Chapter Eight (Part 11)
“There’s one more thing to mention briefly to complete this chapter” and
this book, Rambam inserts here, that “I hadn’t originally intended to
mention, but which I must anyway” he adds quixotically. What is it? The
subject of “G-d’s foreknowledge”; that is, the notion that whatever
happens on earth has already played itself out and been displayed in G-d’s
infinite mind beforehand.
It’s an abstruse and mystifying idea to be sure, and a little frightening
besides. For it implies that whatever I do, say, and think about has
already been done, said, and thought by me even before I existed! It
raises all kinds of philosophical conundrums, like: why would I have to be
born anyway, if that’s the case? Do I ever get a chance to get “under the
radar” so to speak and say, do, or think anything on my own?
But Rambam decided to dwell upon this idea for other reasons: “because it
forms the basis for the opinion of those who say that we’re compelled to
obey or disobey” G-d’s dictates rather than being free to choose, which
he’d been discussing for a while.
He explains the logic of those who think that we’re really not free to
choose thusly. They reason that since G-d knows everything beforehand,
He “either knows that a certain person will be righteous or wrongful,”
from the first, “or He doesn’t”. If He in fact knows, well, “then we’re
forced to say that that person is compelled to be” either righteous or
wrongful, “since G-d already knew that beforehand” and it was all a sort
of fait accompli before the fact.
But if on the other hand “you argue that G-d doesn’t already know” what
kind of person that individual will be ahead of time, “then you’re forced
to say some terribly odd things that would topple walls” including the
notion that G-d isn’t omniscient and that He’s less-than-perfect, which is
What alternative is there? After all it seems to be either that G-d indeed
knows all beforehand, and thus realizes the kind of people we’ll be in
advance, so we have no real choice in the matter; or He doesn’t know, and
so yes, we’re free to choose on our own, which seems to imply that He’s
not G-dly, which is terribly problematical.
As Rambam accounts for it (and this will call for a bit of explanation),
the truth of the matter is that G-d’s ways of knowing things --
beforehand, on-the-spot, or ahead of time -- is different than ours.
“G-d doesn’t know by means of ‘knowledge’” as we do, Rambam offers. For,
while we acquire knowledge when we need to, that’s not true of G-d. For to
say that G-d acquires knowledge is tantamount to saying that some sort
of “knowledge” was somewhere out there in the distance that G-d would then
have to come upon, take to Himself, and add onto His Being. But that’s
absurd, since G-d is beyond the need to acquire anything whatsoever. His
knowledge is an inseparable part of His Being.
We grant you, this is very rarefied and bewildering, but it’s the corner
that discussions about free will versus G-d’s foreknowledge draw you into.
At bottom, though, Rambam’s point is that we simply cannot fathom G-d’s
knowledge — let alone His foreknowledge. And while He does indeed know
everything that everyone will do, say, and think beforehand which seems to
fly in the face of our own freedom to choose, His way of knowing all that
is not what we think it is. And it doesn’t impede upon our freedom of
As Rambam concludes, “Hence it’s clear in light of all we’ve said that our
actions are in our own hands and that we’re free to be either righteous or
wrongful without G-d compelling us in either direction”. May G-d grant us
the wisdom to choose righteousness.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and Torah.org