Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hashgachah Pratis: A Book Review

Guest post by Shmuel Sofer

Hashgachah Pratis by Rabbi Aryeh Leibowitz, published by Targum Press, with approbations by R. Zev Leff, R. Hershel Schachter and R. Doniel Belsky.

There is a popular criticism that yeshiva students studying in contemporary yeshivas are exposed to in depth study of Talmud, commentaries and codes with too little exposure to issues of philosophy, Jewish thought and non-halachic subject matter. The veracity of that criticism is debatable as many yeshiva students do in fact get some exposure to non-halachic subjects at various stages in their education. Some exposure may be formal, in the setting of a classroom or lecture, while in other settings students will ask questions in an informal setting. Their peers and mentors may be able to respond to the point or to direct them to source material for self-study where the subject matter is discussed.

Click here to read moreOne of the subjects that students must grapple with is the concept of hashgachah pratis, i.e. how G-d interacts with us and our world. One of the distinguishing features of Judaism is that there is a universal belief that G-d, rather than being an uninterested Creator, has fashioned this world for a purpose and maintains an interest in what happens here. The concepts of Divine Omniscience (all knowing), Divine Omnipotence,(all powerful) and benevolence at times seem to collide with theodicy (evil in the world) and free will, and are a source of confusion for students.

The same questions that trouble students today were contemplated by Chazal and our early and later scholars. In this brief book, R. Aryeh Leibowitz has attempted to give the interested reader an introduction to this topic. The book consists of two major sections.

The first section deals with the question of how and to what degree G-d interacts with our world. Questions considered are: Is G-d a micromanager or macromanager when it comes to this world? I.e. does He involve Himself with each and every one and thing in this world or is He satisfied to control the big picture only, while leaving the details alone? Alternatively, His interaction with various components in the world may differ. If so what is the basis for this differential? Various terms are defined such as hashgachah pratis and hashgachah klalis. R Leibowitz further defines his own terminology of Specific Individual Divine and General Species Providence. R Leibowitz begins by reviewing the Talmudic and biblical sources as well as most of the classical and more contemporary approaches to these problems. At the same time he takes note of some seeming internal contradictions within the sources and attempts to resolve them and harmonize the various opinions.

In the second section he deals with the question of free will and its interaction with Divine Providence. If G-d wants something to happen can a person “subvert” G-d’s will? If not, then how is man held accountable for evil that he perpetrates or rewarded for the good that he does? When the Torah speaks of G-d hiding his face from the Jewish people, what does this mean? Once again, R. Leibowitz gathers the various sources and attempts to analyze them with an overarching goal of reconciling differing opinions and approaches.

While not a comprehensive review of the subject, Rabbi Leibowitz has done an admirable job of garnering the various resources. Notably absent is a discussion of the controversial approach of the Ralbag (Gersonides). In a typical Talmudic scholarly approach, he attempts to resolve the contradictions and minimize the areas of disagreement between the various approaches. As in any lomdus approach to a question, the resolution of the conflict may or may not ring true with the reader and other approaches may just as well be correct including the possibility of conflict and possibility of an internal contradiction of the sources. One may agree or disagree with his conclusions and resolutions but the work is a well worthwhile review of this important and intriguing area of investigation.