I. Chance or No Chance?
God controls the world. But how much attention, how much direct guidance, does He give to the details? Ramban provides an uncompromising statement on the subject, which requires further examination due to his own equivocation.
Ramban (Ex. 13:16) writes (tr. R. Aryeh Leibowitz, Hashgachah Pratis, p. 70):
From the overt major miracles man comes to a realization of the hidden miracles, which are the foundation of the Torah. For a person has no portion in the Torah of our teacher Moses unless he believes that all our matters and circumstances are miraculous, that they do not follow nature or the general course of the world–this is true regarding the nation and the individual.
According to the Ramban here, a person who denies that God directs everything miraculously is a heretic. There are no rules of nature, no happenstance or coincidence. Everything is a miracle. Every time I drop a rock and it falls, that is not gravity but a miracle.
This is surprising for a number of reasons. The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:51) explains that God’s direct providence only applies to those who attain perception of God. Meaning, only those who reach philosophical perfection receive direct providence. All others are left to chance. (See also Chinukh, no. 546; Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 4:10.) In the above passage, Ramban sharply dismisses this approach.
II. Way of the World
A guest of mine for Shabbos lunch suggested that this debate revolves around another dispute between Rambam and Ra’avad regarding the Messsianic Era. Following Shmuel’s Talmudic view, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Melakhim 12:1) writes that the normal way of the world will not change in messianic times. Animals will still behave as always and people will still work and live normal lives. Nature will not change. Rather, “olam ke-minhago holekh, the world will continue in its path.” Any prophecies to the contrary are parable.
Ra’avad (ad loc.) disagrees based on those prophecies. Rambam’s view is slightly more complex, as commentaries point out, because elsewhere he seems to accept some changes (ibid., 5) and also seems to reject Shmuel’s view (ibid., Hilkhos Teshuvah 8:7; Hilkhos Shabbos 19:1). Be that as it may, the Rambam clearly states that, in the Messianic Era, nature will continue in its course while Ra’avad disagrees.
Rambam’s view, my guest suggests, implies that there is such a concept as nature. If everything is a miracle, there is no nature to continue in its path. Instead, there is an illusion of nature that can change at any time as God chooses. According to the Rambam, there is a base of nature in which God intervenes at times with miracles. This nature will continue in the Messianic Era.
III. More Ramban
However, the Ramban’s view is more complex than the above quote allows. In his commentary to Iyov (Job 36:7), Ramban states that individual providence only applies to those who cling to God. All others are subject to nature and chance. Ramban seems to imply this in his commentary to Gen. 18:19, as well (see Rabbenu Bachya, ad loc.). In other words, Ramban clearly adopts the view which he states is outside the Torah!
Two recent books examine this contradiction and reach opposite conclusions. R. Moshe Eisemann (Ramban As a Guide to Today’s Perplexed, ch. 19) explains that Ramban essentially agrees with Rambam. According to the Ramban, only the righteous, those who cling to God, receive direct providence. All others are relegated to group providence and the forces of nature. Dr. David Berger (“Miracles and the Natural Order in Nahmanides” in R. Isadore Twersky ed., Rabbi Moses Nahmanides: Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity) offers a similar view and adds that the Ramban’s statement with which we began refers to acts of reward and punishment (see the continuation of that passage in the Ramban). Divine recompense is miraculous. Other happenings in this world may not be.
R. Aryeh Leibowitz (ibid., p. 71ff.) reaches the opposite conclusion. He argues that “chance” is really just hidden divine providence, unobvious miracles. Everything is a miracle, even if it seems like a natural occurrence. R. Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim, Pirkei Emunah Ve-Hashgachah, vol. 1 p. 109ff.) adopts the same approach. While this view has the benefit of easily harmonizing all statements, it ultimately reads many comments in the exact opposite way to which their plain meaning imply.
According to the first approach, we average people need not despair of divine assistance. We have two avenues of salvation. First, God rewards us for our merits and we can therefore add good deeds and pray that the reward arrive at a beneficial time. Additionally, we have in our power the ability to rise to a higher level of divine attention. Our goal should be to achieve constant divine providence.
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes (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 himself, 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.