The Free Will Problem: Medieval Approaches

In the Middle Ages, Jewish thinkers struggled to reconcile God's knowledge of the future with human choice.

Our experiences indicate that we have free will. When we do a particular action, we have the sense that we have chosen that act from an array of alternatives. However, there are theological, philosophical, and scientific reasons to think that this sense of choice is illusory.

The idea that God controls the world, determining the trajectory and details of its history, is strong in Judaism and is one of the theological issues that contributes to the Jewish problem of free will.

All the major medieval Jewish philosophers discussed the issue of free will.

Medieval philosophers struggled with how to reconcile divine providence–known as hashgahah–with human choice. They debated the parameters of God’s providence and disagreed as to whether it extends to all species, just human beings, or only certain human beings.

In addition to the apparent contradiction between free will and divine providence, the philosophers of the Middle Ages were troubled by the contradiction between free will and divine foreknowledge. If we believe that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, we must believe that God has the ability to foresee the future. If God has foreknowledge of our actions, then these actions are predetermined before any choices even present themselves.

Most thinkers tried to solve the problem by either limiting the range of God’s knowledge (for example, Gersonides, a 14th-century thinker) or the range of man’s freedom (for example, Hasdai Crescas, another 14th-century writer). Others, like the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides and some medieval mystics, suggested that the question–how could humans have free will if God knows our choices before we choose?–presumes a conception of knowledge that is inapplicable to God. Thus the free will problem is not a problem at all.

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