Providence

  • Rav Chaim Navon

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


Lecture #2: Providence

By Rav Chaim Navon

Creation and Providence

Rambam has argued that our belief in the creation of the world ex nihilo (from nothing) is critical, for without it our belief in God's dominion over the world would collapse. It is only the belief in God's creation of the world ex nihilo that leads us to the recognition of God's dominion over the world:

The belief in eternity the way Aristotle sees it – that is, the belief according to which the world exists in virtue of necessity, that no nature changes at all, and that the customary course of events cannot be modified with regard to anything – destroys the law in its principle, necessarily gives the lie to every miracle, and reduces to inanity all the hopes and threats that the Law has held out. (Rambam, Guide of the Perplexed, II, 25)

We refer to God's dominion over the world as "hashgacha" – providence. What is providence? How is it expressed? In this lecture, we shall try to answer these questions.

What is "providence"?

The term "providence" as it is used in Jewish thought refers to God's dominion over the world. Providence includes God's knowledge of what is taking place in the world, as well as His ability to intervene and change what is happening. Providence divides into two: "general providence" and "individual providence." "General providence" refers to the establishment of the laws of nature; "individual providence" refers to God's constant intervention in worldly events. When a computer programmer markets a certain program, it is he who decides how the program will work in particular situations; this is akin to "general providence." From time to time he may also offer support and updating by way of the internet; this is similar to "individual providence." Individual providence raises many difficult questions, some of which we shall deal with in the present discussion.

The scope of individual providence

The classic and most comprehensive discussion regarding the nature and scope of providence is found in Rambam's Guide of the Perplexed. We shall cite here sections from part III, chapter 17 of the Guide, and add our comments.

The opinions of people about providence are five in all. All of them are ancient; I mean that they are opinions that have been heard at the time of the prophets, since the true Law has appeared that has illuminated all this darkness.
The first opinion is the profession of those that consider that there is no providence at all with regard to anything whatever in all that exists; that everything in it, the heavens and the things other than they, has happened by chance and in accordance with the way things were predisposed; and that there is no one who orders, governs, or is concerned with anything. This is the opinion of Epicurus.

The first opinion discussed by Rambam is the opinion of those who totally reject the notion of providence. This does not necessarily mean that they do not believe in God. There is a modern religious-philosophical belief system called "deism," which maintains that God created the world and set it in motion, but He takes no interest in what happens there. We as believing Jews cannot accept this view. The belief that God rules the world and watches over it is one of the cardinal beliefs of our faith. Anyone who reads Scripture understands how fundamental to it is God's intervention in the world. Scripture describes God as directing and controlling history. Our religious life looks different on account of this belief. The Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived in the fourth century B.C.E., rejected this doctrine. Chazal viewed his position with such disfavor that his name became synonymous with total heresy. Plato also said things that were unacceptable to Chazal; nevertheless, Chazal said, "Know how to answer Epicurus [=the heretic]" (Avot 2:19), and not "Know how to answer Plato."

We shall skip over the second opinion, that of Aristotle, which has become very outdated and is no longer relevant in our day.[1]

The third opinion… being the opinion of those who hold that in all that exists there is nothing either among universal or particular things that is in any respect due to chance, for everything comes about through will, purpose and governance. Now it is clear that everything that is governed is also known. This is the opinion of the Islamic sect, the Ash'ariya. Great incongruities are bound up with this opinion, and those who hold it are burdened with them and obliged to accept them. Thus they agree with Aristotle regarding the equality that he established between the fall of a leaf and the death of a human individual. They say: This is so; but the wind does not blow by chance, for God sets it in motion; and it is not the wind that causes the leaves to fall, for every leaf falls through an ordinance and a decree of God; and it is He who causes them to fall now in this particular place; it is not possible that the time of their falling should be postponed or retarded; nor is it possible that they should fall in another place than this, for all this has been everlastingly decreed. In consequence of this opinion, they are obliged to think that every motion and rest of animals has been decreed and that man has in no way the ability to do or not to do a thing… They bear the burden of all these incongruities for the sake of the integrity of this opinion. They go so far as to hold that if we see an individual who was born blind or a leper, although we are unable to say that he might have deserved this because of a previous sin of his, we should say: He (=God) has willed this.

Rambam presents us with two diametrically opposing positions regarding providence. After discussing the view that totally rejects the idea of providence, he refers to those who take providence to the opposite extreme. The Ash'ariya were a Islamic philosophical sect who had great influence on the Islamic world. In general, Islam is marked by the tendency to magnify God's might to a point that nullifies man. The Ash'ariya gave this tendency a philosophical basis. They argued that there is no such thing as natural law; everything is governed by providence. Every movement in the world occurs through the direct will of God. "Natural laws" are a fiction: they merely reflect the way that God customarily runs the world. Generally speaking, God arranges things that objects released in the air should fall down; He could, however, decide that in particular situations, they should rise. There is no "law of gravity," but rather a "custom of gravity."

In their desire to strengthen God's absolute control of the world, they went even further and denied man's capacity to exercise free will. For man's free will would diminish God's rule over the world. Furthermore, they argued that God is not subject to the laws of morality; He can do good or evil as He pleases. The whole idea of "good" is wrong and distorted. None of this is directly related to the matter at hand; I wish only to show how all these ideas flow from the same attitude and approach. Surely, one could adopt their view regarding providence, even without accepting their position regarding free will or the question of God and morality. There is, in fact, another Islamic sect which took this path:

The fourth opinion is the opinion of those who hold that man has the ability to act of his own accord; it is for this reason that, according to them, the commandments, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments figuring in the Law are well ordered. They hold that all the actions of God are consequent upon wisdom, that injustice is not permissible for Him, and that He does not punish a man who does good. The Mutazila also hold this opinion… They also believe that He, may He be exalted, has knowledge of the falling of this particular leaf and of the creeping of this particular ant, and that His providence watches over all the beings.

Rambam himself opposes this view, and proposes anotof divine providence:

As for my owbelief with regarto this fundamental principle, I mean divine providence, it is as I shall set forth to you… For I for one believe that in this lowly world – I mean that which is beneath the sphere of the moon – divine providence watches only over the individuals belonging to the human species and that in this species alone all the circumstances of the individuals and the good and evil that befall them are consequent upon their deserts, just as it says: "For all His ways are judgment" (Devarim 32:4). But regarding all the other animals and, all the more, the plants and other things, my opinion is that of Aristotle. For I do not by any means believe that this particular leaf has fallen because of a providence watching over it; nor that this spider has devoured this fly because God has now decreed and willed something concerning individuals; nor that the spittle spat by Zayd has moved till it came down in one particular place upon a gnat and killed it by a divine decree and judgment… For all this is in my opinion due to pure chance, just as Aristotle holds.

Rambam maintains that some things happen in the world as a result of pure chance, that is to say, some things in the world are subject to natural law, and not to God's direct intervention. He argues that individual providence exists – but only for man, and not for the rest of the world. Rambam's distinction is not arbitrary, but rather based on principle. Providence reaches man in a special manner:

According to me, as I consider the matter, divine providence is consequent upon the divine overflow; and the species with which this intellectual overflow is united, so that it became endowed with intellect and so that everything that is disclosed to a being endowed with the intellect was disclosed to it, is the one accompanied by divine providence, which appraises all its actions from the point of view of reward and punishment. If, as he states, the foundering of a ship and the drowning of those who were in it and the falling down of a roof upon those who were in the house, are due to pure chance, the fact that the people in the ship went on board and that the people in the house were sitting in it is, according to our opinion, not due to chance, but to divine will in accordance with the deserts of those people as determined in His judgments, the rule of which cannot be attained by our intellects.

Rambam explains that we are not dealing here with an arbitrary limitation imposed on the objects of providence, but on a different type of providence. According to Rambam, our intellect and the knowledge that we accumulate result from a divine overflow. Accompanying the intellect comes God's providence. God does not intervene in everything that happens in the world. He intervenes only in human affairs, guiding a person to act in the correct manner, if he is deserving. If a righteous man is about to board a rickety ship, God will not prevent the ship from sinking, but He will bring the righteous man to understand that he should not embark on the journey. According to Rambam, the external world operates on automatic pilot; God, however, intervenes in man's internal world. In the following chapter (III, 18), Rambam argues that even among human beings there are different levels of providence. Since providence depends upon intellect, the more developed a man's intellect, the more divine providence he will receive.

Rambam continues with an explanation of what brought him to this opinion:

I was impelled to adopt this belief by the fact that I never found in the book of a prophet a text mentioning that God has a providence watching over one of the animal individuals, but only over a human individual…

Do not think that this opinion may be refuted in opposition to me by means of its dicta: "He gives to the beast his food," and so on (Tehillim 147:9)… For all these texts refer to providence watching over the species and not to individual providence. It is as if they described His bounty, may He be exalted, which prepares for every species the food necessary for it and the matter for its subsistence. This is clear and manifest. (Guide of the Perplexed, III, 17)

Rambam's understanding of providence is far from representative of the consensus of Jewish thought. Many thinkers disagreed with Rambam and greatly expanded the scope of divine providence. Let us consider, for example, the words of Rabbi Chayyim Moshe Luzzatto (Ramchal) in his discussion of trust in God:

Man could even sit idle and his allotted portion would still be provided, were it not for the primeval penalty imposed upon all men: "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread" (Bereishit 3:19). It is because of this decree that man must put forth some effort for the sake of his sustenance, for thus did the supreme King ordain. This is like a tax which must be paid by every member of the human species; there is no escape… But it is not the exertion that effects results; rather, the exertion is indispensable. Once a person has exerted himself, however, he has fulfilled his duty, and then there is room for Heaven's blessing to rest upon him. (Ramchal, Mesillat Yesharim, chap. 21)

Ramchal mentions a new and very important concept: "exertion." "Exertion" refers to man's obligation to make efforts on behalf of his sustenance, even if he knows that in truth his reward comes from God, and is not necessarily dependent upon his efforts. Ramchal severs the connection between effort and result: he argues that a person's sustenance is determined not by natural laws but by divine providence. Our obligation to exert ourselves for our sustenance is a decree imposed upon us by God. A person who makes no effort to sustain himself violates God's decree, and will therefore not receive of God's bounty. The connection between effort and sustenance is indirect. If a person insufficiently irrigates his field, God will punish him and cause his seeds not to sprout.[2] Rambam, on the other hand, would say that the seeds will not sprout because the laws of nature are such that plants will only grow if they are watered.

Those who have developed the viewpoint that we have seen in Ramchal arrive at interesting conclusions. According to this view, for example, there is no reason for a person to change vocations, if he is unable to support himself in his chosen profession. As long as a person makes the minimal effort required of him, he will receive the same sustenance, no matter where he turns:

So if you find your traits and nature luring you to a particular profession that you are physically suited for and which you can withstand, then make it your own and endure the bitter and the sweet of it. Do not resent it if your livelihood is occasionally withheld from you. Trust instead that God will provide you with sustenance your whole life long. Also have it in mind that you are immersing yourself in God's mitzvot as you work hard and become emotionally involved in whatever profession you chose. Because it is God who has commanded you to engage in a profession… Do not believe your livelihood comes to you one way rather than another: trust God alone for your livelihood, and know that all ways of earning it are one and the same to Him, and that He can sustain you through whatever means He cares to, any way He wants. (Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pekuda, Chovat ha-Levavot, Sha'ar ha-Bitachon, chap. 3)

There is room for a variety of intermediate positions regarding this point. It may be argued, for example, that while we are generally subject to the laws of nature, God intervenes in exceptional cases, namely, regarding people who are especially deserving of reward or punishment.[3]

Manner of providence

We shall now move on to another issue: the manner of divine providence. What do we mean by this? In order to clarify the subject of our discussion, it is worthwhile to examine the instructive words of Ramban. In his commentary to parashat Bechukotai, Ramban relates to the many blessings promised to the Jewish people:

Now we have already explained that all these blessings are miracles, for it is not natural that the rains should come [in tduseason], and that we shhave peace from our enemies, and they should have faintness of heart so that a hundred of them flee before five, as a result of us observing the statutes and commandments of God, nor that everything should be the opposite [i.e., that none of these things should happen] because of us planting in the seventh year [which we are forbidden to do]. But although they are hidden miracles, for they are [brought about] by means of the natural events of the world occurring according to their habit, yet [the Torah mentions them separately because] they come to be known [as miracles] because of their constant and continuous occurrence in the whole Land. For if one righteous man lives and God takes away sickness from him, and he lives out his days, this also happens to some wicked people [and is thus not acknowledged as miraculous]. But when an entire land and a whole people always have rains coming in their season, and plenitude, security, peace, health, strength and defeat of their enemies, in a manner unparalleled in the whole world, it becomes known to all that this is the Lord's doing…

In general, then, when Israel is in perfect [accord with God], constituting a large number, their affairs are not conducted at all by the natural order of things, neither in connection with themselves, nor with reference to their Land, neither collectively nor individually, for God blesses their bread and their water, and removes sickness from their midst, so that they do not need a physician and do not have to observe any of the rules of medicine, just as He said: "For I am the Lord who heals you" (Shemot 15:26). And so did the righteous ones act at the time when prophecy [existed], so that even if a mishap of iniquity overtook them, causing them sickness, they did not turn to the physicians, but only to the prophets…

The Torah does not base its laws upon miracles, just as it said: "For the poor shall never cease out of the land" (Devarim 15:11), knowing [beforehand] that such will be the case. But when a man's ways please the Lord, he need have no concern with physicians. (Ramban, commentary to Vayikra 26:11)

Ramban establishes here his classic distinction between divine providence through open miracles and through hidden providence. Ramban offers a brilliant analysis: he argues that even the hidden providence of God is miraculous. If more rain falls because we have observed the mitzvot, this is a miracle, for naturally, rain is not affected by mitzvot, but by barometric pressure. In Ramban's eyes, therefore, all the blessings and curses, and essentially all of God's providence in this world, fall into the category of "hidden miracles." The difference between open and hidden miracles is solely an issue of public relations: open miracles are clear and evident to all; hidden miracles, as the name implies, are hidden. We also see in Ramban's commentary an intermediate position regarding the scope of individual providence: the world generally operates according to the laws of nature, but in certain times and regarding certain people, God intervenes and directly oversees what is happening.

Ramban emphasized that even nature is a miracle. Others went in the opposite direction, arguing that even miracles are part of nature. Various midrashic passages teach us that all of the miracles were already implanted in the universe during the days of creation:

Rabbi Yochanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, made a stipulation with the sea that it should divide before Israel; thus it is written: "And the sea returned to its strength [le-etano]" (Shemot 14:27) – in accordance with its agreement [li-tena'o].

Rabbi Yirmiya ben Elazar said: Not with the sea alone did God make a stipulation, but with everything which was created in the six days of creation… I commanded the sea to divide, and the heavens and the earth to be silent before Moshe… I commanded the sun and the moon to stand still before Yehoshua; I commanded the ravens to feed Eliyahu; I commanded the fire to do no hurt to Chananya, Misha'el and Azarya; I commanded the lions not to harm Daniel; the heavens to open before Yechezkel; the fish to vomit forth Yona. (Bereshit Rabba 5:5)

Rambam understood the profound significance of this midrash:

It was willed during the six days of creation that all things should always act in accordance with their nature, as it is stated: "That which has been is that which shall be … and there is nothing new under the sun" (Kohelet 1:9). The Sages were, therefore, forced to say regarding all the miracles that seem to be outside of nature that they occurred and shall occur as had been impressed upon them all during the six days of creation, when it was impressed in their nature that something new would come into being. And when that something new came into being at the appropriate time, they thought that it happened then, but it is not so. (Rambam, Introduction to Avot, chap. 8)[4]

Rambam emphasizes the importance of nature operating independently, according to its own laws. He therefore maintains that even miracles are part of nature: during the six days of creation, all the miracles that were to occur until the end of time were already implanted in the nature of the world. Just as there is a law of nature that whenever the tide is high, the sea rises, so too there is a law of nature that whenever the people of Israel leave Egypt, the sea parts. This is not constant divine intervention, but rather a natural law like all others. Rambam's goal is just the opposite of that of Ramban: to limit the miraculous dimension of nature and magnify its regularity.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) limits God's intervention in nature from another direction. He deals not with the open miracles, but with the hidden ones. Netziv relates to individual providence, the recompense that God pays each of us for our actions. He argues that this does not involve constant divine intervention by way of hidden miracles, but rather natural law:

One should know that reward and punishment for mitzvot are not like a royal decree, which depend on the king's will and intent at all times to do as his heart pleases. Rather, they are like a doctor warning a person about certain foods that will cause him harm. [The injury] does not depend on the doctor's will; he merely informs the patient what was done in the creation of nature. So regarding the commandments and prohibitions, it was established by the Creator, may He be blessed, that reward and punishment depend upon their observance and violation… The Holy One, blessed be He, does nothing more; rather, the commandments do their part and the prohibitions do their part, as the verse says: "The good and evil do not come out of the mouth of the Most High" (Eikha 3:38). (Netziv, Ha'amek Davar, Vayikra 26:3)

Netziv squarely disagrees with Ramban, who claims that the observance of mitzvot and commission of sins have no natural consequences. According to Netziv, just as there are physical laws of nature, so too there are spiritual laws of nature. Whenever a person commits a sin, he automatically receives a punishment.

Meaning of individual providence

Let us conclude with an idea expressed by Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi. Rabbi Ha-Levi explains the benefit and importance of individual providence, which finds expression in hidden miracles:

[The Holy Land's] fertility or barrenness, its happiness or misfortune depend upon the divine influence which your conduct will merit, while the rest of the world would continue its natural course. For if the divine presence is among you, you will perceive by the fertility of your country, by the regularity with which your rainfalls appear in their due seasons, by your victories over your enemies in spite of your inferior numbers, that your affairs are not managed by simple laws of nature, but by the divine will. You also see that drought, death, and wild beasts pursue you as a result of disobedience, although the whole world lives in peace. This shows you that your concerns are arranged by a higher power than mere nature. (Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, Kuzari, I, 109)

Rabbi Ha-levi's intention in this section is to demotdivineprovidence proves the veracity of the Torah. But we see from here another important principle: divine providence in itself is a goal, for it gives expression to our clinging to the divine. Even the punishments that God inflicts upon us have value and meaning, for they demonstrate that God is close to us and found among us. It is like a mother who punishes her son, demonstrating thereby her love for him and her desire to be close to him. As King David said: "Your rod and your staff they comfort me" (Tehillim 23:4). Regarding this verse, Metzudat David offers the following comment:

"Your rod and your staff they comfort me" – that You beat me with a rod of affliction, and then once again You support me, these are the things that comfort me, for I see thereby that You have not abandoned me to chance. (Metzudat David, Tehillim 23:4)

Footnotes:

[1] Rambam himself summarizes this position: "God's providence ends at the sphere of the moon."

[2] This may not be a good example, for Ramchal does not question natural laws, but rather asserts that God controls and directs them in accordance with His will. Ramchal is not the Ash'ariya.

[3] The position of Ramban, which we shall discuss below, is one such intermediate position.

[4] Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi expressed himself in similar manner in his Sefer ha-Kuzari, III, 73.

(Translated by Rav David Strauss)