There's a general concept in Judaism that G-d can do "anything". I've seen How does Judaism deal with God and paradoxes? and this answer, so I understand that it is limited to the possible.

However, I'm unclear what it means to attribute free will to G-d. Since, G-d does not, in fact, do everything, what could it mean for Him to be "able" to do so? Saying something like "It means that there's nothing He can't do" won't help, because there are, in fact, things He does not do.

I don't find this a problem for human's free will, and maybe if I explain why my question will be clearer. After considering the question of what exactly free will is, I ended up defining it in terms of predictability. That is, human Ploni has free will on a decision X, if it cannot be predicted in advance what decision will be made. So if it is known that someone won't do something, it's viewed as if they don't have free will. (Example, Lev Melachim B'yad Hashem, so Pharaoh didn't have free will at certain times).

That cannot apply to G-d, because there are things that we know He won't do (according to some Rishonim, anything that breaks the "teva", or not fulfilling promises that He made, etc.) So what precisely do we mean when we say that he can do anything. What does "He can do something" mean, if He does not do that thing? How can free will be defined so that it applies to G-d?

Edit: A source for the statement "G-d can do anything" is Iyov 42:2:

I know that Thou canst do every thing, and that no purpose can be withholden from Thee.

Some sources for "there are some things we know G-d won't do":

  • Baraishis 9:11:

    And I will establish My covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.

  • Yirmiyahu 31:34-35:

    Thus saith the LORD, Who giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, who stirreth up the sea, that the waves thereof roar, the LORD of hosts is His name. If these ordinances depart from before Me, saith the LORD, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before Me for ever.

The first says that G-d won't destroy the earth with a flood, and the second says that G-d won't destroy Israel until the sun, moon and stars go out.

Edit: Another source can be found in Derech Hashem: (from translation)

No bounds or limits can be placed on God's Omnipotence, [and therefore, there is nothing preventing Him from creating even evil if He so desires].

So it implies that a limit on creating evil would be a "bound or limit". This seems to contradict the verses quoted earlier, which put restrictions on what Gd will do.

  • 1
    Could an answer to this question reject your definition of free will, or are you looking for an answer in the context of your definition?
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 15:42
  • @Daniel I'm fine with a different definition as long as it seems reasonable. See my last sentence, "How can free will be defined so that it applies to G-d?"
    – ike
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 15:44
  • @ShmuelBrin What's the difference between that and not being able to kill someone at all? How would you tell the difference?
    – ike
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 2:04
  • Your question seems to be entirely predicated on "there are things that we know He won't do," with "know" meaning "know with absolute certitude." Can you provide sources for this statement? Also, your claim that God's behavior is predictable seems to be based on a limited period of observation - no more that a few thousand years, or perhaps a few billion, depending on whom you ask, which is much shorter than the Eternity which God has been, is, and will be.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 13:47
  • 1
    @sam I've looked through the first two chapters in detail and skimmed the rest, and can't find what part you're referring to. Can you specify where the discussion is?
    – ike
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 18:19

4 Answers 4


Just because Hashem won't do something, doesn't mean he can't. He can (ie has the ability to) make another flood, although he won't.

  • The question is "what does can mean"? Asserting that He "can" do something is not answering it.
    – ike
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 16:57

I think what you're really asking is what the difference is between "בכח" (potential) and "בפעל" (actual; e.g. a theme scattered throughout the works of the Maharal MiPrague amongst other Jewish philosophers). The idea that G-d is omnipotent is to distinguish Him from His creation which is not - which is to say that even were a creature to wish to make them, there are certain choices that are not available to it; as opposed to G-d who is not constrained in his infinite ability by any other being. So "can" means not constrained by any other existence or entity.

(I should add that your definition of free will is a little too divorced from the 1st-person perspective of someone who experiences free will first-hand. Everybody experiences the phenomenon on a regular basis of being able to chose and still not choosing [whether or not it's currently trendy for Western scientists and philosophers to admit it].)

To clarify further, there is a broad spectrum from complete non-deterministic randomness to absolute, defined determinedness. That includes all the myriad influences that nudge a system/being toward a certain outcome in a probabilistic (but not absolute) way. That doesn't mean the entity doesn't have a choice, just that from an outside perspective the odds are weighted, and from an inside perspective, one choice is more desirable for some reason.

Man is created in G-d's image which means that his choices are also not predetermined and he also has that creative ability to chose from a subset of possibilities (כח שבפעל - a Divinely defined/selected subset of all possibilities that itself still includes undefined possibilities for man himself to define).

Finally, as far as whether it's fair to say that because I "know" I won't chose something that means I don't really have the choice - that sounds fairly close to Rav Eliyahu Dessler's principle of Nekudat HeBehira (the point/position of free will) in Michtav MeEliyahu, where e.g. the free will and choices of an impulsive young thief are not the same as those of a distinguished old rabbi (hopefully;). Which is to say that throughout life our choices shift - or to quote the mishna in avot (4:2) "בן עזאי אומר: הוי רץ למצוה קלה כבחמורה ובורח מן העברה שמצוה גוררת מצוה ועברה גוררת עברה ששכר מצוה מצוה ושכר עברה עברה" - "Ben Azzai says: Run to a minor mitzva (commandment) like to a major one and flee sin for a mitzva causes a mitzva and sin begets sin, for the reward of a mitzva is a mitzva and the reward of a sin is a sin" i.e. our choices influence our future choices and our nekudat hebehira moves in response to the choices we make. If you're Hebrew's good, you might also be interested in: http://www.daat.ac.il/encyclopedia/value.asp?id1=1680

Finally, I would just reiterate: without any specific emotional agenda to say otherwise, there's no rational reason to say that because we will chose something that means we must chose something.

  • I got to my definition by asking myself what I meant by saying free will. If I knew that I wouldn't choose something, I don't consider myself to have the power or choice of doing it. Only if there's a chance of my doing it do I call it free will.
    – ike
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 19:24
  • And for the main answer, in what sense are we free, if there are times that we can't do as we want? Your definition would seem to only apply to an independant being like G-d, and not humans. Could you clarify?
    – ike
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 19:24

I think that your phrase G-d can do "anything" is a quick translation of the first Ani Ma'amin:

אֲנִי מַאֲמִין בֶּאֱמוּנָה שְׁלֵמָה, שֶׁהַבּוֹרֵא יִתְבָּרַךְ שְׁמוֹ הוּא בּוֹרֵא וּמַנְהִיג לְכָל הַבְּרוּאִים, וְהוּא לְבַדּו עָשָׂה וְעוֹשֶׂה וְיַעֲשֶׂה לְכָל הַמַּעֲשִׂים. ‏

That we believe that Hashem runs the world, and He is the cause of everything that has happened, is happening and will happen.


For one thing the Rambam writes in the Moreh Nevuchim that Hashem cannot do the impossible such as killing Himself or making another God. Hope this helps to answer at least partially your question. If you find it in the Moreh he might discuss more on the subject, I don't recall offhand.

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