Why It’s Okay That Free Will Is Paradoxical

The Jewish take on creatures that have their own mind

Free will is a cornerstone of Jewish thought from the very get-go. And from the very get-go it is presented as a paradox.

The Hebrew Bible opens with G‑d calling heaven and earth into being out of the absolute void.1 There’s an implication hidden there: that the very substance of each thing is nothing other than G‑d’s will that it exist. Things happen only because He says they should happen.

Yet the finalYet the ultimate creation of this all-powerful Creator is a creature that can choose whether to do its Creator’s will—or otherwise. and ultimate creation of this all-powerful Creator is a creature that can choose whether to do its Creator’s will—or otherwise. Namely, us, the human being.

And not by some Frankensteinian blunder. By deliberate intent.

“In the image of G‑d, He created them,” states the Book of Genesis.2 That’s a loaded phrase. The One who preceded heaven and earth certainly does not have an image.

Rather, the meaning is that G‑d intended this being to be unique as He is unique. Just as its Creator freely chose the nature of each thing He will create, so this being is free to choose whether to follow his G‑d-given nature, to transcend it, or to destroy it.

Indeed, after Adam disobeyed G‑d’s command and ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, G‑d says, “Verily, this human is unique, that of his own he can know good and evil.”3

And there is the puzzle: Even as this creature is defying its Creator, it does so with the current of vitality and will that flows to it from its Creator.

Free Will and the Impossible Rock

Remember the old question about G‑d creating a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it? Here’sG‑d has decided with His unlimited power to supply life to one thing so large that He depends upon it. that rock: G‑d has decided with His unlimited power to supply life to one thing so large that it is not in His hands—on the contrary, He depends upon it. And that is our free will to respect or ignore His authority.

That’s not a paradox you and I just discovered. In the Talmud, we find Rabbi Chanina teaching:

All is in the hands of heaven, except for the awe of heaven, as it says, ”And now, Israel, what does G‑d want from you, other than that you should be in awe of Him?”4

Rabbi Akiva presents the same paradox from a different angle. He says, “All is foreseen, and permission is given.”5

Meaning, there is a destiny that is known. It can’t be any other way. It is that way because G‑d wills it to be that way. And yet, He gives you permission to arrive there by your free will.

Free Will, Paradox and Reality

It’s a conflictIt’s a matter of making peace between the self-organizing phenomenon of life and the relentless entropy of causality. that is an integral part of human experience:

On the one hand, we all agree that we experience our actions as acts of free will. Indeed, our societies, laws and morals are founded on this assumption. Yet, at the same time, any thinking person realizes how impotent we are before the forces of a virtually infinite universe.

Resolving this paradox, then, is a matter of making peace between our subjective experience and the objectivity of human reason, between ourselves as individuals and ourselves as a part of this great universe.

On a deeper level, it is a matter of making peace between two great forces of our universe, the self-organizing phenomenon of life and the relentless entropy of natural law.

The Opportunity of Paradox

A paradox is not a blunder of logic. ItWhat appears to us as an irresolvable conflict of two aspects of reality forces us to see a higher reality. is a discovery of wonder. If everything would make sense to us, we would know that all the windows of wisdom have been closed. As in science and mathematics, it is the discovery of contradiction and paradox that allows us to realize that there is something beyond ourselves and our limited perspective.

Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum physics, believed that discovery of a contradiction is a sign you are on the right track. He would often quote the words of Thomas Mann, “A great truth is that whose opposite is also a great truth.” He even created a personal coat of arms, with the motto, “Contraria Sunt Complementa”—opposites are complementary.

So too here: What appears to us as an irresolvable conflict of two aspects of reality forces us to see a higher reality. It reveals to us the limits of anthropomorphism of G‑d, to see that the Creator is not as the created. We begin to understand, to paraphrase the words of Isaiah, the prophet of peace, that G‑d’s thoughts are not quite the same as our thoughts and His way of doing things is not quite the way we would do them.

No, a paradox doesn’t always mean we’ve gotten things wrong. Quite often, it means that we are viewing a deep truth from a limited perspective.

The One-Dimensional Worm—A Thought-Experiment

Here’s an exampleWe are created beings attempting to understand the workings of our Creator. But the two exist on entirely different planes. from a one-dimensional world. That’s a line, like this:

Just for the sake of illustration, imagine an intelligent worm that inhabits a one-dimensional world. Let’s call him “Slim.”

Slim knows that he can stay in his place, or move to another place (forward or backward). One day, Slim decides to stretch himself forward. Stretching and stretching he suddenly bumps against something ahead of him, which it realizes is his own tail.

But how is that possible? How can Slim move forward and bump into that which is behind him? How could he stretch away from his place to come to his place?

In the one-dimensional world of Slim the worm, there is no answer. Slim will likely retreat back to his original unstretched length and pretend this never happened. But a two-dimensional creature might observe Slim’s conundrum from its perspective and attempt to explain to him, “Hey Slim, the line on which you travel is a circle!”6

So, too, Albert Einstein was able to solve many of the problems of physics by describing our world in four dimensions instead of three. Similarly, Bohr understood that our measurements of the quantum world were just that—only measurements. The reality is something we cannot observe.

The same applies with our primordial paradox. We are created beings attempting to understand the workings of our Creator. But the two exist on entirely different planes. No wonder that we end up with so many apparent contradictions.

Free Will From the Top Down and Bottom Up

How is ourWe prefer a neat and tidy view of our Creator that is problematic over a paradoxical view that works. perspective different from our Creator’s?

Quite simply, our perspective is that He is the Big Boss running the show, while we are the little characters, following His whim. Something like marionettes.

That’s such a neat and tidy view of G‑d. Problem is, it doesn’t work. And the reason it doesn’t work is because we can’t neatly fit the Creator into the binary parameters of His creation.

How does G‑d see Himself and His creation?

There is no way to say, or to know. As the one-dimensional worm cannot know what we mean by a circle, infinitely more so we cannot know our Creator for whom even time and space are unnecessary parameters.

But through another paradox—one provided by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi—we can come closer to that truth beyond us, close enough to see from afar that which we can never touch.

In the Book of Samuel, Hannah sings, “For G‑d is an all-knowing G‑d.”7 The words she uses carry a second, deeper meaning. They can also be translated as “G‑d is a G‑d of two knowings.”

What are those “two knowings?” Rabbi Isaac Luria explained them in kabbalistic terms as “higher knowing” and “lower knowing.”8 But why would G‑d employ a lower way of knowing?

R. Schneur Zalman explains:9 G‑d brings the world into being by knowing that it exists. In order that it be a world that can know of Him, He employs two modalities of knowing it. One modality is from the top down, the other is from the bottom up.

The top-down knowing is so called because it sees that which is above—the Creator—as the only true existence, and that which is below—the creation—as a nothingness.

The bottom-up knowing switches that around: It sees that which is below as a true existence, and that which is above as a nothingness—since, as we said, the Creator is beyond the comprehension of the created.

Two Minds of Creativity

That being rather abstract,Human creativity is a good example of a balance of opposites. I’ll provide an analogy from human creativity:10

You’re standing with your back to the bonfire with a circle of campers. You need to make up a story quick. Thank G‑d, you’ve got a great imagination. Out of that imagination pops vivid characters, fantastic scenes and thrilling escapades.

Of course, you know that these are all just your imagination. None of them are real. All that’s real is that you are making up a story.

But a wild imagination alone is not enough to create an enthralling story. To bring your characters alive and keep your audience engaged, you’re going to need some tools. Like a plot. Like character development. And most of all, consistency: Once you’ve created a character, you’ll have to stick to the personality of the character you’ve created, or allow it to change smoothly and convincingly through the events of the story in what’s called a “character arc.”

Now isn’t that strange: It’s nothing more than your imagination, yet to make it believable, you need to believe in it yourself.

Look now at the genesis of the story which you inhabit—namely, this time-space continuum. True, there are some crucial distinctions between your storytelling and G‑d’s. As creative and original as you may be, your characters are modeled out of the clay of your past experiences, emotions and perspective on life. Your Creator, on the other hand, pulls us and our entire world out of an absolute void.

Nevertheless, when He does so, we’re still just a fantasy. We have no ego, no will of our own, certainly no free will. As long as we exist in the top-down knowing mode, we don’t fully exist.

Just as you want a convincing story, G‑d wants a real world—a world where His creatures will make choices and take responsibility for their actions. To accomplish that, He implements another kind of knowing. He knows us from the inside-out. He knows us because we are here. He knows what we do, because we do it. That’s the bottom-up knowing.

Now He has a world where there is no reality but Him, while at the same time the true reality of each thing is nothing but Him. Both are true, because He desires both realities. Both are true, because they are both essential elements of the story He tells.

But the absolute truth, the one impossible for us to grasp, is that He is capable of both together in perfect harmony. And that is seen in the miracle of life, of willful beings. Because that is where these two opposites converge.11

Body, Soul and Free Will

We don’t have an analogyThe phenomenon of life cannot be understood in terms of cause and effect. from our reality to grasp this clearly. But we have something close: The relationship between the soul and the body.

Soul and body are not the strict dualism many imagine. A living creature is not a puppet. The soul is not a ghost within the body.

Rather, when an organism is alive, every cell of that organism is alive. If the organism is wounded, its cells leap into action. Each cell knows what the other is doing, each cell knows what it should do, and each cell takes on its job dutifully. That is the meaning of life—that the physicality of the body transcends itself.

So the soul does not need to command the body to live. When the soul desires something, the body is not coerced by that desire. As many biologists have pointed out, we cannot speak about cause and effect in an organism the way that we do in physics and chemistry. Life is a holistic phenomenon. The body is a single whole, and behaves as such.

“Just as the soul fills the body,” the rabbis taught, “so G‑d fills the universe.”12 Of course, not in just the same way—the soul doesn’t bring the body into existence. And the soul is limited by the body, feeling its pain, delighting in its pleasures, while the Creator of the universe has no such limitations.

Yet there is still a simile: Just as the soul fills the body, so that the body and soul become a single, living whole, so G‑d can be found at the very essence and being of each of His creations, even as He is beyond all of them. His will is their soul.

This all occurs in the divine top-down modality of knowing creation.

As for the separateness that each creature senses, that it knows itself as its own being directing its own life—that is a result of the equally true bottom-up knowing of creation.

As promised, the paradox of divine knowledge and our free will leads us to a more meaningful, more real concept of G‑d. Not only our ability to choose is a reflection of G‑d in this world, but even our very sense of self as autonomous beings, that too is G‑d.

Two Ways of Knowing What We Will Choose

R. Schneur Zalman’sWith a paradoxical model, we are able to clear up much confusion. two-mind model not only clarifies many issues in the debate about free will, but also clears up confusion about what seem to be conflicting descriptions of G‑d’s relationship to our world.

The Talmud often uses a passive form for G‑d’s knowing: “It’s revealed and known before You …” Not “G‑d knows,” but “it is known” to G‑d. There’s no action-reaction here, no cause and effect.

So too, in our morning liturgy, we say, “You are He before the world was created. You are He after the world was created.” For Him, nothing ever changes. Indeed, relative to Him, even as this world exists, it remains essentially nothing.

That’s what we mean when we say that G‑d is One: He is an immutable oneness, unaffected by any of the events of time and space that extend from His will and knowledge—because that will and knowledge is not something separate from Him. As Maimonides lays out clearly, G‑d is “the Knower, the Knowledge and the Act of Knowing” who “knows all things through knowledge of Himself.”13

All this is in one modality—G‑d knowing from the top-down. But when we say that “the Children of Israel cried out from their labor” in Egypt, “and G‑d knew”14 —and now He gets into action to save them from their oppressors—then we are speaking of the bottom-up knowing. We are speaking of G‑d as He invests Himself in His own story.

The same applies to G‑d judging the behavior of the generation of the Flood, incurring wrath against the Egyptians, showing favor towards the righteous, or judging anyone’s behavior. How does He know? Because of our actions. And, in this modality, He reacts to those actions as well.

That’s why so many of the other Jewish thinkers claim there is no problem with G‑d’s knowledge and our free choice—because they are speaking of this ipso-facto knowledge. They explain that G‑d is beyond time, and therefore knows what we are going to do. But this knowledge of His does not cause us to choose. On the contrary, our choices cause Him to know. R. Schneur Zalman would say they are speaking of G‑d’s modality of bottom-up knowing.15

When we say that G‑d knows all, and His knowing brings all creatures and events into being, we are speaking of the top-down knowing. That’s why Maimonides and others teach that this knowing is impossible for us to grasp.

Yet neither can we say that His knowing causes us to do that which He knows.

That’s because cause and effect is a binary construct. There must be two things—one causing, the other the result of that cause. Like your hand inside a puppet. Everything the puppet does is because of you. It has no independence, no will of its own.

But with G‑d’s top-down perspective, there is nothing out there for Him to slip His hand into. So when a creature exists, the existence, will and life of that creature is the existence, will and life of its Creator. You have free choice because your Creator has free choice.

How Free Is Free Will?

We’ve discussedWe have yet to explain how a creature can say no to its Creator’s will. how G‑d’s creations can have their own will, unlike creations of the human being. That is because G‑d’s will is the very essence and being of each one of them—while at the same time, He remains entirely beyond all of them.

What we have yet to explain is how a creature—specifically the human creature—is capable of saying no to its Creator’s will. The key to understanding that conundrum is in the model provided us by R. Schneur Zalman, and in the analogy of the soul and body.

But it will take another article to open the door to this, perhaps most vital question of free choice: How do human beings choose other than their Creator’s will, and how does everything nevertheless remain in His hands?

1. See Ramban, Genesis 1:1, as well as other commentaries ad loc. The same is implied by Rashi’s statement (ad loc), “we have yet to be informed of when water and fire were created.”
2.Genesis 1:26. Ibid 5:1. See Seforno and Kli Yakar ad loc.
3.Genesis 3:22 according to the translation of Maimonides, Shemoneh Perakim, 8:10. See also Rashi ad loc. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 5: 1. Midrash Rabba, Genesis 21:5.
4. Talmud Berachot 33b. Ibid Megillah 25a.
5. Mishnah Avot 3:15.
6. Those familiar with logic will recognize this as a simplified exposition of Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem.
8. Likutei Torah, Shemot.
9. Torah Ohr, Parshat Vayera, Maamar Erda Na. Likutei Torah, Parshat Behar, Bi’ur to Shabtotai, part 3. Ibid, Parshat Bamidbar, end of Bi’ur to B’Sha’ah Shehikdimu. The concept is repeated in many more maamarim of R. Schneur Zalman, and elucidated in the works of his successors.
10. See Maamar Gadol Yihyeh, chapter 4. Maamar Patach Eliyahu, chapter 3.
11. See Maamar V’chazakta, last paragraph of chapter 2.
12. Midrash Tehillim to Psalm 104.
13. Maimonides, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:5.
14. Exodus 2:23–25.
15. See Likutei Sichot vol. 27, page 251, footnote 14.

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