Hashgacha Pratis (Part 4): Rambam’s Overview

You can read the other parts in this series here.

Before we begin this installment in our series, I would like to explain our general approach, and give a little bit of an overview for the series so as to better understand what we are doing, and how we are doing it. We have thus far explained the very basic fundamentals of Divine intervention: it applies to homo sapiens only, and not animals, plants, or inanimate objects. We have also seen that one’s Divine protection is commensurate with his or her righteousness and knowledge of God. A more intense study of sources is now needed in order to fully understand and elaborate on these ideas. As such, we shall endeavor to do the following: We shall see Rambam’s approach to Hashgacha Pratis first, and then see Ramban’s fully formulated opinion on the subject as well, based on Rambam. These two sources alone will explain most everything on the subject that we need. We shall then fill in all of the gaps, address additional opinions, seeming contradictions, and closely related topics, and then give an overview and conclusion.

Thus, we continue now with Rambam. We will not dwell on Rambam too much for the following reasons:

  • Sefer HaChinuch is based heavily on Rambam, and we have already seen that.
  • Ramban, as we shall soon see, quotes, interprets, and bases his opinion on Rambam as well, and who better to learn Rambam from than Ramban?
  • For better or for worse (probably for worse), people tend to dismiss Rambam as “the rationalist”. Thus, if we can show Ramban, a major Kabbalist and “mystic”, shared the same views, it will be even more powerful.

Rambam On Hashgacha Pratis

Needless to say, merely a few choice quotes from Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim/Guide For The Perplexed will suffice for our endeavors. I will add some comments, but for the most part, Rambam’s words alone are all that is necessary. (For further reading, it is recommended that you read the entire chapters from which we shall quote.)

(Note: Given that the Guide was originally written in Arabic, and there exists an English translation directly from that Arabic, we shall quote only said English translation (Friedländer’s) for the sake of space and simplicity.)

Guide For The Perplexed 3:17:

My opinion on this principle of Divine Providence I will now explain to you… In the lower or sublunary portion of the Universe Divine Providence does not extend to the individual members of species except in the case of mankind. It is only in this species that the incidents in the existence of the individual beings, their good and evil fortunes, are the result of justice, in accordance with the words, "For all His ways are judgment." But I agree with Aristotle as regards all other living beings, and à fortiori as regards plants and all the rest of earthly creatures. For I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment; it is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it; nor is it by the direct will of God that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water. In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle.

Rambam clearly echoes all that we have seen so far. Providence, and Divine judgment, applies only to Man — not animals nor inanimate objects. All things of that kind are simply due to chance and coincidence. As is typical, Rambam is approaching this from a philosophical perspective, and is comparing his views — those of Judaism — with the prevailing Aristotelian perspective of the time.

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 her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within; but 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, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.

Rambam explains the reason why only humans are privy to Divine Providence, namely, that only humans are capable of contemplating — and connecting to and comprehending — the Divine. Divine Providence is commensurate with one’s conception of God, and, as animals — and certainly inanimate objects — are not capable of such a thing, they are not privy to Divine Providence. It is this Divine Providence that examines one’s deeds to mete out punishment or reward. Thus, while a boat itself is not governed by Divine Providence, the humans that are on said boat surely are. Only someone that God wants (either actively or passively, as we shall see later) to come into harm will be harmed.

…The condition of the individual beings of other living creatures is undoubtedly the same as has been stated by Aristotle. On that account it is allowed, even commanded, to kill animals; we are permitted to use them according to our pleasure.

This is a most fascinating statement. It is because animals are not capable of comprehending the Divine, and thus play no part in Divine Providence, that we are allowed to kill them.

Understand thoroughly my theory, that I do not ascribe to God ignorance of anything or any kind of weakness; I hold that Divine Providence is related and closely connected with the intellect, because Providence can only proceed from an intelligent being, from a being that is itself the most perfect Intellect. Those creatures, therefore, which receive part of that intellectual influence will become subject to the action of Providence in the same proportion as they are acted upon by the Intellect. This theory is in accordance with reason and with the teaching of Scripture, whilst the other theories previously mentioned either exaggerate Divine Providence or detract from it. In the former case they lead to confusion and entire nonsense, and cause us to deny reason and to contradict that which is perceived with the senses. The latter case, viz., the theory that Divine Providence does not extend to man, and that there is no difference between man and other animals, implies very bad notions about God; it disturbs all social order, removes and destroys all the moral and intellectual virtues of man.

There are a number of things going on here, not all of which we will be able to address. For one, this is a small piece in Rambam’s larger theory of Divine Intelligence. That we will not address now. What is important for us, rather, are those points that are directly related to Hashgacha Pratis. Firstly, Rambam makes clear that Divine knowledge and Divine Providence are two different things. Saying that God does not control every occurrence directly does not mean that he is not aware of what is happening. Surely, God knows all. He simply does not directly cause everything. Rambam then summarizes his overall opinion: Providence is proportionate with one’s comprehension of God. This is, as Rambam states, with logical, and in line with what is taught in the Torah and Neviim. Finally, Rambam speaks to other incorrect conceptions of Divine Providence (which he explores at greater length in the full chapter, and one of which we shall see below). Interestingly, unlike the Sefer HaChinuch which is based heavily on this Rambam, a conception of God that has no control over what occurs in the world isn’t heresy, but is rather just unintelligent and sure to lead to bad things. (Of course, Rambam does hold such a view to be heresy, as is clear from his Principles of Faith, but it is interestingly absent here.)

Everything Is Hashgacha

We shall now take a look at just one of the few incorrect understandings of Hashgacha that Rambam deals with. Rambam addresses a number of other perspectives as well, but we are just going to focus on the one that is prevalent to this day, but is nonetheless wholly incorrect.

Guide For The Perplexed 3:17:

According to this theory, there is nothing in the whole Universe, neither a class nor an individual being, that is due to chance; everything is the result of will, intention, and rule. It is a matter of course that he who rules must know [that which is under his control]. The Mohammedan Ashariyah adhere to this theory, notwithstanding evident absurdities implied in it; for they admit that Aristotle is correct in assuming one and the same cause [viz., the wind] for the fall of leaves [from the tree] and for the death of a man [drowned in the sea]. But they hold at the same time that the wind did not blow by chance; it is God that caused it to move; it is not therefore the wind that caused the leaves to fall; each leaf falls according to the Divine decree; it is God who caused it to fall at a certain time and in a certain place; it could not have fallen before or after that time or in another place, as this has previously been decreed. The Ashariyah were therefore compelled to assume that motion and rest of living beings are predestined, and that it is not in the power of man to do a certain thing or to leave it undone.

This is, of course, the view that the Sefer HaChinuch calls idiotic, and that Rambam is equally not fond of. Rambam, however, explains a far deeper concern with adopting a position in which everything that occurs is direct Divine Providence. Holding such a view, one would be forced to conclude that humans have no free will — as every motion that occurs on Earth was decided by God.

It follows also from this theory, that precepts are perfectly useless, since the people to whom any law is given are unable to do anything: they can neither do what they are commanded nor abstain from what they are forbidden. The supporters of this theory hold that it was the will of God to send prophets, to command, to forbid, to promise, and to threaten, although we have no power [over our actions]. A duty would thus be imposed upon us which is impossible for us to carry out, and it is even possible that we may suffer punishment when obeying the command and receive reward when disobeying it. According to this theory, it must also be assumed that the actions of God have no final cause. All these absurdities are admitted by the Ashariyah for the purpose of saving this theory.

In short, a belief that everything that occurs is Hashgacha Pratis is incompatible with the Torah, and the fundamental belief of Judaism that humans have free will, and are rewarded (or punished) based on our actions. A belief that all that occurs is directly decreed by God renders the entire Torah pointless if there is no capacity of Man to do anything other than what God decrees. In short, a belief that everything that occurs is Hashgacha Pratis undermines human free will, and by extension, the entire Torah. It is this “absurdity” that one would have to concede to hold such a view.

Rambam, of course, has much more to say on the subject of Hashgacha Pratis, and it is this that we continue with in the next installment of this series.

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