Contemporary approaches to divine providence and free will

This lesson looks at several contemporary thinkers’ approaches to the issues of divine providence, divine foreknowledge, and human free will.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, Divine Providence or Free Will?

Israeli author, teacher, inspirational speaker, attorney by training, and a Rabbinical Court advocate.

So there are many answers offered by the greatest philosophers, [but] with God, this duality [God’s foreknowledge and human free will] is possible. In other words, [it is as if God said,] “I know what you will choose in the end, I know, and still I am giving you the chance to choose. The fact that I know does not mean that I am influencing your choice.” There is one thing said in Judaism, and this is revolutionary: “All is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b). “There is one matter wherein I seemingly clear the path for you,” says God to you, “and now it is on you to choose left or right. I beg you, as a father begs his daughter, to ‘choose life’ (Deuteronomy 30:19) – please choose correctly. And I also know, because of my divinity, what you will choose in the end, and still this does not contradict your freedom to choose.”

This close [divine] providence – what does it mean? How do the Sages describe it? God shows you the good and the evil, and God puts your hand on the good. In other words, how does this Providence become manifest? In that always, always, will your heart lean toward God and toward the good more than to the not so good. In this way God interferes – by God putting your hand on that which is good. 

You will always have the feeling that, “Oh, I am very conflicted because I would like to do either this or that…” That is a lie. For you will always feel in your heart what is the right thing to do. You will always say, “I know that I need this, but I really want that…”

In this way, we do not have true free will. We never, ever have two choices before our eyes where we can say, “it’s fifty-fifty” ([although] we lie to ourselves). At most it will be 51 percent or 50.5 percent [in favor of the good] because we were created to turn toward the good. “The inclination of a person is toward evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). He will always tell you, “no, no, [choose] this one, this one,” but you have this [sign] that always marks the way for you, like Waze telling you to turn right. If you want to reroute and to go another way, [God] will reroute for you, but you know the road, it’s been shown to you.

(Translation by Rabbi Abe Weschler)

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?
  • How do Jewish texts help me grapple with questions of life, the universe and everything?
  • How is Jewish text a vehicle to help us access connections to God?
  • What factors shape our values and beliefs?
  • What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • Does God play a role in my life on a day-to-day basis?
  • To what extent do humans have free will?
  • How can humans have free will if God has foreknowledge/is omniscient?
  • How does God influence human choices?
  • If God does influence human choices, do humans still have free will?

Background for Teacher

Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, Divine Providence or Free Will? Divine providence wins out over human free will: Mizrachi grounds her approach in the classic texts, especially the talmudic idea that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Like Rambam, she...

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Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, Divine Providence or Free Will?

Divine providence wins out over human free will: Mizrachi grounds her approach in the classic texts, especially the talmudic idea that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Like Rambam, she lays out the tension between what is known to God and what is human choice. While some approaches are willing to avoid answering the question by arguing that God is completely other (like the Rambam in the unit “Hashgacha – Divine Providence”), and others are willing to limit God’s knowledge (Ralbag), Mizrachi is willing to compromise on the true and complete free will available to human beings.

Humans have the potential for good and God guides them in this way:  Further, while Ramchal held up free will as an absolute (in the unit “Free will – what is it and do we really have it?”), arguing that humans have no propensity for good or for evil, Mizrachi believes there is always a propensity for good, even if it is just a slight one. For Mizrachi, one cannot speak about true free choice because God directs each person to do good, to do what is right. One can, though, choose to ignore that guide and go the wrong way, just as one does not have to follow the instructions provided by Waze. But when one does that, just as Waze moves to recalculate and provide new directions based on a person’s choice, so too in life, after a person has made their choice, God comes back and continues to guide the person down the path they selected.


Rabbi Noach Weinberg, Free Will – Our Greatest Power

Human free will is being in the image of God: Weinberg alludes to what it means to be created in God’s image and posits that having free will is what makes humankind the image of God. Other species have the option of choosing that which they prefer, but they do not have free will as defined by Weinberg.

Free will is not choosing a preference but rather choosing a moral choice: What is preference and what is free will? For Weinberg, differentiating between free will and preference is important. Choosing red over blue is a matter of personal preference; it has no moral tone or quality attached to it. But what characterizes free will is the aspect of morality involved in the given choice.

Every person believes they are choosing “good”: And what defines that moral tone in a given choice? Is it because the choice contains a good option and a bad option? Weinberg argues that no. Good and bad are not what defines a choice as being moral. This is because, in his view, no one ever chooses bad or evil options; everyone always chooses to be “good” (compare to Mizrachi above). The problem is that people define what is good differently. What is good or evil in the eyes of one, may not be good or evil in the eyes of another. 

If good and evil are not what makes a choice moral, so what then does make a choice moral? Wherein lies the morality of the Jew? Weinberg does not state the answer clearly, but he may be implying an answer when he says, “free will is the choice between life and death. As the Torah says: ‘I have put before you, life and death… Choose life.’” How does one choose life? It is by following the laws the Torah established. It seems that for Weinberg what marks something as being moral is its being an action or a choice commanded by the Torah. Doing what the Torah tells one to do is essentially the moral thing to do, and one has free will to choose to follow what the Torah says.


Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker, Dream to Reality

The consequence of free will: Dunsker introduces an important and significant word to the discussion of free will and God’s omniscience – “consequences.” It is in the nature of the world that one action will generate a reaction, and that reaction is a consequence of the former. If a person sticks a fork into a socket, the likelihood of being electrocuted is high. Is the universe punishing a person for sticking a fork into the socket? Some may see things in that way, but another perspective realizes that the electric shock is not a punishment, simply a consequence of one’s behavior.

Sins, or bad choices as she calls them, too have consequences, argues Dunsker. And in the same way that a person can choose to stick a fork into the socket despite awareness of the consequences, so too a person can choose to sin, even though there are consequences for this action as well. That there are consequences to one’s actions does not in and of itself guarantee a specified outcome. Therefore, free will is assured despite God’s knowledge.

Critiques of this approach: Dunsker’s attempt to reconcile the existence of human free will alongside divine omniscience does hit a couple of “snags.” Her argument that “We have complete free will. Also, God knows which choices we are going to make and maintains hope that we will make the better choices,” seems contradictory. 

Another critique of Dunsker’s stand is in her example of the speeding ticket. What allows people to speed is the fact that it is far from certain that a person will get a speeding ticket at any point in time. Given the odds of receiving a speeding ticket, many people will speed. If the certainty of a ticket is raised, speeding is considerably reduced. Consider the behavior of most drivers when passing a location known to have a speedcam. Once the location of the camera is certain, people react to speeding on that stretch of road much in the same way as they do to sticking a fork into a socket. It is thought by many that God’s reaction to a person’s bad choice would be more like sticking a fork into a socket – the certainty of it is guaranteed. If certainty is guaranteed, free will becomes limited.

Dunsker could respond to this critique in two ways: 1. God’s reaction is far from certain. It is not at all clear how and when God will react to a person’s bad choice. Perhaps God may even choose to lessen the consequence of a given behavior in certain circumstances because of any assorted number of reasons. 2. Given that some people choose to be rebellious and they will speed even though a police officer is present, and so too people will make bad choices even though God “is watching,” it means that for everyone, despite God’s knowledge, people still have the choice of  what to do and free will exists.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Free Will

Teshuvah demonstrates the existence of free will: Sacks states here what was already said in the analysis to Rambam’s writing (in the unit Hashgacha – Divine Providence“) that teshuvah demonstrates the existence of free will. One difference between Rambam and Sacks should be pointed out. Rambam speaks of personality traits and Sacks speaks of specific behaviors. That a person can change from being a stingy person to being a charitable individual demonstrates free will. That a person opts not to give charity in one situation and then opts to give charity in another situation may or may not reflect free will, because their choices in both cases could very well be driven by circumstances – in one case they have time, money, or they are not overburdened with other thoughts that kept them from giving charity the first time around. Alternatively, a person may be opposed to giving charity, but will succumb to peer pressure to make a donation. Is the individual act of making a donation a mitzvah? It may be. Is it an act of free will? Not necessarily (compare to Dunsker, Text 11 above). In any event, it would seem that even if one has no freedom to choose, it does not mean they will make the same choice each time, because what compels them in each situation may differ.


Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Longer Short Way: Discourses on Chasidic Thought

Humanity links creation to the Divine Creator: Steinsaltz sees the human being as the only created part of the universe that links or bridges the divine and the created (for illustrative purposes, humans are at the point the two triangles touch).

The behavior of humans through free choices justifies creation: But that is not the only role human beings play. By playing the role properly, human beings can affect both sides, the created world on the one hand, and the divine on the other. If a human being acts in a way that is right and proper, a human being can “[justify] the emanation of all the worlds” and “[give] the creative process a meaning.” And it is in this that the human being demonstrates what may be the most unique aspect of their creation – the ability to choose. No other being in the created universe has been given the possibility to choose. 

Human potential for holiness: That humans have the potential to lift themselves up to holiness is an idea engrained in Jewish tradition. That by lifting themselves up to holiness, they can also uplift the rest of the created world is also an idea that is known. What may be new to some learners in Steinsaltz’s articulation here is the confirmation of the existence of a set divine plan for the world that can be changed by human engagement. “Only man has the freedom to choose and to change the otherwise fixed course of events.” Two examples of this may be God’s decision to wipe out all of the Israelites that was reversed by Moshe’s plea (Shemot 32:10–11), and the idea that that although God does have a date upon which to bring the mashiach into the world, human action can work to make that happen at an even earlier time (Tractate Sanhedrin 98a).


Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Humans will always be free to choose how to react: Having had everything taken away from him (see background to Viktor Frankel that precedes the text), Frankl focuses on the fact that human beings will always have a choice; maybe not a choice of what to eat or how to dress, maybe not even how to live – choices not given to concentration camp prisoners, but they will have a choice, and that is the choice of how to react to life. One cannot influence the way another acts, but one can control the way one reacts. 

Frankl’s comment brings to mind Rabbi Chanina’s statement that all is in the hands of God (or “heaven” as he put it) other than one’s fear of God (Tractate Berakhot 33b). What it all boils down to for Rabbi Chanina is the choice of fearing God or not, following in God’s dictates or not (see Weinberg above). Rabbi Chanina gets to the essence of what one’s free will is all about. Frankl is doing the same, even if his concise remark does not have the same focus as Rabbi Chanina, in his utterance, Frankl gets to the essence of what free will is all about.

Limited free will: It is true that there is no absolute free will for people. Some may wish to climb Mount Everest, and they are simply not able to for numerous reasons. Others may wish simply to go to school in safety and to come home in one piece, and that too is not possible for all. Life limits a person’s ability to act on their choices. But there is one thing for Frankl that is always in the hands of the person – how to react to what happens to a person in their life. Whether to react to life with good or evil thoughts and actions will always be a choice each individual can and must make.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

Draw four large posters with the following words on them and hang one on each wall of your classroom (or in a corner of the classroom):

    • Human free choice
    • Divine providence
    • Divine reward and punishment
    • God’s omniscience

Divide your students into four groups, each taking one of these concepts to advocate for its existence. Ask each group to explain if their concept exists, which of the other ones cannot. Each time a group attacks the existence of another group, ask the other group to defend themselves.

Explain that in this lesson we are going to hear from some contemporary voices who try to grapple with these issues and tensions.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

The philosophical concepts we have seen in this unit are in tension with each other. One must be compromised in some way to allow the others to exist. In this first text God’s providence takes precedence over human free choice, allowing for the existence of divine providence, omnipotence, and perhaps omniscience too. Explore how your students feel about the way free will is limited in this approach:

  • Which of the philosophical concepts we have been considering takes precedence here and which is compromised?
  • How does God influence the world according to this source?
  • Does this mean that humans do not have true free will? What does this thinker say? What do you say?
  • How might this approach the decision making you have to make in your life?

The second text focuses on the following three ideas: Human free will is being in the image of God; Free will is not choosing a preference but rather choosing a moral choice; Every person believes they are choosing “good”. These questions explore these ideas further:

  • How is having free choice being like God and being created in the image of God?
  • When choosing preferences (e.g. flavour of ice cream) can it be argued that there are other factors (not free will) that contribute to these decisions? What might they be?
  • Can the same argument be made when deciding between ‘good’ and ‘bad/evil’ choices (i.e. morality)?
  • Do you agree with this source that argues every decision be in some way argued as ‘good’ and justified?
  • If this is the case how can we decide what true morality is?
  • How might this approach the decision making you have to make in your life?

The third thinker argues that we have complete free will while at the same time God knows which choices we are going to make and maintains hope that we will make the better choices, and a system of reward and punishment does not take away the freedom of choice. Use these questions to discuss this further:

  • How can God know what we will choose if we have free choice?
  • Does this text explain this fully?
  • Do consequences from an act mean the original act is not taken fully out of free choice?
  • Do you think we have free choice despite the consequences of our actions often being clear to us?
  • How might this approach the decision making you have to make in your life?

Our fourth source argues that freedom is the basis of Judaism, and the concept of teshuva (repenance) is proof that humans have free will. Using these questions you can challenge your students with these ideas:

  • Why is Judaism “predicated” on freedom?
  • What philosophical concepts would not work if humans did not have freedom of choice?
  • How does this thinker prove that we know we have free choice?
  • Does this resonate with you? Does this help articulate the “feeling of free choice”?
  • How might this approach the decision making you have to make in your life?

For the fifth source only human beings have free choice and are created in the image of God in this way. No other being in the created universe has been given the possibility to choose. This is what gives humans the possibility of achieving holiness (the task set by God for humans) and in this way humans can affect the divine plans for the world.

  • Do you think animals have free will?
  • How are humans any different? What does R. Steinsaltz say about this?
  • According to this source, how does this mean that humanity can affect the divine plan for the world?
  • How might this approach the decision making you have to make in your life?

For our final thinker, free choice is at the very least how we react to the things that happen to us over which we have no control (yet they clearly impinge on our freechoice). He came to these conclusions while surviving in the concentration camps during which time he was developing a unique school of psychology based on this idea:

  • How do all the things that happen to us impact our freedom of choice?
  • What does Frankl argue is the only thing humans have true freedom of choice over?
  • How does this notion help us lead our lives?
  • How might this approach the decision making you have to make in your life?

Divide your students into groups (one for each source if you have enough students). Ask your group to create a scenario that tests the theory that humans have freewill (for example a decision taken by the leader of a country, or a decision you have taken in your life). Then ask them to take one (or more) of the sources they have looked at in this unit and apply it to this scenario. 

  • What role do the humans play in the scenario?
  • Do they truly have freewill according to the source?
  • What role does God play in the scenario?
  • How does the source navigate the tension between God’s role and human free will?

You could also have your students switch their scenarios with the other groups and see how they approach it.