Saturday, November 29, 2014

Moses Maimonides on Providence (The Sovereignty of God)


Moses Maimonides (Cir. 1135-1204 C.E.) affectionally referred to as the Rambam wrote a profound philosophical work in approximately 1190 C.E. called The Guide of The Perplexed. Within this book he provided a very enlightening exposition regarding his view of the concept of divine providence. Recognizing the complexity of this subject and seeing many philosophy and Bible students avoiding it one comes to appreciate Maimonides and his efforts to tackle the concept of providence. Because Maimonides wrote in medieval times he cannot be understood using modern presuppositions.[1]  In fact Colette Sirat’s excellent introductory work on this subject in her own words affirms this. “This book was written…. In an attempt to elucidate their (Middle Age philosophers) meaning and to situate them in their historical context.” [2] Therefore in order to begin to understand what he explained it is important to examine at least the term providence.

Since terms have meaning and we are reading an English version of The Guide of The Perplexed translated in 1963 C.E., it is helpful to identify the words used designating providence. In English the word is of late Middle English origin, which comes through Old French from the Latin providential meaning to attend to or to provide.[3] Of course Maimonides may have been acquainted with Middle English, which is recognized as beginning with the Norman invasion of 1066 C.E., but he wrote the Guide in Arabic. Then in 1204 C.E. though a contemporary of his, Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon, [4] it was translated into Hebrew.

Ibn Tibbon coined the Hebrew term hashgahah as a translation of the Arabic word ana yah to “provide.” Both of these words are language descriptors of providence. These terms seem to be used most often in efforts to describe universal or even individual measures of governance with which God carries out His controlling criterion of the universe and particularly this earth and its inhabitants.  In a sense then God plans, foresees, and governs the universe as well as the world as an object of His care.
The subject of providence carries with it several sub categories. Chief among these are creation, origin of evil, and conservation or administration. While not the primary object of this paper some consideration of Maimonides’ views on evil is helpful to understand his exposition of providence.


Maimonides begins his discussion answering the question, “Does God create evil?” He quotes the Islamic school of Mutakallemim, who were adherents of Kalam; an Islamic theological-philosophical school during the Middle Ages [5] by saying their position was in error. Within their thoughts regarding evil they said for example that physical maladies such as blindness and deafness were positive properties actually created by God. They did not view these as privations but creations. Through several examples Maimonides refutes the Kalamist position. For example he says that evils are only evils in relation to something else. His position is that they are not positive events. He says that it is evil that a man is ill, poor or ignorant. In these instances, the evil is where man has not achieved health, financial success, or he never became wise. The evil in all these cases is the deprivation of some real, positive object. Therefore, these evils were not created, because evils are not really in existence. They are terms denoting the lack of real positive entities as health, wealth, and wisdom. He states that God cannot be the creator of evil because mankind’s own ignorance, which is a privation of knowledge, is the perpetrator. So therefore he says that all evils or privations are based in our matter. That is, the material component of our existence not the spiritual is the source of wickedness, base desires, and fundamental ignorance. In doing so he provides three separate but interlinked categories of evil all emanating from our physical nature. First, evil can and will happen to us simply by being in the world, which is composed of material substances and bound to the world’s elements. So just being in the world we are subject to death, disease, and injuries. Second, human beings cause evil through various actions to fall upon each other. Some of these are rooted in envy, deceit and tyrannical domination. Third, individuals bring evil upon themselves. Maimonides provides several examples of this last segment. He uses intemperate eating, drinking and excessive copulation as some overdone activities, which can lead to self-induced evil.  It is also a principle of the Mosaic Law that God is not unjust in rendering evil to humans. He uses this as a punishment for what they deserve just as He provides rewards (pleasure) for those acts seeming to be in compliance with God’s Law. Further, Maimonides makes it quite clear that mankind is ignorant of the various systems God uses to accomplish His retributive justice for man’s acts. So in conclusion Maimonides says quoting Isaiah 11:9, these calamities (evils) will be abolished when men come to the knowledge of the true reality of the deity.[6] He seems to be saying that the absence of God is the origin and perpetuation of evil. Where God is (known and followed) evil will either disappear or at least diminish for the person who embraces God and His ways.

Maimonides Provides Options of Providence to Consider

Before Maimonides begins to explain his belief in providence he begins by relating the opinions of others, which he says, are ancient and heard at the time of the Hebrew prophets. They are provided here.

1.          Pure chance, which is the Epicurean view. This view says that there is no providence and that everything happens as a result of the random variations or sorting of matter. This, for Maimonides citing Aristotle, says is inadmissible. Those who espouse this position including unbelieving Jews say that there is no one who orders, governs or is concerned with anything. Maimonides counters this position by stating that there is someone who orders and govern things.[7]
2.          Some chance, some providence. This is the opinion of Aristotle. Aristotle’s view is that divine governance extends only to the everlasting and immutable elements of nature.  God provides the celestial spheres and their contents, as well as the species of things, with what is necessary for their preservation. Individual existents in this sublunar realm, however, are watched over by providence only to the extent that they are provided with certain essential attributes by the species to which they belong.  So then a human being is endowed with reason and a variety of instincts, all of which aid his/her preservation, by virtue of his/her participation in the species “human being.” Everything else that happens to a human being that does not flow from the species, however—everything, that is, that does not belong to a person essentially and by virtue of being a human being—is due to chance.  While Maimonides for the most part rejects the Aristotelian view, he believes that there is indeed an element of truth to it, one that he will use in his own account.
3.          All strict governance by God. This is the Islamic position, which he also rejects. He says the Islamic sect of Ashariyya’s theory of providence believes that nothing in the universe is due to chance.  Rather, everything is brought about through the purposeful will of God.  Providence thus extends to every aspect of every event in nature, from the punishment of a sinner to the falling of a leaf from a tree. Maimonides insists that this account is unacceptable because it renders divine law useless as no human being has any freedom to do or refrain from doing what the law commands or proscribes.  It renders divine justice to be of no effect. Since the Mosaic Law does not bind the Islamists one can form an understanding of their position, because it would naturally not reflect the Torah’s teaching.
4.          Man has ability to act. The fourth opinion also states that divine providence watches over all things, but adds that human beings are free in their actions. The Mu’tazilites hold this position. In this scheme of things God is responsible for distributing rewards and punishments to all beings not by sheer acts of will (as the Ashariyya’s view implies) but through wisdom and justice. Maimonides objects to this view on the ground that it is inappropriate to extend divine justice beyond the sphere of human agency.  Just as the purveyors of this view say that when a blameless person suffers, divine justice will provide him/her with a greater reward in the world-to-come, so they must say that when a particular animal is killed it was better for it to be so and it will receive a recompense in the hereafter. They say in the same way that if another animal devours any particular animal, which has not sinned it, too, will receive restitution in the hereafter. Maimonides calls this a disgraceful viewpoint by citing their position, which is; “it is better for the animal because it will receive compensation in the other world for what has happened to it.”[8]   
5.          Divine providence coexists with man’s ability to act. This fifth view is the one that Maimonides holds. He says that man has an absolute ability to act because he has choice due to his nature and will. He may do everything within his divinely ordained capacity to act. He seems to say that man’s capacity to act has always been the same. Divine providence has various characteristics seen as God controls His universe. It is to this fifth view, that of Maimonides, the remainder of this paper will be focused.

Summary of Maimonides on Providence

Maimonides begins his explanation relating what the Mosaic Law says on this subject, within which is also his position.[9]  He does not have a view, which is contrary to the Law but nestled within it. The only difference between the two as explained by Strauss is: the outward teaching of the Law says moral virtue and external happiness are coordinated to one another. The internal teaching, Maimonides position, finds true happiness associated with the knowledge of God. Which as Strauss says the esoteric doctrine of providence coincides with the understanding of the essence of happiness as well as with the fundamental and logically consistent distinction between true and merely supposed happiness.[10] The initial theorem Maimonides presents is man has an absolute ability to act. God has willed this in eternity past (parte ante) before the creation. The human being is able to choose, exercise his will, and make intelligent decisions based upon the limits or capacity the Creator has provided to man. By capacity Maimonides means the limits the Creator has placed on His creatures. For example man may will to defy gravity by leaping off of a building expecting that he will not suffer a painful landing. However, since God has not given him the capacity to exercise that desire a painful landing is inevitable.
The animals and plant life also have a plan that has been preordained within the capacity that they have been given. With plants it is only clear that they experience God’s providence in reproduction and growth. The animals somewhat similarly endowed are different than men because they are endowed with a capacity that seems to limit their decisions to act only for various aspects of preservation. Whereas mankind is able to exercise intellectual decisions, plant and animal life’s decisions are limited to God’s preordained, preplanned margins of their capacity.
Divine providence is connected to intellectual reasoning. Intellect and its perfection are achieved through ethics. One can accept the linkage from the Creator who must possess supreme intelligence, to the human through our intellect. At the same time it is also possible to see Maimonides as something of an elitist. He seems to say that those who are closest to God are the most learned of a society. Consider what he states as fact. “Man and society cannot be perfected except through the intellectual beliefs in God.” He goes on to say that this cannot come about without studying first natural science and then divine science.[11] So being close to God is measured by how much knowledge one acquires. It follows then that anyone who does not have the advantage of being blessed with the means to receive advanced natural scientific knowledge cannot know God or even love God. This being Maimonides’ view is exclusionary to only the few with superior intellect and education. Kreisel observed that Maimonides treats ethics as a necessary means through which the ultimate end of intellectual perfection is achieved. Kreisel also saw a contradiction in the “Guide” wherein Maimonides seemed to also say the ultimate end is the practice of justice, righteousness and living-kindness. [12]     Divine Providence watches over people belonging to the human species and based upon their circumstances and behavior, which can be either good, or evil, they will receive what they have been ordained to receive.  This Maimonides calls this their deserts.
Providential care of God is exercised over things both animate and inanimate but intellectually connected to humans who are yielded to His will. God has put into place a system for individual human beings to take advantage of or not, as they choose.  It appears that He does not compel the human’s will. And it is the virtuous who pursue intellectual virtue, and not merely the morally virtuous, who God prospers, while all others are left without God’s focused providential protection. Therefore divine providence is differentiated from mere preservation.
In terms of animals and plants Maimonides’ view is like Aristotle’s in that he believes that God does not exert His divine decrees upon the minutest action of the world such as a falling leaf. He calls this pure chance, as does Aristotle. This is ordained through the natural order, which God created. There are other components of the natural order, to which providence applies and generally exerted upon all beings within the creation. Those, which are necessary to sustain life, belong to this category. The earth’s position relative to its sun, the composition of the gaseous layer surrounding the earth, and its ambient pressure for example, all belong to the natural order.
Divine Providence is consequent of divine overflow (emanation) poured out upon the species, which are united with the overflow, which is then poured out to the human intellect. From this comes the fruit or out flow so that the providential endowment is intellect. This again is a conduit through which God discloses His will. Interestingly Kreisel affirms this connection calling it “practical intellect.” He says that it is the faculty most directly responsible for translating metaphysical knowledge into a system of perfect governance. [13]As long as one is actively enjoying the intellectual connection to the divine emanation, one is in fact protected. That is, providence is watching over, or, better, engaged in such a person so that he is guarded from the vagaries of chance.  On the other hand, when one is not attending to God (either because one has never made the effort or because, having achieved the connection, one has temporarily become distracted to the point of disassociation, perhaps by the pleasures of the senses), one is abandoned to chance and left to one’s own devices in the face of the vagaries of happenstance. This would also seem to be the lot of the person of low intellect and learning in Maimonides teaching. The person who is not experiencing the overflow is not enjoying its benefits. He is at the mercy of nature’s elements and his well-being is subject to whatever may or may not come his way.  Providence is no longer watching over him, not because God is actively punishing him, but because through his own actions he has taken himself outside of the care that providence (the overflow) offers and is now exposed to what chance brings. From these circumstances we are compelled to praise God when He actively rewards and believe that He is not responsible when evil is manifested toward those whom he seems to be actively punishing. Maimonides states:

“With regard to providence watching over excellent men and neglecting the ignorant, it is said: He will keep the feet of his holy ones, but the wicked shall be put to silence in darkness; for not by strength shall man prevail.  It says thereby that the fact that some individuals are preserved from calamities, whereas those befall others, is due not to their bodily forces and their natural dispositions … but to their perfection and deficiency, I mean their nearness to or remoteness from God.  For this reason, those who are near to Him are exceedingly well protected… whereas those who are far from Him are given over to whatever may happen to befall them.  For there is nothing to protect them against whatever may occur; for they are like one walking in darkness, whose destruction is assured…For this reason, those who are near to Him are exceedingly well protected … whereas those who are far from Him are given over to whatever may happen to befall them.  For there is nothing to protect them against whatever may occur; for they are like one walking in darkness, whose destruction is assured.” [14]

Those who do not strive for intellectual perfection have no more providential protection than non-human animals.  They enjoy only general providence and whatever tools for survival the species confers upon them (as well as everyone else).  For such people, there is a great deal of moral luck, in so far as their happiness and well-being, is subject to chance, and therefore given over to circumstances beyond their control. As an affirmation of God’s providence and the repudiation of chance Twersky referencing Maimonides says, “Crying out in prayer and sounding an alarm in a time of crisis and emergency - may it be famine, pestilence, war, or sickness - has a philosophical doctrinal rationale: it underscores the providential design in the world and uncompromisingly repudiates any theory of chance (Epicureanism).”[15] Twersky again quoting Maimonides follows by adding, “Fasting and praying in time of crisis and adversity is a means of impressing upon the individual and the providential design in all events and reminding him of his absolute dependence on God.”[16]
Now we come to the final question regarding the issue of the reconciliation of divine providence with the human’s independent will. Some refer to this as a tension. [17] Because this issue is directly associated with the nature of God, one might consider this issue as being dominated by one side or the other. So for example some might simply say God is in total complete control of all events on the earth, as the Islamic position (number 3) holds. Or some might simply take the reverse which is mankind has independent control (The Mu’tazilites position number 4) of his fate. Maimonides does say that we will never fully understand God’s ways but he nevertheless attempts a reconciliation of the “tension” of a seemingly unsolvable antinomy. I say antimony because the providence of God and the free will of mankind seem to be both true but irreconcilable even incongruous with our logic and reason in time and space. Metaphysically it certainly does have reconciliation. However for now in the physical we must accept both as true. How does Maimonides reconcile God’s providence and control with the will he has given to mankind?
Maimonides takes it for granted that God plays a direct and active role in the affairs of intelligent, learned, ethical, human beings. He also presupposes that men have a will to make choices regarding their intended actions. Men have limits, which restrain some behaviors, which might be conceived. God on the other hand has no limits. Quoting Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, Rabbi, Marc Angel says:
“Free will is bestowed on every human being. If a person desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If a person wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is a liberty to do so… Man, of himself and by the exercise of his own intelligence and reason, knows what is good and what is evil…”[18]
Maimonides responds to the doctrine of predestination, which presupposes that man’s choices are already determined so that he really does not have any valid choices. He calls the people of the world who hold this position fools because we do have choices to make. We can be as wicked or as righteous as we want. Maimonides does not give us any proof of this except to say that God’s wisdom is vastly superior to ours so that it is beyond our comprehension. The Godly inspired Scripture inform us of our will to make choices. Therefore we have independent choice. Our inability to understand this tension is because we can’t understand God’s knowledge and His ways.[19] The intellect of a person seeking God will be guided out of harms way in most instances. He will also accept those harms/evils that he does encounter as God’s will even though God’s providential protection has been watching over him. The person who is in God’s will by coupling himself to the “overflow” through the intellect will experience advantages throughout his time in this world.[20]
Maimonides near the end of the Guide provides a simile of a king in his palace and his subjects who are at different distances relative to him. Some of his subjects turn their backs to the king.  Others have a strong desire to go to the palace. Several of those actually get to the palace, but only a few get in the same room with the king. There is another final effort required before they can actually stand before the king near or far, hear him, or speak to him.
He is of course referring to God as the king and the subjects are people who exert different levels of drawing near to Him. He gives a superb conclusion to this simile and his concept of the workings of providence in the human as being continually as near to God as possible throughout ones life.  “The true worship of God is only possible when correct notions of Him have previously been conceived. When you have arrived by way of intellectual research at a knowledge of God and His works, then commence to devote yourselves to Him, try to approach Him and strengthen the intellect, which is the link that joins you to Him. Thus Scripture says, “Unto thee it was showed, that thou mightiest know that the Lord He is God” (Deuteronomy 4:35); “Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the Lord He is God” (Deuteronomy 4: 36); “Know ye that the Lord is God” (Psalm 100:3). Thus the Law distinctly states that the highest kind of worship to which we refer in this chapter, is only possible after the acquisition of the knowledge of God. For it is said, “To love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13), and, as we have shown several times, man’s love of God is identical with His knowledge of Him. The Divine service enjoined in these words must, accordingly, be preceded by the love of God.”[21]
In closing it is apparent that Maimonides sees the intellect, emanating from God as the link joining us to Him. God is providential and strongly connected to us when we exercise our power to strengthen the bond. We must seek the love of God and He will be with us, guiding us providentially until we are brought over to eternity. Therefore our free will is directly tied to God’s moral system and the strength of our desire to be near to Him, the king in His palace provides the strongest connection through which to receive His providential emanation. When the human will is tightly connected to God in obedience then our will is in harmony with His providential care and the antimony is absent. The two seemingly incongruous wills are in synchronization.

Referenced Works

Angel, Rabbi Marc D.  Maimonides, Spinoza and Us Toward and Intellectually Vibrant Judaism. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009.

Carson, D.A. Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility, Biblical Perspectives in Tension. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002.

Kreisel, Howard. Maimonides Political Thought, Studies in Ethics, Law, and the Human Ideal. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Maimonides, Moses. Shlomo Pines translator, Guide of the Perplexed. Chicago, IL: The University Chicago Press, 1963.

Sirat, Colette, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Strauss, Leo, Hart Green, Kenneth, Ed. Maimonides The Complete Writings. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Strauss, Leo. Persecution and The Art of Writing. Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press, 1988. (Originally published in 1952 by The Free Press.)

Twersky, Isadore. Maimonides Reader, edited with Introduction and Notes. Springfield, NY:  Behrman House Inc. Publishers, 1972.

                              Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah). New Haven CT: Yale Judaica Series, Yale University Press, 1980.

[1] Strauss, Leo, Persecution and The Art of Writing, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL 1988 Originally published in 1952 by The Free Press pg38
[2] Sirat, Colette, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, The Pitt Building Trumpington Street, Cambridge England, 1985 pg. ix
[3] Merriam-Webster Dictionary on line,, accessed on May 19, 2014
[4] The Jewish virtual library on line,, accessed on May 19, 2014
[5]Sirat, Colette, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, The Pitt Building Trumpington Street, Cambridge England, 1985, pg. 15.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
6 Maimonides, Moses, Shlomo Pines translator, Guide of the Perplexed, The University Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois Volume II pg.19
[7] Ibid, pg. 464
[8] Ibid, pg. 468
[9] Ibid pg.469
[10] Strauss, Leo, Hart Green, Kenneth, Ed. Maimonides The Complete Writings, University of Chicago Press, 2013 pf. 321-322

[11] Maimonides, Moses, Shlomo Pines translator, The Guide of the Perplexed, The University Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois Vol I 1963 pgs. 8-9

[12] Kreisel, Howard, Maimonides Political Thought, Studies in Ethics, Law, and the Human Ideal, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY 1999 pg.160

[13] Ibid pg. 92
[14] Ibid pgs. 475-6
[15] Twersky, Isadore, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah), Yale Judaica Series, Yale University Press, New Haven CT., 1980 pg. 303

[16] Ibid pg. 422
[17] Carson, D.A. Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility, biblical perspectives in tension, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 199 W, 8th Ave, Suite 3 Eugene, Oregon 97401 2002, pg.201
[18] Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:1. From, Angel, Marc D., Maimonides, Spinoza and Us, Toward and Intellectually Vibrant Judaism, Jewish Lights publishing, Woodstock, VT. Pgs. 58-59.
[19] Ibid pg. 59
[20] Maimonides, Moses, Shlomo Pines translator, Guide of the Perplexed, The University Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois Volume II 1963 pg. 475

[21] Ibid pg. 620