Free Will and Divine Decree


My question relates to the paradox of free will and divine providence, and I’m really struggling with it in my life, and desperately seeking an answer that can adequately philosophically provide me with a resolution.

Why take action towards any particular endeavour if whatever any outcome turns out to be in actuality is completely and thoroughly without question the best of all fathomable possibilities, regardless of the inaction or action taken?



  1. Your question is one of the oldest and complex ones around! Do we or do we not have any real say over what we do or is everything pre-ordained? Because Bechira Chofshit (free will) is perhaps the most complicated single subject around. I am sending you some sources for your perusal on the apparent clash of ideas – free will and Divine decree – but don’t expect it to be easy.

    1. Deuteronomy 30:19:
    I have called heaven and earth today as witnesses against you; I have set life and death before you, blessing and curse. Choose life! So that you and your descendants will live.

    2. Ethics of the Fathers, 3:15; Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 33b: All is foreseen and yet free will is granted… Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.

    3. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1,3; 5:5:
    Man is given the option, if he so wishes, of taking the path of goodness and of becoming righteous; or, if he so wishes, of taking the path of evil and becoming wicked… And this is a major principle and it is the foundation of the Torah and of the commandments… A person can choose to do any activity he wants whether good or bad… Lest you say, `Does G-d know everything that will be before it happens, that this person will be righteous or evil, or does He not know? If He knows that he will be righteous it is impossible that he will not be righteous, and if you say that He knows he will be righteous but it is possible that he will be evil, then He does not know the future with clarity!’ Know, that the answer to this question is longer in length than the world and wider than the sea, and a number of major principles depend upon it. However, you must realize and understand that which I am about to say. We have already explained… that G-d does not know things with a knowledge that is outside of Himself like people, whose knowledge and whose selves are separate things. Rather, He, May His Name be exalted, and His knowledge are one, and a person cannot comprehend this idea clearly. Just as a person cannot comprehend G-d’s true reality…so he cannot comprehend God’s knowledge… Since this is so, we have no power to know how G-d knows the actions of all creatures, but we know without doubt that the deeds of a person are in the person’s hands and G-d does not entice or decree upon him that he should do this.

    However, there is an idea that at some point, the deeper one gets into the levels of reality, everything is God’s will. This is what is alluded to by a great Chassidic master, Rav Nachman of Bratzlav, Likutei Moharan 21:4 When humanity arrives at the point where we understand the solution to the paradox of free will and G-d’s omniscience, we will have arrived at a degree of perception in which we will no longer have free will… and indeed this is the task of humanity… to come to the realization that everything is the will of the Creator…

    For example, the idea that freewill allows an evil person to hurt a good person is actually implied in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Genesis 37:19-21 “Joseph went after his brothers to Dotan. They saw him in the distance and before he reached them, they were plotting to kill him. “Here comes the dreamer!” They said to one another. “Now we have the chance! Let’s kill him and throw him into one of the wells. We become of his dreams!” Reuven heard these words and rescued him. “Let us not kill him!” he said. Reuven reasoned with his brothers and said, “Don’t commit murder. You can throw him into this pit in the desert, and you won’t have to lay your hands upon him.” To save him from their hands and return him to his father… The pit was empty, there was no water in it. [Rashi – The pit was empty of water, but there were snakes and scorpions in it].”

    On this, the Zohar (Genesis ibid.) states: ” Rav Yitzchak asked: If the pit was full of snakes and scorpions how can the Torah say that Reuven wanted to save Yoseph? From here it can be deduced that it is preferable to throw oneself into a pit of snakes and scorpions than to be given into the hands of one’s enemies. Because in the place of snakes and scorpions, if he is righteous God will perform a miracle for him and he will be saved; however, once a person is in the hands of his enemies there are very few who will be saved.”

    However, this idea seems to contradict other sources for example the Talmud in Shabbat 55b “Rav Ami said: There is no death without sin and no distress without iniquity…[Gemara:] There are four who died as a result of the snake’s idea [in the garden of Eden] but they personally had no sins – Binyamin, son of Yaacov; Amram, father of Moshe; Yishai, father of David; and Cal’ev, son of David…” We see from the above quotes that there is death without sin and there is distress without iniquity and this is a clear refutation of Rav Ami.

    Also Maimonides writes in The Guide for the Perplexed 3:17: “It is one of the foundations of our faith that there is no perversion of justice before G-d at all, and everything that happens to humans – pain, or good things, whether to an individual or to a community, all is as a result of them deserving it to happen according to absolute justice without any deviation at all. He received a tiny amount of good it is a reward. However, this Divine Providence is directly proportional to the degree to which the being that experiences it is connected to the Divine and to the intellect.”

    Now, according to Maimonides there is an outcome proportional to the person’s righteousness.

    How do we reconcile these ideas with the Zohar? Rav Eliyahu Dessler answers that even according to the Zohar, there was a Divine decree. However the decree was that the person’s fate should be given over to someone else’s freewill.

    This means that freewill does have real power over another to actually decide their fate, however, only if G-d decides to put the person is such a situation.

    Best wishes from the Team