Thursday, August 02, 2007

Providence and Philosophy in War

The saying goes that there is no atheist in a foxhole. A corrollary could be that there is no philosopher during battle. However, in R. Haim Sabato's fascinating literary account of his experiences during the Yom Kippur War, Adjusting Sights, I found three explicit discussions of the issue of whether divine providence applies to individuals, a prominent philosophical topic in the medieval literature. In fact, I believe that the struggle over this issue, in the context of why some people survive battle and others do not, is a major theme in the short but powerful book:

Not that the soldier who now approached me [while I was on watch at the Canal] was exactly familiar. He was tall and stoop-shouldered with largen intelligent eyes, and I recognized him as a second lieutenant in the paratroopers. We stood there talking. He was, he said, an undergraduate philosophy major. He had heard I was a yeshiva student and had studied Maimonides. There were some things he wanted to discuss with me.

We talked about Maimonides' view of individual Providence. If Maimonides really believed, the second lieutenant said, that the world was governed by the laws of nature, how could God suspend them for a specific individual? Nature's laws applied equally to everyone.

I gave him the answer I had been taught. There were, I said, different approaches to the problem. Maimonides' was that God's Providence sometimes extended to individual cases, but only with human beings. He himself, Maimonides wrote in his Guide To The Perplexed, was surprised by his own conclusions regarding thew relationship between the intellectual knowledge of God and the divine emanation bestowed on the knower.

We debated that for a while. The second lieutenant pointed out inconsistencies in my position and I tried to harmonize them. One of his objections stumped me. I was mulling over it when... (p. 40)

Elhanan said:
"It was hard to say goodbye to my wife Malka on that night after Yom Kippur. I could see how worried she was. I too had a bad feeling. While we were packing my things, I talked to her about faith and trust in God's Providence. I quoted some verses from the Bible and from the rabbis. I knew that Providence is for the Jewish People as a whole and not for any individual. Even Jacob, though he was promised that God would always be with him, was frightened when Esau marched against him with four hundred men. But I managed to calm Malka down. We were still packing when Yoel dropped by to say goodbye and surprised me by saing that the verse the Lord will not cast off His people, neither will He forsake His inheritance doesn't apply to any single one of us, so that we all have to pray for our own lives to be spared... (p. 98)

The second thing in Maimonides that bothered me that night [after Yom Kippur, when I left the base in my tank] was his saying that whoever goes to war without fear, with a pure mind and a whole heart, will come to no harm and return safely. How could a philosopher say such a thing? Surely, no one is guaranteed against the Angel of Death. As we were debating this, I remembered a passage in the Guide To The Perplexed in which Maimonides writes that he himself was surprised by the philosophical conclusions he came to regarding God's protection of the individual who cleaves to Him with all his heart. And yet even if this is philosophically the case, what individual is so deserving? (pp. 142-143)

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