Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Rambam on Providence: A contradiction?

I would like to pose a question and ask readers if they would be so kind and suggest an answer. Reading MN 3:17 would be very helpful as I am laying out a contradiction within the same chapter, and we know Rambam told us in his introduction that only a fool contradicts himself in his writings.

Having established that natural disasters or calamities, whether personal or universal, cannot be seen as evil, how do we address the suffering of the victim(s)?

Aristotle according to Rambam saw that too as a random natural event and nature has no ethics. Isn’t man just another component of the whole universe? If the earthquake is necessary for the maintenance of the planet, the fact that the inhabitants, whether vegetable, animal or human, that happen to be in its vicinity suffer, is irrelevant. As Rambam in MN 3:17 explains Aristotle’s position:

All other movements, however, which are made by the individual members of each species are due to accident; they are not, according to Aristotle, the result of rule and management; e.g.

when a storm or gale blows, it causes undoubtedly some leaves of a tree to drop, breaks off some branches of another tree, tears away a stone from a heap of stones, raises dust over herbs and spoils them, and stirs up the sea so that a ship goes down with the whole or part of her contents.

Aristotle sees no difference between

The falling of a leaf or a stone and the death of the good and noble people in the ship;

Nor does he distinguish between

the destruction of a multitude of ants caused by an ox depositing on them his excrement and the death of worshippers killed by the fall of the house when its foundations give way;

Nor does he discriminate between the case of a cat killing a mouse that happens to come in her way, or that of a spider catching a fly, and that of a hungry lion meeting a prophet and tearing him.”

Rambam on the other hand agrees that as far as non-sentient beings, defined as everything except humans, there is no providence (Hashgacha). However humans have freedom of choice. That quality is a result of man’s ability to think independently, his intellectual capacity. Man can therefore choose to act within the parameters of divine providence or not.

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 accompanied by Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds from the point of view of reward and punishment.”

How do we explain the same events, the strong wind and its consequences, the spittle and the dung?

For I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree],

Nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment;

It is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it;

Nor is it by the direct will of God that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water.

In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle.”

Now comes the tough part:

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.”

If the method that God decides whether this is right or wrong is incomprehensible, what does it have to do with our intellect and freedom of choice? What exactly does the will of God mean in this context? Is the fact that he is in that collapsing building or sinking ship by his choice or God’s? To me this last statement is at first blush confusing.


  1. jewishskeptic12/06/2006 12:25 PM

    The way I understand the Rambam,David,is that he agrees with Aristotle that it was a chance storm that caused the ship to sink;however,the people on board who perished,their death was not by chance.Each one of them deserved death on account of some transgression he commited.

    Let's assume that one person on board was one of the greatest tsadikim known to us & it might cross our mind that this tsadik perished by chance just as the ship was sunk by chance,the Rambam says:no,the ship was indeed sunk by chance,but the tsadik died because really he wasn't such a complete tsadik.WE don't know what he was guilty of ,But God does & HE CAUSED HIM to board the ship that He knew was going to be sunk by chance,so that the tsadik die for his transgression.
    At the beginning of 'deah heh' he writes:
    שמוצא אתה אותם אומרים ברורות: אין מיתה בלא חטא ולא ייסורין בלא עוון35. הם אמרו: במידה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו. זה לשון המשנה36. והם אמרו מפורשות בכל מקום שהצדק מחויב והכרחי באשר לאל יתעלה, כלומר, שהוא גומל למציית על כל מעשׂי הטוב37 והיושר שעשׂה, אף אם לא נצטווה עליהם באמצעות נביא, ושהוא מעניש על כל מעשׂה רע שעשׂה אדם, אף אם לא נאסר עליו באמצעות נביא, שכּן הדבר אסור לו בטבעו-שמלידה (של האדם). כוונתי לאיסור העֹשֶק והעוול38.

    In sum: the boat was sunk by chance,but the people on board were lead there by God ,because they deserved to die.

    Am I missing something?

  2. Js, The problem is what you said
    But God does & "HE CAUSED HIM".

    If man has bechirah then how can God cause him to do something? Don't ask me from Par'oh because Rambam already explained that it is only by a great Choteh that God takes away the Bechirah. (That is the simple reading though I understand there too differently).

    The problem is magnified here. If Man because of his sechel has behirah and therefore hashgacha how does the chefetz hashem come into play?

  3. jewishskeptic12/06/2006 2:01 PM

    You have a shtarke kashe,David.
    There is a very long Shem Tov on that passage.I find interesting what he writes:
    והפלא ממאמר הרב כי כשאמר שהאדם הוא בעל יכולת ובחירה אמר שלא נשמע חולק באומתנו ושהיא פנת תורתנו וכשאמר השם לא יתכן עליו עול אמר שהוא פנת תורת מרע"ה,ואמנם הרעות הבאות לאדם אמר שהם על צד הדין לא אמר שזהו פנת תורת מרע"ה,למה שכבר אפשר שיבואו עליו צרות רבות ורעות לא שיהיה הוא מחוייב להענש עליהם.

  4. Of course I know all the Kashyes but I was hoping that someone would come up with an interesting answer.

    I think I know Rambam's position and I will post as soon as I get my head together.

  5. jewishskeptic12/06/2006 3:16 PM

    Maybe the answer is that Rambam holds that man doesn't have absolute freedom.
    He has freedom only when it comes to the *mefursamot*,see MN 1:ii.
    Only when it's choosing between morals does man have 'bechirah chofshit',but when it has to do between choosing chocolate ice cream or vanilla,the Rambam would hold that that the choosing is dictated by man's natural tendencies,or as we would maybe say today by his genetic makeup.

    That would go for whether he prefers blonds or brunettes or type of music he likes.

    IOW,his freedom extends ONLY TO MORALS.
    So, therefore,when the chasid boarded the ship,he followed his natural instincts.He HAD NO FREE WILL OF HIS OWN WHICH WOULD CONTRADICT GOD'S WILL who wants him to perish & lead him to take that trip.
    According to that, Rambam would hold that free will exists only with regard to morals.

    My gut feeling is that this is the correct answer to your kashe on the Rambam.

  6. Have a look in Shemona Perakim chapt 8 Kapach edition where he strats Ava halashon shematzanu lechachamim vehu omram hakol bydei shamayim etc... I think it contradicts your explanation.

  7. WEeneed to put it togetheh with the Ch. 51, which discussed the Providence of a person who is attached to G-d.
    In practical terms this can be interpreted in two ways.
    1. Ther is a certain level after which a Tsaddik is always and at all times under the direct providence.
    2. The providence and chance are mixed for every person. The higher the level, the greater the proportion of Providence compared to chance. It can be that certain events that such a person encounters are are by providence alone and others are not, or that the greater the person the more Providence shapes the outcome of every event.

    I once looked through various rishonim with this in mind and thought that there are, in fact, different approaches to this question. The Ramban amd R. Bachyes in Vayeara hold that there is threshold until which all is chance and after which all is providence, while Rambam believes in a mixture of Providence and chance so that as a person advances in Godliness, the proprotion of Providence increases.

    Either of the possibilites would answer your question, since in either model there are peopel and situation when chance plays a major role.

  8. Avakesh, your approach is the standard approach seen in popular understanding. The problem it is very impprecise. What exactly does it mean being a Tzaddik? Being machmir on a dikduk in a halacha? Davening with Kavanah? Doing chesed? What has that got to do with sechel? In fact how do you understand 3:51? What made the Avot and Moshe "Eileh ha'arba'ah" so different?