Monday, April 11, 2005

Individual Providence

I recently saw the following exchange on a website:

Someone recently informed me that he doesnt beleive in hashgacha pratis. He claims that the Ramban didnt either, that he wrote in ten places that theres no such thing and in one place he merely alluded to the idea\'s truth. Is that true; do you know about it; whats up with that? Please can you check out this inyan for me? Thanks. Peace.
It's not so. Simple as that.

Maybe the person meant the RambaM, but that also isn't true. But at least the Rambam says that Hashgachah Pratis is only on humans, not animals (they have Hashgachah minis - a species-wide hashgachah, not individual aminal by animal hashgachah). That's the closest thing to what the person told you.
The response is clearly well-meaning but it is also slightly disingenuous. When and if the questioner investigates further, she might be surprised at what she discovers and conclude that her respondent lied to her. He did not, because his answer is technically correct. However, he certainly concealed critical information from her. If I were dealing with Bais Yaakov girls, I might answer as follows:
All rishonim accepted hashgacha pratis. However, the issue within some rishonim is complex because they were trying to explain it based on Greek philosophy. We, who live in the modern world and reject Greek philosophy, cannot accept their complicated approaches. We can certainly ask many questions -- good questions -- about how hashgacha pratis works. But we cannot accept answers that are based on Greek philosophy and should, instead, look for answers rooted in our tradition that do not utilize philosophy that has been widely rejected in our time. Your friend is both mistaken and, even if he were correct, is basing his approach on an ancient Greek worldview that no one today, not even gentiles, accept.
But more to the point. What is the Rambam's view on Individual Providence, hashgahah peratis? This is no simple matter!

R. Shmuel Ibn Tibbon, while translating the Moreh Nevukhim (henceforth MN) from Arabic into Hebrew, wrote an extensive letter to the Rambam for clarification of his view on this topic. The problem is that in MN 3:17-18, 22-23, the Rambam seems to accept that Individual Providence means an acquisition of wisdom -- an intellectual connection with God and not a direct Divine intervention to protect him from harm. However, in MN 3:51, the Rambam posits that Individual Providence means "that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind." R. Shmuel Ibn Tibbon suggests a number of resolutions to this contradiction, rejecting them all and asking the Rambam for assistance. It seems that he never received a response. However, his son, R. Moshe Ibn Tibbon, offered two solutions to the problem. The second answer is that the first set of passages deal with the Individual Providence bestowed upon a philosopher while the second passage discusses the Individual Providence visited on an intellectually and religious perfect person.

This problem has been dealt with many times over the centuries, most recently by Charles Raffel in his unpublished 1983 doctoral dissertation (if anyone is in contact with him, please let him know that I am interested in scanning in his dissertation and posting it for free download on Open Access; he can reach me here). Let us assume the maximalist position -- that the Rambam's position is exactly as he states it in MN 3:51. Even so, it is still a position of "providence according to the intellect."
We have already stated in the chapters which treat of Divine Providence, that Providence watches over every rational being according to the amount of intellect which that being possesses. Those who are perfect in their perception of God, whose mind is never separated from Him, enjoy always the influence of Providence. But those who, perfect in their knowledge of God, turn their mind sometimes away from God, enjoy the presence of Divine Providence only when they meditate on God; when their thoughts are engaged in other matters, divine Providence departs from them...

Hence it appears to me that it is only in times of such neglect that some of the ordinary evils befall a prophet or a perfect and pious man: and the intensity of the evil is proportional to the duration of those moments, or to the character of the things that thus occupy their mind. Such being the case, the great difficulty is removed that led philosophers to assert that Providence does not extend to every individual, and that man is like any other living being in this respect, viz., the argument based on the fact that good and pious men are afflicted with great evils. We have thus explained this difficult question even in accordance with the philosophers' own principles. Divine Providence is constantly watching over those who have obtained that blessing which is prepared for those who endeavour to obtain it. If man frees his thoughts from worldly matters, obtains a knowledge of God in the right way, and rejoices in that knowledge, it is impossible that any kind of evil should befall him while he is with God, and God with him. When he does not meditate on God, when he is separated from God, then God is also separated from him; then he is exposed to any evil that might befall him; for it is only that intellectual link with God that secures the presence of Providence and protection from evil accidents. Hence it may occur that the perfect man is at times not happy, whilst no evil befalls those who are imperfect; in these cases what happens to them is due to chance. (Friedlander translation)
Thus, those who are not meditating on God lose their Individual Providence. When one is not thinking about God, "chance" rules over one's life and evil can, therefore, occur to a righteous person.

The Ramban, in his commentary to Job 36:7, essentially follows the position of the Rambam:
To the extent that this individual comes close to God by cleaving to him, he will be guarded especially well, while one who is far from God in his thought and deeds, even if he does not deserve death because of his sin, will be forsaken and left to accidents...

Those who are close to God are under absolute protection, while those who are far from him are subject to accidents and have no one to protect them from harm...

Since most of the world belongs to this intermediate group, the Torah commanded that warriors be mobilized...
There is an important difference between the Rambam's and the Ramban's formulations, in that the Rambam refers only to intellectual achievement while the Ramban refers to piety and not intellectual achievement. Even according to R. Moshe Ibn Tibbon's second explanation of the Rambam, the Rambam still requires both intellectual achievement and piety while the Ramban only piety.

Be that as it may, and there is much more to be said about the positions of the Rambam and the Ramban (see this post), they clearly believe that Individual Providence is severely limited in application, both in regards to the people to whom it applies and the circumstances in which it is invoked.

The most comprehensive treatment that I have found of theses views in yeshivishe works, as opposed to academic works, is in R. Hayim Friedlander's Sifsei Hayim, Emunah u-Vitahon, vol. 1 p. 96 ff. R. Friedlander points out that the Rambam seems to contradict various passages in Hazal that imply constant, universal providence, and then proceeds to explain that even "chance" is merely God's hidden providence. This seems to me to be a very difficult position to read into the Rambam and the Ramban.

Given the Rambam's and Ramban's views of Individual Providence, one is struck by man's inability to rely on God for protection. How are we supposed to respond to tragedy when, ultimately, it is most likely that God will not stop it from happening to us again? R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik addresses this in his Halakhic Man, p. 128:
The fundamental of providence is here transformed into a concrete commandment, an obligation incumbent upon man. Man is obliged to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of the individual providence that watches over him. Everything is dependent on him; it is all in his hands. When a person creates himelf, ceases to be a mere species man, and becomes a man of God, then he has fulfilled that commandment which is implicit in the principle of providence.
In other words, we should take this idea as a challenge. We must make ourselves worthy of Individual Providence. Our response to tragedy should be the realization that we are capable of avoiding it in the future if we improve ourselves and make ourselves worthy of Individual Providence.

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