Rabbi Akiva would say... All is foreseen, choice is granted,
and the world is judged in kindness
Ethics of the Fathers 3:15
These three points, expressed by Rabbi Akiva in one sentence,
are interconnected. The statement, All is foreseen,
raises two questions. The most basic truth about G-d is that
He is omnipotent: infinite, all-knowing, present and active
in every point of time and space even as He transcends these
parameters. But if such is the case, can mans actions
be the product of his independent choice? Its not just
a question of If G-d knows what Im going to do,
how could I have chosen?; the more basic problem is:
If G-ds knowledge of the future is the product
of His all-pervading and exclusive power, how can I possess
any power that is not utterly subservient to His?
Yet the principle of free choice is basic to our very definition
as moral beings. In the words of Maimonides, if mans
actions were not freely chosen, how could G‑d
command us through the prophets Do this and Do
not do this, Improve your ways and Do
not follow your wickedness...? What place would the
entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G‑d
punish the wicked and reward the righteous...? How is this to be reconciled
with the equally axiomatic principle of G-ds omnipotence?
The second question raised by the statement All is
foreseen is: if man is constantly under the scrutiny
of G-d, how can he possibly maintain the standard of behavior
that this demands? The Talmud says that to make a single superfluous
gesture in the presence of a king is a capital offense.
If we are perpetually in the presence of the King of all kings,
who is the man that might be found righteous before His exacting
It is to address these two questions that Rabbi Akiva adds,
choice is granted, and the world is judged in kindness.
In answer to the first question, he says: Choice is
granted. Indeed, man cannot possess any power or volition
that is independent of G-ds. But man does not intrinsically
possess the capacity to freely determine his actions; rather,
freedom of choice has been granted to man. G-d, who
can do whatever He chooses, has given man a capacity that,
in essence, belongs to Him alone.
To answer the second question, Rabbi Akiva says: The
world is judged in kindness. It is true that G-d
stands over [man], and the entire world is filled with His
presence; He looks upon him, and searches his reins and heart,
to see if he is serving Him as is fitting.
But it is also true that when G-d first wanted to create
the world with the attribute of judgment, He saw that the
world could not survive it; so He combined [the attribute
of judgment] with the attribute of mercy; that G-d says: I do not
demand of [My creatures] according to My capacity, but according
to their capacity. A person is always in the presence of G-d, at all times subject
to the divine scrutiny and judgment; but this is a scrutiny
sensitive to his limitations and vulnerabilities, a judgment
tempered with empathy and kindness.
Based on the Rebbes talks, Shabbat Parshat Emor
5738 (May 20, 1978); Sivan 23, 5740 (June 7, 1980)
This is an excerpt from "Beyond the Letter of the
Law" by Yanki Tauber published by The Meaningful Life
. The question, If G-d knows what Im
going to do, how could I have chosen? is more a difficulty
of our time-contexted perception than a true logical paradox.
If a fortune-teller should know what you will do tomorrow,
does this mean that your actions are compelled by his knowledge?
Obviously not: the hypothetical fortune-teller merely sees
into the future and observes the result of your choice;
his knowledge derives from your freely-chosen actions, not
the other way around. By the same token, if G-ds knowledge
of the future were to stem from His ability to see
into the future, this would in no way affect mans
freedom of choice. The paradox of divine foreknowledge and
human choice is that G-ds knowledge of the future
is not the product of future events, but a feature of His
all-pervasive reality. Nothing exists outside of G-d; He
is the cause of all, and nothing outside of Him is the cause
for anything in Him. (This is implicit in G-ds infinity:
a truly infinite being must be all-inclusive, since the
existence of anything outside of it would imply that there
is a boundary beyond which its reality does not extend.)
He knows things not because they happen, but because they
derive from Him. Hence the question: how does such knowledge
of human affairs allow for any choice on the part of man?
. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 5:1.
. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 12:15.
. Ibid., Bamidbar 3:13.
. Biurim LPirkei Avot (Kehot 1996), p. 175.