How Much Providence?

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by R. Gil Student

Religious people see God acting in their lives, directing their destiny. How much of that is wishful thinking and how much is legitimate theology? The religious air we breathe assumes that God controls everything, no matter how large or small. Judaism’s teachings on that subject seem contradictory, at times saying that God controls all and at times showing exclusions for which God relinquishes control.

I. Providence Over Time

In a relatively recent book, Darkei Hashgacha – The Paths of Providence: Does G-D Control Everything?, Chaim Gross explores the topic of hashgachah peratis, individual providence. What do Jewish philosophers and theologians say about the extent of God’s providence in the world? The subtitle of this book, “does God control everything?,” serves as the backdrop for a sweeping survey of Jewish thought over the centuries. With humble and clear prose, Gross thoroughly explores the different views among the Rishonim (Medieval thinkers) and Acharonim (modern thinkers). Despite all the many different opinions, Gross ably shows trends of thought.

Rishonim generally see limits to individual providence. God allows for nature to take its course and intervenes under specific circumstances. God rewards observance of commandments and punishes sins. He directs species and nations. He closely guides the righteous. But individual, average people sometimes — perhaps most of the time — live under the laws of nature. (For one of many examples, see Sefer Ha-Chinukh, no. 546.)

In the modern era, Jewish thinkers adopt a view of universal individual providence. God guides everything that happens in the world. Everything that happens to you, whether good or bad, is decreed by God. Chasidim and Misnagdim, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, with few exceptions adopts this belief. All this is fairly common knowledge in Jewish thought. Aside from his clear explanations and breadth of citation, Gross adds little new up to this point. His contributions are two-fold.

II. The Change

Gross asks when and why the view of individual providence changed. He vividly demonstrates a dramatic shift in thought in the eighteenth century. The seventeenth century experienced a number of trends and events that led to an embrace of mysticism. The Arizal lived in the prior century and his kabbalistic teachings spread. The pogroms of 1648-1649 (Tach Ve-Tat) spurred many to look for mystical explanations of the tragedy. Spinoza’ heresy in the seventeenth century and its further growth in the Haskalah in the eighteenth century caused a mystical backlash against rationalism. The spread of mysticism among Chasidim and Misnagdim (under the influence of the Vilna Gaon) included three teachings that strongly reinforced belief in complete individual providence: God’s immanence, non-literal understanding of Tzimtzum (God’s contraction) and the importance of cleaving to God (Deveikus).

In the early eighteenth century, two important kabbalistic thinkers advance theories of complete individual providence with certain limitations, which can be seen as a step from the Rishonim to the Acharonim. Ramchal advocates complete individual providence in a number of works (e.g. Derekh Hashem 2:3:11-12) but also says that animals are only guided on a species level, not individually (Ma’amar Ha-Ikkarim). Rav Yosef Ergas (Shomer Emunim 2:81) also adopts the view of complete individual providence for humans, albeit with a number of exceptions. Later in the eighteenth century and beyond, a consensus of complete providence over everything takes hold.

III. The Convergence

Gross further shows a surprising convergence in the twentieth century. Jewish thinkers operating within the framework of complete individual providence of the Acharonim have moved closer to the limited individual providence of the Rishonim. These thinkers struggled with classical Talmudic ideas about providence. In explaining them, they give up much ground of individual providence. For example, the Rishonim write about general providence (hashgachah kellalis) that guides species in total but not individuals, who are left to nature. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu vol. 5 p. 308) explains general providence as meaning that God guides each individual specifically but someone who falls under general providence will be subject to judgment based on a group or species. Everyone receives individual providence but sometimes only as-if the person was not an individual but part of a larger group.

Similarly, Rav Shlomo Wolbe (Alei Shur 2:4:3:6) explains that a person must make an effort to earn a living (hishtadlus) as a form of religious challenge. God provides but every individual is challenged to earn a living in order to rise spiritually. According to the same line of thinking, negligence leads to suffering not as a natural result but as a divine punishment for the negligence (Rav Chaim Friedlander, Sifsei Chaim: Emunah Ve-Hashgachah, vol. 1 p. 119-122). Effectively, individual providence often acts as you would expect nature to act.

Additionally, when analyzing the conflict between free will and divine providence, recent commentators give precedence to free will (e.g. Meshekh Chokhmah, Gen. 1:26). If free will operates whenever you can choose to do a mitzvah, providence is greatly limited because much of the day is spent engaged in one mitzvah or another.

In effect, Gross argues, recent thinkers who have adopted complete individual providence have still greatly limited it. Their worldview becomes similar to that of the Rishonim, despite protestations to the contrary.

Gross’ book engages the reader, whether with a yeshiva background or without, in deep discussion of Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. His encyclopedic treatment examines texts and concepts in an accessible way. Darkei Hashgacha surveys the post-Talmudic history of Jewish thought and raises new points that deserve consideration. We are supposed to see God in our lives but how much? This book takes you through the different Jewish answers to that question across the centuries.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

One comment

  1. The rishonim lived in a world where philosophy was dominated by the Greeks, the focus was on trying to discuss what is objectively out there. Hashgachah (including but not limited to hashgachah peratis) to them meant the alternative to nature, randomness, free-willed human decisions, etc…

    Moderns are living after Kant. We’re less focused on objective metaphysical ontologies, and think more in terms of reality-as-experienced. To us, hashgachah is discussed in relation to hishtadlus and bitachon.

    I would suggest that most of the gap is indeed an illusion, because we are speaking about different things.

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