Shiur #23: Miracles, Nature and what Lies Between: Ramban on Hashgacha

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.         Introduction: The Difficulty with the Rambam


In the past few shiurim I have investigated the Rambam's understanding of hashgacha at length.  As I mentioned at the end of the last shiur, this position, though very important in creating space for a conception of nature that matches our modern sensibilities, also tends to leave us with the sense that it goes too far.  In protecting his conception of God as a transcendent Being, the Rambam runs the risk of propounding what amounts to a nearly secular theology.  The living God of the Bible who is passionately concerned with His people is replaced by a remote First Cause about whom “concern” is at best a metaphor stretched to the limit. 


One of the places that this discomfort is manifest is in the notion of reward and punishment – for the Rambam reward is immanent in the performance of a good act and especially in intellectual achievement.  Punishment is barely evident: the vivid, elaborate descriptions in the Torah of punishment for not keeping the mitzvot (at the end of Vayikra and of Devarim) are merely descriptions of what could happen when we are subject to chance.  The ultimate punishment is "Karet" which the Rambam understands to be the cutting of oneself off from the source, such that nothing of the original soul survives. 


The Rambam's understanding of hashgacha and reward and punishment is unsatisfying on two levels.  As an interpretation of the Torah, it demands that we take a great deal of the Torah to be merely metaphorical rhetoric.  Not only does it preclude a literal interpretation (our tradition has never been hung up on literalism) but it flies in the face of the most basic notions of how the Bible presents God's relationship to the world and the Jewish people.  But it is not only a problem of interpretation.  As I mentioned at the end of the last shiur, on a theological, religious level, the Rambam's vision of God's relation to the world leaves us cold.  Contact between God and His creatures is limited to the abstractions of intellectual participation of the elite in the overflow.


2.         Reward and Punishment as Divine Concern


What is absent from the Rambam's story is divine concern.  Though the Rambam may offer a theologically sophisticated account of how a transcendent God relates to the universe, our relationship with God cannot be limited to the transcendent.  It must be possible for God, in some mysterious way, to break the bonds of transcendence and somehow reside amongst us and relate to us as we are – as human beings fundamentally limited in time and space.  Otherwise, the whole endeavor of religion threatens to be ultimately without much point.[1] 


An opposite point of departure underlies the Biblical account of reward and punishment.  Critics of the Torah (usually Christian in background if not in name) have often decried the "Old Testament God" who is stern and wrathful.  That reading is at best just Christian polemics and at worst anti-Semitism.  The punishment that God promises to mete out to wrongdoers is the ultimate evidence that what we do matters, that God cares about us and what we do.  Even the expressions of wrath are part of this – no one bothers to be angry about something beneath concern.  The potential for wrath, as well as for love and joy, is the measure of divine concern and the evidence of a living relationship. 


We want the way we act to make a difference, to get a response, but we struggle to find it.  Our present state of religious disaffection, in which many if not most of us struggle to find a connection with God that is a living part of our lives, cannot be disconnected from our consciousness of the regularity of nature and of our own power to manipulate it.  The regularity of nature is a tremendous gift from the Creator – it grants human beings the power, through science, industry and technology, to be, so to speak, like God – to master the world and bend it to our will.  But the same mastery inclines us to leave God out of our picture of the world.  Things appear to continue to work normally whether or not we maintain a relationship with God.  In reading the tokhachot, the blessings and the curses recorded in the Torah, we are forced to confront that nature is a gift and that it can be taken away as well as given. 


3.         The Ramban on Hidden and Revealed Miracles


Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, RaMBaN or Nachmanides (1194-1270), offers us a way of thinking about this.  The Ramban's theological point of departure is very different from that of the Rambam.  For the Ramban, God's immanence, His presence in the world, is a given, and is testified to by the whole Bible.  The question for him is how that reality can be understood in the context of the experienced reality of nature – of a world that consistently works in regular ways that are seemingly insensitive to people's moral and spiritual conditions.


One way to synthesize divine involvement with the regularity of nature is to regard that regularity as an illusion – there is no nature and really everything that happens is the direct will of God (I discussed this possibility in an earlier shiur).  Sometimes it looks like the Ramban believes this.  In one place he writes: “A person has no portion in the Torah of Moshe without believing that all things that happen to us are miracles; they have nothing to do with ‘nature’ or ‘the customary order of the world’".[2]  However, as David Berger has shown convincingly,[3] to understand the Ramban as denying the existence of nature is a mistake.  When one reads the complete passage from which the quote is extracted (not to mention other passages), it becomes clear that "all things that happen to us are miracles" is a rhetorical flourish.  A better interpretation would notice that the Ramban's focus on miracles is juxtaposed to nature.  Miracles, almost by definition, are divergences from the natural order and so if there is no natural order, there is nothing to diverge from.  Here is a fuller version of the passage:


Since… the opinions began to become confused in [matters of] faith, some denying the root of faith by claiming that the world is eternal, thus denying God and saying He is not, others denying His knowledge of particulars…others accepting divine knowledge, but denying His providence, making human beings like the fish of the sea in that God does not watch over them and that they do not receive punishment or reward…When God desires to do so, with regard to a group or an individual, He performs for them a wonder in changing the normal order of the world and its nature;  [when that happens], the incorrectness of those [previously stated deniers] becomes clear, for the great wonder instructs us that there is a God to this world, who renews it and is aware, responsive and able…


Therefore Scripture speaks of wonders [performed] "so that you should know that I am the Lord in the land” (Shemot 8:8), to teach of [the fact of] providence, for He has not abandoned it [i.e., the world] to chance, as is their opinion…Therefore the great signs and wonders are reliable witnesses for belief in God and in the whole Torah.


Since the Holy One, blessed be He does not produce a sign or a wonder in every generation, in front of any evil one or unbeliever, He commands us always to make a memorial and a sign to that which our eyes saw and we will pass on the matter to our children and their children... to the last generation… and so too with other mitzvot that are a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.  This is all for us to have in all the generations testimony of the wonders that they not be forgotten, thereby silencing the heretic who [would] deny faith in God…


From the great and public miracles a man recognizes the hidden miracles, which are the foundation of the entire Torah, for a man has no part in the Torah of Moshe our teacher unless he believes that all our things and occurrences are all miracles and have no nature or the way of the world in them, whether communally or individually, but rather, if he fulfills the mitzvot his reward will bring him success, and if he transgresses them his punishment will cut him off – everything by the decree of the Most High.


The Ramban places great emphasis on miracles which come in two types.  The first are public, revealed miracles such as those associated with the Exodus.  These serve to testify to the fact of hashgacha.  They can affect both individuals and whole nations and are easily indentified in that they involve an explicit breach in the laws of nature.  They do not happen frequently, and therefore the Torah instituted many mitzvot to commemorate them and thus maintain the consciousness that God is involved in the world.  Vigilance is needed precisely because the world most often proceeds along its natural course. 


There is another, more subtle way that God interacts with the world.  The Ramban calls these interactions “hidden miracles” and it is on this level that hashgacha peratit and reward and punishment are mostly manifest.  These too are miracles – interruptions in the natural order of events, but they differ from revealed miracles in that they appear to be cases of things proceeding in accordance with ordinary natural cause and effect.  It is in this way that reward and punishment, both on a national and on a personal level, are integrated into our lives.  We do not see God interfering with nature – perhaps because if we could it would undermine our ability to even conceive of nature as a stable entity, but he does interfere nonetheless and causes people to receive both reward and punishment. 


In another passage, the Ramban even evokes the Rambam:


…. And it never appears in the Torah or the Prophets that God watches and protects the individuals of other creatures that are not intelligent ("do not speak"), but He only protects the species as part of the heavens and its hosts. …The reason for this is clear and known, for man, since he acknowledges his God, He watches over and protects him, unlike the other species who are not intelligent species and do not know their creator.


For this reason, He protects the righteous, for as their eyes and hearts are constantly with Him, so the eyes of God are on them from the beginning of the year to its end. And the perfectly pious man who cleaves to his God always and does not separate the connection to God in his thoughts with matters of the world will be continually protected from all accidents of time even those that arise in nature and he will be protected from them through a miracle that will be done for him always, as though he belongs to the class of the upper world (angels) who are not subject to becoming and destruction in the accidents of time. According to his closeness to the cleaving unto God so he will be protected with superior protection. But he who is far from God in his thoughts and actions, even if he is not deserving of death by his sin, is sent and abandoned to accidents…. And since most of the world belongs to this middle group… it is proper that they act according to the way of nature and accident.[4] 


First of all, note how for most people, the world proceeds as normal, in accordance with nature.  For that reason it makes sense to take precautions since only the perfectly pious can be assured of being removed from the sphere of nature and the attendant risk of a fluke accident.  So the Ramban accepts that there is such a thing as a natural order and it looks much like that portrayed in the Rambam, with general hashgacha on each species.  Furthermore, the Ramban follows the Rambam in relativizing hashgacha: the higher one's level the more protection one gains.


However the similarity in exposition to the Rambam (which is almost certainly deliberate) conceals a radically different conception of God's involvement in the world.  The difference can be summed up in that for the Rambam, hashgacha, divine guidance, is built into the world; it is identified with nature on the general level and ascribes no active involvement to God. Even hashgacha peratit, divine protection of individuals, is not something that God does, so much as a side effect of a person attaining a level of intellectual achievement.


In contrast, for the Raman, hashgacha is always a miracle.  It always involves God actively intervening, with God directly causing events as opposed to allowing them to proceed along their natural course.  God manages the world and responds to our actions very subtly: the miracles, which diverge from the natural course of events, are almost always hidden, and hence indistinguishable.  Divine responsiveness, God's miraculous involvement in human life, involves reward and punishment – He rewards the righteous and punishes evildoers.  There is still nature and most of the time what happens is a function of nature.  Only the perfectly righteous are completely removed from nature and perfectly protected.  So anyone who is not perfectly righteous (i.e., nearly everyone) cannot rely on divine intervention and must take precautions and take care.  Bad things can happen to good people (and good things to bad people) not because they deserve them but because they just happen and the people involved are not deserving of direct divine intervention. 


4.         Conclusion and Questions


The Ramban's conception of hashgacha is a vision of divine concern for His creation which is not merely good design but actual responsiveness to human action.  The good are rewarded and wrongdoers are punished, as we would expect in a just world (I will return to this theme in a later shiur).  God cares about us, to the extent that He is willing to change the order of nature in order to show that care.  Yet the order of nature exists; it is not an illusion and there is meaning and value to the human endeavor to understand and, at least to some extent, to control it.  God is present in history, particularly guiding the nation of Israel on its long course, intervening when necessary, as described in the Torah and the Prophets.  In a sense, the Ramban's notion of hashgacha is constructed to provide us with a way of synthesizing all of our concerns into a delicate balance: we want God to be involved but not so much as to constrain human freedom.  We want divine intervention, alongside a stable natural order.  The key this balance is the Ramban's idea of hidden miracles in which God's intervention is so subtle that it is not recognizable as such. 


I do not know how to be a religious person without something like the Ramban's vision.  That being said, there is something that is lost as well.  In using the idea of a hidden, indistinguishable miracle as the means by which God acts, it is not clear that we are not trying to have our cake and eat it too.  Can we really hold onto a sophisticated conception of nature if it is always being tweaked in unseen ways for supernatural purposes?  Is it not too facile to credit God when things turn out the way we want and to ascribe the results to nature when they do not?  According to the Ramban, God is immanent and present in the world, which is necessary for real religion, but how do we square that with the no less important idea of divine transcendence?[5]  These are all questions for which I have no answer.  In some way or another, the Ramban must be right, but complacency about how can lead directly down the road to a kind of fundamentalist religious simplemindedness.  Though perhaps not as bad as cynical skepticism, I believe that there is much to be said for maintaining question marks in our understanding of how God works in the world.  Perhaps that was the Ramban's point in insisting that all divine intervention is a mystery and a miracle.   


[1]  I believe that the Rambam understood this as well, and the need to negotiate the tension between his philosophical position of complete transcendence and his religious fervor is the source of some of the most moving passages in his work.  While never conceding his elitism, the Rambam describes the intellectual connection with God in terms that we do not usually associate with the dryness of cognition.  He writes with great passion about intellectual love of God as the highest ideal and of a kind of abiding devotion that overwhelms everything else.  See chapters 9 and 10 of Hilkhot Teshuva and part III, chapters 51-54 of the Guide of the Perplexed

[2] Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Shemot 13:17.  The context is the mitzva of tefillin.  The Ramban comments that such mitzvot function as an “ot,” a sign, to remember the Exodus from Egypt since such revealed miracles are few and far between. 

[3] See David Berger, “Miracles and The Natural Order in Nahmanides,” in Rabbi Moses Nahmanides: Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity ed. Isadore Twersky, Cambridge, 1983.  Available online at

[4]  Ramban, Commentary toIyov, 36, 7.

[5]  The Ramban himself had an approach to this question which I have not discussed at all.  As a kabbalist, the Ramban believed that the movement from the transcendent to the immanent was negotiated by the sefirot – by the divine emanations from the ineffable ein sof.  Though an incredibly rich and significant tradition, I have never been able to buy into the metaphysical robustness of the kabbalistic tradition.