Sunday, December 17, 2006

Providence and Theodicy.

(Please read this post together with my three previous ones on Providence and Reward and Punishment – you can use the tags.)

The connection between Providence and Reward and Punishment is now obvious. Providence equals reward and its opposite Randomness equals punishment. At the same time we saw that Providence is result oriented and at times it is not always immediately clear what the result of an action will be. What we sometimes see as a bad outcome may be temporary and in the long term turn out to be good and meet the goal the person who acted has set for himself. That explains why we see people who act poorly seem to thrive at first. This brings us to the question of theodicy. It is one that has perplexed many and is the cause of much skepticism about God and His justice. Why do good people suffer and bad ones seem to flourish? Rambam in MN 3:19 addresses this as follows:

The Prophets have already stated the proof which ignorant persons offer for their belief that God does not know our actions: the fact that wicked people are living in prosperity and abundance. This fact leads also righteous and pious persons to think that it is of no use for them to aim at that which is good and to suffer for it through the opposition of other people. But the Prophets at the same time relate how their own thoughts were engaged on this question, and how they were at last convinced that in the instances to which these arguments refer, only the final outcome and not the beginning ought to be taken into account.”

Again we see the emphasis on the long term rather than the immediate. The underlying idea though in this whole issue of providence is that there is a rational Entity that set existence into motion, and that that Entity willed certain things and outcomes. Humans are expected to decipher that will and act in conformity with it. If they do that correctly they can only bring good which is the permanence of whatever their action affects. That explains the Torah’s insistence on the permanency of the Jewish people. The Torah is telling us that the actions of the founders of our religion the Avot, Moshe and the prophets who followed them understood God’s will and therefore their actions will result in the eternal existence of their progeny and followers.

Coming back to where we started with the question of the contradiction in Rambam . He first introduces man’s ability to think and that reward and punishment depend on it. He then explains the shipwreck and collapsing roof as follows:

It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within; but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.”

An observer of this calamity cannot know whether the long-term outcome of this event is good or bad thus, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding. The will of God here is that man has freedom of choice and is a thinking being. Here is Rambam’s definition of God’s will in this context: (MN 2:48)

It is clear that everything produced must have an immediate cause which produced it; that cause again a cause, and so on, until the First Cause of all things is reached, I mean God’s will and free choice… After having heard this remark, listen to what I will explain in this chapter; direct your special attention to it more than you have done to the other chapters of this part. It is this: As regards the immediate causes of things produced, it makes no difference whether these causes consist in substances, physical properties, freewill, or chance--by freewill I mean that of man--or even in the will of another living being besides man. The prophets ascribe the production directly to God and use such phrases as, God has done it, commanded it, or said it: in all such cases the verbs "to say," "to speak," "to command," "to call," and "to send" are employed. What I desired to state in this chapter is this: According to the hypothesis and theory accepted, it is God that gave will to dumb animals, freewill to the human being, and natural properties to everything.”

In other words the fact that God gave man freewill and the person that boarded the ship availed himself of that ability, it is seen as if he boarded at God’s will. This same ability however puts him under the regime of reward and punishment. If he acted properly his actions will eventually be meaningful otherwise his death was meaningless and that in itself is his punishment.

I now need to go to Hilchot Teshuvah and Shemona Perakim, Iggeret Teiman, letter to the Cachmei Marseilles and Ma’amar Techyat Hametim where Rambam also discusses his stand on Providence and see if this explanation is correct and fits. I will do that In January after I return from my vacation where I will not have Seforim at hand.


  1. Hi,

    Im sorry that this has nothing to do with this article you wrote but I am having problems finding sources online which could help me in writing my paper. I am writing about Jewish families. The things I want to talk about are:

    1) How the Jewish family has evolved (for example, how the structure of Jewish families has changed since the time of the Bible; such as gender roles for each spouse etc.)

    2) Jewish law with regards to family, marriage, divorce, child support etc.

    3) Statistics on Jews for child support, marriage, divorce etc.

    I would really appreciate if you could give me some sources of information. This is not a hard paper to write and I have found some sources already, but I want to do the paper today. If you can help me, please try to do it as soon as you can. Thank you.

  2. I am sorry but I cannot think of any online articles to that effect. There is a book by Avraham Grossman on women's role in the middle ages, Elisheva Baumgarten mothers and children,and reuven bonfil on women in italy (menachem mendel posted on it recently). Maybe this will give you a start if you can find it online. Good luck.