Shiur #19: Divine Providence

  • Rav Chaim Navon

In chapter seventeen in book III of the Guide, the Rambam discusses God's guidance of the world. He presents five different views in this regard.


The first view, which may even be held by people who believe in God, negates any sort of Divine Providence. During the period of the Enlightenment (18th century), the prevalent religio-philosophical view was deism. Its proponents believed that God exists, but maintained that He is in no way involved in what happens in the world. As Jews, we cannot accept this view. The idea that God rules, watches over, and intervenes in the world is fundamental to our faith and clear to anyone who reads the Tanakh. The Tanakh describes God as guiding and controlling history. Our religious life is molded by this concept, which is so central to our faith that the name of the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who maintained that the gods are indifferent to man's fate and do not intervene in the world, became synonymous in rabbinical parlance with one who denies the very essence of faith in God (Epicurus - apikorus).


The second view described by the Rambam is that of Aristotle. He sums up this view as maintaining "that Divine Providence extends down to, and ends with, the sphere of the moon." God's control extends only over the upper worlds – the heavenly spheres and the angels – because they are fixed and unchanging. The individual beings that exist below the sphere of the moon, which are born and die, enjoy no Divine Providence. In our world Divine Providence intervenes only concerning species as a whole, whose existence is permanent, but not concerning individual members of any species, which are transient. In the language of Jewish philosophy we might say that Aristotle believes in hashgacha klalit (general Divine control), but not in hashgacha pratit (Divine engagement with each individual). In Aristotle's view, the "First Cause" is the source of order in the world, and in this system there is room only for that which is permanent and eternal. Anything that is transient or variable is incidental; it is not an integral part of the order of the world, and therefore Divine Providence cannot be said to extend over it.


The third view is that of the Ash’ariya – a Muslim school of philosophy with considerable influence in the Islamic world. As the Rambam describes this approach, it represents the other extreme of the spectrum with regard to Divine Providence. Having discussed views which diminish or negate God's intervention, the Rambam now goes on to discuss those which empower it to the maximum. In general, Islam is characterized by an amplification of God's active power, to the point of crushing man. The Ash’ariya anchored this approach by providing it with a philosophical basis. They argued that there is no such thing as Nature at all; everything is Divine Providence. In their view it is not accurate to speak of God as watching over or controlling the world; rather, God is the only force operating in the world, and every occurrence and movement happens by His direct will. According to this view, the "laws of Nature" are a fiction; they are nothing but the way in which God chooses to act. For instance, God usually chooses that objects left in the air will fall down, but sometimes He may decide that they will ascend. There is no "force of gravity"; there is only the "habit of gravity."

In seeking to empower God's absolute rule, the Ash’ariya negate man's free choice, since this would limit the sphere of God's control. They also argue that God is not even limited by the laws of morality, and He may choose to do good or evil as He wishes. The very concept of an "objective good" is in fact a misleading distortion.


The Ash’ariya approach to Divine Providence may be adopted even if we do not agree with their view of free choice, or of the connection between God and morality. However, such a partial acceptance raises questions: if God acts in a good and moral way, but at the same time every event and action in the world happens by His hand, then why is there injustice and suffering in the world? And if every event and action in the world happens by God's hand, how can this be reconciled with the belief that man has free choice? Nevertheless, there was a different Muslim group which did in fact follow this approach – the Mu'tazila:


Man has free will; it therefore makes sense that the Torah contains commands and prohibitions, with announcements of reward and punishment. All acts of God are due to wisdom; no injustice is found in Him, and He does not afflict the righteous. The Mu’tazila profess this theory… They hold also that God pays attention to the falling of the leaf and the destruction of the ant, and that His Providence extends over all things.


The Mu'tazila, too, believed that God has complete control over all that happens in nature, and that the tiniest movement of the tiniest atom results from God's explicit will. However, they maintained at the same time that God acts in accordance with the laws of wisdom and morality and that man has free choice. The recognition of free choice leaves room to understand the meaning of Torah. If man had no free choice, why would God bother to command him to behave one way rather than another way? And why would He punish man for doing evil, if evil actions were not the result of his own choice? But if man does indeed have free choice, then there is logic to the "commands and prohibitions, with announcements of reward and punishment."


The Rambam himself opposes this approach, too, and proposes a different understanding of Divine Providence, according to which


Divine Providence is connected with Divine intellectual influence, and the same beings which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also under the control of Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds in order to reward or punish them. It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all its contents… or the roof of a house falls upon those within. However, it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments...


According to the Rambam, there is such a thing as coincidence – i.e., random events that are subject to the laws of nature, rather than being under God's direct control. He also maintains that there is Divine Providence – but only over man, not over the rest of the world. This is not an arbitrary distinction between different types of creatures, but rather a distinction of principle. Divine Providence is extended to man in a special way. According to the Rambam, the knowledge and wisdom that we accumulate is Divine inspiration; by means of them, God brings down His Providence upon us. God does not intervene crudely in what goes on in the world. He intervenes only in man's consciousness, influencing people to behave properly, if they are deserving of this.

God will not stop a ship that is unsound from sinking when it collides with an iceberg. However, if a righteous person is about to board that ship, He may send him a flash of insight that causes him to look into the reliability of the ship and the safety of the lifeboats, before climbing aboard. Thus, the ship will sink – but the righteous man will not be on board. In the Rambam's view, the outside world operates on "automatic pilot," but God intervenes in man's inner world. In the following chapter (book III, chapter 18) the Rambam adds that people are distinguished from one another in the degree of Divine Providence over them; since Divine Providence is dependent on the human intellect, to the degree that a person is wiser, the degree of God's Providence over him is greater.


The Rambam explains how he arrives at this view:


I have been induced to accept this theory by the fact that I have not met in any of the prophetical books with a description of God's Providence otherwise than in relation to human beings. The prophets even express their surprise that God should take notice of man, who is too little and too unimportant to be worthy of the attention of the Creator; how, then, should other living creatures be considered as proper objects for Divine Providence! …Our opinion is not contradicted by Scriptural passages like the following: "He gives the beast its food" (Tehillim 147:9)… There are many similar sayings extant in the writings of our Sages, but they imply nothing that is contrary to my view. All these passages refer to Providence in relation to species, and not to Providence in relation to individual animals.


The Rambam's view is far from being a consensus in Jewish thought. Many sages disagreed with him, expanding significantly the sphere of Divine Providence. For instance, Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) has the following to say concerning the attribute of trust in God:


A man could sit idle and what was ordained for him would materialize, were it not for the penalty imposed upon all men: “With the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Bereishit 3:19), because of which, by Divine decree, a man is required to exert himself somewhat for his sustenance. This is a tax, as it were, which must be paid by every member of the human race and which cannot be evaded… This does not imply that it is the exertion that produces the results, but rather that the exertion is necessary. Once one has exerted himself, however, he has fulfilled his responsibilities and made room for the blessing of Heaven to rest upon him, and he need not consume his days in striving and exertion. (Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 21[1])


Ramchal introduces an important new concept here: the idea of exertion. Man is obliged to exert himself to make a living, even though he knows that his reward comes from God, and that it is not necessarily dependent on his efforts. Ramchal severs the connection between the effort and the result: he argues that it is not the laws of nature that determine how much income a person will have, but rather only Divine Providence that makes that determination. The obligation to exert oneself is a Divine decree. A person who makes no effort to work for a living is violating God's decree and will therefore see no reward. However, the connection between the effort and the result is indirect. If a person is too lazy to get up in the morning and water his field, he will lose his income as a punishment from God. It is God Who determines whether the seeds will grow, and thus He punishes those who go against the Divine command, “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.” The Rambam, in contrast, would say that this lazy farmer loses his income because, according to the laws of nature, seeds cannot grow without water.


Those who take Ramchal's view a step further, viewing it as an operative recommendation, arrive at interesting conclusions. For instance: according to his view, if a person isn't managing to make a living in a certain profession, there is no point in him turning to some other occupation. He is obligated to fulfill the Divine edict, "By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread," but there is no direct connection between his work and his reward. His income is determined by God, not by his work. So long as he is making the minimal effort that is required of him, he will receive the same income no matter what field he exerts himself in. Indeed, Rabbeinu Becha’yeh writes:


One who finds his nature and personality attracted to a certain occupation, and his body is suited for it, that he will be able to bear its demands – he should pursue it, and make it his means of earning a livelihood, and he should bear its pleasures and pains, and not be upset when sometimes his income is withheld, rather let him trust in G-d that He will support him all of his days. And he should have intention… to fulfill the commandment of the Creator to pursue the means of the world…
He will be rewarded for his intentions in heart and mind to serve G-d whether or not his desire is accomplished, as written, "If you eat from the toil of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you" (Tehillim 128:2)…


One should not think that his livelihood depends on particular means and that if these means fail, his livelihood will not come from a different means. Rather, trust in the Al-mighty, and know that all means are equal for Him. He can provide using whatever means and at any time and however He so wishes." (Chovat Ha-levavot, Sha'ar Bitachon, chapter 3. Translation by Rabbi Yosef Sebag.[2])


The story is told of Rabbi Zundel of Salant, who fulfilled his obligation of "exertion" by purchasing a lottery ticket. He claimed that a person has to make some nominal effort only in order that the Divine blessing can come to fruition through the laws of nature. If a righteous person were to receive his income in an openly miraculous manner, everyone would believe in God, and there would no longer be any test of faith. Therefore, a person must make some effort, so that when he has enough to live on, those who wish to deny God's influence in the world will have some way of explaining the fact that he is alive. Based on this logic, even the tiniest amount of effort is really enough: if he wins the lottery, others have the possibility of regarding this result as a fortunate natural coincidence, rather than as a miracle. However, Rabbi Dessler warned that this approach should only be followed by someone who is certain that he can withstand the test of faith of not winning the lottery (Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu 1).


Obviously, there is room for a wide range of positions on this subject. One might, for example, maintain that in general we are subservient to the laws of nature, and that God intervenes only in exceptional circumstances, when a person is especially deserving of reward or punishment. Ramban expresses this view explicitly in several places, including the following:


Know that miracles, whether for the good or the bad, are performed only for the completely righteous or the completely wicked. For regular people, events follow their natural course, for the good or the bad. (Ramban on Devarim 11:13)


Later on in this series we will find that there is room to base this approach on the Rambam, too. Although in chapter 17 of book III he insists that God does not change the laws of nature for man, elsewhere he seems to suggest a very different view concerning Divine Providence over the world.


Translated by Kaeren Fish