Free Will and do we really have it?

This unit will explore Jewish perspectives on free will in light of the Jewish belief of hashgachah, divine providence. Belief in an all-knowing God that controls the universe complicates a belief in the existence of free will. Yet, free will is a critical component in determining sin or its opposite, the fulfillment of a mitzvah. If there is no free will, how can one be responsible for their actions?

Resource Ages: 15-18


Devarim 30:15–20

15 See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.

16 For I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess.

17 But if your heart turns away and you give no heed, and are lured into the worship and service of other gods,

18 I declare to you this day that you shall certainly perish; you shall not long endure on the soil that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—

20 by loving the LORD your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the LORD swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.

טו רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע׃

טז אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֣י מְצַוְּךָ֮ הַיּוֹם֒ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ לָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֔יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֛ר מִצְוֺתָ֥יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֖יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֑יו וְחָיִ֣יתָ וְרָבִ֔יתָ וּבֵֽרַכְךָ֙ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֔יךָ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃

יז וְאִם־יִפְנֶ֥ה לְבָבְךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א תִשְׁמָ֑ע וְנִדַּחְתָּ֗ וְהִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִ֛יתָ לֵאלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים וַעֲבַדְתָּֽם׃

יח הִגַּ֤דְתִּי לָכֶם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם כִּ֥י אָבֹ֖ד תֹּאבֵד֑וּן לֹא־תַאֲרִיכֻ֤ן יָמִים֙ עַל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה עֹבֵר֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן לָב֥וֹא שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃

יט הַעִדֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֒רֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃

כ לְאַֽהֲבָה֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֥עַ בְּקֹל֖וֹ וּלְדׇבְקָה־ב֑וֹ כִּ֣י ה֤וּא חַיֶּ֙יךָ֙ וְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמֶ֔יךָ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת עַל־הָאֲדָמָ֗ה אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁבַּ֨ע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֛ם לְיִצְחָ֥ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֖ב לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶֽם׃

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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

  • How do I conceive of God?
  • What role do I believe God plays in my life?
  • Do humans have free will?
  • Does God have omniscience?
  • Does God’s omniscience contradict human freewill?

Background for Teacher

Devarim 30:15–20 The biblical source for freedom of choice: This text expresses an integral aspect of choice in Judaism: God, according to Moshe, has placed good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death in the world. For each person, the potential exists to...

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Devarim 30:15–20

The biblical source for freedom of choice: This text expresses an integral aspect of choice in Judaism: God, according to Moshe, has placed good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death in the world. For each person, the potential exists to choose to do good or to do bad, to choose “life” or “death” – and the Torah encourages us to choose “life,” using the human capacity to choose what is right in the eyes of God. By linking good with life and bad with death God also made it clear that there are consequences for human choices. 

Divine reward and punishment requires there to be human freewill: What is most relevant for this lesson in these verses is the notion of free will. If human beings are not free to choose their path, then they cannot, or at least should not, be blamed or held responsible for their actions. The whole notion of something being done intentionally or not is completely irrelevant if those actions were not the product of the perpetrator’s own choice. Only the fact that one has free will and the ability to choose can lead to the concept of potential sin.

The existence of free will also justifies the system of reward and punishment, described throughout the Tanakh. If one is not free to choose, then one is neither deserving of punishment nor worthy of reward for one’s actions. It is clear that free will is a basic value in the Tanakh.

Free-will also serves other higher purposes in the human being, and the following text alludes to one such purpose.


Rabbi Moshe Chayyim Luzzatto, Derekh HaShem (The Way of God) 1:3:1

Humans begin morally neutral: For Ramchal, human beings are placed between deficiency and perfection. One is neither deficient nor perfect by default. People are not born evil or good. What brings them to do good in the world or to fill it with evil and with crime is their choice, as Ramchal writes, “he is not compelled toward either of them.”

Human task is to strive for perfection: What makes the choice of how to act so important for Ramchal is his concept that a person, in their life, must strive for perfection. Obviously, this means perfection in following in God’s ways and in doing good (as opposed to becoming perfectly evil). But for a person to be perfect, following in God’s ways cannot be something the person was compelled to do in any way. It must be the product of their own free will. 

Scientific approaches to freewill: In the field of social sciences, including that known as Criminology, there is a basic debate between classical and positivist schools of thought. The former is marked by such theories known as rational choice theories: the idea that a person’s engaging in a criminal act is the result of a rational calculation made by that person weighing the pluses and minuses of committing a certain crime. When the person concludes through such calculations that the risk involved in committing the crime is worth it, they proceed to commit the crime. Positivist schools of the social sciences take into consideration outside factors that may weigh on the person, “compelling” them to act in certain ways. These could be biological, social, economic, or other factors. When Ramchal writes that a person “has the power to incline himself in whichever direction he desires,” he appears to reject the idea that people’s circumstances compel them to behave the way they do, and his leanings to what would later become known as the classical school of thought become clear.

Ramchal thus solidifies the need Judaism has for free will as a reality in the lives of people.


Mishnah, Avot 3:15

The contradiction between divine omniscience and human freewill: This text opens up the basic religious and theological problem created by positing the existence of free will in human endeavors. Rabbi Akiva agrees that free will is a Jewish value, but he introduces the idea that not only does God know everything in the here and now, a view established in the Tanakh, but that “everything is foreseen,” God also has foreknowledge of events yet to be. Traditional Jewish belief posits that God is omniscient. If God is all knowing, including future events (as suggested by verses like Yeshayah 46:9–10), then, as the argument goes, how is it really possible for people to have free will? If God knows everything one is going to do, then can one really state that humans have a choice in the matter? 

God’s knowledge of what humans will do seems to make choice “predestined” and not in human hands. And even if it feels like people are making a choice, it is not really the case, because having the option to choose something other than what God knows negates God knowing everything. So if choice really is in human hands at every moment, how can it be said that God knows what each person is going to choose? If human beings really do have free will to choose at any point in time, it implies an imperfection in God’s knowledge. However, if God’s knowledge is perfect, free will seems to be less than absolute.

Jewish philosophy maintains both beliefs: In the history of thought, many theologians have given in to the problem and have given up on the idea of free will in favor of God’s perfect knowledge. These are known as deterministic views of God’s interactions with the world – all is foreseen and humans have no choice but to go through the motions. Other scholars and philosophers have struggled to uphold the idea that humans do have free will. Aside from the fact that deterministic views of the world do away with the idea of a benevolent God, the concept of reward and punishment also hinges on free will. For this reason, many Jewish biblical commentators struggle to preserve the absolute nature of free will, while others will attempt to limit the impact God’s perfect knowledge has on people to make their choices or will argue that God’s perfect knowledge is different in kind from human knowledge and that humans cannot grasp God’s knowledge. In any event, that people have the freedom to choose is a biblical value.

Why do deterministic views of the world negate the idea of a benevolent God, as noted above? If people are predetermined to act as they do, then some are born to be wicked because God created them that way. Thus, from the moment they come into being, God already knows they are destined for purgatory and punishment, with no chance for anything else. And the reason, once again, is that God made them that way. Not a very benevolent thing to do. The following text presents one attempt to reconcile the absolute nature of human free choice with God’s omniscience.


Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:5

God’s knowledge is outside of time: Rambam outlines the paradox of believing in complete human free will side-by-side with belief in God’s omniscience. According to Rambam, the paradox is explained, but not resolved, by observing that God exists outside of time, and therefore, God’s knowledge of the future is no different than God’s knowledge of the past and present. Just as God’s knowledge of the past does not interfere with human free will, neither does God’s knowledge of the future impinge on that freedom. Since humans live a time-bound existence, God’s boundless knowledge is beyond grasp. Language can describe it, but the human mind cannot comprehend it.

The Ralbag disagrees with Rambam: In contrast to this theology, held by Rambam and most other Jewish thinkers, the French medieval philosopher Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag, or Gersonides, 1288–1344) held that God does not have complete foreknowledge of human acts. Bothered by this question of how God’s foreknowledge is compatible with free will, Ralbag suggested that what God actually knows beforehand is all of the choices open to each individual. God does not know, however, which choice the individual, in their freedom, is going to make.

This issue and its resolution form a major topic unto itself, and it is included in the lesson only to introduce the philosophical dilemma, not to exhaust the possible explanations. An accessible explanation of the apparent dichotomy is offered by Rabbi Moshe Zeldman in this video. Says Zeldman, “We can understand that God knows what we are going to do, but it is us doing it; God knows that tomorrow morning I’m going to eat the Cheerios, but that’s because God observes that in the future I will make that choice. So God’s knowledge doesn’t affect our choices at all. It is our choices that really affect God’s knowledge.”

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

Using the following 10 minute video on Free Will and Determinism (you don’t need to show the whole thing – see the options below) is an excellent hook on the debate of whether we have free will. Have your students share their own ideas on this, arguing both sides of this debate.

Options of clips from the video:

  • 0:00-1:25 is the story of Oedipus and the concept of fate
  • 1:26-3:03 Libertarian freewill vs. determinism
  • 3:04-9.25 the debate in more depth

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

The first text presented here is the classic biblical source for Judaism’s belief that human’s have freewill, and therefore they have agency and are responsible for their actions. This must first be established, before we can bring philosophical challenges to this concept. These questions will help clarify this conclusion from the text:

  • What choice does God give the Israelites?
  • What can we learn about free will from the fact that God gives them this choice?
  • According to the verses, what will result from our choices?
  • If we do not have free will, then what questions can we have of a God who rewards and punishes?

The next source introduces us to the moral neutrality of humans (as opposed to other belief systems that believe humans are born good or bad). The Ramchal also introduces us to evil and good inclinations, and the human task of doing and being good (and therefore conquering the inclination for bad). These questions will help your students explore their own ideas on these concepts:

  • Do you believe humans are born good or bad?
  • Do you think some people have a bigger propensity to be good or evil?
  • What does the Ramchal believe?
  •  Why didn’t God create humans with only a good inclination?
  • Do you believe there are people who only do good (or bad)?

The Mishna from Avot introduces the seeming contradiction between God’s omniscience and foreknowledge and human free will and agency. But it does not entertain the contradiction, rather maintains that both can exist at the same time. This leaves us, as Jewish philosophers, to find a way to understand how this can be. We will do that with the help of Rambam, but first let’s understand the tension between the two concepts:

  • What does it mean that everything is foreseen? By Whom? How?
  • If this is the case, then do we still have free will to make our own choices?
  • How are these concepts in tension with each other?
  • Can you think of any ways they can both be true?
  • The mishna continues that we are rewarded (or punished) for the choices we make. How does this connect to the first part of the mishna?

Our final text, the Rambam, presents a new approach to understanding God’s knowledge that solves the contradiction between this and human free will. God’s knowledge is outside of time (as opposed to humans who can only know in th represent and past), and therefore, just as humans can know something has happened in the past, and this does not stop it happening at the time out of a free choice, so God’s knowledge of the future, which is outside of time, does not mean at the time humans make choices, they are not from free choice. The following questions explore his approach:

  • If God knows the future why might this mean we do not have free will?
  • What does Rambam say about God’s knowledge?
  • God and God’s knowledge are the same thing (God IS knowledge). This means God’s knowledge is outside of time – a bit like watching a video of an event outside of time (i.e. in a place where there is no past, present, and future). How does this solve the contradiction?
  • Place the following posters on walls in your classroom, and as you learn these sources, ask your students to stand/sit next to the poster they most relate to at that moment:
    Humans have free choice and therefore God is not omniscient.
    God has foreknowledge, therefore humans do not have free will.
    Humans have free will, God also has foreknowledge, and I understand how these can both be true.
    Humans have free will, God also has foreknowledge, but I do not understand how these can both be true (I just have faith they are).
    At the end ask your students:
    Did you move during this activity?
    Which text(s) made you challenge your original position? Explain
  • After you have looked at the Rambam with your class (or as an intro to it), watch a clip of a famous football match with your students (one in which they all know the outcome), and pause the action just before something well known happens (such as the winning goal).
    Ask your students what happens next?
    Ask them if the fact that they know means there was no free will at the moment the winning goal was scored?
    Now ask them to imagine that they are watching the video in a place where all of time happens at the same moment. Does their knowledge of the event prevent free choice existing in time?
    Ask your students to relate this to the position of the Rambam.