Divine Providence, Free Will, and Ramban’s Paradox

In Jewish theology there are two essential yet contradictory doctrines: divine providence, defined for now as God’s active participation in the world, and free will, man’s ability to make his own decisions. The tension should be obvious, that any action or event taken by man is either the result of God’s direction as part of a divine plan, or that we as humans have the ability to make our own decisions and thus face natural consequences.1 The more one of these doctrines is emphasized the other is diminished.

These competing interests can sometimes form theological paradoxes, as we discussed in a class I gave last night on Elections in Judaism, particularly in the thought of Ramban.

We begin with the biblical commandment to appoint a king found in Devarim 17:15:

דברים פרק יז:טו
שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא אָחִיךָ הוּא

Appoint over you a king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite.

Classical rabbinic and medieval commentators address the necessity for the second half of the verse. After all, if God is responsible for choosing the king then there is no reason to specifically prohibit the appointment of a non-Jew.2 Below is the suggested interpretation of Ramban:

ועל דרך הפשט אמרו, שום תשים עליך מלך אשר יבחר ה’ [אלהיך בו] ולא אשר שנא ה’ אלהיך, (בו) כי הוא בחר בישראל ולהיות המולך מבחוריו ולא מקרב העמים אשר שנא. ודעתי בדרך הפשט, כי טעם “אשר יבחר” שכל מולך על עמים מאת האלהים היא לו, כענין שכתוב (דניאל ד כט) די שליט עלאה במלכות אנשא ולמאן די יצבא יתננה, וכך אמרו (ב”ב צא ב) אפילו ריש גרגותא מן שמיא מוקמי ליה, יאמר שום תשים עליך מלך כל אשר יהיה נגזר מן השמים שימלוך ואם הוא מקטני שבטי ישראל ומשפחתו הצעירה, אבל איש נכרי לא תמליך עליך לעולם

But according to the plain interpretation, the verse says, “place for yourself a king which God will choose” and one which God will not despise, for he has chosen from among Israel a someone to be a king from his own people and not from the nations which he despises. And my opinion according to the plain meaning, is that the reason for “who will be chosen” is because whoever rules over nations is determined by God. This is the meaning of the verse from Daniel 4:29, ” the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” And it also states in B. Bava Batra 91a, “even the head of the reservoir is appointed from heaven.” It means to say appoint for yourself a king, whomever has been decreed from heaven to rule, even if he is from the smallest of the tribes of Israel and a young family. But if he is not Jewish, he should not rule at all.

To fully appreciate Ramban’s position, we should briefly examine his two theological prooftexts. The first is Daniel 4:29:

דניאל פרק ד פסוק כט
וּמִן אֲנָשָׁא לָךְ טָרְדִין וְעִם חֵיוַת בָּרָא מְדֹרָךְ עִשְׂבָּא כְתוֹרִין לָךְ יְטַעֲמוּן וְשִׁבְעָה עִדָּנִין יַחְלְפוּן עליך עֲלָךְ עַד דִּי תִנְדַּע דִּי שַׁלִּיט עליא עִלָּאָה בְּמַלְכוּת אֲנָשָׁא וּלְמַן דִּי יִצְבֵּא יִתְּנִנַּהּ

You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. [emphasis added]

And B. Bava Batra 91a which states:

אמר רב חנן בר רבא אמר רבי יוחנן: אפילו ריש גרגיתא מן שמיא מנו ליה

R. Hanan B. Rava said in the name of R. Yohanan, even the head of the reservoir is appointed from heaven.

Ramban takes both of these sources together at face value, suggesting that all leaders or any sort without exception, be they Jewish or not, are actively determined by God himself. In other words, any sense of theological “free will” in the appointment of leaders – even local municipal ones – is purely illusory since ultimately no one holds any position of power independent of God’s will.

Ramban’s position inadvertently creates a new problem with our original verse of Devarim 17:15. It is clear from the verse that God does not want the Jewish people to appoint a non-Jew as a king. However, should the nation decide to do so then they could claim, at least according to Ramban, that they were just fulfilling the will of God since after all no one can hold a position of leadership if God does not a priori desire it to happen.3 In doing so, they would paradoxically be fulfilling the will of God by transgressing the will of God.

I don’t have an answer here, but I’m open to possibilities.


1. Note that this is a different question than how can we believe have free will if God knows the future. The paradox at hand does not involve God’s foreknowledge but rather God’s active participation in the present. See Urbach, E.E. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Trans. Israel Abrahams. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass. 1979. p. 257 for his discussion on this distinction.
2. A plausible solution could simply be that there are two distinct commandments: a positive one one to appoint someone chosen by God, and a separate prohibition against appointing a non-Jew even if the nation does not follow the divine directive. However, I have not seen this answer cited in rabbinic literature, likely for reasons I explained in a paper titled “Double Jeopardy: La’avor ‘Alav Bishnei Lavin“, which I will be happy to email upon request.
3. Even the popular resolution to the question of free will and determinism of R. Hanina’d dictum that, “all is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven” (B. Berachot 33b) will be unhelpful in this instance, since the appointment of a king is not only a religious matter of fulfilling God’s commandment, but it is inherently political.

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