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Does God Know Us?

Famous Jewish philosophers had conflicting views about prophecy and divine providence. People can accept or reject their views. Many Jews are convinced that Jews are judged by their behavior, not by their beliefs. They can believe what they want as long as they harm no one.[1]

The Popular View

Most people feel that prophecy was a miraculous divine communication. God is constantly involved in watching out for and protecting the welfare of people. Famous Jewish thinkers who held this commonplace view include Nachmanides and Yehudah Halevi.

Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Gersonides

There were philosophers such as Abraham ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Gersonides who were convinced that prophecy is not a communication from God but a natural event. Prophets were men and women who had superior intelligence, and using their understanding, they warned their people about the wrongs they were committing and the possible dire consequences. These philosophers also rejected the notion held by nearly everyone that God knows what is happening to people and sometimes comes to their aid. What did the three philosophers say, and where do we find their views?

Does God know us?

As I said, most people understand that God knows the details of what is happening to people and helps people when they need help. This is called “divine providence.” This is not the way that ibn Ezra (1089-c.1167), Maimonides (1138-1204), and Gersonides (1288-1344) understood this concept. They were convinced that God knows the laws of nature that God created or formed, but God does not know the details of life on earth.

In his commentary to Genesis 18:21, ibn Ezra writes: “for it is the truth that the All (namely, God) knows every particular (only) in a general manner, but not in a particular manner.” In other words, God knows the laws of nature that God created or formed but does not know how humans and animals use them.[2]

This is the view of Maimonides[3]: divine providence only extends to the level of the species. God does not help people. “I hold that divine providence is related and closely connected with the [human] intellect because [what we call providence] can only proceed from an intelligent being.” This is also the view of Aristotle.[4] In a word, people cannot depend on divine help. God created humans with intelligence. Intelligence is the divine providence. People can help themselves by using their intelligence. The more intelligent a person is and the more that people use their brains, the better the chances they will be able to help themselves.[5]

Gersonides[6] also understood that divine providence exists, but it doesn’t work the way most people think. Divine providence is using the human intellect that God gave humans.

Does God communicate with humans?

Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Gersonides were also convinced that prophecy is not a divine communication but the result of the use of a higher-than-average intelligence. Ibn Ezra stated this in his lengthy commentary to Exodus 3:15 and 20:1. Maimonides wrote: [7] “If a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man.”[8]

Joseph ibn Kaspi (1279-c.1340) states[9] that Ibn Ezra and Maimonides accepted this doctrine and did not believe that the prophets were speaking of anything other than events shortly.  It is for this reason, ibn Kaspi wrote that Ibn Ezra and Maimonides agree that there is no rational basis for interpreting the Hebrew Bible to refer to the messiahship of Mohammed[10] or Jesus.[11]

Gersonides states[12] that the cause of prophecy is the Active Intellect,[13] which only has knowledge of earthly matters in a general manner. It is the recipients who are able, depending on their intellectual ability, to translate and apply the available information to specific situations.

Conclusion

It is clear that contrary to most people, the three philosophers were convinced that God is not immanent, ever-present in all worldly affairs. God is transcendental. God created the laws of nature and then left them to function as is, giving humans the power to make changes, think for themselves, and control their own lives. God does not know the details of human events and cannot discuss them with a prophet.

These three, and many like them, disagree with those who face terrible calamities, relax, sit back, smile, and piously say, “All is good. God is in control.”

[1] This is also how the US Supreme Court defined the free exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution; the government may not infringe upon a person’s behavior except when there is “a compelling state interest,” and may never infringe upon their beliefs. Sherbert v. Verner (1963).

[2] See also his commentary to Exodus 23:25, 26

[3]  In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:17.

[4] This is not the view of Nachmanides and Yehudah Halevi, as mentioned above, or others such as Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (circa 1225-1291), who maintained the traditional view that providence extends to human individuals. See R. Jospe, Torah and Sophia, Hebrew Union College Press, 1988, pp. 164-171.

[5] This is also the view of Abraham ibn Daud in HaEmunah HaRamah 97-98, among others.

[6] S. Feldman, The War of the Lord, JPS, 1987, vol. II, pp. 139-209, and Gersonides’ Commentary on Job, chapters 11 and 42.

[7] In his Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 7:1-5 and his Guide of the Perplexed 2:32.

[8] M. Friedlander translation, page 220.  See also Guide of the Perplexed 2:36-48, and A. J. Reines, Maimonides and Abrabanel on Prophecy, Hebrew Union College Press, 1970.

[9] In the Introduction to his Torah commentary.

[10] Maimonides Epistles, ed. M D. Rabinowitz, Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1959, p. 144.

[11] Ibn Ezra’s introduction to the Torah.

[12] See S. Feldman, Gersonides, The Wars of the Lord, book two, summarized on pages 267 and 268.

[13] The medieval notion of a force surrounding the earth.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.