Parashat Toledot includes the birth and development of Ya’akov and Eisav. The Torah describes their respective personalities and who is favored by whom, which eventually leads to the selling of the Bechorah and Ya’akov’s flight from Eisav. Was Eisav compelled to be the way he was? Was Ya’akov always meant to acquire the Bechorah? This whole episode leads us to ask how free will consistent with traditional Jewish philosophy. The Torah presents a system of reward and punishment; if free will did not exist then Hashem would not reward us for our Mitzvot. However, there are also situations in which Hashem forces man to do as He wishes, such as when he forced Rechavam to disregard the advice of the elders, which ultimately led to the split kingdom and the destruction of the First Beit HaMikdash (Melachim I Perek 12).
From the Middle Ages to modern times, there have been many explanations offered to help find a solution to this conundrum. One of the first, and seemingly problematic, explanations is offered by Rav Levi Ben Gershon, the Ralbag, who stated that while Hashem knows all the choices that we can make, He does not know which choice we will make. Many, however, disagree with this approach as it limits the Omnipotent Being’s ability and knowledge. There are additional complexities to this answer which arise nowadays: knowing all of the potential choices a person could make, without assigning specific value to them, is not inherently impossible for man to figure out. As scientists discover that more of our actions are based on psychological and biological effects and super computers become more powerful, humans would, presumably, be able to know the same amount about our choices as Hashem.
A potential answer that modifies the Ralbag’s approach is presented by the Shelah HaKadosh. The Shelah argues that although Hashem cannot know the future, this does not limit His omnipotence. He supports his position with a reference to a well-known paradox: can God create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it? In broader terms, this question seeks to question God’s omnipotence, since if he cannot lift the rock, he is not truly omnipotent, as by definition an omnipotent being can do anything; yet, if he cannot create one that is too heavy for him to lift, he is not omnipotent for the same reason. The Shelah responds that the fallacy in the paradox is that the rock was created by Hashem, and therefore anything originating from Him cannot thereafter be questioned for its logical compatibility with Hashem’s omnipotence. As soon as Hashem creates something, in that exact period of time, the very nature of the universe and his omnipotence changes. By creating free will, Hashem changed the nature of His omnipotence, but that change, by virtue of it being as a result of his action, does not necessarily challenge his omnipotence. However, as was mentioned by the opinion of the Ralbag, if much of our actions are determined on a psychological and biological level, then how can Hashem not know our future? It is possible to suggest that just as a super computer, He can calculate and know the probabilities of every action we might take to almost exact certainty. It is that doubt, however, that makes us human and allows us to make our own decisions. With humans making thousands of choices and valued judgments every day, it is very plausible to say that in a certain case, our action will not match the “predictive model.” The difference between this position and the Ralbag’s is that in the latter’s approach, Hashem sees our full range of choices, but each option is equally likely to occur. The Shelah’s approach accounts for the difficulties in his position by allowing for Hashem’s infinite capability while effectively limiting Hashem’s infringement on our free will. While it strikes a delicate balance, it helps answer many of the questions we had.
This modified approach of the Shelah can also answer the question of the manner in which Hashem performs miracles. When Hashem performs miracles in which he seems to influence a person’s free will, he merely changes the context in which humanity makes that decision, but he does not deprive us of our ability to make one. When he hardened Par’oh’s heart, he did not subvert him and remove his free will; rather, he created a situation in which his options were different than before, while leaving him the ultimate choice. When he made Rechavam raise taxes on Israel after Shlomo died, he did not force him to send a tax collector to placate Israel, nor did he force him to convene in Shechem for his coronation ceremony. He created a situation in which the split kingdoms could occur, but did not have to occur. When the Shelah asserts that Hashem cannot know the future, he does not mean that he literally cannot see an outcome, but rather, he sees all outcomes, how they could come to pass, and their likelihood of occurring.
Based on this answer, we can also develop a response to another major theological question—why Hashem created human beings. In grade school, the typical answer was, “To follow Torah and Mitzvot.” With the answer presented above, we can modify the classic approach to human existence with a profound solution. A characteristic of Hashem by virtue of His omnipotence is that He is perfect. This means that both His options for action and His knowledge of them are infinite. To Hashem, there is no such thing as originality or creativity or second guessing. Therefore, Hashem created humans, and limited them accordingly, for this reason. He knows our course of action precisely, as well as all of the options that we have and what will happen if we make that choice. By creating humanity and endowing them with free will, Hashem introduced something into the universe that, by his very nature of His perfection, He can never achieve—uncertainty. This “uncertainty principle” is what makes humanity uniquely suited to receiving the Torah and worthy of being brought into this world, because, while Hashem conceived all inventions and all possibilities, it is ultimately humanity that chooses if, and when, options that Hashem cannot do by virtue of his perfection come into being. The very nature of free will, in essence, is not “going against Hashem.” By being able to choose the correct path—one with creativity and emotion, and hopefully also with Hashem’s Torah and Mitzvot.