Divine Providence

According to some thinkers, God only watches over people in a general way; according to others, divine providence extends to the minute details of life.

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The discussion below begins in the Middle Ages and then goes back in time to discuss talmudic ideas. The author does this because the questions surrounding divine providence are more explicit in medieval sources. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The Hebrew term for divine providence, hashgahah, was first used by the medieval Jewish theologians who, under the influence of Greek philosophy, preferred abstract terms to denote ideas found in concrete form in the Bible and the rabbinic literature. But the idea that God controls and guides the world He has created permeates the Bible and the post‑biblical literature. The very term hashgahahis based on the verse in Psalms (34:14): "From the place of His habitation He looketh intently [hishgiah] upon all the inhabitants of the earth." 

General and Special Providence

The abstract discussions of the medievals were largely around the scope of divine providence. Two types of providence are considered: 1. hashgahah kelalit, "general providence," God's care for the world in general and for species in general; and 2. hashgahah peratit, "special providence," God's care for each individual.

Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed (3:17‑18), defends both types of providence but limits special providence to human beings and even then believes that it is only extended to individuals who lead intellectual and pious lives. Gersonides, in his Wars of the Lord (Part IV), discusses the question at length and arrives at a similar conclusion. This means that, for instance, God takes care, so to speak, that the species of spiders and flies are preserved but He does not ordain that a particular spider catches a particular fly. That happens purely by chance.

These thinkers thus allow the recognition that there is a random element in nature. Only man, when he rises in moral stature and intel­ligence, becomes linked, as it were, to the divine and so comes under the divine care for him as an individual.

Hasdai] Crescas, in his Light o the Lord (Part II, 2:4), takes issue with this view.

God created man because of His love for him and love is not dependent on conditions such as the intellectual or moral capacity of its recipients. All men, argues Crescas, not only saints and philosophers, enjoy God's special providence. All three thinkers do not accept the view of the Islamic Ashariyah [school] that God decides which leaf should fall at which time from each tree, a view of divine providence rare in this stark form in Jewish thought until it became prominent in Hasidism.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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