Nahmanides and the Natural Order. Machshava Insight by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau

Does Judaism believe in a stable, natural order or is nature a misleading illusion because, in truth, God directs every moment? Medievals and moderns debate this point and the argument can have serious implications. Does human effort and initiative working within the natural order truly solve problems? Who protects the state of Israel – kollel students or those serving in the army? Is becoming a doctor a wonderful way to help people or just another profession? Assumptions regarding the natural order can impact on our response to all of these questions.

Some passages of Ramban have led many to think that he denied the natural order altogether. In his commentary on the Torah (Shemot 13:16), Ramban writes that “A person has no portion in the Torah of Moshe Rabbenu until he believes that all our happenings are miracles; they have no nature or customary order of the world.” This passage strongly implies a denial of nature and Ramban is often cited in such a fashion.

In an excellent article (“Miracles and The Natural Order in Nahmanides,” Rabbi Moses Nahmanides: Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity ed. Isadore Twersky, Cambridge, 1983), David Begrer proves the error of this standard understanding of Ramban. In several passages, Ramban limits intensive providence to the truly righteous. The rest of humanity is left to the accidents of nature.

A verse in Bereishit (18:19) says that God “knew Avraham.” Ramban suggests that “knowledge” here refers to providence. Ramban explains that whereas most people are left to accidents, the pious receive God’s careful attention to know them and guard them as individuals. As we say every Shabbat morning, “Behold, God’s eye is on those that fear him” (Tehillim 33:19).

Ramban’s famous discussion of the role of human medicine (see his commentary on Vayikra 26:11) says that in an ideal universe, sickness would inspire repentance and there would be no need for doctors. However, people chose to consult doctors and “God left them to the accidents of nature.”

Someone might argue that individuals are subject to nature but that the Jewish collective knows only constant providence. Dr. Berger refutes that reading based on Ramban’s commentary to Iyyov (36:7). There, Ramban asserts that most people belong to the group subject to the natural order. He utilizes this point to explain why the Torah treats warfare as a human endeavor that requires strategy and planning. The wars of the Jewish people certainly consist of the actions of the Jewish collective and yet, Ramban writes of working within the natural order because the people’s religious stature does not merit acute providence.

How do we reconcile all of the above with the passage from his commentary on Shemot? Dr. Berger provides an explanation. “All things that happen to us in the context of reward and punishments are miracles (p. 127).” Ramban is not denying the natural order but rather arguing that that order plays no role in the working out of divine justice. God dispenses reward and punishment in a purely miraculous fashion. At the same time, the natural order exists and most individuals find themselves unworthy of the kind of providence that lifts them beyond its limitations.

I argued in the first paragraph that this question can have serious repercussions. If so, Dr. Berger has performed an important service in clarifying Ramban’s true position.

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Rabbi Avi Weinstein taught at Yeshivat Hamivtar and Michlelet Bruria from 1979 until 1984. He also has been a talmid of Rabbi Brovender since 1975. He is currently the Head of Jewish Studies at The Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas. He blogs frequently at: scorchintorah.com and invites you to come and join him at your convenience.

3 Responses to “Nahmanides and the Natural Order. Machshava Insight by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau” Subscribe

  1. Frank Stechel December 30, 2008 at 6:35 pm #

    How does this understanding of “schar v’onesh” – reward and punishment – square with the second paragraph of Kriat Shema? I don’t think the Torah intends to say that the rain will fall and the land yield produce only over the homes and fields of tzadikim. Rather there must be some collective merit that accrues to the nation as a whole from the merit of tzadikim – according to this understanding.
    This is a very interesting topic.

  2. Reb Yaakov December 30, 2008 at 11:36 pm #

    Do you think that Ramban is using a hashgachah klallit idea to describe the natural order – similar to the name Elokim. As opposed to a hashgachah pratit idea that would protect elite individuals, like in the piece on medicine?

  3. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau January 6, 2009 at 3:10 pm #

    Frank, I am glad that you found the topic interesting. I think that Ramban (and Dr. Berger) would agree that reward and punishment can also be distributed on a collective level. These miracles may be hidden miracles (as in the case of rain) but they are still miraculous dispensing of reward and punishment. Outisde of this context, nature prevails.

    Reb Yaakov, I think that for Ramban, providence involves a change in the natural order so he would not identify any level of hasgacha with that order. See the first three pages of Ramban’s introduction to his commentary on Iyyov.

    I recommend to both of you reading Dr. Berger’s rich article in its entirety.