Where was G-d in the Tsunami Disaster? A Study in Divine Providence

Friday, 15 May, 2009 - 9:54 am

The Talmud says that when natural events take place, like lightening, thunder or earthquakes, a blessing is made. This is in recognition that not only miracles but also natural phenomena are a result of the Divine creation of the universe. Sunrise and sunset are also natural phenomena, however Jewish law stipulates that a blessing is only recited when a natural phenomenon is seen at wide intervals, when it becomes a source of great inspiration.  Earthquakes and theirs sometimes devastating effects are in fact part of nature created by G-d during the six days of creation. The question however is, although nature according to Judaism is created by G-d, when a natural phenomenon occurs is it considered a result of direct Divine intervention or a random act of nature?


For hundreds of years the Jewish view on Divine providence has been that articulated by Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed which states that nature itself is random, however, the destiny of man could be a result of Divine intervention. This is a rare issue in Jewish theology, which has developed over the ages from the times of the Talmud until the founding of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century.


In general, there are four divergent opinions outside Jewish thought on the theory of Divine providence, intervention in nature. The Greek philosopher Epicurus says, the universe is a random combination of atoms. The existence of G-d in the creation of the universe is totally denied. This view is reflected in Jeremiah (ch. 5:12) where the Jews are condemned for denying the existence of G-d and thereby negating any Divine providence.


Aristotle argued with Epicurus and considered the idea of Divine providence extending to things that are constant and permanent in the universe. Providence causes permanence. Therefore providence applies to species, but individual beings of the species are subject to change and are not affected by Divine providence. All movements of the individual within species are due to accident: from the falling of a leaf of a tree to the drowning of ship with all its contents. However, individual beings of nature are not entirely abandoned by G-d for they have a general innate nature to repel anything  which is contrary to their well-being and preserve sustenance that is necessary for their healthy existence.


This view of limited Divine providence is reflected in Ezekiel (ch. 9:9), who states that the Jews have greatly sinned since they say, “G-d has forsaken the land”.


Islamic law, Mohammedan Ashariya, stipulates that nothing in the universe is due to chance, neither a class nor an individual being. Divine providence extends to the entire universe from humankind to the falling of a leaf. Furthermore, everything is predestined. Man has no power to do or not to do. Accordingly, this theory dictates that the concept of Divine “commandments” is useless since people do not have the ability to obey or disobey. Following that train of thought, since there is no free will, there is no concept of punishment and reward, which are intrinsically linked to free will. Therefore, theoretically, the innocent can be punished, for that is the will of G-d. Indeed, bad things can happen to good people, according to the will of G-d.


Adversely, another Muslim sect, Mutazilla, combines the opinion of Epicurus and Ashariya. Man has free will, justifying the concept of commandments and therefore also punishment and reward. G-d does not afflict the righteous nor reward the wicked. On the other hand, despite man’s autonomy, G-d knows and micromanages the falling of a leaf from a tree. The view of Mutizella, however, suggests the possibility of punishment for the innocent if , according to the will of G-d, this is compensated with some future material or spiritual reward.


One can apply this theory of judgement in reward and punishment, in their opinion, to explain the reason why a cat tears a mouse apart. The mouse must have done a misdeed to deserve an act against its existence. Similarly, when an animal is killed, even for food, it must be as a result of a wrongdoing.


None of  the above theories are consistent with Jewish thought. The view of Epicurus denies the existence of G-d. Indeed Jeremiah calls this a sin. The opinion of Aristotle that there exists partial Divine providence is also not acceptable in Judaism. Ezekiel condemns this view as a “very great sin” of the Jews. Similarly, the view of Ashiriya is unacceptable as it denies the basic principle in Judaism that man has free will. The explanation of Mutizella is interesting in that it seems to reconcile the view of Ashiriya that there exists absolute Divine providence and on the other hand the existence of free will. However, it does not explain how these two seemingly contradictory concepts themselves can be reconciled. If a person has free will, then G-d cannot manage their behaviour. If the person’s actions are a result of Divine intervention then there is no free will.


The Jewish view

A basic tenet in Judaism is that humankind has free will. This is the foundation of the concept of the six hundred and thirteen Divine commandments given at Mount Sinai. It is also a basic Jewish tenet that there is Divine providence. However, according to Jewish thought, as explained by Maimonides, the Divine will is that man should have free will. The infinity of the Creator allows humankind to have freedom to choose between good and bad. The concept of Divine providence in Judaism is not a contradiction to free will because that is the will of G-d.


The prevalent view of Judaism regarding Divine providence is based on the Pentateuch and the Talmud and was held until the times of Maimonides. That is, every affliction upon mankind is in response to man’s actions. It says in Deuteronomy (32:4) “all his ways are judgement”. Every pain is punishment for sin and every pleasure is a reward for righteousness.


The Talmud says in Shabbat (55a) “there is no death without sin, nor punishment without transgression”. In particular, the method of punishment is also in kind. The Talmud in Sotah (9b) says that G-d repays measure for measure. Samson had his eyes poked out since he sinned with his eyes in his desire for the beautiful Philistine woman Delilah, who ultimately brought about his downfall.


The case of reward is similar. There is no reward without good deeds. This does not necessarily relate exclusively to Divine commandments. Every universally accepted act of kindness is considered a good deed and deserves reward in kind. The Talmud in Kiddushin (31a) considers a dispute amongst the sages: Which is greater and deserves more reward, a good deed performed as a fulfilment of a commandment or one that has been self-initiated without even being commanded?  One can infer from this discussion that a person is rewarded measure for measure for any kind deed performed even though the action is not part of the fulfilment of a Divine precept.


The view of early Judaism is that all Divine commandments precipitate reward and sin results in punishment. Affliction without sin is inconceivable. Thus, in Genesis (18:23-33) the Torah relates how Abraham argues with G-d to spare Sodom and Gomorrah in the merit of just ten righteous people. Similarly, in Numbers, when Korach and his people rebelled against Moses, G-d was about wipe out the entire Jewish assembly. Moses intervened and begged G-d not to punish the righteous with the wicked. The purpose of this story is to emphasise that G-d grants punishment only to the wicked in response to sin.


This seemed to be the view of the Talmud regarding the mode of action and behaviour of G-d. The Talmud does not articulate a distinction between Divine providence extended to nature and humanity.


Maimonides developed further the concept of Divine providence. Drawing on the teachings of Aristotle he postulated that Judaism could accept the notion of partial providence. Indeed, as G-d is the ultimate wisdom, Divine providence extends only to intelligible beings, humanity, not to the lower levels of the universe. Since Divine providence applies only to humanity, so does the concept of punishment and reward. The destiny of the rest of nature in the universe is nothing but random and chance.


In particular, when a ship capsizes at sea and goes down with all its contents it is by mere chance and a random act of nature rather than Divine providence. However, Divine providence in accordance with the judgement and the will of G-d dictatedthat certain people boarded that fateful boat and were present at that particular moment.


A contradiction might be posed from the verse in Psalms (145) “open your hands and G-d will feed all living beings”. This seems to imply that G-d is directly concerned with feeding birds and animals in addition to the welfare of human beings. Maimonides reconciles this with suggesting that the verse refers to the general nature of birds having the ability to find food for their sustenance and not to perish from hunger. However, the precise fish or seeds the bird will catch for its food is an act of random chance. Similarly with animals, it is due to G-d’s kindness that all animals are able to sustain themselves, however the particular time, method and choice is nothing but random.


This view of Maimonides was the prevalent view in Judaism until the times of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement, born in 1698. The Baal Shem Tov developed the theory of Divine providence, extending it also to the lower levels of the universe. Thus, in the case of the ship, it is not just the destiny of the people that is controlled directly by G-d: the storm which caused the ship to capsize, was also a result of Divine providence. This view was based on the verse in Psalms: “Your judgement extends to the depth of the sea”, and its interpretation is found in the Talmud in Chulin, which says that  a bird that kills a fish for its food is the result of G-d exacting punishment from the fish. This implies that Divine providence extends to all living beings and indeed all of creation. Although also based on the interpretations of the teachings of the Talmud.

this view was revolutionary.


The Baal Shem Tov was even willing to prove his theory of Divine providence to his students. The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples were once walking on a hot day and the students asked the Baal Shem Tov if he could prove his theory of Divine providence that it extends even to the smallest detail in the universe, contrary to the opinion of Maimonides. The Baal Shem Tov instructed his students to follow him. As they walked in the field, they observed a leaf fall from a nearby tree. The leaf drifted in the wind, until it descended on the ground. The leaf continued to move a little further, turned over a few times and finally rested on a particular spot. The Baal Shem Tov approached the leaf, bent over and lifted it up. Behold, to the astonishment of his disciples, he showed them that a worm was lying under the leaf that was shielding it from shrivelling in the heat of the sun. He explained that this is the greatness of the Creator whose providence extends even to a falling leaf.


The following story documented from the 18th century relating to an esteemed disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and a Spanish minister seems to challenge this view.


There was once a man who occupied a high ministerial position in the Spanish government. When the official was accused of being a secret Jew, he was arrested by priests and subjected to a trial by Church authorities. He was found guilty - like everyone else accused of the same crime – and sentenced to death by burning. However, the minister was well connected and was a personal friend of the Spanish king. Even though such matters fell under the jurisdiction of the priests and had nothing to do with royal affairs, the king requested that the sentence be postponed for a year, to allow the minister to transfer his official responsibilities to another person and to assure a smooth transition. The Church authorities agreed and the auto-da-fe was postponed


After the year was up the king once again asked for a postponement, this time for a month. The next month he asked for another week, and the following week, for another day. But the day of execution finally arrived, and the entire city was invited to witness the event in the centre of the city’s square, which had been specially prepared for the public spectacle. Before the sentence could be carried out, however, a massive earthquake shook the very spot where the minister was about to meet his death. Pandemonium broke out as the crowds tried to run away, and many were trampled to death.


In the midst of all the tumult the minister was able to escape. With the clandestine help of the king, he succeeded in fleeing the country. Now, this particular minister was an intellectual and a philosopher. As such, he felt compelled to understand the nature of the event which had just taken place. Was the sudden earthquake just a coincidence that saved his life at the very minute he was about to be executed, or had G-d performed a special miracle on his behalf? The minister decided to study the matter, and, based on his findings, act accordingly.  If he concluded that the earthquake was merely coincidental he would continue to hide his Jewish identity, but if he came to believe that it was a miracle, he would live openly as a Jew, for he was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Spanish authorities.


In his quest to understand the matter, he sought the opinion of the greatest minds in Germany. He made sure, however, never to reveal that he was the individual involved in the case, saying instead that he had heard of such an occurrence and that he found it intriguing. Each wise man had a different opinion on the subject, but the minister was unable to accept any of their conclusions. He was still undecided what to do when he learned of the existence of a very righteous man, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. He decided to pay him a visit to ask his help.


Entering the courtyard of the Baal Shem Tov, the minister passed someone standing in the yard, grooming the horses. This was Reb Zev Kitzes, one of the Baal Shem Tov’s students. The minister asked him where the Baal Shem Toy lived, and was shown the right house. As soon as he entered the door, and before he had even announced his presence, he was greeted with the following words: “Peace upon you, O Spanish Minister!” The man froze in his tracks, for no one, during all his travels, had yet identified him. He realized that he was in the presence of a holy man. As he stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak, the Baal Shem Tov continued: “As far as your question is concerned, my student, the person you passed standing near the horses on your way in will provide the answer.”


The minister went outside and explained his predicament to Reb Kitzes. “Let us assume,” replied the disciple, “that ever since the Six Days of Creation it was preordained that on that very spot, at that very moment, an earthquake would take place. The very fact that your death sentence was scheduled to be carried out at that very moment, not one second before or after, is an indisputable miracle.”


This explanation was immediately acceptable to the minister, whose mind was finally put at ease. From that moment on, he lived openly as a Jew and became a Chasid (follower) of the Baal Shem Tov.


This explanation of Reb Kitzes seems to contradict the Baal Shem Tov’s theory of Divine providence. The explanation seems to be precisely the view of Maimonides, as opposed to the Baal Shem Tov. According to Maimonides Divine providence extends only to the fate of humanity, however the laws of nature imbedded in the universe during the six days of creation preordained the earthquake itself. How is this consistent with the view of the Baal Shem Tov?


It is inconceivable that Maimonides was lacking a fundamental belief in Judaism, just as he was not contradicting the view of the Talmud, but rather developing the theory to another stage. Maimonides’ view on Divine providence is not in contradiction to the view of the Baal Shem Tov, but rather the view of the Baal Shem Tov is a further development of the same theory. It is possible to say according to Chassidic philosophy that the spiritual state of the universe has progressed since the times of Maimonides, as the world comes closer to the Messianic era, when G-d will be manifest in the world. It is with this in mind that that the Baal Shem Tov developed the theory of Divine providence to the entire universe, even inanimate.


However, the view of the Baal Shem Tov necessitates on the part of the person absolute belief that even the blowing of a leaf in the wind is a result of Divine providence. The Spanish minister, however, was more inclined to accept the logical view of Maimonides. Indeed this could be the reason why the Baal Shem Tov sent the minister to Reb Kitzes.


Following the theory of the Baal Shem Tov in Divine providence it is evident that not only every specie but in fact every individual detail of nature is an extension of the Divine and nothing in this world occurs without the knowledge and providence of G-d, albeit much of the time beyond our limited understanding. Despite this, we have the G-d given ability to choose.




We will nevertheless aim to reconcile the view of Maimonides with the Ba’al Shem Tov on the subject of Divine Providence. The premise for this reconciliation is the definition of Divine Providence that is used by Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov and the great Chassidic masters. In an important essay on this subject, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains (Tanya, Sha’ar Hayichud Vho’emunah ch. 1) that the life of all of existence is the Divine life force. He writes:


"It is written: "Forever, O G-d, Your word stands firm in the heavens." The Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, has explained that "Your word" which you uttered, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.. .", these very words and letters stand firmly forever within the firmament of heaven and are forever clothed within all the heavens to give them life, as it is written, "The word of our G-d shall stand firm forever" and "His words live and stand firm forever. ..." For if the letters were to depart [even] for an instant, G-d forbid, and return to their source, all the heavens would become naught and absolute nothingness, and it would be as though they had never existed at all, exactly as before the utterance, "Let there be a firmament." And so it is with all created things, in all the upper and lower worlds, and even this physical earth, which is the "Kingdom of the silent" (inanimate). If the letters of the Ten Utterances by which the earth was created during the Six Days of Creation were to depart from it [but] for an instant, G-d forbid, it would revert to naught and absolute nothingness, exactly as before the Six Days of Creation. This same thought was expressed by the Ari, of blessed memory, when he said that even in completely inanimate matter, such as stones or earth or water, there is a soul and spiritual life-force— that is, the enclothing of the "Letters of speech" of the Ten Utterances which give life and existence to inanimate matter that it might arise out of the naught and nothingness which preceded the Six Days of Creation."


He clarifies this further by stating that the life force that brings the world into existence and sustains the world is the Divine knowledge. He writes in Tanya Likutei Amarim (ch 48):


For example, in the case of the orb of this earth, His blessed knowledge encompasses the entire, diameter of the globe of the earth, together with all that is in it and its deepest interior to its lowest depths, all in actual reality. For this knowledge constitutes the vitality of the whole spherical thickness of the Earth and its creation ex nihilo.


This concept that G-d is the life force that brings the world into existence and sustains all of existence is not in contradiction to Maimonides. He writes a very similar idea in Mishneh Torah (laws of Mada ch. 1:1-6):


"The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being. If one would imagine that He does not exist, no other being could possibly exist. If one would imagine that none of the entities aside from Him exist, He alone would continue to exist, and the nullification of their [existence] would not nullify His existence, because all the [other] entities require Him and He, blessed be He, does not require them nor any one of them. Therefore, the truth of His [being] does not resemble the truth of any of their [beings]. This is implied by the prophet's statement [Jeremiah10:10]: "And God, your Lord, is true" - i.e., He alone is true and no other entity possesses truth that compares to His truth. This is what [is meant by] the Torah's statement [Deuteronomy 4:35]: "There is nothing else aside from Him" - i.e., aside from Him, there is no true existence like His. This entity is the God of the world and the Lord of the entire earth. He controls the sphere with infinite and unbounded power. This power [continues] without interruption, because the sphere is constantly revolving, and it is impossible for it to revolve without someone causing it to revolve. [That one is] He, blessed be He, who causes it to revolve without a hand or any [other] corporeal dimension. The knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment, as [implied by Exodus 20:2]: "I am God, your Lord....":"


Nevertheless, as we mentioned above, Rabbi Dov Ber perceived that there is dispute between Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov whether the Divine knowledge is applied only to humans and those who are connected intellectually to the Divine as oppose to those who are not. The Ba’al Shem Tov would argue that the Divine life force is necessary for everything to exist, even inanimate, we must therefore say the Divine knowledge and providence is on all equal, whereas Maimonides would say there are degrees and the Divine knowledge is relative to the connection with the Divine.


However, when looking closer to the subsequent teachings of the Chassidic Masters the dispute becomes less distinct. In B’sha’a Sh’hikdimu 5672 (ch. 88) by Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch (1860-1920) he writes:


"Although in truth Divine providence is over all people and in every type of inanimate, vegetation, living animal and human, nevertheless it is certain there are degrees of Divine providence. As it states in Midrash Rabba concerning the verse ‘behold I will send an angel’: if you merit, I myself will go with you, but now I will send a messenger. When it sates, ‘My name will be within him’ it implies there will be Divine providence and the angel is just a messenger, however, it is not like ‘I myself’, therefore Moses did not want the angel. Similarly, it states regarding the Exodus ‘And G-d heard’; ‘And G-d knew, whereby Rashi explains He gave heart to them and did not conceal His eyes, indicating sometimes G-d, as if to say, hides His eyes, Heaven forefend. However even then G-d supervises with His providence in detail, as the providence is the sustaining life force of creatures, as states in Tanya ch. 48, and if there would be no providence, the life force would terminate, rather the Divine providence is continuously over event creature in detail, only it is concealed and hidden and the providence is not revealed. In the Exodus, G-d pays attention and does not hide His eyes so there can be Divine revelation and thus redemption."


Based on the differentiation between concealed and revealed providence one may be able to reconcile Maimonides with the Ba’al Shem Tov, as both will agree that there are degrees in the Divine providence and similarly, Maimonides will not fundamentally disagree that there is Divine life force that sustains the world, which is the true existence as oppose to the world itself that is contingent and does not have a ‘true’ existence.



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