Hashgacha Pratis (Part 8): The Ramban That Most Get Wrong

This part is very much contingent on Part 7 as it addresses the second section of the piece of Ramban previously discussed. If you haven’t already, or can do with a refresher, make sure you’ve read Part 7.

Here we arrive at a few words of Ramban often championed by the “everything is Hashgacha Pratis” camp. A close and proper reading of the text, however, shows that this understanding of Ramban is completely inaccurate.

Ramban on Exodus 13:16:

ומן הנסים הגדולים המפורסמים אדם מודה בנסים הנסתרים שהם יסוד התורה כלה, שאין לאדם חלק בתורת משה רבינו עד שנאמין בכל דברינו ומקרינו שכלם נסים אין בהם טבע ומנהגו של עולם, בין ברבים בין ביחיד, אלא אם יעשה המצות יצליחנו שכרו, ואם יעבור עליהם יכריתנו ענשו, הכל בגזרת עליון כאשר הזכרתי כבר (בראשית יז א, ולעיל ו ב)

And from these revealed miracles, people will come to accept the hidden miracles as well, as they are a fundamental of the entire Torah. As a person does not have a share in the Torah of Moses until he believes that all our words and our occurrences are all miracles that have in them no nature nor the natural order of the world. Both among the general population, and the individual. Rather, if one performs the mitzvos he will receive reward, and if he transgresses them he will be punished, everything according to the decree of Above, as I have previously explained.

Until now Ramban has described why miracles occur. He did not speak about how they happen, nor by what mechanism they operate, but rather stated simply that they occur so as to enhance our recognition of God in this world.

Ultimately, then, it is clear that everything in the world is up to God. We do not for a moment take for granted the fact that the sea split just as the Jewish people needed to cross it. We do, however, very much take for granted the law of gravity, or the fact that the sun sets at night and rises again in the morning, or that water is water. What God proved with the miracles of the Exodus, though, is that none of this, a priori, must be the case. In theory, the sun could set in the middle of the day if God so willed it, as during the plague of choshech; water could be blood, as during the plague of dam. Living through such occurrences would put humans at a total loss, and prove that nature is only so because God wills it so.

As such, it becomes clear that something like the splitting of the sea was indeed a miracle, but the normal state of the sea is a miracle as well. There is no fundamental difference between the two, in that they are both the will of God. Sometimes God wills things to remain in a constant/repetitious manner — we call this will of God “nature” — and sometimes He wills to intervene or disrupt said constant/repetitious cycle — we call this will of God “miracles.” Fundamentally, however, there is no difference between the two.

In truth, there is no such thing as “God vs. Nature.” God either perpetuates a repeating reality, or intervenes within that reality. This is crucial to recognize, and it is the point that Ramban is emphatically making.

Of course, when we say the word “miracle” we refer to the will of God to disrupt nature. Ramban is making a point that it must be understood that the regular laws of science/nature are also the will of God, but in a regular fashion. There is revealed, obvious, and irregular intervention called “miracles,” and there is the hidden, non-obvious, regular will of God called “nature.” Specifically, “revealed miracles” are the revelation of God via the disruption of nature, whereas “hidden miracles” would be nature itself, and God’s perpetuating of it. One would not normally call this latter group “miracles”, thus Ramban employs the terms “hidden miracles” and “revealed miracles.”

Everything Is A Miracle

Now, the point at which Ramban states that “all our words and our occurrences are all miracles that have in them no nature nor the natural order of the world” certainly could sound as if Ramban is stating that there is nothing that occurs in this world that is not the result of the direct intervention of God, and many misconstrue his words to mean as such. But this cannot be what Ramban means for a number of reasons.

First, recall that earlier in this very essay Ramban takes for granted that animals are not supervised at all by God.

Second, note that not once does Ramban employ the phrase or terminology of “hashgacha” or “Divine intervention.” He states that everything is a miracle — not Hashgacha Pratis — as we will explain below.

Third, the reason why Ramban does not here make any mention of Hashgacha Pratis is because he has already laid out his approach to the subject at length, and unequivocally in his commentary to Iyov, as well as more succinctly in his commentary to Bereishis. Certainly, Ramban cannot have changed his mind from Bereishis to Shemos, nor can we interpret him as such based on a single sentence here in the face of an entire essay elsewhere.

Fourth, we must object to interpreting Ramban to here mean that everything is direct Hashgacha Pratis on methodological grounds. Ramban is here both making and proving his point based on the open miracles of the Exodus. The simple fact of the matter is that one cannot in any way conclude from the miracles of the Exodus that, say, God causes every individual leaf to fall at precisely the moment that it does. What is proven by the miracles of the Exodus, as explained by Ramban, is that there is a governing force capable of, at times, violating and altering the laws of nature. This, in turn, proves that this same force created, and is the Master of, said laws of nature as well. One simply cannot conclude from any of this that all the tiniest details within nature are directly and individually caused by this force. That is simply not even a part of this discussion. This “force,” of course, is God, and certainly everything in the universe is a part of God’s laws, science, and nature. We simply cannot conclude, however, that everything is always intervention within these laws. There is no way to see that here. It does not follow logically, and it is not the point that Ramban is making.

Indeed, according to Ramban, the splitting of the sea is not equal to a leaf falling from a tree. They are both herein called “miracles” by Ramban, but they are different kinds of miracles. One is hidden, the other is revealed.

If pathogens find their way into one’s body, this person will, by the laws of nature, get sick. Such is the will of God. But this does not mean that God sent this virus directly to that person at specifically that time! At the end of the day, all is indeed the will of God, but one must understand that the constant system of nature is also the will of God.

Thus, when Ramban states that all occurrences are miracles, and not merely “nature,” this is indeed quite true, for Ramban just explained that nature itself is a form of miracle from God! All Ramban is stating here is that there is no such thing as a random reality, or “nature,” outside of the will God. This in no way means that God directly causes each and every occurrence; rather, Ramban is explaining that the illusion of there being an a priori, independent, guaranteed natural order without God is a lie.

Certainly all would admit that a clear act of God disrupting and defying the laws of nature is a “miracle”, but Ramban is here also calling nature itself a “miracle.” Thus, under Ramban’s definition of “miracle” meaning “the will of God,” all is indeed technically a “miracle” as everything, even nature itself, is merely different wills of God. Thus, there is indeed no such thing as nature or “the natural order of things” if one sees this as something separate from the will of God.

Are there laws of nature, though? Of course there are! But these very laws themselves derive from God; they are “hidden miracles.” The sun goes up and down; gravity is in effect; pathogens cause disease — this is all self evident. Ramban is here pointing out, however, that all of this is only so — the laws of nature are only as they are — because God wills it to be so. Therefore, this will of God is called “hidden miracles,” or, in modern parlance, “nature”/“science.” And there are other times when God wills to interrupt these laws — He might turn water into blood, or cause fire to fall within icey hail — and this will of God is termed “revealed miracles” or, in modern parlance, simply “miracles.”

People can thus find themselves governed by either kind of God’s will.

Summarizing Our Current Understanding Of Hashgacha Pratis

With this slight tangent, we return to the concept of Hashgacha Pratis, and God’s interaction in our every-day lives. Ramban makes the point at the very end of the above section that once a person comes to understand that the constant laws of nature are nothing more than an expression of God’s will, one can also understand that God incorporates a metaphysical reality — schar v’onesh, or reward and punishment — into these laws as well. Thus, our actions have a very real effect on the laws of nature, either to our benefit or to our detriment.

As the laws of nature are the hand of God, sometimes God allows them to run as per normal (“hidden miracles”), sometimes he disrupts nature (“revealed miracles”), but sometimes he merely intervenes so as to reward or punish people. The concept of reward and punishment applies to every human on the planet, as stated by Ramban. All will be rewarded or punished for their actions.

This, then, is the point that Ramban built to: reward and punishment is an additional layer worked into the very fabric of nature.

When it comes to Hashgacha Pratis, however, only those deserving of it — namely, the pious — will receive such Divine supervision and protection from any bothersome laws of nature. As we have explained at length in previous installments in this series, the average person is governed by reward and punishment, as well as by chance/coincidence/laws of nature. The pious person, however, is never governed by chance/coincidence/laws of nature, due to his or her constant state of Hashgacha Pratis/Divine supervision, and thus lives his or her life solely within the realm of Divine reward and punishment. When it comes to the pious, if his hat falls when the wind blows it is because God sent the wind; the pious lives in pure Divine providence wherein nothing occurs randomly. When an average person’s hat falls off his head, however, it could well simply be because the wind happened to blow at that moment!

When something happens to the tzadik he must understand that God sent it. When something happens to the average person, however, it simply cannot be known if God sent it directly or not. It could simply be that this person was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Author’s Note:

In the few remaining installments of our series we will clarify and crystalize our complete understanding of Hashgacha Pratis, as well as view some smaller additional sources.

No Fear Biblical Criticism: Introduction

Parshas Ki Sisa: The Word In Kiddush You Never Think About