing at its beginning.

Which seems to show a belief that God knows the future in a specific sense as a principle of faith.

Though the Rambam asserted this was so, he may not have believed it to be a foundational principle of faith. (Perhaps because though it is true, it is not comprehensible even in a logical conceptual manner, so possibly the Rambam felt it would be unfair to make it a dogma that must be believed in order to be considered worthy of the World to Come. Even though it may not have been dogma to him, it was still a requirement to believe.)

While as I stated before, we cannot, in good conscience, follow the opinion of the Ralbag or Ibn Ezra as it is theologically reckless, and not the majority position by far. However, I do want to offer one final metaphor to better understand their position, and why at least they did not feel it was antithetical in any way to Jewish belief and thought about God’s power.

Imagine you are an expert computer programmer. Let us say you designed and programmed the ultimate word processor. It can do everything anybody imagines: spellcheck, cut and paste, grammar suggestion, formatting, colorful graphics, and fonts. It has an amazing graphical user interface and is user-friendly. Let us further imagine that you are blind. You’re a brilliant programmer, but you never will use this word processor. You never will experience subjectively what it’s like to benefit from all these features. Yet, at the same time, you know more than any user of the program. You know everything the program can do. The one thing you don’t know, is the subjective experience of using the program. Even though there is no trick, no device, no clever permutation, that you in some way did not foresee because you wrote the program, at the same time, you have no subjective experience of any of those features.

I believe, according to Ralbag and Ibn Ezra, God’s omniscience of the particulars through the general, is exactly as in this metaphor. God is the programmer who knows every possibility, and already wrote into the code any possible reaction and process to interact with the user, based on all the possible contingencies. And that way it is accurate and philosophically powerful and religiously meaningful to say that God is omniscient. (I believe this is how Rav Kook tries to explain Ralbag as well, “In order to save him from the sin of denying God’s providence on individual events”, Shemoneh Kevatzim 8:154).  Everything that will happen He knows about, and has already created within the program a contingency to manage that. At the same time, the choice of which contingency will be activated, belong squarely within human consciousness, and human experience. God cannot be a human. That is not a defect on his part. To quote the Ralbag on Iyov (7:21), “Just because a human cannot crow like a rooster, does not make a rooster superior to a human.”

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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