Freedom of Choice – Part 3/3

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God’s Omniscience – God’s Holiness

How is the contradiction between God’s omniscience and our freedom of choice explained in Chassidut? The explanation centers on the concept of God’s holiness. Holiness means detachment and categorical difference, i.e., that whatever is holy does not share the same reality as that which is not holy. For instance, the Torah commands us to sanctify (that is, make holy) the priest. The Torah means that the priest cannot come and go or act freely like other people. Instead, the priest should be detached, in a category to himself. This is particularly expressed in that the priest, when indeed sanctified, is allowed to eat from certain sacrifices and offerings that others are not allowed to eat. In the language of the Zohar, “’Holy’ is an entity unto itself.”1

God’s omniscience originates in an aspect of His expression that remains detached, or transcendent from creation. Kabbalah and Chassidut distinguish between God’s transcendent and immanent expressions. His transcendent expression is called the “light that surrounds all worlds,” or simply “surrounding light.” The word “light” designates that this is only an expression of God’s essential being, not His being itself. The word “surrounding” is also conceptual, referring not to the physical location of this aspect of God, but to its transcendent relationship with reality.2 God’s immanent expression is called the “light that fills all worlds,” again referring to the relationship this aspect has with reality.

Clearly, God’s essential holiness and categorical detachment from reality is synonymous with the light that surrounds all worlds. When God illuminates reality with this aspect of His being, His knowledge remains detached and circumspect, leaving reality untouched. To better understand this concept, let us provide a scientific analogy. Chassidut is a strong advocate of using science to provide us with analogies with which we can better understand the Torah.

One of the central issues of modern physics is measurement and the possibility of measuring without affecting the observed entity and the outcome of the measurement. When measuring, for instance the speed of a vehicle, we do not expect the infinitesimal influence of our measuring instrument to affect the vehicle’s speed. But, when measuring very small objects, like an electron, any application of external energy, even the infinitesimal amount needed to measure its speed will indeed affect the result. Interestingly, this problem has spilled over into almost every area of modern thought. Drug trials, for instance, require double-blind studies in order to abnegate the effects of doctors and patients’ beliefs and the placebo effect. Game theory takes into account the effect of the observers and their knowledge of players’ strategy.

In any case, modern physics has discovered that the measurement problem is not a technical one. We cannot simply subtract out the affect of the measuring apparatus from the measurement in order to obtain the correct result. It turns out that the measurement apparatus is not an objectively external observer, but is coupled in every way with what is being observed. It cannot be subtracted out, because once a measurement is introduced into an experiment, it becomes part of the experiment.3

This state of affairs reflects the inherent principles of God’s light that fills all worlds. Like the measurement apparatus, this light is intrinsically bound and coupled with everything in reality. Illuminating any aspect of reality with this light is tantamount to changing it. If God were limited to knowledge gathered by His light that fills all worlds, His omniscience would indeed determine our actions. But, God’s light that surrounds all worlds is categorically different and remains transcendent. If we could tap into this light (or energy field, if you like), we too would be able to observe reality in a completely objective and non-intrusive manner.4 Our understanding of the universe and its physical laws would be completely different.

Naturally, a great deal of the light emanating from the Torah (in Hebrew, Torah relates to the word orah, אוֹרַה , meaning “light”) is God’s surrounding light, allowing the person meditating on its meaning to discover truths that are as yet unknowable through direct observation of reality. Nowhere is this expressed more clearly in the Torah than in the Divine sanction: “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” By commanding us to be holy, the Almighty is actually granting us the power to share, to whatever extent is humanly possible, in His omniscience with which He foresees everything. The corollary of this statement is that a tzadik, a holy individual, like the Almighty, can see from one end of the world to the other yet, still respect, and not interfere with the freedom of choice of his contemporaries.5

Omniscience and Chanukah

Earlier we saw that the two months spanned by Chanukah, Kislev and Tevet correspond to the first two parts of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching, “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted.” Thus, Chanukah in its essence is the holiday during which we can best practice tapping into the seeming paradox of God’s omniscience and our freedom of choice.

As explained, God’s omniscience does not contradict our freedom of choice because His knowledge of reality is gained from His surrounding light; light that we described expresses His holiness and transcendence above reality. So it follows that Chanukah is the time of year during which we should dedicate ourselves to consciously experiencing God’s surrounding light.

One of the laws regarding Chanukah candles is that they may not be used for anything; their sole purpose is that we gaze at them. After lighting the Chanukah candles each night, we say the words,

Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these candles are holy and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to gaze at them….

For this reason, after lighting the Chanukah candles, it is proper to spend at least a half an hour doing nothing but simply gazing at their light. During this time one should focus one’s intent on the holy Name, ביט , the Name representing the two-letter root of the verb “to gaze,” and the idiomatic partner of the verb “to foresee.”6 It is easy to understand that meditating on the light of the Chanukah candles offers a glimpse (and even more than that) of God’s surrounding light and of the future.7

As mentioned above, Chanukah represents the victory of Torah over Greek philosophy and culture. The most denigrated aspect of Greek culture remains to this day its determinism and even fatalism illustrated dramatically in the Greek tragedy and philosophically in the writings of Epicurus.8 When describing the Creator as the Prime Mover, the Greeks were highlighting His immanent light—light that affects creation, hence the adjective “Mover”—while at the same time discounting His transcendent light. For this reason, Greek philosophy was unable to grasp the notion of the Torah being a revelation of God’s transcendent light and the verity of the commandments, the ultimate expression of God’s transcendence and ability to command and master creation.9 In the present day, focusing on the surrounding light during Chanukah, encourages our understanding that without including the knowledge of the Torah and a recognition of the Almighty, even modern science for all its achievements is still groping in the dark and remains unable to correctly describe reality.10

From Holiness to Purity

Armed with the Chassidic distinction between God’s transcendent light and His immanent light, let us return to take another look at the first half of Rabbi Akiva’s saying. Most translations render it as:

Everything is foreseen,
Yet, freedom of choice is granted.

Indeed, the word “yet” only appears in the English rendition of the original Hebrew, but nonetheless it seems to be implied by the textual context. But, have we not just explained that omniscience does not contradict freedom of choice? Why place the implied conjunction “yet” between the two parts? The answer is that God’s transcendent light and His immanent light do present a paradox, which is why deep down, omniscience and freedom of choice existing together does constitute a paradox.

Put another way, omniscience represents a state of eternity, a state without change. Freedom of choice represents the possibility of change, the complete opposite. Thus, God’s transcendent light represents His eternal and unwavering nature,11 while His immanent light represents His willingness to experience, as it were, change. God’s immanent light is what He invests into the mundane world. It represents the Almighty’s willingness to go through a process and to take a risk in creating reality—the risk as to how things will turn out, with the “belief,” so to speak, that things will eventually turn out for the better (as God desires in creation). This is definitely a surprising way to think about God, so let us apply it to ourselves.

We said that the reason that holiness, God’s transcendent light shared by holy individuals, does not negate freedom of choice is that it does not affect reality. But, because it does not affect reality, it is also unable to influence it. An individual who is holy, but nothing else, cannot be a force of change in the world. As great as the tzadik’s non-altering gaze at reality is, clearly the world needs to be rectified and we, the Jewish people who are alltzadikim,12 need to push it in a positive direction. While holiness allows a person to remain aloof from reality and unaffected by the negative in it, it also prevents him from affecting it. In order to exert a positive influence on reality, we cannot look at the world only through God’s surrounding light alone. To influence reality we need to be able to interact with it in an influential way.

The simplest definition of freedom of choice is that it is the possibility of awakening (from below) to change things. When this change is for the better freedom of choice is called “purity” (טָהָרָה ). This is based on an important teaching of the sages that describes how God encourages change, and more so change for the better:

If one comes to defile himself, an opening is made for him. If one comes to purify himself, he is helped from Above.13

Thus, freedom of choice when exercised to create change for the better is called purity. Indeed, in Kabbalah, the union of wisdom and understanding, of the father and mother principles, is likened to the relationship between holiness and purity.

yud wisdom holiness Everything is foreseen
hei understanding purity Yet, freedom of choice is given

If as Jews we remain holy and detached from reality (and therefore safe from its adverse effects), we will not be able to take an active role in shaping it. But if we engage reality without a sense of what is pure and holy, we will fall under its influence and eventually lose our way, and instead of influence will be influenced. So, we have found that the strongest exercise of freedom of choice is the choice to be purified and to purify our surroundings.

We mentioned earlier that the Zohar calls holiness an entity unto itself. One of the simplest meanings of this statement is that holiness does not have an opposite. True holiness is not the opposite of anything. But, purity has an opposite state, which in Hebrew is called “defilement” (טָמֵא ). In fact, there is a verse that describes them as opposites, “Who can bring the pure out of the defiled? Not one!”14 For there to be freedom of choice there have to be opposite states from which to choose. So choice really only begins with purity.

Based on a lecture given on the 8th of Iyar, 5758 in Jerusalem

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1Zohar III, 94b.

2. In fact, as explained in Chassidut, God’s light that surrounds all worlds is as universally present as is His light that fills all worlds. Moreover, God’s surrounding light is described in the verse, “For I fill the heavens and the earth” (Jeremiah 23:24). Even though the verse uses the noun “fills,” it is referring to the surrounding transcendent light, which is universally present.

3. To understand this idea fully, we recommend Brian Greene’s book, The Farbric of the Cosmos, particularly chapter 4.

4. Of course, the entire essence of God’s transcendent light is that it cannot be sensed, making it very difficult to imagine how it might be tapped into physically. In addition, let us add that one of the qualities of this light is that it equalizes the large and the small, not just quantitatively but qualitatively as well. In other words, it is not judgmental.

5. See the Alter Rebbe’s volume of early teachings, Et’halech Lozhnyas.v. Lo ken avdee Moshe, (p. 1) regarding the care that a tzadik takes to not reveal the future.

6. The sages use the idiomatic expression, to foresee and to gaze, in an important discussion that in many ways parallels Rabbi Akiva’s teaching and our study. Let us make do with a translation of this discussion, leaving it to the reader to make the proper connections (Chagigah 12a):
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “Ten things were created on the first day, heaven and earth, chaos and confusion, light and darkness, spirit and water, day and night….”
Was light created on the first day? Yet, the Torah says, “God placed them [the sun and the moon] in the firmament of the heaven… And it was evening and it was day, the fourth day” (Genesis 1:17, 19). 
[Rav’s statement] follows the teaching of Rabbi Elazar, as Rabbi Elazar taught that with the light that God created on the first day one can foresee (and gaze) from one end of the world to the other. But, when God saw the generation of the deluge and the generation of the dispersion, and realized that their actions were wicked, He concealed it, as the verse says, “And He holds back from the wicked their light.” () And who does He keep it for? For the tzadikim [the holy individuals], for the future, as the Torah says, “God saw the light that it was good [in the sense of beautiful, as in Rabbi Akiva’s teaching].” A tzadik is “good,” as the verse says: “About the tzadik, say that he is good” (). When God saw that the light was in trust for the tzadikim, He was joyful, as the verse says, “The light for the tzadikim causes joy.”

7. The numerical value of this holy (ביט ) Name is 21, the same as that of “I will be” (אהיה), God’s Name denoting the future.

8. So much so that a disbeliever in the Torah is generically called an Epicurean.

9. The Ba’al Shem Tov stress that not only are the commandments an illustration of God’s transcendence and ability to exercise mastery over creation, but the are also conduits for making a union between God and creation possible. He taught this by focusing on the similarity between the word for “commandment” (צִווּי ) and the word for “together” (צַוְותַּא ).

10. See more in our recent article, “Converting the Wisdom of the Nations.”

11. As expressed in the verse, “For I, God, have not changed and you the children of Jacob have not ceased to be” (Malachi 3:6).

12. Isaiah 60:21.

13Yoma 38b, and elsewhere.

14. Job 14:4.

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