Human freedom and God’s Providence as analyzed by the Rambam

it is the level of providence which one receives from God which determines the ultimate status of his value and life.

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Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
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The greatest challenge which exists in western religious thought is the apparent contradiction between the infinity of God and the free will of man. How is it possible to retain both beliefs simultaneously?  

It should be clearly understood that this is a problem which is rooted in scripture and dialectical philosophy or logic.  It is not a problem that we perceive in nature or personal experience.  When it comes to experience of ourselves, we sense that we are, or that our minds are, absolutely free unless we are constrained by physical forces external to us.  

The nature of this intellectual dilemma is expressed by the Rambam in the following manner:

"The right is given to each person, if he so wishes, to direct himself to the good path and become righteous. . . or to the evil path and be wicked.  The ability is in his hands.  This is what is written in the Torah, 'man is as one of us by knowing good and evil'.” (Bereshit 3:22, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Teshuva 5:1.)

The Rambam continues:

"Do not think that which the fools of the nations of world and most of the ignoramuses of Israel say that God decrees on man when he is born to be righteous or wicked.  This is not the case.  Rather, every person is able to become as righteous as our teacher Moshe or as evil as Yeravam. . ." (Ibid, 5:2.)

This becomes the underlying principle of Jewish belief. 

"This is a major foundation and is a pillar of the Torah, that God does not compel human beings and does not decree upon them to do good or evil, but it is all given over to them."( Ibid, 5:3)

It is important to the Rambam that we should recognize that the foundation of this belief is basically logic.  If human beings were preordained at birth to act in one way or another, what would be the purpose of God commanding us through the Torah as well as sending prophets to Israel to admonish them to do good and refrain from evil?  Their behavior would be a result of natural phenomena, no different than the instinctual behavior of other animated living things.  In addition, how could it be just, either to punish them or reward them for actions over which they had no control?  (See Ibid, 5:4.)

The Rambam reaffirms this principle in the Guide to the Perplexed, Moreh Nevuchim.  

"It is a foundation of the Torah of our teacher Moshe and all those who follow it, that man has the absolute ability, that is to say, that it is in his nature, his choice, and in his will to do what is possible for man to do, without the need at all for God to create a new ability for man to do so. . .Man should have the ability to do what he wishes or chooses from that which is within his ability to do.  This is a fundamental principle, which thank God, we have not heard contradicted in our nation (i.e. no other Jewish authorities disagree with this principle.) (Moreh HaNevuchim, Kapach edition, Section 3, Chapt. 17, p. 311.)

There are two issues which severely challenge, if not outright contradict, the foregoing analysis of free will.  One is the dilemma caused by God’s omniscience. The other is the Rambam’s understanding of God’s providence.  We have discussed in a previous paper the issue of God’s omniscience and offered a novel solution to explain this dichotomy.  See Where Does Our Teshuva Take Us After Yom Kippur, published on Arutz Sheva on September 25, 2015.  

The issue of God’s providence is a more subtle challenge to the concept of human free will than the issue of God’s omniscience and had greater implications for human life.  First, it is crucial to understand that the Rambam openly admits that the concept of Divine Providence i.e. God’s supervision of the universe, is not based any demonstrable proof.  It is an intangible concept which is not openly manifested in nature or rooted in logic or even openly stated in scripture.  It is primarily a doctrine of belief which is intimated by Jewish faith. 

The Rambam :   

"Divine Providence, which I am about to explain, I do not rely upon demonstrable evidence which brought me to it, but I rely upon what is clear to me as the intent of the book of God (the Torah) and the books of our prophets . . .(Moreh Hanevuchim, Section 3, Chapt. 17, p. 312)

The Rambam explains that in the sublunar world (i.e. the world which exists below the moon as opposed to the spheres which exist above it) there is no sense of providence or God’s direction.  All occurrences are coincidental or happen by chance as was understood by Aristotle.  The one exception over which there is providence is man, and that is due to his rational faculty. (See Ibid, p. 313) 

The Rambam, however, stresses that providence does not adhere to human beings as a species, for a species is only an intellectual abstraction. Providence can only apply to individuals or physical beings.  

"Divine providence does not exist in the sublunary world except in individuals of the human species.  And it is this species alone and the conditions of its individual members and what occurs to them from good to bad is what they deserve . . ."(Ibid, p. 312)

The Rambam further elaborates upon this understanding:

"After discussing the concept of providence which applies only to human beings, (the human species) (separate from all other life forms), what really exists and which is not theoretical is only a living individual or individuals and the emanation (influence) of God is only found over the minds of individuals and it is that influence or providence which is upon Reuvain, Shimon, Levi and Yehuda (i.e. individual human beings)." (Ibid, p. 314-15.)   

Providence is a response to human beings which is based upon their preparation and behavior which can occur and often does occur as a result of free will.  Nevertheless, once an individual falls under its aegis, providence becomes dispositive in supervising or guiding their ongoing behavior and lives.  The greater the role of providence, the lesser is the role of free will.   

"Every individual human being who acquired from that flow an extra (greater) portion based upon his physical predisposition and preparation, that providence becomes more necessary to him if it was of an intellectual nature.  If so, divine providence which is upon the individual of the human species will not be equal. . . It is absolutely necessary that God’s providence will be greater in prophets.  But wicked fools, according to what they lack of that flow or providence, will be included in categories of other living organisms . . .and therefore it will be an easy matter to kill them.  And we are even commanded to do so (to kill them) to benefit mankind". (Ibid. p. 315.) 

This is more elaborately described in the Mishneh Torah:

"It is the foundation of the faith to know that God allows human beings to prophesy.  And prophesy only comes upon a person great in wisdom, strong of character, who does not allow his desires to overpower him in anything in the world.  But rather through his mind, he always overcomes his desires and has a broad and correct knowledge.  A person who is filled with all of these qualities, complete in body . . . and has correct knowledge to understand and to strive and become sanctified and separates himself from the general crowd . . .and is connected to God (literally, “under the throne”) and gazes upon the wisdom of God, immediately the holy spirit descends upon him. " (Mishneh Torah, Yesodai Hatorah, 7:1)

Thus, it is the level of providence which one receives from God which determines the ultimate status of his value and life.  What apparently began as a process of free will in preparation to receive God’s emanation, ultimately concludes as a deterministic process where free will is missing or becomes irrelevant.  In addition, if providence is ultimately based upon intellectual ability, that ability itself is based upon conditions that are not rooted in free will, but depend on such factors as genetics, education, and environmental circumstances.  These are not under the control of most individuals.  They are no different than Aristotle’s coincidences or accidents. 

It is clear, especially in his discussion of prophesy, that the Rambam utilizes the Aristotelian principle of the Active and Passive Mind which the Rambam interprets as providence. (See De Anima, Book III, Chapt. 5.) The human mind basically exists in a passive or potential state.  The mind of God, however, is eternally active, and is always in a state of actualization.  For man to reach the highest intellectual level of which he is capable, his mind must be activated by God.  That occurs, according to the Rambam, through the process of emanation or Shefa, or divine influence, which emanates from God and is placed upon the human being.   The greater the emanation, the greater is the human being, until he reaches the highest level possible for man, which for the Rambam is prophesy. 

The great irony of this analysis of the Rambam, is that the closer one gets to God and indeed the closer God is to him, through the process of providence, the less freedom he possesses.  Free will is thus meaningless for one who is in the process of fulfilling the destiny which God’s has in store for him.  It is thus an anomaly that free will, which is understood as the highest attribute of a human being which separates him from all other living creatures, becomes diminished and ultimately disappears, the higher one strives to identify with and become closer to God and be under His direct providence. 

Thus, the lowest forms of living beings and the highest are similar in that they do not possess free will.  Animals cannot choose to go against their instinct, and angels who are above humans are always compelled to do the bidding of God.  Only human beings were given the ability of possessing free will, and ironically, are now placed within a system where they are required to do the utmost to abandon it by being in the service of God.  

Perhaps free will, which is man’s greatest possession, is that which he must sacrifice to truly know God.