Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Providence - an acquired state.

In my earlier post I ended up with two components of providence; freedom of choice of a kind that is universal and extant in all living. We also saw that Reward and Punishment is a direct result of an action; it is the consequence of any act.

(If the reader wants to verify my understanding of Rambam, the following chapters in MN are pertinent and should be read carefully: 3:17-18-51.)

If Reward and Punishment is a consequence of an action it should theoretically apply to all things that act, all living things. Why then do we not find the idea of Reward and Punishment in the Torah for any living thing other than man? Why are we permitted to slaughter animals for food? What did the animal do wrong to deserve that? This question really supports the understanding of Aristotle that what we consider a consequence of Divine will is nothing more than pure randomness. There is no empirical impetus for differentiating between humans and animals. The sentience of man just increases the randomness of his actions, adding a component to man’s decision process. Animals are impelled by their natural instincts and suffer the consequences thereof while man is restrained or pushed by his ability to think, which makes it more difficult to predict how he will act.

Because there is no empirical evidence for his position, Rambam introduces his understanding of Hashgacha with a strong proviso:

My opinion on this principle of Divine Providence I will now explain to you. In the principle which I now proceed to expound I do not rely on demonstrative proof, but on my conception of the spirit of the Divine Law, and the writings of the Prophets. The principle which I accept is far less open to objections, and is more reasonable than the opinions mentioned before.”(MN3:17)

It is how Rambam understands the ontological point of view of the Torah and the prophets. The importance of this statement cannot be minimized. What it says is that all observe the same phenomena; we see things happening in exactly the same way, the interpretation of the event, the perspective from which we look at it, are different and fit with the total teachings of the Torah and prophets.

Before we go further we need to define exactly what the word Hashgacha, usually translated as Providence, really means. When discussing Aristotle’s position earlier in chapter 17, Rambam states:

In short, the opinion of Aristotle is this: Everything is the result of management which is constant, which does not come to an end and does not change any of its properties, as e.g., the heavenly beings, and everything which continues according to a certain rule, and deviates from it only rarely and exceptionally, as is the case in objects of Nature. All these are the result of management, i.e., in a close relation to Divine Providence.”

Divine Providence is constancy. When there is no randomness and things are predictive, it is considered to be under Divine Providence. The movements of the stars are predictable and therefore are considered under Divine Providence. Of course this assessment is based on Aristotelian physics. We now know that things are different and there is randomness there too especially over long periods of time. The idea though remains that Hashgacha / Providence refers to predictable events. Rambam in fact contrasts Hashgacha with randomness:

But that which is not constant, and does not follow a certain rule, as e.g., incidents in the existence of the individual beings in each species of plants or animals, whether rational or irrational, is due to chance and not to management; it is in no relation to Divine Providence. Aristotle holds that it is even impossible to ascribe to Providence the management of these things.”

We can summarize by saying Hashgacha / Providence is the opposite of randomness. Humans who have free will and choice are therefore the most random entities in the universe followed by animals and other living things according to Aristotle.

Rambam sees it quite differently. Once man is able to understand the universe created by God and extrapolate from that the direction it is headed, or in religious parlance, understand the will of God and wants to partake in that endeavor, his actions are no longer random. They are goal oriented and therefore predictable.

Divine Providence is connected with Divine intellectual influence, and the same beings which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also under the control of Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds in order to reward or punish them.”

It is incumbent on man to develop his intellect to the point where he understands the will of God. At that point he no longer acts in a random fashion. Hashgacha which is the opposite of randomness takes over. He becomes predictable and as he achieves his goal, that achievement is his reward. However if man does not develop his potential, he is left to randomness just like all other living entities. That is his punishment. Intellect and its proper use leads to predictable goal oriented behavior and consequent outcome. That is Hashgacha / Providence which therefore affects only humans who use their intellect constructively. Other living things remain under the influence of randomness, their natural state.

The problem is that it is not a simple matter to know with certainty what the will of God is. It will sometimes take more than a lifetime, many lifetimes and generations, before we find out if the understanding and consequent actions of a particular individual were correct. Reward and Punishment is no longer just how an individual fares in his own physical well-being. It takes on a macro view. It is the impact that a life has that counts. I understand that to be the unknown that Rambam refers to; “and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding”. The good outcome of an individual’s action is the only evidence whether he acted correctly. That is why we find even our patriarchs like Yaakov full of doubt about their actions and goals as the Rabbis say it “Shema yigrom hacheit”. It is also why Rambam sees Moshe and the patriarchs as the paradigms of people who were blessed with Hashgacha. After all their actions are still felt thousands of years later by their descendants, their goal of building a nation that knows God still evolving.

All that is mentioned of the history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a perfect proof that Divine Providence extends to every man individually.”

It therefore makes sense that Providence is a function of the correctness of a person’s understanding and consequent actions.

The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are "like unto the beasts."” (MN3:18)

And again Rambam sees Moshe and the patriarchs as the paradigm of perfect recipients of Divine Providence:

Consider how the action of Divine Providence is described in reference to every incident in the lives of the patriarchs, to their occupations, and even to their passions, and how God promised to direct His attention to them. Thus God said to Abraham, "I am thy shield" (Gen. 15:1); to Isaac, "I will be with thee, and I will bless thee" (ibid. 26:3); to Jacob, "I am with thee, and will keep thee" (ibid. 28:15); to [Moses] the chief of the Prophets, "Certainly I will be with thee, and this shall be a token unto thee" (Exod. 3:12); to Joshua, "As I was with Moses, so I shall be with thee" (Josh. 1:5). It is clear that in all these cases the action of Providence has been proportional to man's perfection.”

We can sum up that Hashgacha / Providence is a state a person acquires through his intellect and proper actions. It is only a posteriori, when the consequences of these actions are evaluated, that we know the correctness of the original act. However every human has the potential to emulate God and partake in acts that have long-term constructive goals – or under the umbrella of divine Hashgacha / Providence.

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