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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why do Annoying Things Happen to Pretty Good People?: The Ramban on Chance and Nature

At the end of Parshat Bo, the Ramban (Nachmanides) discusses the thematic intent behind the Torah’s presentation of Yetziat Mitzraim. This particular story, he explains, was made so prominent and central in order to ingrain in Judaism four key notions of God, namely: 1) He exists; 2) He knows what goes on in the world; 3) He keeps records of mankind’s good and bad deeds; and 4) He can act in the world.

Towards the end of his commentary, the Ramban adds:

שאין לאדם חלק בתורת משה רבינו עד שנאמין בכל דברינו ומקרינו שכלם נסים אין בהם טבע
ומנהגו של עולם, בין ברבים בין ביחיד.
No one has a portion in the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu until he believes that all of our affairs and ‘random’ events – whether among individuals or communities – are miraculous; they are not subject to natural or worldly causation. [1]

Viewed on its own, this sentence implies that, according to the Ramban, everything in the world is the direct result of Divine intervention; nothing at all happens by chance.

In the Rambam’s (Maimonides) discussion of hashgakha (Providence), he attributes this view to a Muslim sect called the Ash’ari (Guide 3:17-18). According to the Ash’ari, when leaves fall in the forest, “the wind did not blow by accident; God made it blow. The wind did not make the leaves fall; rather, each leaf fell due to Divine decree. He is the One who made them fall now, in this spot. It would be impossible for them to fall a little later or sooner, and it is impossible that they would fall in another place. All this was decreed from time immemorial.” According to this extreme position, God decrees everything in advance, without exception. If this approach is carried to its logical conclusion, it would be impossible for humans to control their actions and exercise free will – after all, their actions were “decreed from time immemorial.” If so, how can God punish people for their misdeeds? Since God does punish people for their actions, and since the Rambam, like virtually every other medieval Jewish philosopher, assumes that God acts justly, Maimonides rejects this approach to Divine control of the world.

Based on this argument, it is reasonable to state that the Ramban did not maintain God’s control of absolutely everything in the world; there must be room, at the very least, for free will. Even if we interpret the Talmudic line “ha-Kol bidey shamayim” literally (everything is in the hands of Heaven), there still remains an exception for “yirat shamayim” (. . .except for fear of Heaven, BT Berakhot 33b). However, even granting freedom of human action, the Ramban’s statement still appears extreme. Did Nachmanides really hold that there is no such thing as a force of nature? After all, the Ramban was himself a physician (Shu”t ha-Rashba 1:120, 167). If he thought that there is no such thing as the natural order, what use is there in practicing medicine?

Moreover, Ramban’s statement in our Parsha seems to directly contradict his opinion elsewhere. For example, in his commentary on the verse which states that God “knew” Avraham (Bereishit 19:18), Ramban says that “people are left to chance until their time of rechoning comes. But [God] directs His attention towards His devout ones to know them individually, so that His guarding is constantly attached to them, and the knowledge and remembering of them will not leave His view at all.” In other words, the “knowledge” that God had of Avraham is that He guarded him from all random mishap, which He does not do for other people. Unlike Avraham, they are affected by chance, and not all of their affairs are governed by Divine providence. [2]

If so, what are we to do with the Ramban’s statement that there is no such thing as nature? Rabbi Dr. David Berger, in an effort to reconcile these and other words of the Ramban, reads the Ramban’s statement that there is no chance in the world as referring specifically to the area of reward and punishment. When God decides to punish or reward someone in this world, there is no chance involved; it is guided completely by Providence. However, the majority of people are not constantly in the throes of reward and punishment, and face moments of chance and nature. This interpretation of the Ramban’s position is buttressed by the continuation of our original passage: “Rather, if one performs the mitzvot, his reward will make him succeed, and if he transgresses them, his punishment will destroy him – everything by Divine decree.” This description of Providence connects it to moments of reward and punishment while matching the description the Ramban gave with regard to ‘knowing’ Avraham. All those not in Avraham’s special category must always entertain the entry of chance in their daily lives and therefore need to seek natural resolutions for man’s medical and situational needs.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table
- In Parshat Bo, Nachmanides states that "all are our affairs . . . are miraculous; are not subject to nature."
- A glance at his and Maimonides' works reveal that this statement can not be taken to its extreme: Ramban would concede there is room for free will.

- Free will aside, other passages in the Ramban's commentary suggest their is room for chance and nature in normal daily life.
- Rabbi Dr. David Berger suggests to read the original statement in the context of reward and punishment. All of our moments of reward and punishment are coordinated with complete Providence, while at other times chance and randomness may intervene.

Question for Discussion:
What about other things? For example, the Rambam maintains that although Divine providence does not extend to individual animals, it does extend to animal species. Are there other ways of drawing the line? What about inanimate objects? What if what happens to inanimate objects could impact humans – say, the melting of Greenland's ice?

[1] From the way the Ramban uses the terms ‘miracle’ and ‘nature’, it is clear that he understands a ‘miracle’ as something that God does that changes the natural order of events, and not something that underlies the natural course of events. For example, in Bereishit 46:15, he says that ‘all the foundations of the Torah are hidden miracles. There are only miracles in the Torah, not nature (teva) or regular course of events (minhag), for all of the promises of the Torah are miracles and wonders, for someone who eats forbidden fats or has forbidden relations will not die due to the natural course of events.’
[2] In a similar passage (commentary to Devarim 11:13), Ramban substitutes the phrase minhago shel olam (natural course of events) for what he calls chance in Bereishit, implying that chance is part of the natural order of events.


Chai18 said...

"...people are left to chance until their time of rechoning comes..."

When is the time of rechoning?

Ben K said...

A typo. It should say "time of reckoning" (Heb. 'et pekudatam'), presumably meaning the time that they die and get their final reward.