Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Historical and Personal aspects of Providence -

Rambam in MN 3:22 and 23 discusses Sefer Iyov. I found this discussion as one of the most difficult to understand especially chapter 23. Here is what I have so far clarified – I think. Any help will be much appreciated.

Sefer Iyov consists of a discussion between Iyov and four of his friends about theodicy. Rambam starts the discussion by pointing out that all five friends started with certain common understandings.

  • God knows what is happening to Iyov.
  • God caused his suffering
  • God is not unjust nor can He be accused of wrongdoing.

Iyov describes his suffering in spite of him being a righteous man. His friends try to console him, bring him hope, admonish him to be patient, control his speech and submit to god’s will. Iyov on the other hand bemoans his fate saying that he cannot restrain himself when faced with his great misfortune. His friends try to find reasons arguing that God is just and each one finds a different argument how to justify that. Each one proposes another theory which Rambam matches with each theory on providence that he listed in MN 3:17.

  • Iyov proposed Aristotles position that God is uninvolved in the running of the world. He is the First Cause but has no volition and therefore is irrelevant in its running.
  • Elifaz argued that we cannot judge what is right or wrong. Just because man behaves a certain way, thinking he is doing the right thing, does not insure that it is so. One has to always be introspective and verify that our actions are truly good. Rambam says that this is a position that is very close to the Torah’s view.
  • Bildad argued that one suffers in this world so that he is rewarded in the world to come.
  • Tzofer argued that God acts according to His volition. We cannot fathom His reasons and all we can do is submit.
  • Elihu’s position which Rambam says is the one Iyov accepted at the end and conforms to his own, I will discuss at length a little further on.

When we look at our actions and their consequences there are different perspectives that we have to keep in mind. In our day-to day life we expect that each action will have a consequence. In our interaction with others we can often predict the outcome. If we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes we can act in such a way that we will elicit a response that we expect. In our personal life, generally if we for example eat healthy, exercise and take good care of our body, we will be generally in good health and avoid sicknesses. If we work hard on something we generally do well and succeed. In other words there is a reward and punishment system in place. We can ascribe it to God as the Creator and all knowing or explain it away as a natural sequence of cause and effect.

It is when we do all the right things, we act according to the best of our abilities and still things go wrong that we are perplexed. How do we explain that? How can that be something God did or wanted? That is when we find ourselves tending towards taking God out of the equation and accept Aristotle’s argument; God has nothing to do with any of this, it is all pure chance and random. We do our best and cause and effect works generally but not always. When it does not it is pure chance and randomness. Iyov deals with this question and his first reaction is to accept Aristotle’s position. The arguments presented by his friends other than Elihu do not solve his dilemma. He finds fault with each of them.

The way I understand Rambam, he proposes two separate but complementary views which I would call the historical and the personal. The historical is the one I discussed in earlier posts where a person acts in ways that he believes have a lasting impact even as far as future generations. The model for such behavior is Moshe and the Patriarchs who set themselves a goal of creating a nation of servants of God. The personal reverses and struggle are much more acceptable if in the end the stated goal is achieved. The problem is of course the uncertainty that pervades the person that is acting. Prophecy in the sense of intense contemplation of God’s universe and man’s place in it help in reducing that doubt. This is how I understand Rambam’s words in MN 3:23

His (Elihu’s) description of the method of prophecy in preceding verses is likewise new. He says: "Surely God speaks in one way, yea in two ways, yet man perceives it not. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls upon man, in slumbering upon the bed" (ibid. 14, 15). He afterwards supports and illustrates his theory by a description of many natural phenomena, such as thunder, lightning, rain, and winds; with these are mixed up accounts of various incidents of life, e.g., an account of pestilence contained in the following passage: "In a moment they die, and at midnight; the people become tumultuous and pass away" (xxxiv. 20). Great wars are described in the following verse: "He breaks in pieces mighty men without number, and sets others in their stead" (ibid. 24).There are many more passages of this kind. In a similar manner the Revelation that reached Job (chap. xxxviii, chap. xli.), and explained to him the error of his whole belief, constantly describes natural objects, and nothing else; it describes the elements, meteorological phenomena, and peculiarities of various kinds of living beings. The sky, the heavens, Orion and Pleiades are only mentioned in reference to their influence upon our atmosphere, so that Job's attention is in this prophecy only called to things below the lunar sphere. Elihu likewise derives instruction from the nature of various kinds of animals. Thus he says: "He teaches us through the beasts of the earth, and makes us wise through the fowls of heaven" (xxxv. 11).

This intense contemplation of God’s universe coupled with man’s strong intellectual capacity of which prophecy is the paradigm, helps mitigate some of the difficulties facing people. However ultimately,

The description of all these things serves to impress on our minds that we are unable to comprehend how these transient creatures come into existence, or to imagine how their natural properties commenced to exist, and that these are not like the things which we are able to produce. Much less can we compare the manner in which God rules and manages His creatures with the manner in which we rule and manage certain beings. We must content ourselves with this, and believe that nothing is hidden from God ...”

There is a clear limit to how far this thinking can take us. We have a very micro view of what the effects of our actions will be. We can only see the results during our lifetime and even that is not really clear. What appears as a setback may in the end be an achievement or vice versa. We are left with faith that in doing what we understand to be the right thing will bring fruits eventually and that we are acting in a way that is compatible with God’s ways.

This is where the personal side of providence comes into play. In this process of contemplating the universe man gets an insight about God, the First Cause. He struggles to understand as much as he can about Him knowing that he will never really get to know Him, for He is unknowable. It is this search for the ultimate knowledge that is the core of a human being. It is this ability for abstract thought developed and used to its utmost capacity that makes us humans qua humans. A person who arrives at this level of understanding changes his perspective of what is important. His physical existence no longer is the most important thing. It is his intellectual world that takes on primacy.

When we know this we shall find everything that may befall us easy to bear; mishap will create no doubts in our hearts concerning God, whether He knows our affairs or not, whether He provides for us or abandons us. On the contrary, our fate will increase our love of God; as is said in the end of this prophecy: "Therefore I abhor myself and repent concerning the dust and ashes" (xlii. 6); and as our Sages say: "The pious do everything out of love, and rejoice in their own afflictions." (B. T. Shabb. 88b.)”

On a personal note: Although intellectually I can hear this argument for Providence and the justification for what I perceive as injustices and how to deal with them, I cannot emotionally absorb it. I guess that philosophizing is not enough and one must experience it to really understand it. It is not enough to talk theology, one must live it.

In MN 3:51 Rambam discusses this further. I will address that in a future post.

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