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Home » Free Choice, Miscellaneous, Shmini

Shemini: Pre Determinism or Free Choice

Submitted by on April 25, 2012 – 10:11 pmNo Comment | 4,380 views
free choice - innerstream

If G-d Knew…

When Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, passed away in their prime Moses intimated that their passing was foretold by G-d. [1] Our problem is this: if G-d had foreknowledge of their death, He must have had foreknowledge of the sin for which they died, [2] which raises an ideological conundrum; did G-d’s foreknowledge violate their freedom of choice and if it did should they have been punished for it?

Time Machine

We know of events in one of two ways, if they already occurred or if they are bound to occur. For example I can know that you traveled across the globe because your journey already occurred and I know that the sun will rise tomorrow morning because it rises every morning. I cannot know of a future event that is not certain to occur until it either occurs or it doesn’t. If G-d knew that Aaron’s sons would commit a sin we justifiably surmise that their decision to sin must have been pre-determined.

But there is a third possibility.If I could board a hypothetical time machine and travel into the future where I could observe your decision and then return to the present in the same hypothetical machine I would have foreknowledge of the choices you had not yet made. Your freedom of choice would remain intact and I would know your choice before you made it.

We dismiss this possibility because the idea of a time machine is purely fanciful. Yet, G-d has access to precisely this option. G-d transcends the progress of time. To G-d, past, present and future are conjoined in a single time warp. He knows the future because He is already there. He can know now, what I will decide later because for Him tomorrow is already today. [3]

A Different Form of Knowledge

Maimonides dealt with this question differently. “Know that the answer is longer than the earth and wider than the sea. G-d’s knowledge is not acquired by something outside of Himself, like humans, who are separate from their knowledge. Rather He and His knowledge are one. No human can properly understand this principle. Just as no human can truly understand the Creator so can no human truly understand His knowledge. We therefore cannot understand how the Almighty knows our choices.” [4]

Maimonides contemporary [5] objected to his raising a question that he couldn’t answer, but allow me to suggest that Maimonides’ obscure words contain a deep and nuanced explanation that transcends the surface responses offered earlier in our essay. [6]

We postulated earlier that G-d knows of our choices before we make them because He is present in the future before we arrive there. The problem with this argument is that it suggests that G-d’s knowledge of our choices flows from our choices. This can’t be true of G-d, who is one with His knowledge. free choice - innerstreamJust as nothing can exist outside of G-d so can nothing exist outside of His knowledge. His knowledge of our choices doesn’t flow from our choices, on the contrary, our choices flow from His knowledge.

The Fantasy

Allow me to share a humorous anecdote that I think will shed light on this concept.  One blustery, wintry day I shared a fantasy with my daughter about our family frolicking on a warm, peaceful beach on a balmy, sunny day. I would play with the children, while Mommy prepared dinner.

My daughter, sensitive as always, objected to my fantasy.” It’s not fair,” said she. “Why does Mommy have to prepare dinner while the rest of us are having fun? She should join us too.” “Hey,” I replied with a smile, “this is my fantasy. In my fantasy Mommy makes dinner. In her fantasy, I can make dinner!”

This was said in jest of course, but upon reflection I realized the profundity of this thought. My fantasy world is created wholly by me. I can create a world where Mommy not only prepares dinner, but is perfectly happy to do so while everyone else is having fun. She can create a fantasy world where I am perfectly happy to make dinner while everyone else is having a great time.

Fantasies have no bearing on reality because the people in them think and feel precisely what I want them to think and feel. My knowledge of events in the fantasy doesn’t flow from those events. On the contrary, the events flow from my imagination; I think them into being. Nothing can happen in this world if I don’t imagine it. I can therefore imagine into existence a world that is perfectly designed to fit my needs even if the people in my fantasy aren’t always pleased to serve my needs in the real world.

Let us take this to the next level. I could create a fantasy world, whose creatures would have free choice. These creatures would have no knowledge of my involvement in every aspect of their lives and in their very existence. They would have no inkling that their every thought was thought into existence by me, that their every breath was imagined into existence by me and that their every choice was decided by me. Yet, because I imagined it so, they, in their world, would have free choice. It is my world and I can create it as I desire it. If I desire creatures with free choice my creatures would have free choice.

That I would know their choices before they freely make it is a function of the fact that for these choices to come into existence I must imagine them first. I don’t know these choices because they already exist; they exist because I imagine them.

This is completely abstract to the creatures of my fantasy. They don’t know it and it has no impact on their lives. They don’t realize that their very existence is a figment of my imagination and they surely don’t realize that their choices exist only on account of my imagination. They have a real life within their world and within that framework their choices are real. In other words, if they are real so are their choices and if you insist that their choices are not real then you must admit that neither are they.

This is precisely what Maimonides was trying to say. G-d’s knowledge is not similar to ours. Our knowledge comes from events and things outside of ourselves. But nothing is outside of G-d. His knowledge is the world. His knowledge forms our existence, our thoughts and our choices. He doesn’t know us because we exist; we exist because he knows us.

We don’t sense that our very existence is a product of His knowledge. And just as this doesn’t affect our conviction in our very existence so does it not affect the freedom of our choices within the framework of that existence. [7] Because we are capable of choosing this way or that with no discernible outside influence we are responsible for the choices we make are rewarded or punished accordingly.[8]


  1. Leviticus 10:3. See Rashi ad loc that G-d intimated that holy men would die. Moses originally thought this referred to himself and Aaron, but he now understood that his nephews were holier than their father and himself.
  2. See Leviticus 10:1 and Rashi ad loc. Our sages differed on the nature of the sin. Some felt it was entering the Holy of Holies unbidden. Some felt it was entering the Sanctuary while intoxicated. Some felt it was ruling on a Halachic question in front of Moses and some (Rashi on 10:12) felt it was in punishment to Aaron for his part in the Golden Calf.
  3. Arguments similar to these are advanced though not precisely in this format by Rabbi Avraham Ibn David, known as the Raavad and Rabbi Moshe Almushino as elucidated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
  4. Yad hachazakah, Hilchos teshuvah 5:5.
  5. Namely, Rabbi Avraham Ibn David, known as the Raavad.
  6. See Moses of Oxford by Rabbi Shmuly Boteach, Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1994, p. 630 for a brilliant essay on why Maimonides wa ‘ot satisfied with our earlier explanation.
  7. See Toras Chayim, Parshas Toldos ch. 15. For a succinct summary of the two approaches articulated in this essay  see Likutei Sichos v. 7, p. 367.
  8. To answer the essay’s opening question, G-d knew that Aaron’s sons would sin even though they had yet to make that choice. The choice they would make, just like the air they would breathe and the lungs with which they would breathe them were all products of G-d’s knowledge. And G-d “knew” which choices He would bring into existence.


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