Free Will

QUESTION #8: If G-d knows the future, do we really have free will?

By Rabbi Tully Bryks

One of the many great gifts that G-d gives us is the freedom to make our own choices.[1] We have the right to make moral decisions without any interference from G-d.[2] On the other hand, we also believe that G-d is Infinite, outside the confines and limits of time, and thus knows the future.[3] By extension, He knows every decision that we will ever make.[4] While there is a concept to humbly acknowledge that we cannot expect to fully understand G-d and His powers,[5] there are approaches that can at least give us a glimpse into how this works.

G-d is infinite.[6] Time, on the other hand, is finite.[7] As such, G-d “dwells” outside of time. In other words, G-d sees past, present and future simultaneously. So it’s not that G-d is seeing what I will do in the future before I do it; G-d is watching me make my future decisions – now.

In addition, merely knowing what we will decide does not mean that He impacts our decisions. One potential way to illustrate this would be to think of the movie, “The Lion King.” The 1st time you watch the movie, you see Simba struggle with his free will, whether to return home and reclaim his rightful place or to stay in the jungle with no worries. The next time you watch the movie, you already know that Simba will decide to go back home, but you still have no impact on his decision; he is still the one struggling with his free will choice.

The movie example is not a perfect parallel as G-d often allows himself to interfere with the world. Some examples from the Torah include the flood of Noah, the 10 plagues in Egypt, splitting of the sea and the like. He just refrains from interfering with our “free will” decisions. Nevertheless, the movie example can at least help us relate to the concept that one can know what a decision will be, and still have no impact on that decision.

One can ask about the exodus from Egypt story regarding the verse that “G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” At first glance, this would appear to be an example of G-d interfering with Pharaoh’s free will. Biblical commentaries offer several answers to this question. One of the answers that I particularly like is that, due to the powerful miracles of the plagues, Pharaoh had reached a point whereby he would no longer be able to freely choose to oppose G-d. G-d’s power was manifested so strongly that Pharaoh would have lost his gift of free will. Therefore, G-d “hardened his heart” in order to give Pharaoh back his free will so that Pharaoh would now be in a position to make an intellectually honest decision based on his moral compass.[8]

To learn more about Free Will, click on any of the items below:

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[1] Zohar, 1:23A;

[2] Ramban (Nachmonides) on Bereishis (Genesis), 15:14 and Shemos (Exodus), 18:11; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 2:8:1; Netziv on Bereishis (Genesis), 37:13; Ohr Hachaim on Bereishis (Genesis), 37:21; Iggros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 4:37:19

[3] Shemos (Exodus), 15:18; Yishayahu (Isaiah), 48:12 and 57:15; Tehilim (Psalms), 90:1-2 and 102:28; Bereisis Rabbah 3:8; Medrash Shmuel and Tosafos Yom Tov, on Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 3:15; Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed), 2:13 and 2:30; Pardes Rimonim, 6:3

[4] Yishayahu (Isaiah), 46: 9-10; Tehilim (Psalms), 139: 15-16; Bereishis Rabbah, 2:7 and 9:3; Shemos Rabbah, 21:3; Talmud Sanhedrin, 90B; Tanna Debei Eliyahu Zuta 23, 50B

[5] Koheles (ecclesiates), 3:11; Iyov (Job), 37:5

[6] Shemos (Exodus), 15:18; Yishayahu (Isaiah), 48:12 and 57:15; Tehilim (Psalms), 90:1-2 and 102:28; Bereisis Rabbah 3:8; Medrash Shmuel and Tosafos Yom Tov, on Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 3:15; Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed), 2:13 and 2:30; Pardes Rimonim, 6:3 – See source 67 above

[7] “Relativity in the Global Positioning System,” Living Rev. Relativity 6: page 16 (2003); Flat and Curved Space-times, Second Edition. Oxford University Press (2000); Hawking, Stephen (1996), “The Beginning of Time,” University of Cambridge; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ev9zrt__lec&noredirect=1; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7vpw4AH8QQ  - See source 43 above

[8] S’forno, Shemos, 4:21 and 7:3

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