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I Will Write It In Their Hearts - Volume 4
A Treasury of Letters from the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Selections from Igros Kodesh


The apparent contradiction between G-d’s omniscience and man’s free choice

Translated by: Rabbi Eli Touger

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  Publicizing the division of the study of the TalmudTable of contentsThe differences between the description of G-d as “forgiving” sin and “suppressing” sin  

No. 439

This letter was sent to R. Yisrael Meir Altein.
B"H, 22 Teves, 5709

Greetings and blessings,

Without promising, it is my intention to answer your questions in your previous letter, but [only] when I have more free time or at least in the midst of my work with the printed texts of Chassidus. In this way, I will not be “busy with one tractate and asking about another.”[115] I am certain you will not be upset with me for this.

As a token of my good intentions, I will reply to the question in your present letter after I rephrase it and structure it in a slightly different manner than as stated in your letter so that I will be able to proceed from the general and preliminary principles to those which are more particular and secondary [in nature].

  1. [Question]: Can one say that G-d’s knowledge is of a general nature, as Rambam writes at the conclusion of ch. 6 of Hilchos Teshuvah? [There he explains that] the decree[116] “they will enslave them and oppress them” did not [compel] any particular Egyptian, but rather the nation as a whole. Every individual Egyptian had the potential to avoid enslaving the Jews. (Raavad’s objections to this are well known.)

    Reply: It is impossible to say this. It is the opposite of [what is stated in] Scripture and the words of our Sages. See Vayikra Rabbah 26:7 which states that “the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Moshe each individual generation, its thieves and its prophets.... He showed him Shaul... and the priests whom he killed.” And a general statement is made in the blessing Atah Zocher:[117] “Everything is known and revealed before You.... You gaze and scrutinize until the end of all the generations.”

  2. [Question]: Can it be said that G-d’s knowledge is all-inclusive with the exception of matters concerning one’s fear of Heaven, for they are not in the hands of Heaven?[118]

    Reply: Based on the answer to sec. a, it is understood that G-d possesses particular knowledge even concerning matters involving [fear of Heaven, i.e., one’s performance of] the Torah and its mitzvos.

  3. Can it be said that man’s free choice is merely a figment of his imagination, but in truth his deeds are predetermined?

    Reply: Heaven forbid to say that, for:

    Free choice is a great fundamental principle and the pillar of the Torah and its mitzvos.... (Without it,) what place would there be for the entire Torah? Under which judgment would He exact retribution from the wicked or reward the righteous? “Will the Judge of the entire earth not execute justice?”[119] (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 5:3-4; see also his Commentary to the Mishnah, Shemoneh Perakim, ch. 8.)

    On a deeper level, according to the explanations of Chassidus, the true concept of free choice is that when everything is taken into account, a positive and a negative choice are equal for him. For example, when a person is starving and is presented [with two choices]: a burning fire and a table filled with delicacies for a king, he has the possibility of either satisfying his hunger or throwing himself in the fire. This, however, is not the true concept of free choice that earns a person reward. To cite a second example: An animal can cast itself into a river and drown or [go to] pasture in a lush field. In all matters such as these, there is no [true concept of] free choice and [hence,] no [relevance to the issue] of reward and punishment, because [the person or the animal] is compelled by its nature. The same concepts apply with regard to the entire creation. None [of the animals or plants] have the potential to change their mission at all (see Tanya, chs. 24, 39). The only exception to this rule is man, for he has been given the license and the potential to contradict his Creator’s will, as explained in Tanya, ch. 29. The inner reason [why man has been granted this potential] is that man’s source is from such a high level that no one can hinder him [from doing what he wants], as explained in Likkutei Torah, Parshas Emor, in the explanation of the maamar entitled VeHeinif, sec. 3.

    More analysis is necessary regarding the issue of whether the true concept of free choice exists among gentiles.[120] See the maamar entitled Kevod Malchuscha, 5660. This is not the place for discussion of the issue.

  4. It seems as if the concepts of [G-d’s] omniscience and [man’s] free choice contradict each other, as questioned by Rambam, loc. cit., and other sources.[121]

    Reply: To preface: There are contradictory concepts that cannot co-exist unless one of them is nullified entirely or both of them would not apply in the same context simultaneously. For example, regarding the concept under discussion, the concepts of free choice and Divine decree are contradictory. Therefore one of them (Divine decree) is entirely nullified or [at least] does not apply in the same context as free choice applies. [For example,] as explained above, the concept of Divine decree can apply to the nation as a whole and that of free choice to particular individuals.

    There are, however, other concepts that even though they themselves do not contradict each other, it is possible to use one as support for the idea that the other is not true. In such an instance, it is possible to say one of these three options: either, as above, that a) one of them will be negated entirely, or b) they will not apply in the same context simultaneously, or c) although both are true and apply simultaneously in the same context, they are not contradictory because the proof [suggested] is not correct.

    To apply this to the concept at hand: [G-d’s] omniscience does not contradict the concept of free choice. To explain: [I possess] clear knowledge that if, tomorrow, I throw a stone [in the air], it will ultimately fall to the ground. This knowledge itself is not a contradiction to the theoretical debate whether the stone has a choice whether to fall to the earth or remain in the air. For even according to the supposition [that the stone has free choice], the stone may choose to fall to the earth, but my knowledge is only a logical support for the thesis that the stone does not have free choice. The support works in the following manner: Since my knowledge is clear, without a doubt, if you would say that the stone has free choice, how is it possible for me to know which choice the stone will make? But it is possible to say that although it is not understood how it is possible for me to have foreknowledge of the choice the stone will make, [the fact that I have such knowledge] is not clear support [for the idea that the stone does not have free choice].

    Or to cite a second example: Reuven, who sees the future, can relate what will happen to Shimon who is found at the other end of the world (and thus Reuven can have no effect on him whatsoever) and what Shimon will do in the future. Reuven’s statements do not affect Shimon’s choice. Instead, Reuven knows that Shimon will use his free choice in this-and-this manner; i.e., Shimon’s free choice changes Reuven’s knowledge and not the opposite. The choice is the reason; and the knowledge, the result. [His knowledge that precedes Shimon’s choice] is just like the knowledge [of an ordinary person] that comes after the choice. Obviously, [the latter] does not represent a contradiction [to free choice]. For in that instance, the choice was free because it was not influenced by the knowledge. On the contrary, the knowledge is dependent on the result of the choice.

    This, as it were, reflects the manner in which G-d knows. As our Sages say (Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh HaShanah 1:3; the conclusion of tractate Yoma): “The Holy One, blessed be He, knows what will come to pass.” If you ask, since our choice is free, how is it possible [for G-d] to know beforehand what one will choose? To this, Rambam answers that G-d’s knowledge is not like our knowledge and we have no way of knowing how G-d knows.

    With regard to the concept of G-d’s knowledge and man’s choice, see the conclusion [of the maamarim on] Parshas Vayeira in Torah Or and Toras Chayim; Likkutei Torah, [Parshas] Behar, the explanation of the maamar entitled Shabsosai, sec. 3; [Parshas] Bamidbar, the conclusion of the explanation of the maamar entitled BeShaah Shehikdimu; Shaar HaBechirah in the Mitteler Rebbe’s Shaarei Teshuvah, et al. Further explanations concerning this are found in the commentaries to the Mishnah (Avos 3:9): “Everything is foreknown and free choice is granted.” The perspectives of the Jewish philosophers [on this issue] are collected in the gloss of Or Sameach to Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah, loc. cit.

Enclosed is the kuntreis for 24 Teves, a letter from my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe Shlita, and a letter from Machne Israel.[122] Since this is a matter which is relevant to everyone, you will no doubt endeavor to have it publicized in the appropriate manner. With thanks in advance.

Please acknowledge receipt of this letter.

With good wishes to all those who seek our welfare,

Rabbi Menachem Schneerson

[See also] the note to Toras Shalom, p. 276;[123] Pardes, [Shaar] Atzmus VeKeilim, ch. 9; the introduction of the Shelah to [the section entitled] Beis HaBechirah, the conclusion of Tikkunei Zohar HaChadash; Toras Chayim, loc. cit.; the note in Mitzvas Eved Ivri in Derech Mitzvosecha. There he concludes: “Be very precise [in your study of this,] for [in] it [all the relevant material] has been finely sifted.”

[An addition] at a later date: Based on the above, there is no room to ask: Why, when one prays forty days after conception that his wife will give birth to a boy, is the prayer considered a false prayer (Berachos 54a)? For isn’t it possible that, from the outset, G-d knew that the person would pray [sincerely]? Hence, [as a result of His foreknowledge of that future prayer], a male child was conceived. This is not a relevant question, for since the knowledge is of an encompassing [nature], it does not have a direct effect on the outcome.

   

Notes:

  1. (Back to text) [See Shabbos 3b.]

  2. (Back to text) [Bereishis 15:13.]

  3. (Back to text) [The Zichronos blessing in the Rosh HaShanah liturgy.]

  4. (Back to text) [Cf. Berachos 33b, et al.]

  5. (Back to text) [Bereishis 18:25.]

  6. (Back to text) [See the Rebbe’s Igros Kodesh, Vol. XVI, p. 92ff.; Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VI, p. 55ff. where this issue is discussed.]

  7. (Back to text) [See also Letter No. 442 where the Rebbe completes his explanation of this subject to Rabbi Altein.]

  8. (Back to text) [This refers to the letter concerning the division of the study of the Talmud. See Letters No. 433 and 434.]

  9. (Back to text) [P. 29 in the present printing.]


  Publicizing the division of the study of the TalmudTable of contentsThe differences between the description of G-d as “forgiving” sin and “suppressing” sin  


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