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.

Print this page Print this page

The medieval think­ers were also profoundly concerned with the question of how human freedom can come into operation if everything happens as a result of divine providence.

Talmudic Views

The Talmudic rabbis did not explore the question of divine providence as a philosophical problem and, generally speaking, prefer to affirm that God's care extends over all without dwelling too much on how providence operates. The result is that, as on other theological topics, a wide variety of opinions are expressed without any attempt at systematic treatment.

The famous Talmudic statement regarding God's providence extending to all His creatures is the saying that God "feeds the whole world from the horned buffalo to the brood of vermin" (Avodah Zarah 3b). The late second­-century teacher Rabbi Hanina gave expression to the extreme view of divine providence over human beings when he said: "No man bruises his finger here on earth unless it was so decreed against him from on high" (Hullin 7b).

Mystical Views

The Italian Kabbalist Joseph Ergas (1685‑1730), in his Shomer Emunim (Preserving Be­liefs) (ii. 81), summarizes what he considers to be the Kabbalistic views on the subject: "Nothing occurs by accident, without intention and divine providence, as it is written [Leviticus 21:24]: 'Then will I also walk with you in chance [be‑keri].' You see that even the state of 'chance' is attributed to God, for everything proceeds from Him by reason of special provi­dence."

For all that, Ergas follows Maimonides, without mentioning the sage by name, in limit­ing special providence to the human species:

"However, the guardian angel has no power to provide for the special providence of non­-human species; for example, whether this ox will live or die, whether this ant will be trodden on or be spared, whether this spider will catch this fly and so forth. There is no special providence of this kind for animals, to say nothing of plants and minerals, since the purpose for which they were created is attained by the species alone, and there is no need for providence to be extended to individuals of the species. Consequently, all events that happen to individuals of these species are by pure chance and not by divine decree, except, as we shall presently explain, where it is relevant for the divine providence concerning mankind."

The Hasidim, otherwise admirers of Ergas, were scandalized by these remarks. For Hasidism, as for the [Islamic] Ashariyah centuries before, divine providence extends over everything; nothing moves without direct divine control, no stone lies where it does unless God wills it so. The early Hasidic master Pinchas of Koretz remarks: "A man should believe that even a piece of straw that lies on the ground does so at the decree of God. He decrees that it should lie there with one end facing this way and the other end the other way."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.