Human Responsibility and Divine Providence

This lesson explores the tension between the concepts of divine providence and human free will and therefore responsibility to self well-being. If there is divine providence at an individual level, does this mean we can rely on God’s protection if we are worthy or do we still have a responsibility to look after ourselves?

Resource Ages: 15-18


Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 54b

Compilation of teachings of 3rd–6th century scholars in Babylonia (amora’im); final redaction in the 6th–7th centuries.

Philosophers asked the elders in Rome, “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does [God] not abolish it?” They replied, “If it was something of which the world has no need that was worshipped, [God] would abolish it; but people worship the sun, moon, stars and planets; should [God] destroy the universe on account of fools!? Instead, the world pursues its natural course, and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account.”

Another illustration: Suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow, but the world pursues its natural course and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account. 

Another illustration: Suppose a man has intercourse with his neighbor’s wife; it is right that she should not conceive, but the world pursues its natural course and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account.

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?
  • How do Jewish texts help me grapple with questions of life, the universe and everything?
  • How is Jewish text a vehicle to help us access connections to God?
  • What factors shape our values and beliefs?
  • What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • Does God play a role in my life on a day-to-day basis?
  • Can I rely on God to protect me if I am a good person?
  • What responsibilities do I have to protect myself?
  • When does God suspend the laws of nature for the purpose of divine intervention?

Background for Teacher

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 54b God self-imposed limitations on divine providence:  This talmudic source ,an expansion of an earlier tannaitic codification( Tosefta, Tractate Avodah Zarah 7:3), establishes limits to God’s intervention in the course of the world. To whatever degree God’s providence calls...

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Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 54b

God self-imposed limitations on divine providence:  This talmudic source ,an expansion of an earlier tannaitic codification( Tosefta, Tractate Avodah Zarah 7:3), establishes limits to God’s intervention in the course of the world. To whatever degree God’s providence calls for intervening in the course of human affairs, there are limits God will apparently not cross (at least not in the usual case). This idea is presented in the Talmud as being espoused by the Rabbis in a learned forum in which they are discussing matters of philosophy and theology with certain Roman philosophers. (It is inconsequential to this lesson if this scene took place in history or if it is a rabbinic fiction, because even if the latter, it is certain that such questions and such responses were raised in the various Jewish communities.)

God chooses to respect the integrity of the laws of nature: In this narrative, the Rabbis are answering an interesting question from the Roman philosophers: if God is in control of everything, why does God not use that power to eliminate the competition and rid the world of all the objects of false worship? The implication seems to be that in the view of the philosophers, it is not that God cannot do so; rather that God chooses not to do so. The Rabbis reply that the philosophers have not thought things through and that God chooses not to eliminate all the objects of idolatrous worship because doing so would upset the natural course of the world. God created nature and set its laws in motion. There are principles behind nature and God will not supersede or suspend them for the benefit or for the punishment of human actions. What is surprising in this view of the Rabbis is the notion that God could have stopped something from happening, but that God chose not to in order to avoid having to change laws that God personally created – something God is not willing to do.

Distinction between God’s involvement on the national and individual level: Thus, the biblical writers speak of God as intervening at times on behalf of nations, while the authors of Tehillim even see God acting on behalf of the individual (see the unit “Hashgacha – Divine Providence”). The Rabbis of the Talmud continue the line of the authors of the Tehillim and see God as being able to show divine providence at the level of the individual. If God does not show divine providence at that level, it is not because God is unable to do so, but because God chooses otherwise. 

Does that mean that the wicked go unpunished and the righteous unrewarded? Not necessarily so, as the Rabbis go on to express the idea that in the future, justice will be meted out to everyone in kind, but that it may not happen in this world. 


Sefer HaChinukh 546

God created the laws of nature and stands by them: The Sefer HaChinukh picks up talmudic thought about the world operating according to natural principles and uses it to explain why people need to take action in order to protect themselves from normal occurrences that take place in the world. Following a line of thought earlier continued from the Talmud by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi in the Kuzari (3:11, 5:20), Sefer HaChinukh believes that God created nature and will not intervene with natural processes to protect humans from harm. Thus, rocks will fall and smash what is below, fire will burn, and all the other laws of the hard sciences (mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics) are set. Yet, God gave human beings an intellect, an awareness for the need to protect oneself from danger, to be wary and to avoid hurting or damaging others and themselves. This does not take away, says the author, from the fact that God has perfect knowledge of each person and supervises all. However, God’s providence does not extend to making nature run a different course in order to save someone from a dangerous situation. If one plays with fire, one is likely to get burned. This is not divine providence, but a simple consequence of the properties of fire and the human lack of caution. Thus, for the Sefer HaChinukh, a person may not needlessly undertake some dangerous activity with the idea that what will happen is the result of God’s will and providence.

Individual divine providence: What Sefer HaChinukh does not clarify is the moment divine providence has obviously acted in a person’s life. That divine providence acts in a person’s life according to the Sefer HaChinukh is clear, as he writes, “Although God supervises  each individual and knows all their deeds, as well as all that will happen to them, good and bad, as a result of [God’s] decree and command, based on their merit or liability, and as the Sages say (Chullin 7b): A person does not even hurt a finger below if it were not so decreed from above.” Nonetheless, the implication of his words in the continuation of the passage is that God will not always intervene in a person’s life. Perhaps Sefer HaChinukh would rather not speculate further in that direction and would rather leave it up to each individual to decide for themselves if God came to the rescue for them or not. 


Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 20b

Individual divine providence based on merit: Rav Adda bar Ahavah was well-known for his righteousness. By strict principles of divine justice, he should be entitled to all the benefits that come along with divine providence (according to those who believe that such benefits exist). Harm should not befall him in any way. Rav Huna apparently understood the practical value of having someone of Rav Adda’s stature next to him. As Rav Huna wanted to retrieve some wine that was stored in a dilapidated house but feared that the house would collapse just as he was entering to salvage it, he invited Rav Adda to accompany him, confident that the house would not collapse while such a righteous man was inside. Rav Huna’s strategy worked and the wine was salvaged. 

Not relying on miracles: Everyone in this narrative should have been happy: Rav Huna had his wine and Rav Adda had helped someone by his mere presence. Surprisingly, however, Rav Adda took offense. He quoted a teaching of Rabbi Yannai that one should never place oneself in danger and rely on a miracle for protection. Two reasons for this are provided: 

  • For Rabbi Yannai, it is not clear what circumstances need to prevail in order for a miracle to occur and therefore one can never be sure that a miracle will happen to save the situation. 
  • Even if a miracle does happen, it does not come for free; it carries a price. And for Rabbi Yannai, having merits deducted from a person’s account is, generally speaking, not worth the investment.

Rav Adda lived by Rabbi Yannai’s teaching. How can one understand Rav Adda’s objections to what Rav Huna did? Here one can offer several objections:

  • Rav Huna put Rav Adda and himself at risk, because while Rav Huna thought the miracle was guaranteed to happen, Rav Adda in following Rabbi Yannai was less certain about it. 
  • Even though it was not Rav Adda’s plan to offer his protection to Rav Huna in that way, in his view merits were still deducted from his account because of what happened and he was upset by having his merits used to save someone else’s finances.
  • Rav Adda was upset that Rav Huna used him without even asking him. Had Rav Huna asked, perhaps Rav Adda would have made an exception for him in this case and would have put himself at risk to help a friend, but Rav Huna did not give him that option.

Human responsibility: In sum, a righteous person may merit the miracle of divine protection, but he or she also may not. God has considerations that are far more sophisticated and complex than those of mortals. It is improper to manipulate divine providence in any way. No matter how righteous one thinks they may be, one should not put one’s life in the path of danger and rely on God’s miraculous intervention for protection. One must take all the necessary precautions to safeguard health and well-being. Indeed, this is one of the positive mitzvot in the Torah. One may ask: what about soldiers, police officers, test pilots, or other occupations that potentially put one in danger? Occupations such as these are serving society and are necessary for protection and security. Individuals who serve in these capacities are not unnecessarily placing themselves in harm’s way and therefore cannot be compared to Rav Huna placing Rav Adda at risk to save his wine. And of course, they must do everything possible to protect themselves, and not rely on miracles to protect them.


Rabbi Bradley Artson, What Is Process Theology?

God is impacted by our choices: Artson recognizes that when a human being makes a choice, it not only impacts that person, but it also impacts God – “God is vulnerable to the choices that each of us makes freely.” Moreover, there is a realization that the choices made by one person “impact on the choices of every other event around it.” People do not live in a vacuum and when one person does something, all the universe, to one degree or another, is affected.

No argument is being made in this analysis that Artson is original in his thought. It could be that many of the scholarly views presented in this lesson would agree with Artson (or that Artson was inspired in his view by them), but he does put this thought into words. Aside from formulating this thought, it also has an effect. In the tension between free will and God’s foreknowledge of human events, Artson says that neither are absolute and both are limited. People are always being affected by the choices of others, and even God is “not all powerful” to do or even to know everything.

God is not responsible for the bad in the world – humans are: Getting to the central theme of Artson’s piece – process theology was developed in the 20th century by non-Jewish philosophers, mainly Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000). While it does not deny that God is eternal, it posits that God can be affected and even changed by the world and human actions. It also affirms, as explained by Artson, that God cannot coerce humans to act in specific ways and God is not all powerful. God is not responsible for everything that happens to a person in their life. On the one hand, this theology allows for a certain degree of randomness in the world and the way it functions. As a theology, this may be off-putting for some. On the other hand, it relieves God of the responsibility for the evil in the world, although on that point other theologies have already preceded it. Putting aside some of the difficult points in this theology, it does end up having a distinctly Jewish feel to it in the sense of empowering the individual and teaching them that their individual actions and behaviors do matter.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

Present the following scenarios to your students and ask them to consider whether they think it is ethically and morally justifiable to engage in these activities. Ask them to consider:

  • What do you believe the role of God is in our lives?
  • What questions do these scenarios raise for you?
  • How do these questions relate to the concept of free will and divine intervention?
  • Skiing on a dangerous  “Black” rated slope for experts only when you are experienced but not an expert skier
  • Choosing a career as a first responder such as a policeman or fireman
  • Trainsurfing
  • Freefall skydiving
  • Volunteering with the homeless in the neighborhoods with the highest crime rates

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

The first text in this unit, from the Talmud,  asks the classic philosophical question why God does not intervene in the world to ensure people behave according to the standards of ethics and morality He wishes. Another way to ask this question is why good things result from bad actions/people (and vice versa)? The Talmud simplest replies because God created the world according to the laws of nature and is committed to maintaining their integrity (as in does not break them at every instant humans are not behaving). The following questions explore these themes:

  • What assumptions about God does this text make?
  • What would the world be like if God did intervene in this way?
  • How does the text explain why God does not?
  • How does this text help answer the philosophical question “why do good things happen to bad people, and bad things to good people?”
  • What questions does this text raise for you?

The Sefer Hachinuch is a later rabbinic text that presents a similar approach to the same question. God does not intervene everytime someone places themselves in a dangerous situation (or even if the danger is through no fault of their own) because God created the laws of nature and leaves them to get on with it. The question the text doesn’t really explain fully is what the basis of God’s individual supervision is (if it is not suspending the laws of nature in order to protect individuals). These questions may help your students consider this text:

  •  How does the text explain that God supervises every individual?
  • Why then does that not mean God protects humans from danger?
  • How does God expect humans to be safe from nature?
  • What did God do in order to give humans an advantage with this?

The next text introduces the concept that those who are meritorious receive God’s protection, but they must not rely on it. Rather they have to take responsibility for their own health and safety. These questions can be used to discuss this:

  • Should God protect those who are righteous more than others?
  • Who do you think deserves this kind of protection from God?
  • Why was Rav Adda upset that Rav Huna used him in this way?
  • Why should we not rely on this protection from God?
  • How does this talmudic text show us we have to take responsibility for our own health and safety?
  • What lessons can you take from this text for your life?

The final text challenges the classical idea of God’s omnipotence, and seems to limit God’s ability to intervene in human affairs. Just as an individual is impacted by the decisions made by those around them., so too is God impacted by the decisions made by humans, who He has granted free will to make their own choices. Although this is difficult for some, it is not too far away from a more mainstream position taken by many Jewish philosophers, that God voluntarily chose to limit his ability to intervene (tzitzum – God restricted Himself) and this allows humankind to have total free will. It then absolves God of responsibility for evil in the world, which is a helpful approach when considering the question of bad things happening to good people. This approach firmly places the responsibility on humans for their actions.

  • According to this source, why does God not intervene in the affairs of humankind?
  • How do you feel about this approach? 
  • What does this approach tell us about human responsibility for their actions?
  • What do you think the author says about divine providence?

Revisit the scenarios from the hook (see above) and give one to each group to analyze how these different texts would approach the question. Have your students write a reasoned argument for why they should be allowed or should be forbidden from participating in these activities, using the sources to back their arguments up.