Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Providence and the Talmud

I've previously posted on the views of the Rambam and the Ramban, that hashgachah peratis -- individual providence -- is not necessarily extended to every person (link). One question that arise is how they understand many talmudic passages in the Talmud that indicate universal individual providence. One could suggest that there are multiple views within the Talmud and they follow the view that there is not universal individual providence. However, that is somewhat vague and a more specific analysis is certainly desirable.

Dr. Yaakov Elman has addressed this in his writings. Due to lack of time, let me just raise one specific passage and how Dr. Elman has explained it.

The Gemara in Chullin (7b) states the following:

R. Chanina said: No one bruises his finger below unless it was so decreed against him above, as it says "The steps of a man are ordered by God" (Ps. 27:23) and "How then can a man understand his own way?" (Prov. 20:24). R. Elazar said: The blood of a bruise atones like the blood of an olah sacrifice. Rava said: [Only the] right thumb and the second bruising, and only if it happened to someone who is on his way to do a mitzvah.
It seems from this passage that there is universal providence, because the only explanation for bruising one's finger is providence. What about someone who is not on the level of having universal providence? The Gemara seems to say that there is no such person.

The standard way of understanding Rava is that he is modifying R. Elazar's statement. The only time that a bruise atones like an olah is under all of those qualifications. I searched through many commentaries and that is the only explanation that I found. However, Dr. Elman offers another possible explanation ("The Contribution of Rabbinic Thought to a Theology of Misfortune" in Shalom Carmy ed., Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering, pp. 186-187). He suggests that Rava is modifying R. Chanina's statement. The only time that bruising one's finger must be decreed from above is when it is the right thumb, a second bruising, and when one is one the way to do a mitzvah. Otherwise, says Rava, there is no indication that it is an act of divine providence.

Thus, like later rishonim, Rava in this passage can also be limiting divine providence. Dr. Elman expands on this idea and particularly focuses on Rava's position throughout the Talmud.

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