According to central principles of Judaism, God interacts with the world. But how much does God interact with the world? Theological views on offer range from God’s particular providence over everything to particular providence in the land of Israel only. We defend an idealist view: reality is fundamentally mental, existing in God’s mind. Accordingly, God has his providential “fingers” on everything.
1 The Basics of Judaism
This chapter concerns the treatment of providence in the Jewish tradition, and theological problems about randomness. First, some basics of Judaism:
The central principles of Judaism include the doctrines that: (1) there is only one God, (2) God revealed the Torah to Moses, (3) the Torah is properly interpreted by the Rabbis, (4) God rewards the righteous and (5) punishes the wicked, and (6) will send a messiah and resurrect the dead (for more on Jewish principles, see Lebens 2020).
The central practices of Judaism include: (1) observance of the Sabbath, (2) observance of dietary restrictions, (3) observance of menstrual purity rules, (4) three daily prayer services, (5) studying Biblical and Rabbinic texts, and (6) tithing for charity.
The central historical events of Judaism include the: (1) election of the Israelite patriarchs, (2) enslavement and redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, (3) revelation of the Torah, (4) kingdoms of Israel and Judah, (5) exiles of Israel and Judah, and (6) persecution of the Jews during the exiles.
The central historical figures include the: (1) patriarchs and matriarchs, (2) prophets, and the (3) classical, (4) medieval, (5) early modern, and (6) modern rabbinic sages.
Or so it is for Orthodox Judaism, which is the focus of this chapter. We’ll omit ‘Orthodox’ from here on.
2 Providence and Randomness
Some believers take every detail of the universe to be directed by God toward a grand purpose. But science has supposedly discovered randomness in nature. Are religion and science in conflict regarding providence and randomness?
This problem seems to arise only on a specific understanding of randomness. Following Kelly James Clark (2014: 108), we distinguish between:
practical randomness: what’s going to happen cannot be predicted by us, in light of our limited knowledge about what’s happened so far; and
principled randomness: what’s going to happen cannot be predicted by anyone, however much they know about what’s happened so far.
Principled randomness means that even God cannot predict what’s going to happen next, which seems at odds with God directing everything toward a grand purpose. If God is directing every event, then he’s directing what happens next. And so decides what happens next. And so predicts what happens next. Thus, principled randomness means that God does not direct every event. In contrast, practical randomness presents no such problem. Practical randomness means only that we cannot predict what’s going to happen next. But even if we cannot, God still might.
The first question is whether science has discovered principled randomness. The two main places where scientists have reputedly identified randomness are in the:
genetic mutations at work in evolution; and
indeterminism of quantum mechanics.
Whether randomness in either of these cases is principled is a tricky question. There is no scientific consensus. We leave the science to the scientists, but as we ask: how should religious Jews react if scientific consensus eventually decides on the existence of principled randomness? There are at least two possibilities.
First: so much the worse for providence. The religious Jew might deny that God directs every detail toward some grand purpose, but God might still direct some, many, or most details, to some grand purpose; but given the existence of principled randomness, God couldn’t direct everything. Second: so much the worse for science. The religious Jew might deny that science is always accurate.
There is precedent in the Jewish tradition for denying that God guides everything and that science always provides an accurate picture. Dati (“modern orthodox”) Jews tend to accept contemporary cosmology and evolutionary theory, and try to harmonize these with their understanding of Genesis. Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) Jews by contrast tend to accept a literal understanding of Genesis, and thus reject contemporary cosmology and evolutionary theory insofar as these posit a much older universe.
After a survey of the traditional Jewish approaches to providence, we present a response to principled randomness that should satisfy both Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox sensibilities.
3 The Question of Providence and Five Answers
According to the principles stated above, God interacts with the world—revealing the Torah, electing the patriarchs, and so on. A preeminent commentator on the Torah and Talmud, Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman (Naḥmanides or the Ramban, thirteenth century) states:
It’s clear and known that belief in God’s knowledge of the lower species and their individuals and his providence over their generalities and particulars are great cornerstones from the Torah of Moses. … Thus, the denier of providence … has no place in the world to come. (Naḥmanides 1963: 17)
Denying providence is heresy that can cost a Jew their afterlife. But questions about the details of providence remain. The big question remains: How much does God interact with the world?
Medieval Jewish tradition often distinguishes between particularprovidence and generalprovidence. Particular providence is God governing (at least some of) the details of an individual’s life. If you’re governed by particular providence, then God directs your life toward some grand purpose. God cares about you and is busy with you. Whether you win the lottery or stub your toe, there’s a meaning to it (at least sometimes).
Generalprovidence is God governing the life of a species. If penguins are governed by general providence only, God preserves the species of penguins, but does not direct any particular penguin’s life toward some grand purpose. God does not care deeply about an individual penguin and is not busy with it. Whether a particular penguin survives or is eaten has no meaning. God cares about the species as a whole, and will direct its existence toward some purpose or other.
These descriptions are not precise. Unfortunately, most writers do not define exactly what they mean by particularprovidence or generalprovidence. And note the ifs. We’re not yet saying that your life is governed by particular providence or that penguins are governed only by general providence. Again, the big question is about how far particular providence extends: Does it extend over everything? The book of Psalms (145:9) says that God’s mercy extends to all of his creatures. But does his providence? Does it extend over people but not penguins? Does it extend over all people all the time?
On these questions, there is disagreement. The prophets and classical rabbis do not teach definitively how much of the world is governed by providence. Later rabbis reach different answers on the basis of this under-determined tradition. We’ll provide a series of answers in what follows (Leibowitz 2009 is especially recommended for more details).
3.1 Answer 1: Particular Providence Over Everything
This answer is suggested by many early rabbis. For example, from the Talmud, the sage Abba Arikha (Rav, second–third centuries) describes how God spends his day:
Rav Yehuda says [that] Rav says: There are twelve hours in the day. During the first three, the Holy One Blessed Be He sits and engages in Torah. During the second [quarter] he sits and judges the whole world. When he sees that the world deserves destruction, he rises from the throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mercy. During the third [quarter] he sits and nourishes the whole world, from the horns of oxen to the eggs of lice. During the fourth [quarter], he sits and plays with Leviathan, as it says: “This Leviathan you have formed to play with” [Psalm 104:26]. (Avoda Zara 3b)
This doesn’t look like abstract care—God preserves even the eggs of lice. Wouldn’t his particular providence extend then to everything else?
Rabbah Bar Naḥmani (third–fourth centuries) teaches:
“Do you know when the wild goats of the rock give birth? Can you mark when the hinds calve?” [Job 39:1] This goat is cruel to her young. When she squats to give birth she ascends to the top of the mountain so that [the kid] will fall from her and die. And I invite an eagle for her that receives [the kid] upon its wings and sets it before her. And if [the eagle] were a moment early or a moment late [the kid] would immediately die. … “Can you mark when the hinds calve?” The womb of this hind is narrow. When it squats to give birth, I invite a snake that bites her at the opening of the womb, and it becomes loose so she can give birth. And if [the snake] was a moment early or a moment late, [the hind] would immediately die. (Bava Batra 16a–b)
God invites eagles and snakes to help the baby goat. He watches and intervenes in real time.
There are many other examples. For just one other, Genesis Rabbah, a commentary compiled around the same time as the Talmud, includes a teaching from Rabbi Shimon Ben Yoḥai (second century):
Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai and Rabbi Elazar his son were hidden in a cave for thirteen years at the time of [Roman] persecution. … At the end of thirteen years, they left, sat at the entrance of the cave, and saw a hunter trapping birds. And if Rabbi Shimon heard a heavenly voice proclaim “Pardon! Pardon!,” it escaped. And if he heard a heavenly voice proclaim “Execute!,” it was trapped and seized. He said “A bird is not caught unless it is decreed from heaven—how much more so with a person.” (79:6)
If God governs the lives of individual birds so closely, why wouldn’t his particular providence extend to everything else?
However suggestive, such passages are not definitive. Perhaps particular providence extends over lice eggs and goats, but not mosquitos and salmon. Perhaps particular providence extends over just some lice eggs, but not all of them. Perhaps these sources could be read as figurative expressions of general providence over nature. Nevertheless, they have often been taken to teach that divine providence extends over everything. None emphasizes this more than the early rabbis of Hassidism. For example, Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk (eighteenth century) teaches that:
no person jams his finger, and grass dries and is uprooted, and no rock is strewn, except at the time and place fitting for it. … Everything is from God, according to the wisdom of his name and according to his glory, to reveal his divinity, and his wisdom, and his attributes. (1818: 15)
Aharon Roth (twentieth century) reports the following teaching from the founder of Hassidism, Yisrael Ben Eliezer (the Ba’al Shem Tov, eighteenth century):
It happened that the lamp of great light, our master, the Ba’al Shem Tov, may his merit protect us, was with his students in a field. Suddenly, a strong wind blew and some leaves fell to the ground. He said, “My children, know that this wind that now passed suddenly was on account of one worm that was at the top of a certain left. The sun was shining exceedingly on it; it cried to God; and so God sent the wind …” [The Ba’al Shem Tov] said this to them to convey to them the scope of the Creator’s providence and his mercy upon all creation. (1998: 127)
The dominant view among orthodox Jews today might be that particular providence extends over everything. But it has not been the universal view.
3.2 Answer 2: Particular Providence Over People Only
The most distinguished proponent of this view is Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides or the Rambam, twelfth–thirteenth centuries). After dismissing four alternative views about providence, he states his preferred view (his real preference may be hidden elsewhere):
Divine Providence does not extend to the individual members of species except in the case of mankind. It is only in this species that the incidents in the existence of the individual beings, their good and evil fortunes, are the result of justice, in accordance with the words, “For all His ways are judgment.” But I agree with Aristotle as regards all other living beings, and a fortiori as regards plants and all the rest of earthly creatures. For I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment. … In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle. (1956: 286–7)
Maimonides takes this theory to be motivated by prior Jewish tradition, and draws connections between human intelligence and providence:
Divine Providence is related and closely connected with the intellect, because Providence can only proceed from an intelligent being, from a being that is itself the most perfect Intellect. Those creatures, therefore, which receive part of that intellectual influence will become subject to the action of Providence in the same proportion as they are acted upon by the Intellect. (1956: 288)
Particular providence depends on intelligence. Insofar as humans are intelligent and other creatures are not, particular providence governs humans and not other creatures.
What of the sources mentioned in the previous section that point in an opposite direction? After quoting some of those and similar passages, Maimonides answers that:
they imply nothing that is contrary to my view. All these passages refer to providence in relation to species, and not to providence in relation to individual animals. The acts of God are as it were enumerated; how He provides for every species the necessary food and the means of subsistence. (1956: 288)
The passage about, for example, the eagle means that God preserves the species of goat—perhaps by fixing a natural relationship between goats and eagles. But he need not have any special care for this goat. However, not all of the passages can so easily be interpreted away: Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai claimed a specific divine decree for each bird.
A qualification of Maimonides’ view accommodates some particular providence over non-human animals—as a part of the providence over humans. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the Ramak, sixteenth century) explains:
If a lamb is found among the lambs in a field among the fields owned by one of the pious people, particular providence will engage with him, and that lamb will be saved from the death encompassing all the rest of its kind, like [from] wolves or the like. And it’s all for reason of the person, not on account of the lambs themselves. (1883: 114)
God does not care so much for the lamb as for the man. The Talmud and Midrash similarly report cases where God protects and directs animals for the sake of people. For example, Genesis Rabbah (18:22) tells how God arranged for a scorpion to travel on the back of a frog across a river—in order to sting a wicked man. God’s particular providence over birds can be understood along similar lines. After all, the birds were being trapped by humans, and the decrees over them served a lesson about humans.
This qualification of Maimonides’ view is natural. Since people’s lives are intertwined with animals, particular providence over people would likely involve animals. Furthermore, the particular providence over the patriarchs mentioned by Maimonides also involves animals—for example, the ram discovered at the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:13).
A problem: Maimonides draws a connection between human intelligence and particular providence: particular providence extends to more intelligent people than to less intelligent people, and to some people not so much. Why did Maimonides have such an elitist view?
The short answer: it followed from his Neoplatonism. The central idea is that God’s creation and governance occur through a process known as “emanation.” In this process, intellectual content (something like God’s ideas) overflows into a series of “separate intellects” (which Maimonides identifies with angels), and finally become concrete as the overflow reaches all the way down into our world.
God’s wisdom, as it flows down to us, is manifest in natural laws governing the universe. This is God’s general providence. But because there’s a constant stream of intellectual information flowing from God down to us, the more intellectual we are, the more likely our minds will be receptive to the flow. The prophets, for Maimonides, had so perfected their character and intellect that they could tune in to that stream of information and, so to speak, hear the word of God.
How does this make sense of the connection between particular providence and the intellect? According to Maimonides, God never alters natural laws (even miracles Are written into natural laws at creation; see Maimonides 1948: ch 8). So, if God wants to save you from a shipwreck, he won’t do so by changing the weather. Instead, if your intellect is sufficiently refined, you’ll receive a sudden apprehension against boarding. This isn’t prophecy; you’re receiving an inclination rather than a message. Still, it’s a form of communication. You’ll only receive heavenly communication to the extent that your intellect is properly prepared. Prophets receive more vivid communication, but others can receive apprehensions and inclinations—that’s how particular providence works.
3.3 Answer 3: Particular Providence Over Righteous People Only
Rabbi Ovadya Seforno (fifteenth–sixteenth centuries) on Leviticus 13:47 writes that providence extends only to a few righteous Jews:
When he awakens to contemplate the existence of his creator, and His greatness and His goodness … he will walk in His ways, making His will as his will. Behold—he doubtless resembles his creator more than the rest of creation, and he is the intended purpose of the Creator who bestows being, as they say, “the righteous is the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25). … But those who slumber who do not know at all and are not all awakened to the knowledge of any of this—they are all the gentiles and the majority of the Israelite nation, except for precious individuals—they are doubtless under the governance of nature. … Those people are like animals, upon whom divine providence does not fall individually but only on the species, for through them [the species] is the purpose of the creator fulfilled. (Seforno ad loc)
By fulfilling God’s will, righteous Jews realize God’s special purpose for humanity. God cares for them and looks over them closely. Those who do not realize God’s purpose for humanity are left to the same natural forces governing the rest of creation. The Jewish tradition even gives some righteous individuals power over what God does (see, e.g., Berakhot 32a; Taanit 23a).
Seforno’s division seems objectionable: it discriminates between righteous Jews and righteous non-Jews. Aren’t righteous non-Jews just as deserving of particular providence? Perhaps we shouldn’t be disturbed. Just as the election of the Jewish people was for “all of the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3), perhaps the good that their election will bring to humanity requires a special form of providence (Deuteronomy 9:5). Thinking in these terms can mitigate the sting of Divine discrimination.
Leibowitz (2009) proposes that Seforno is not discriminatory. Just as the vast majority of Jews are not excluded in principle from divine providence, so too non-Jews are not excluded in principle. It’s just that Seforno held that the vast majority of Jews and all non-Jews happen not to be righteous!
Other sources have non-Jews—especially Christians and Muslims—helping to realize God’s purpose for humanity. For example, Naḥmanides writes that those who follow the Torah realize God’s purpose for humanity. While the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people, it has reached Christians and Muslims too:
Don’t make a mistake about the [non-Jewish] nations, for even they are inheritors of the Torah—those who are close to the center of civilization, such as the Christians and the Muslims, since they copied the Torah and learnt it. And when Rome expanded to some of the outskirts, they learned Torah from it, and made statutes and laws like the Torah out to the distant lands, then made laws and statutes comparable to Torah. (1963: 143)
Similarly, Rabbi Menaḥem ha-Meiri (thirteenth–fourteenth centuries) also has an inclusive view about Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others who follow a decent moral code (see Leibowitz 2009).
Other sources hold that righteous Jews pay a price in that they are subject to more punishment for their fewer sins (at least in this world; see Ibn Ezra and Radak on Amos 3:2; Ohr HaHayyim on Deuteronomy 8:5). Perhaps this could be extended to righteous non-Jews. Perhaps the idea is this: a person is only going to fall under God’s direct purview if their way of life resonates with God’s purposes. But coming under God’s purview has its costs as well: God might subvert nature to protect the righteous, but also punish them more harshly when they fail.
3.4 Answer 4: Particular Providence in the Land of Israel Only
According to the Torah, God is especially at work in the Land of Israel, “a land that the Lord your God searches over; the Lord’s eyes are constantly over it, from the beginning of the year till the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:12). For example, Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven (the Ran, fourteenth century) writes:
The sin [of idolatry] is more appropriate to fear in the wilderness [of Sinai] than in the land of Israel, since [the nation of] Israel knew that the other lands are apportioned to the governance of the stars and constellations … except for the miraculous [interversions]. (1530: 23a)
If Israel is more directly under God’s providence than other places are, shouldn’t we be even more careful there regarding idolatry? But the idea is this: in other lands, you might come to worship the constellations that really do have some sort of power over you; because God delegates the running of the world to various forces of nature (see Shabbat 156a). In Israel, by contrast, there’s only God. The Ran takes this to explain the recommendation of the sages in the Talmud:
One should always live in Israel, even in a city where most of the inhabitants worship idols, rather than outside of Israel, even if most of the inhabitants are Jews. That is because whoever lives in Israel is considered that he has a God, but whoever lives outside of Israel is considered as one who doesn’t have a God. … In fact one who lives outside of Israel is considered as one who worships idols. (Ketuvot 110b)
This view is problematic because providence seems to extend beyond the land of Israel. Isn’t God described as deeply involved in the lives of patriarchs and sages even outside of the land? In reply, Baḥya ben Asher (Rabbeinu Baḥaye, thirteenth–fourteenth centuries) teaches that providence outside of the land somehow flows from the providence over the land. He comments on the verse in Deuteronomy cited above:
According to the plain meaning, the basis of his providence is in this land, since he certainly searches out every land, but the point is that the basis of his searching and providence is here, and from here it extends to the other lands—like a person’s heart is placed in the middle of the body, since it’s the basis of vitality, and from there the vitality extends to the rest of the limbs. Scripture teaches that the Land of Israel isn’t placed under the governance of the stars and constellations like the other lands. … Rather, the Holy One Blessed Be He in his essence and in his glory searches over it constantly, and does not appoint over it from among the other powers, any rules or governor. (Baḥaye ad loc)
How this flow of providence works is not clear. Rabbi Judah Halevy (eleventh–twelfth centuries) argues that prophecy only happens in or concerning the land of Israel (HaLevi 1964: 90–1). Even though Moses never set foot in Israel, for example, his entire prophetic career was aimed at bringing the people back to their land (see also Mekhilta on Exodus 12:1; Moed Katan 25a). Perhaps God’s particular providence only spills over the borders of the land of Israel when the needs of the land and its residents require intervention elsewhere.
3.5 Answer 5: Philosophical Transcendence
A fifth answer denies particular providence altogether. This radical view is rejected by virtually all orthodox Jews. But Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides or the Ralbag; fourteenth century) comes close to the view. Gersonides requires a grasp of Aristotle’sPosterior Analytics. A summary:
Aristotle sets out a surprisingly ambitious set of requirements for knowledge (epistêmê). For our affirmation of a proposition to count as knowledge, that proposition must be grasped through a demonstration (Post An I.2). There can be demonstrations only of propositions that are necessary, and only universal propositions can be necessary (Post An I.4). (Aristotle adds even more conditions that do not concern us directly, for example that I can only know B on the basis of A if A is ‘better known’ to me than B.) This has the upshot that there can be no demonstrative knowledge, which strictly speaking means no knowledge at all, of particulars. (Adamson 2005: 274)
What we call knowledge of particular things (like our knowledge that London is in England) doesn’t really count as knowledge because it can’t be demonstrated as necessary. Only general principles can. If God’s knowledge is perfect, then he wouldn’t bother with our sub-par knowledge-lite. He’s aware only of the real deal—general facts.
God, then, would not have knowledge of “particulars as particulars.” He’d know the laws of nature but he wouldn’t be bothered to take note of any of their particular instances in the concrete universe; he’d know what it means to be a human being but he wouldn’t know any individual humans. Furthermore, as Seymour Feldman explains:
Gersonides argues that the Divine nature is such that He is precluded from having knowledge of particulars. To have such knowledge one must have the appropriate cognitive equipment, such as sensory organs. But to have sensory organs is to have a body, and God does not have a body! Nor should one think that by denying knowledge of particulars to God we are imputing to Him an imperfection or deficiency. God is simply not the kind of entity that could have such knowledge, just as a wall is not the kind of entity that could talk. In neither case do we have a real deprivation, since to deprive an entity of something is to imply that this entity could, under the appropriate conditions, have that feature. (1987: 81)
But if God had no particular knowledge of Abraham, how did God speak to him? If God had no particular knowledge of the Israelites, how did he free them from Egyptian slavery?
Gersonides first explains how prophecy is possible despite God’s ignorance of particulars: God broadcasts only general messages, but particular people in particular circumstances will hear those messages in different ways. God is always broadcasting a message that will be heard by people like Abraham in like circumstances: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). But only a few will grasp the message.
Gersonides then extends his account from prophecy to particular providence:
[T]he kind of providence that guides the righteous by means of the communication given them concerning the benefits or evils that are to befall them can occur even though the giver of this communication does not know the particular individual receiving this communication, and despite the fact that the giver of this communication does not know the particular events, concerning which this communication is given, as particulars. … The type of providence that results in a fear that saves the recipients from evils and produces in them instincts that direct them toward the acquisition of benefits and that enables them to avoid harm. (1987: 180–1)
For example, perhaps God inscribed into the laws of nature that before any sort of disaster occurs a message be broadcast to warn people to keep away. We’re not all tuned in enough. But we can say that God has saved those who are from a disaster, even though God had no particular knowledge of the events in question.
The view is similar to Maimonides’, except that Gersonides does not take God to know who receives his messages and when. That’s about as distant as God can get within a recognizably Jewish framework.
Some argue that Maimonides is more radical than Gersonides—Maimonides’ true position is not the one above, and he hides it because it is so radical. According to this secret theory, God never involves himself with particular individuals. While miracles may be written into natural laws for the benefit of whole nations, God is uninvolved in the day to day life of individuals, however intelligent or righteous they are. Here (supposedly) is the hint:
Divine Providence is constantly watching over those who have obtained that blessing which is prepared for those who endeavour to obtain it. If man frees his thoughts from worldly matters, obtains a knowledge of God in the right way, and rejoices in that knowledge, it is impossible that any kind of evil should befall him while he is with God, and God with him. (1956: 389)
Because “those who possess the knowledge of God, and have their thoughts entirely directed to that knowledge, are, as it were, always in bright sunshine,” God provides for all the needs of the perfect but only because they have no needs. They don’t want health. They don’t want wealth. If they’re basking in the vision of God, they have no worldly desires at all. So God has provided for all of their worldly needs, since they have none. When a person loses that state, they’re no longer provided for. They might start to feel hungry, but food will not miraculously materialize. The light of “providence” will not shine on them, at that moment, as “the cloud … intervenes between them and God” (1956: 389).
We doubt that Maimonides has a secret, more radical theory of providence than the one advertised earlier on. If we’re wrong, Maimonides is more radical than Gersonides (see Raffel 1987).
4 An Idealist Interlude
With this map of Jewish answers in place, we defend a particular view about God’s relationship with the world. This view is neutral on four of the theories outlined above, though it might appear to conflict with Gersonides. Like the first answer to the question of providence, God ends up having his fingers on everything. But, like the later answers, God has more of his fingers on certain creatures than others.
We begin with a philosophical argument that is not part of Jewish tradition. But nothing in it is at odds with Jewish tradition, and the argument will help make sense of some Jewish sources.
The argument is based on what was first seen clearly by the Christian philosopher George Berkeley (1685–1753). There’s nothing especially Christian about his view, and most Christians disagree with him. You will likely disagree with his view too. But you might see why we accept it and, then, what follows from it for the question of providence.
Berkeley’s view is that everything is a mind or an experience (or sensation or ‘idea’) in a mind (see Berkeley 1982: sections 1–24). This view is known as idealism.
How could anyone deny that there are tables and chairs? Berkeley does not deny that there are tables and chairs. What he denies is that they exist outside of any mind (see Berkeley 1982: sections 34–40). He takes his view to be simple, common sense:
I do not pretend to be a setter-up of new notions. My endeavours tend only to unite, and place in a clearer light, that truth which was before shared between the vulgar and the philosophers: the former being of opinion, that those things they immediately perceive are real things; and the latter, that the things immediately perceived, are ideas which exist only in the mind. Which two notions put together, do in effect constitute the substance of what I advance. (1979: 94)
To understand Berkeley, focus on an apple. You perceive something red, sweet, and hard. Berkeley takes the redness, sweetness and hardness you experience to be nothing other than sensations in your mind. Why think that? To see that redness, sweetness, and hardness do not exist beyond the mind, consider that scientists can generate vivid experiences by stimulating parts of your brain—neurosurgeons sometimes do generate sensations by touching certain parts of the brain.
Imagine scientists tinkering with your brain so that you experience redness, sweetness, and hardness. There’s nothing in the external world corresponding to these experiences. They’re just sensations in your mind. But, since the experiences you would have are intrinsically identical to the experiences you actually do have when you see an apple, experiences of the apple are also nothing other than sensations in your mind.
Or consider more realistic cases: hallucinations. Hallucinations of an apple are intrinsically identical to real experiences of an apple. What is experienced in each case is just something in the mind.
One reply insists on a difference: the sensations might be intrinsically identical, but they have different external causes. The stimulated or hallucinatory experiences are not caused by and do not correspond to a real apple outside the mind. When you see the apple, by contrast, your experiences are caused by and correspond to a real apple outside the mind.
This strategy bifurcates the world. What we originally took to be the real apple—red, sweet, and hard—is now a combination of sensations in our mind. What actually turns out to be the real apple would be something totally different. Since redness, sweetness, and hardness are in our minds, and the apple is outside our mind, it could not really be red, sweet, or hard. What would the real apple be like then? We have no clue, except that it is something that causes and corresponds to what is in our minds—and, since we know nothing about one side of the equation, we have no clue about what that correspondence is like either (see Berkeley 1982: sections 18–22).
The strategy of bifurcating the world into appearance and reality mires us in deep ignorance about the real world. Berkeley has a more optimistic proposal: the real world is nothing over and above the appearances. The apple is a real thing, and it is constructed out of the sensations of redness, roundness, and hardness. The real world is just the whole collection of experiences. There are only minds and the sensations or experiences in those minds.
Three immediate problems:
How does idealism distinguish between the real world and hallucinations? After all, they are equally constituted by sensations.
What causes our experiences if not material objects? After all, they don’t pop into our minds uncaused. This question is pressing if more than one mind can experience the same “object.”
Where do objects go when no one is experiencing them? The apple doesn’t disappear when we stop looking at it.
Berkeley’s answer to the first question: sensations constituting the real world and those constituting hallucinations differ—not in being sensations, but in their stability and organization. For example, the real world is intersubjective. You and I will have very similar sensations of an apple, whereas I will not experience the pink elephant you’re hallucinating (see Berkeley 1982: sections 34–41).
Berkeley’s answer to the second question is that God causes our (non-hallucinatory) experiences. Since there are no material objects, our experience would have to be caused by another mind. And since our intersubjective experiences are so detailed and complex, that mind would have to be extremely impressive (see Berkeley 1982: sections 25–33).
So the answer to the third question: when we are not experiencing the real world, God could keep it in being. When we turn away from the apple, God could keep the sensations of the apple in his own mind, and so the apple does not disappear (see Berkeley 1982: sections 45–8).
The opposite view is that there are two fundamentally different kinds of stuff: mind and matter. But the nature of matter and how it interacts with mind is obscure from us, and must always be since it lies forever beyond the reach of the mind. The bifurcated picture is uneconomical and mysterious. The view that all reality is fundamentally mental is economical and transparent.
If you aren’t convinced, here’s the clincher. Whereas Berkeley tried to prove the existence of God from the truth of idealism, we can go the other way round: we derive idealism from religious belief.
Religious readers take God to be perfectly rational. This means that he would not do anything useless. If Berkeley’s picture is possible, then God could create experiences exactly like ours without creating any material object. But if God could have created a world that looks just like ours without creating any material objects, then material objects would be useless. So, if idealism is possible, then material objects are useless. So, if idealism is possible, God would not create material objects. You must admit that idealism is a possible way for God to have created a world. Since idealism is possible, God would not have created material objects, and thus idealism is true (see Goldschmidt and Lebens 2020).
We cannot fully convey the beauty and plausibility of Berkeleyan Idealism (also see Adams2007). But we must say something since idealism is crucial for understanding God’s role in the world: God causes all experiences of natural objects and events, and since there is nothing more to these objects and events than those experiences, God is thereby keeping them in existence. The dependence of all natural objects and events on God is radical and intimate. God has his fingers on everything, and nothing exists without immediate dependence on God.
As God is the immediate cause of everything in nature, natural things do not immediately cause other natural things. After all, it would be unnecessary and silly for God to immediately cause all natural things and to give those things their very own causal powers. How could one experience cause another experience anyhow? When cotton is placed in a fire, then, the fire is not the real cause of the cotton burning. When one billiard ball smashes into another, then, the billiards do not cause any of the noises and motions. God causes the cotton to burn, and the billiard balls to move by causing the relevant sequence of sensations and all the patterns of order in nature that science discovers (compare al-Ghazali [eleventh century] 2000: Discussion 17).
5 Radical Reductions
Our Jewish form of idealism comes equipped with a response to randomness. Idealism is the view that everything is a mind or an idea in a mind. Let’s distinguish a few versions. First:
Berkeleyan idealism: Everything is a mind or an idea in a mind. Some material objects are ideas. But no minds are ideas and no ideas are minds.
On this view, there is: (1) the infinite divine mind, (2) finite creaturely minds and (3) ideas in these minds. Ideas in the mind of God come together to make up material objects (e.g., our apple). But God’s ideas never come together to make up a mind. Minds are independent ingredients of reality. Contrast:
Tame Hassidic Idealism: Everything is a mind or an idea in a mind. Some material objects are ideas, some minds (indeed, all finite minds) are ideas, and some ideas are minds.
There is, once again: (1) the infinite divine mind, (2) finite creaturely minds, and (3) ideas in these minds. Ideas in the mind of God come together to make up material objects (our apple). Now add that some of God’s ideas come together to make up minds too. In fact, all finite minds are just ideas in the mind of God. Just as the apple is a bundle of God’s ideas, so too our minds are bundles of God’s ideas. Finally, a more radical view:
Radical HassidicIdealism: Everything is a mind or an idea in a mind. But no material object and no mind is an idea.
There is: (1) the infinite divine mind, and (2) ideas in this mind. There is nothing else. Everything other than the divine mind is an idea in the divine mind. But no material objects and no minds could be ideas. Just as the idea of a vacation is not itself a vacation, God’s ideas of minds are not themselves minds. And so nothing other than the divine mind and its ideas exist. No material objects and no finite minds exist. What then of our apple? What of ourselves?
RadicalHassidic Idealism seems absurd. Are you not here? What could be more obvious? But distinguish between an author writing a story, and what happens in that story. There are two levels of reality. The one is Conan Doyle’s level of reality. The other is Sherlock Holmes’ level of reality. On one level—the level of what happens in the story—Sherlock Holmes exists, lives at 221B Baker Street, and so on. On another level—of what happens outside the story—Sherlock Holmes does not exist, does not live on 221B Baker street, and so on.
Now imagine that the author is a divine author, and the story is a history of the world. These are two levels of reality. Radical HassidicIdealism concedes that on one level—the level of the story—our minds do exist, but that on another level—the level where God is author—our minds do not exist. Or distinguish between God imagining a world and what God imagines. Radical Hassidic Idealism tells us that on one level of reality—the level of what God imagines—finite minds and material objects, people and apples, exist, but on a more fundamental level—the level where God is merely imagining a world—they do not exist. At this fundamental level, only God and his ideas of minds and his ideas of material objects exist.
We’re not sure whether Hassidic Idealism is best framed in terms of a divine fiction or a divine dream, or whether there is any difference between divine fiction and divine dream. But the result is much the same: in one way—at the fundamental level of reality—we do not exist. But in another way—in the divine story, the divine dream—we do exist. We are God’s imaginary friends (see Lebens 2015).
We call the last two views hassidicidealism because they capture the theology of the early Hassidic masters. For example, the founder of Hassidism teaches that when reciting the Shemaprayer, which declares the unity of God, the worshiper must understand that:
there is nothing else in the entire world, other than the Holy One, Blessed be He; that all the world is filled with his glory [alluding to Isaiah 6:3]. And the fundamental principle of this intention, is that the person should consider himself as empty and void, and he has no fundamentality other than the soul that is within him, which is a portion of God above [alluding to Job 31:2]. Consequently, there is nothing in the world other than the one, Holy One, blessed be He. (Ben Eliezer 1938: Parashat Va’Etchanan 13)
Insofar as we exist at all, we exist derivatively. Insofar as we exist at all, we have no independence. We are swallowed up by the divine. We are about as close to nothing as possible (for more on the association between Hassidism and what we call Radical Hassidic Idealism, see Goldschmidt and Lebens 2020; Lebens 2020). Now we return to the question of providence.
6 Idealism and Providence
In some theological pictures nature functions somewhat independently of God. God winds up the machine, and then lets it go. God creates initial conditions and natural laws, and then lets the universe unfold (except for the occasional miracle). But on Berkeleyan Idealism, the universe cannot unfold without God’s constant intervention. The universe is just a patchwork of experiences knitted together by the will of God. The experiences don’t cause themselves. And we don’t cause them. The experiences are caused by and exist in the mind of God. This puts a gloss on Genesis Rabbah:
‘He encountered the place’ (Genesis 28:11)—Rav Huna in the name of Rabbi Amei said: Why do… we call Him ‘Place’? Since he is the place of the world, and the world is not his place—from what is written, ‘Behold! There is a place at me’ (Exodus 33:21). (68:9)
On Radical Hassidic Idealism, the universe isn’t even a patchwork of experiences knitted together by the will of God. The universe is a divine fiction or a figment of divine imagination. But it is not a human fiction or figment. Nothing slips mistakenly through the pen of an omniscient author. Nothing wanders unexpectedly through the imagination of an omnipotent mind.
God is the immediate cause, the immediate author, or the immediate dreamer of all natural things. But that does not mean that he is the immediate cause (or author or dreamer) of all things in the same way. For example, he might bring about some things in more miraculous ways than others. When he causes an event that follows the usual pattern of events—for example, making cotton burn in fire—that’s no miracle. When he causes an event that does not follow the usual pattern—for example, making cotton freeze in fire—that’s a miracle.
Idealism, we can safely say, rules out perfect divine transcendence. God has his fingers on everything. Nevertheless, idealism—Berkeleyan or Hassidic—does not tell us how much particular providence there is. How do the fingers of God move things? How does God imagine things?
Berkeleyan Idealism does not tell us which of the five answers of Sect. 8.3 is correct, although it rules out Gersonides’. Hassidicidealism by contrast, divides the question of providence into two, and answers half of it. That is to say, Hassidicidealism transforms the question of the extent of providence into two questions:
How far does God’s particular providence extend in the world as it is fundamentally?
In the story of our world (i.e., at the level of reality in which we’re real people), how far does God’s particular providence extend?
Now, the answer to question 1: God’s particular providence extends over everything that exists, even though the only things that exist, besides him, are his ideas. As an omnipotent being, he has complete control over his ideas. But question 2 is more interesting, and is left unanswered by Hassidicidealism.
Question 2 asks how often God, a character in his own story, appears on the scene, in the story itself. Hassidicidealism is compatible with any of the five answers of Sect. 8.3, even Gersonides’. Within the story God tells, Hassidism might still be partial to answer 1; it might think that God is always, even as a character in his own story, in the story itself, intimately involved in every event that transpires. However, the basic ideas are consistent with a wide array of theories of providence, so long as we restrict our attention to question 2. And though the Hassidim tend to see God’s hand everywhere, Hassidicidealism makes room for any of the medieval views, so long as they are restricted to what’s going on within the story of the world. We can now deliver on our original promise: a benefit of Hassidic idealism is that it sees no conflict between an event being both completely random and completely determined by the will of God.
E. E. Cummings wrote a poem, “Nobody loses all the time.” It tells us of an uncle, Sol, who suffered a series of business disasters. His vegetable farm failed because chickens ate the vegetables. So, he started a chicken farm, which failed when skunks at the chickens. He started a skunk farm, which failed because the skunks died of cold. Sol “imitated” the skunks “in a subtle manner” by “drowning himself in the watertank.” Eventually, Sol was buried, and so “started a worm farm.”
Let’s assume that Sol is a fictional uncle, that Cummings is not telling a true story. Here’s a question: was Sol a victim of dumb luck? In the poem, it seems as if Sol’s life was a series of mishaps, a statistical anomaly, a counter-example to the general rule of thumb that in a world of pure chance, “Nobody loses all the time.” Let’s assume that in the story of the poem, Sol’s life was governed by random forces. That doesn’t undermine the fact that every experience that Sol ever had was, from a different perspective, determined by the will of Cummings, his creator.
For the Hassidic idealist, whether principled randomness is a real feature of the world we live in doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t undermine the religious significance of any event. We can now adopt two perspectives at once. Just as random events in a story are truly random within the story but also wholly determined by their author, random events in our world can be both random within the divine story in which we live, and determined by God from a more fundamental perspective. Just as random events in Sol’s life could (and perhaps should) be read as carrying meaning and significance (it’s a poem after all), we’re invited to see each moment of our life from the perspective of the author, as pregnant with religious significance, even if the moment was also a product of principled randomness.
We have canvassed various Jewish views of providence: (1) God extends particular providence to all creatures; (2) God extends particular providence to those intelligent enough to receive it; (3) God extends particular providence to those who deserve it; (4) God extends particular providence in the land of Israel; (5) God extends general providence which we can particularize; and (6) there is no particular providence (according to the secret-theory-theory).
All of these theories can be adopted by Hassidicidealism, but only in relation to our second question of providence: In the story of our world (i.e., at the level of reality in which we’re real people), how far does God’s particular providence extend? But what of our first question: How far does God’s particular providence extend in the world as it is fundamentally? The Hassidic idealist can answer that however random events might be within the story of the universe, they are nevertheless entirely determined by the divine will. Hassidicidealism renders randomness theologically harmless.
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Goldschmidt, T., Lebens, S. (2022). Judaism and Providence. In: Clark, K.J., Koperski, J. (eds) Abrahamic Reflections on Randomness and Providence. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-75797-7_8
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