Online Adult Jewish learning

Foundations Course Information:

Course InfoDetailsSyllabusSample Lecture
Other Courses in this Series:

Foundations 1: Foundations of Judaism

Foundations 2: Responsible Leadership

Foundations 3: Encounters with G-d

Foundations 4: Oral Torah & Midrash

Foundations Series:
Divine Providence

Foundation V: What Forces Control My Life?

LESSON OUTLINE

  1. Presented Below: Introduction
  2. Providence and the Purpose of Creation
  3. Achieving Man's Purpose
  4. The Role of Prophecy in Providence
  5. Addendum - Moral Challenges

Introduction

In Lectures Two and Three, we will explore G‑d's relationship with Creation, and mankind in particular.

We will take as our starting point Nachmanides' (1195–1270, Spain-Israel) introduction to the Book of Job, where he provides a concise, yet powerful, explanation of several fundamental principles of Divine Providence.

Nachmanides (Introduction to the Book of Job)[1]

Nachmanides begins with two comprehensive doctrines of Jewish belief:

Below are two fundamental Torah principles that are distinct and well-known:

  • G‑d understands all there is to know about earthly creatures,[2] including all species of plants and animals, both on an individual and collective level,
  • G‑d exercises control over these creatures, collectively and individually.

Nachmanides emphasizes the importance of these two doctrines.

Indeed, to deny the validity of either doctrine is, in essence, to refute the entire Torah. Such denial is based on the assertion that G‑d possesses no knowledge of earthly creatures, or if G‑d does know how earthly creatures operate, He is not concerned with human affairs. Those who doubt the two doctrines of Jewish belief do not recognize that G‑d cares about the behavior of human beings, whether righteous or wicked. They are oblivious to His Divine protection of those who act justly and his punishment of those who behave shamefully.

Such flawed thinking detrimentally affects how one perceives G‑d and His relationship with the world. If we believe that G‑d does not care about how we behave, surely it makes sense to attribute good and bad things that happen to random causes. This attitude can also mislead us into believing that G‑d does not concern Himself with rewarding the righteous, and punishing the evil.

In addition, such belief denies the truth of prophetic communication, through which G‑d conveyed His Will regarding human moral behavior and reward and punishment.

Continuing in his introduction, Nachmanides reiterates the first doctrine of Jewish belief – G‑d's omniscience:

We must believe that G‑d understands all there is to know about the thoughts and actions of all heavenly and earthly creatures. G‑d's knowledge encompasses the time continuum of past, present and future.

King David expressed the doctrine of G‑d's omniscience: “…G‑d examines all hearts, and understands all the imaginations of [the heart's] thoughts…” (Chronicles I, 28:9).

What is the basis for our belief in G‑d's omniscience?

G‑d's omniscience is based on the knowledge that He created the universe from absolute nothingness and transformed it into its present condition. [Therefore, He knows everything about His creations.]

Nachmanides then reiterates the second doctrine of Jewish belief – Divine Providence:

The belief in G‑d's omniscience engenders belief in Providence[3] and Divine protection.[4] The Prophet Jeremiah described this progression of beliefs: “[G‑d, You are] great in counsel, and mighty in [Your] Providential workings; [Your] Eyes[5] are open upon all of mans' actions,[6] to give every one according to his actions,[7] and according to the consequences of his doings[8] (Jeremiah 32:19).

After discussing Providence, Nachmanides introduces prophetic communication, through which G‑d's standard for human behavior is conveyed, and the consequences of their observance and violation:

Belief in G‑d's omniscience and Providence extends to belief in prophetic communication. [Since G‑d knows everything about human affairs, and has a system of reward and punishment in operation, He must communicate His standards for human conduct.]

One can find within the Torah and its mitzvot, G‑d's Will regarding human conduct. We also learn about Divine promises of reward for righteous behavior and punishment for sinful actions.

Having concluded his presentation of the two doctrines, Nachmanides provides the reasoning behind his assumptions.

It is fitting that the Creator of Earth should maintain a providential relationship with His earthly creatures. G‑d did not create a pointless world; He did not create them to live by the caprice of random forces. Rather, G‑d exercised free will[9] in creating a purposeful universe, which includes His Will to relate to His creatures and their behavior. The Prophet relays this message of a purposeful design for the universe, “All of the Universe is called by My name;[10] I have created it from nothingness for My glory,[11] I have formed it, and I have made it with all its details” (Isaiah 43:7).

Summary

Nachmanides introduces the following sequence of principles that focus on man's centrality within Creation.

  • G‑d created the universe with a purpose. We understand this purpose to be His Divine Will to relate to its creatures, in particular man.
  • As the Creator of all that exists, G‑d comprehends everything in time and space.
  • G‑d exercises supreme control over Creation. This means that with the notable exception of human free will, G‑d is the ultimate driving force behind everything that occurs in the universe.
  • With regards to free will in human beings, G‑d operates a special system of control, which involves the concepts of reward and punishment. Its two main components are the following:
    • G‑d communicated to man His standard for human moral behavior through prophetic means. Historically, this occurred at the Sinai Revelation, when G‑d communicated to the Jewish people the Torah and its mitzvot, including reward and punishment for their observance and violation. He also revealed to mankind certain principles of Providence.[12]
    • G‑d implements His Torah-defined system of reward and punishment in response to human behavior.
  • This lecture, and the upcoming one, will elaborate on the main topics that are featured in Nachmanides' brief overview of the principles of Divine Providence.

The remainder of this lecture will be devoted to the following two topics:

  • G‑d's purpose in creating the universe, and how the world is set up to achieve His aim,
  • The role of prophetic communication in conveying G‑d's standard for human behavior.

In Lecture Three, we will examine what principles are in operation when G‑d implements His system of reward and punishment.

The remainder of this lecture will be presented in the course.


[1] Introduction to Nachmanides' writings: The following excerpt is characteristic of Nachmanides' writing style, in which the author introduces a topic briefly before explaining it in greater depth later on in the essay or even in his other works.

[2] Nachmanides will later extend this principle to G*d's comprehensive knowledge of all created beings, including heavenly creatures.

[3] As will become clear in this lecture and the next, Nachmanides defines Divine Providence in two ways:

         G*d maintains supreme control over created existence, and,

         G*d oversees a reward and punishment system for human moral behavior.

[4] Nachmanides refers to a particular feature of Providence, whereby G*d intervenes in the natural order of events (“nature”). He does this so as to protect righteous individuals or groups of people from injury. This will be discussed in Lecture Three.

[5] In Lecture One (“Selected Explanations of Anthropomorphism”), we learnt that according to Rabbi Sa'adiah's explanation of the term, G*d's “eyes” refers to Divine Providence. G*d oversees the actions of man.

[6] This statement confirms the principle of Divine knowledge of human affairs.

[7] This statement confirms the principle of Divine reward and punishment for human moral behavior.

[8] According to Rabbi Hillel Altshuler (author of the Metzudos Dovid commentary to the books of the Prophets), the word “doing” refers to the ripple effect of people's (good and bad) behavior. For example, one person's good or bad behavior often influences other people to act in the same way. Therefore, at least to some degree, the righteous person or sinner deserves to have a share in the reward or punishment of those who he influenced.

[9] That is, G*d was not coerced into creating the universe, either by any external force or by some innate deficiency or need that compelled Him to establish Creation.

[10] This means that the universe is associated with G*d by virtue of His having created it from nothingness.

[11] This means that our wondrous universe testifies to G*d's greatness. By contemplating the universe, we are able to achieve a heightened appreciation of its wonders, and praise its Creator.

[12] Talmudic Sources (Tractate Sanhedrin 56b) teach that an earlier moral code of seven mitzvot was prophetically communicated to Adam at the dawn of history, and later, to Noah, following the Great Flood. These universally binding mitzvot, known as the Seven Noahide Laws, consist of a single positive mitzvah (to establish a court system), and six negative prohibitions (murder, theft, idolatry, certain sexual relationships, removing flesh from a live animal, and blasphemy).