Saturday, December 12, 2009

Providence, if not the City

(R' Moshe Sokol's sermon for Vayeshev 5770 at the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush, with my additions/comments)

The Sfas Emes, in his meditation for 5661, notes that Chanukah commemorates our victory over the Greeks. But it was not just a physical victory, it was a moral victory. What moral goal was served? The Seleucids were trying to make the Jews give up on the God idea. The Sfas Emes claims that the Greeks, through their expertise in astrology (Yavan, Ionia, Greece, is numerologically equivalent to Galgal, celestial sphere), saw the world as a completely natural world, where once we understood physical law and the celestial motions, there would be no more need to have a God to explain why things happened in the world. We would know that everything is just an effect of other things acting on it.

In other words, the Seleucid Greeks were trying force us to give up on the idea of Divine Providence, that God controls the world and history. Rabbi Sokol then summarized three major schools of thought about the nature of Divine providence. Apparently, a world that follows physical law, and a world where history is driven by Divine Will, are not as incompatible as the Hellenistic Syrians thought.

First is the Sfas Emes' idea - that the world is indeed mechanistic, following physical laws. However, God reserves the right to intervene when necessary, for His plan to work out. No need for fancy explanations - God has His will, and exerts it when necessary.

Second is Maimonides' idea as expressed in the Guide. There is "general providence" on most of the world, which nations will rise and fall, which species will arise or go extinct. "Individual providence" only extends to Jews, as we are the instrument for implementing His Will, the Torah, in this world.

Third is what I and some other scientifically-minded people in the shul believe, but for which I haven't seen an "authoritative" Jewish source, except that today, R' Sokol, whom I trust, spoke about it. Well, given the opposition to, or ignorance of, modern science among many Torah specialists today, who could talk about it?

That is the idea that God intervenes through manipulating probabilities. There is a lot of uncertainty in the physical universe, from micro effects like quantum uncertainty (the electron is somewhere in the cloud around the nucleus, but we can't locate its position or velocity at any givent moment; or the electron is in several potential states simultaneously, until some event forces the state vector to collapse on one of the possibilities), to macro effects like chaotic and/or complex systems, which can also only be described statistically (such as weather systems, the behavior of crowds, fluid flows, etc.) So, if there's a statistically improbable event, but one which is in the realm of possibility, God may nudge that event to happen such that people recognize it as His will at work.

(this is from me, not R' Sokol:) For example, in Charles Pellegrino's book "Return to Sodom and Gomorrah", he describes Joshua's crossing the Jordan River. He explains it in terms of periodic (once a century, more or less) rockslides in the Jordan Valley, which will block up the river's flow for a period of hours, before the rock-dam breaks and flow returns. Clearly this happened for Joshua and Bnai Israel, and thus they could cross on dry land. He takes this as evidence that there is no God, because there exists a naturalistic explanation. However, look at it from a probablistic standpoint. This event happens perhaps once a century for a period of hours. That state of crossability exists 1:14700 of the time, say. What are the odds that Joshua and the Israelites should reach the Jordan river at just the right time to take advantage of this rare event? Clearly, God brought them to the right place at the right time to cross safely. It was a possible, not probable event, and it worked out just right. I believe that this is Biblical evidence of God manipulating the probabilities to make sure that the improbable event happened correctly.

To sum up, then, the Sfas Emes provides an answer that works for the Chasid who prides himself on his Emunah Peshutah, his simple faith - that God reserves the right to act when necessary. The Rambam provides a philosophically satisfying answer that still enables Jewish pride: that God extends individual providence to the Jews alone. Many moderns would accept this happily. And the statistical answer, which works for scientifically-minded moderns, but which seems to be unsourced in the tradition, which worries me a bit. Although, it sorta answers a different question than the Rambam's: it's not "who gets DP" but "how does DP not come into conflict with the concept of physical law?" Some people claim to have "seen it somewhere", but I'd like to know where.

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