Divine Providence

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In theology, Divine Providence, or simply Providence, is the sovereignty, superintendence, or agency of God over events in people's lives and throughout history.


This word comes from Latin providentia "foresight, precaution", from pro- "ahead" + videre "to see". The current meaning of the word (Divine Providence) derives from the sense "knowledge of the future" or omniscience, which is the privilege of God. The initial meaning of providere remains in 'to provide' = "to take precautionary measures".

Classical Jewish philosophy

Divine providence is discussed by all of the major thinkers, but its extent and nature is a matter of dispute [1]. There are, broadly, two views, differing largely as to the frequency with which God intervenes in the natural order. The first view admits a frequency of miracles. Here there is a stability of the natural order which nevertheless allows for the interference of God in the regulation of human events, or even in disturbing the natural order on occasion. The second, rationalist view does not deny the occurrence of miracles, but attempts to limit it, and will rationalize the numerous miraculous events related in the Bible and bring them within the sphere of the natural order.


The teachings of Nachmanides ("Ramban") are largely representative of the first view. He holds that the Creator endowed the universe with physical properties, and sustains the natural order, and that any act of providence involves, by definition, an intrusion into the laws of nature. In the absence of providential interference, cause and effect governs the affairs of the universe. In Ramban's view, reward and punishment — as well as guidance of the fate of Israel — are the typical expressions of such providence (see Ramban: Torat Hashem Temimah). In this sense there is no difference between God causing it to rain (as a reward) and His separating the waters of the Red Sea. Both are the result of Divine intervention.

"And from the great and well-known miracles a man comes to admit to hidden miracles which are the foundation of the whole Torah. A person has no portion in the Torah of Moses unless he believes that all our matters and circumstances are miracles and they do not follow nature or the general custom of the world …rather, if one does mitzvot he will succeed due to the reward he merits …" (Exodus 13:16 ad loc)

All events (natural or providential) are the result of the direct will of God, and, as such, the seemingly natural order of the world is an illusion. At the same time, any (obvious) breach in the chain of causality involves a "compromise” in the default cause and effect nature of the universe — providence is thus exercised sparingly, and in a "seemingly natural" manner (Genesis 6:19 ad loc). Thus, whereas the fate of the Jews as a nation is guided by providence, individuals do not enjoy the same providential relationship with the Almighty. Only the righteous and the wicked can expect providential treatment. The fate of more “average” individuals is primarily guided by natural law (Deuteronomy 11:13 ad loc).


Maimonides ("Rambam") is representative of the rationalist school. He holds that the pattern of nature is basically immutable. “This Universe remains perpetually with the same properties with which the Creator has endowed it… none of these will ever be changed except by way of miracle in some individual instances….” (Guide 2:29). This notwithstanding, Maimonides believes that God rewards and punishes appropriately.

To some extent, Rambam reconciles the two views by defining providence as an essentially natural process. Here individual providence depends on the development of the human mind: that is, the more a man develops his mind the more he is subject to the providence of God. Providence is, in fact, a function of intellectual and spiritual activity: it is the activity, not the person that merits providence. "Divine Providence is connected with Divine intellectual influence, and the same beings which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also under the control of Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds in order to reward or punish them." (Guide 3:17).

Further, by defining Providence as function of human activity, Maimonides avoids the problem of how God can be affected by events on Earth, lessening any implication of change within God and the resultant implication of a lack of perfection. [2]; see Divine simplicity. Maimonides, relatedly, views "reward and punishment" as manifesting in the World to Come as opposed to in this world (see Talmud, Kiddushin 39b; Pirkei Avot 2:16) — he therefore defines Divine providence as that which facilitates intellectual attainment as opposed to as an instrument of reward and punishment.

“[The] reward given for fulfilling commandments is life in the World to Come.. [So] where it is written that if one listens, one will receive such-and-such, and that if one doesn't listen such-and-such will happen to one … such as plenty, famine, war, peace, monarchy, humility, living in Israel, exile, success, misfortune … [this refers to that] which will aid us in fulfilling the Torah, [and which] will be influenced to come our way so that we will not have to occupy ourselves all day in obtaining bodily needs, but that we will be free … to learn and gather knowledge and fulfill commandments.” (Mishneh Torah, Teshuva 9:1.)

Contemporary Orthodox thought

From a religious point of view, the extent to which nature is fixed, and to which God intervenes in human affairs, will have very strong implications as to what level, and kind, of interaction with the natural world are appropriate. The question of Divine providence thus remains relevant in (Orthodox) Jewish thought. In fact, both of the above approaches continue to influence contemporary Orthodox Judaism. In general, Nachmanides' view is influential in Ultra Orthodox Haredi Judaism, while Maimonides' view — in addition to Nachmanides' — underpins much of Modern Orthodox thought. The difference between the two approaches manifests particularly in the importance assigned to, and attitudes toward, three areas:

  • Derech eretz: involvement with the natural world, particularly for purposes of livelihood.
  • Technology: the use and manipulation of nature.
  • Madda: knowledge of the functioning of nature and society, both to facilitate derech eretz and as a complement to Torah study.

Haredi Judaism

The view of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler is representative of the Haredi approach. To generalise, Rabbi Dessler [3] (along with the Chazon Ish) teaches that given the illusory "nature of nature", each individual must find their appropriate balance between personal effort (hishtadlus / hishtadlut השתדלות) and trust (bitochon / bitachon ביטחון). "Rav Dessler", relatedly, often repeated the idea that every object and circumstance in the material world should be viewed as a means of serving Hashem (God) [4].

  • In line with Ramban, Rabbi Dessler defines nature as the arena of "Nisayon" (נסיון Hebrew: [spiritual] test) — i.e. one will engage in derech eretz in inverse proportion to his recognition of God's providential role. Rabbi Dessler thus advises (based on Mesillat Yesharim Ch. 21) that one make his Torah fixed (kavua קבוע) and his derech eretz temporary and contingent on circumstances (arai עראי). Note that Rabbi Dessler stresses that "[one cannot] exploit a tendency to laziness in order to bolster his bitochon in Hashem ("trust in God") … Trust in Hashem cannot be built up this way because the goal here is not to refrain from work but to attain certainty in bitochon in Hashem that leads to lessening worldly endeavors." (Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, vol. 1. pp. 194- 5)
  • Given this conception of nature, Rav Dessler castigates preoccupation with technological enterprises and deems this the equivalent of idolatry. He writes that a civilization which is preoccupied with developing the external and the material, and neglects the inner moral content will eventually degenerate to its lowest possible depths [5]: “Happiness in this world comes only as a result of being content with what one has in this world, and striving intensively for spirituality” and thus “the more that people try to improve this world, the more their troubles will backlash … Instead of realizing they are drowning in materialism, they search for further ways to enhance physicality” (See Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, vol. 2 p. 236-310 and vol. 3 p.143-70). [6]
  • Rav Dessler writes that the acquisition of secular knowledge is unlikely to be other than at the expense of Torah knowledge. "[T]he philosophy of Yeshiva education is directed towards one objective alone, to nurture Gedolei Torah ("greats in Torah knowledge") and Yirei Shamayim (those "fearful of Heaven") in tandem. For this reason university was prohibited to [yeshiva] students… [educators] could not see how to nurture Gedolei Torah unless they directed all education towards Torah exclusively" (letter in Mikhtav me-Eliyahu vol. 3). [7]

Modern Orthodox Judaism

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik — probably Modern Orthodoxy’s most influential theologian — echoes Maimonides’ teaching. He writes that “the fundamental of providence is… transformed into a concrete commandment, an obligation incumbent upon man. Man is obliged to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of the individual providence that watches over him. Everything is dependent on him; it is all in his hands”. (Halakhic Man, p. 128)

  • In line with this emphasis on proactivity, Modern Orthodox thought regards derech eretz, Man's involvement with the natural world, as a divine imperative inherent in the nature of creation (as opposed to as a "necessary evil" as above). Here, "worldly involvement" extends to a positive contribution to general society [8]. This understanding is reflected both in Rav Soloveitchik's conception as well as in the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch; see Torah Umadda, Torah im Derech Eretz.
  • Similarly, Rabbi Soloveitchik, in The Lonely Man of Faith, mandates the involvement of human beings in technological activity. This is based on God's blessing to Adam and Eve "Fill the land and conquer it" (Genesis 1:28), which extends to the obligation of imitatio dei. The use and development of Technology, then, is not characterised as "prideful", but rather is seen as obligatory upon man.
  • Further, Madda, knowledge of the natural world and society, is regarded as vital in Modern Orthodox thought. This knowledge plays an obvious role in the facilitation of derech eretz and the development of technology. It is also seen as valuable as a complement to Torah study. This further reflects Maimonides, in that he, famously, defines science and philosophy as "Handmaidens" of Torah study — one could not be a learned Jew without this knowledge [9].


  1. "Jewish Philosophy" Dagobert D. Runes, "Dictionary of Philosophy", 1942.
  2. "How bad things can happen to good people" Rabbi Gidon Rothstein, Moreh Nevukhim—Chapter 51, Part 5
  3. "Rav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler, zt'l, His Fiftieth Yahrtzeit" Rabbi Dov Wein, Dei'ah veDibur, January 2004
  4. ibid
  5. "Cellular Terrorism" Rabbi Nosson Grossman, Dei'ah veDibur, May 2001
  6. See also "Do We have a Hammer . . . or a Gun?" Mordechai Plaut, Dei'ah veDibur, December 2004
  7. See also "Call to Stand Firm Against Chareidi Yeshiva High Schools" Yated Ne'eman Staff, December 2003
  8. "Practical Endeavor and the Torah U'Madda Debate" Rabbi Dr. David Shatz, Torah U'Madda Volume 3: 1991-1992
  9. "Tinsel Town does Morality" Rabbi D Hecht, nishma.org

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