Divine providence: How does God act in the world?


Although many people say that they believe in “Divine Providence”, we find that this term has been used to connote at least six distinct positions; thus we must take care to define what we mean by this term. In the Guide for the Perplexed III:17 Maimonides mentions five possibilities, discussed below, and we also consider a sixth possibility, held by many modern day Jews.

a) There is no providence. God does not intervene in the world in any way. This is the opinion of Epicureans, and is the archetype heresy within Judaism. Normative Judaism has always rejected this view.

b) God intervenes in certain matters, and other matters are left to chance. This is the position that Maimonides attributes to Aristotle.

c) Nothing at all is due to chance or free will. All that happens is literally the will of God. This is the opinion of the Islamic sect, the Ash’ariyya, and is the mainstream position within Orthodox Islam today. With a handful of notable exceptions such as Hasdai Crescas, or some within Chabad Lubavitch, normative Judaism has rejected this view.

d) Man has free will, the ability to act of his own accord, and God does not intervene because of this. The Islamic philosophical school known as Mu’tazila holds this way.

e) The fifth opinion is Maimonides’ preferred one:
“Divine providence in my personal view is a consequence of divine emanation. The species which is touched by this overflowing of the intellectual and thereby becomes itself endowed with intellect, through which it is made aware of all that intellect can reveal – that species is the one which is attended by divine providence, and all of its actions are accountable. [Maimonides then goes on to explain why animals are not covered by providence, and why Scripture shows that people are.] “Try to grasp my position in its full implications: I do not believe that anything is hidden from God, nor do I ascribe to God any incapacity. Rather, what I believe is that providence is a necessary consequence of intellect. For providence can only flow from a mind of consummate perfection – and all who are touched by that outpouring sufficiently to be reached by mind are reached by providence as well. This is the position which in my view is in harmony not only with reason but also with the texts of revelation.”

Maimonides’ own preferred commentator and translator, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, explains that Maimonides held that Providence is intellectual only:
Providence is when a man no longer is bothered by any material affliction. No miracles occur. A person of perfected intellect simply no longer gives world problems any significance.
[Aviezer Ravitzky, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the Perplexed”, Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review, Vol.6, 1981, p.87-123]

Marvin Fox, one of the 20th century’s leading experts on Maimonides, writes:
“I am inclined to think that Maimonides’ point is not that God actively intervenes in the natural order so as to protect the deserving from every misfortune, but rather that when one has achieved this very high level of intellectual fellowship with God no earthly misfortune is of any consequence. From a mature perspective the troubles of a child are childish and have little true importance. Men of true knowledge have a similar view of what ordinary men consider to be great misfortunes, and are thus protected from them. It is not that nothing happens to them that is from an ordinary scheme painful or injurious, but that such events are of little consequence in their scheme of values.”
[Marvin Fox, “Interpreting Maimonides”, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990, p.316]

(f) Many, perhaps most, non-Orthodox Jews, believe that God acts in the world through persuasion, and not by coercion. God makes Himself manifest in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, and not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature. See the works of Rabbis Harold Kushner and Milton Steinberg for examples of this theology.

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