Divine Providence

According to some thinkers, God only watches over people in a general way; according to others, divine providence extends to the minute details of life.

The discussion below begins in the Middle Ages and then goes back in time to discuss talmudic ideas. The author does this because the questions surrounding divine providence are more explicit in medieval sources.

The Hebrew term for divine providence, hashgahah, was first used by the medieval Jewish theologians who, under the influence of Greek philosophy, preferred abstract terms to denote ideas found in concrete form in the Bible and the rabbinic literature. But the idea that God controls and guides the world He has created permeates the Bible and the post‑biblical literature. The very term hashgahahis based on the verse in Psalms (34:14): “From the place of His habitation He looketh intently [hishgiah] upon all the inhabitants of the earth.”

General and Special Providence

The abstract discussions of the medievals were largely around the scope of divine providence. Two types of providence are considered: 1. hashgahah kelalit, “general providence,” God’s care for the world in general and for species in general; and 2. hashgahah peratit, “special providence,” God’s care for each individual.

Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed (3:17‑18), defends both types of providence but limits special providence to human beings and even then believes that it is only extended to individuals who lead intellectual and pious lives. Gersonides, in his Wars of the Lord (Part IV), discusses the question at length and arrives at a similar conclusion. This means that, for instance, God takes care, so to speak, that the species of spiders and flies are preserved but He does not ordain that a particular spider catches a particular fly. That happens purely by chance.

These thinkers thus allow the recognition that there is a random element in nature. Only man, when he rises in moral stature and intel­ligence, becomes linked, as it were, to the divine and so comes under the divine care for him as an individual.

Hasdai] Crescas, in his Light o the Lord (Part II, 2:4), takes issue with this view.

God created man because of His love for him and love is not dependent on conditions such as the intellectual or moral capacity of its recipients. All men, argues Crescas, not only saints and philosophers, enjoy God’s special providence. All three thinkers do not accept the view of the Islamic Ashariyah [school] that God decides which leaf should fall at which time from each tree, a view of divine providence rare in this stark form in Jewish thought until it became prominent in Hasidism.

The medieval think­ers were also profoundly concerned with the question of how human freedom can come into operation if everything happens as a result of divine providence.

Talmudic Views

The Talmudic rabbis did not explore the question of divine providence as a philosophical problem and, generally speaking, prefer to affirm that God’s care extends over all without dwelling too much on how providence operates. The result is that, as on other theological topics, a wide variety of opinions are expressed without any attempt at systematic treatment.

The famous Talmudic statement regarding God’s providence extending to all His creatures is the saying that God “feeds the whole world from the horned buffalo to the brood of vermin” (Avodah Zarah 3b). The late second­-century teacher Rabbi Hanina gave expression to the extreme view of divine providence over human beings when he said: “No man bruises his finger here on earth unless it was so decreed against him from on high” (Hullin 7b).

Mystical Views

The Italian Kabbalist Joseph Ergas (1685‑1730), in his Shomer Emunim (Preserving Be­liefs) (ii. 81), summarizes what he considers to be the Kabbalistic views on the subject: “Nothing occurs by accident, without intention and divine providence, as it is written [Leviticus 21:24]: ‘Then will I also walk with you in chance [be‑keri].’ You see that even the state of ‘chance’ is attributed to God, for everything proceeds from Him by reason of special provi­dence.”

For all that, Ergas follows Maimonides, without mentioning the sage by name, in limit­ing special providence to the human species:

“However, the guardian angel has no power to provide for the special providence of non­-human species; for example, whether this ox will live or die, whether this ant will be trodden on or be spared, whether this spider will catch this fly and so forth. There is no special providence of this kind for animals, to say nothing of plants and minerals, since the purpose for which they were created is attained by the species alone, and there is no need for providence to be extended to individuals of the species. Consequently, all events that happen to individuals of these species are by pure chance and not by divine decree, except, as we shall presently explain, where it is relevant for the divine providence concerning mankind.”

The Hasidim, otherwise admirers of Ergas, were scandalized by these remarks. For Hasidism, as for the [Islamic] Ashariyah centuries before, divine providence extends over everything; nothing moves without direct divine control, no stone lies where it does unless God wills it so. The early Hasidic master Pinchas of Koretz remarks: “A man should believe that even a piece of straw that lies on the ground does so at the decree of God. He decrees that it should lie there with one end facing this way and the other end the other way.”

The later master, Hayyim Halberstam, similarly states: “It is impossible for any creature to enjoy existence without the Creator of all worlds sustaining it and keeping it in being, and it is all through divine providence. Although the Rambam [Maimonides] has a different opinion in this matter, the truth is that not even a bird is snared without providence from above.”

There are tales of Hasidic masters rebuking disciples who idly plucked grass as they walked along, since each blade of grass has its own particular place in the divine scheme.

Providence Today

Contemporary theologians, Jewish and non­-Jewish, have grappled with the problem for divine providence posed by the greater realiza­tion, through scientific research, that everything proceeds by cause and effect. If God’s providence extends to particulars, what pre­cisely is the relationship of this type of providence to the perceived (and predictable) natural processes?

Some have argued that scientific explanation employs probabilities in place of certainties. There is still a random element, acknowledged by the Jewish thinkers mentioned earlier, even in the picture of nature provided by scientific theories and it is in this area of “chance,” as Ergas has said, that divine providence comes into operation.

Others have approached the subject from the point of view of existentialism. For the religious existentialist, God’s providence does not consist in affecting the outcome of natural processes but in the way we relate to them. The problem is acute, but then so is the problem, of which it is a part, of how God can be both transcendent and immanent.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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