God and History

As the Hirhurim blog, or as I like to call it – the “Orthodox Instapundit” – gets comfortable in its new home, I’d like to talk about one of the last “hot posts” on the old blog. There, Rabbi Student spoke of a “Modern Orthodox View of History” and the need to look for larger “trends and themes” to understand history from a religious perspective.

This started a firestorm of debate about the relationship between Orthodoxy and history, including the usual debates about historical accuracy and differences between traditional and academic dating. Aside from the extremely cynical tone of the debate and the sad confirmation of my very ambivalent attitude towards Jewish Studies, a major point was missed – the question of God in history.

Much is made of the Rambam’s ikarei emunah (“The 13”), their necessity and acceptance in Orthodoxy (see esp. Marc Shapiro’s important book on the subject). In my opinion, these debates miss the point. Even if the exact parameters of the foundations of Orthodox Judaism can be debated, they do exist and are not crossable (see e.g. Rabbi Yitzhak Blau’s article on the subject).

Instead of ikarei emunah, I tend to understand them as “fundamental axioms”, initial assumptions about our world that dictate our relationship with God. These axioms permeate throughout the Tanach (indeed, belief in Deism is one of the causes of the punishments of the Tochacha) and Toshba, even if they were not specifically “spelled out” until much later. These include God’s existence, his creation of the world & revelation, as well as an undefined “end of days”.

Another one of these axioms is that God can intervene in history, and did so in the past. We can of course debate how this happens; e.g. whether he intervenes on an individual or a collective level, what is the nature of this intervention &c. Nevertheless, the principle remains. Deism is not an acceptable Orthodox position by any definition of the term.

The above description brings up the obvious problem of hester panim – the idea that God has removed himself from active intervention on our behalf or from revealing himself. How is it possible to believe in God’s hand in history post-revelation and hester panim? Does it simply mean that the help is hidden – if so, is there any way to intuit it (obviously, it is impossible to prove or disprove it)? Does it mean that God has voluntarily removed himself from the world?

What say you, reader? How does one reconcile the two? Is it possible to find (not prove) God’s hand in history?


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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2 Responses to God and History

  1. fred says:

    isnt that what an axiom is — an unprovable assumption, as in the peano axioms? how, really, is an axiom different from article of faith?
    frankly with this one id go with lieberman — we can have no sense of the nature of god, and any attempt at assuming you have any idea of god is sheer hubris. we have to do mitzvos because its the best we can do, and we should do it out of a sense of submission, and nothing else.
    when it comes to matters of faith, i think less is more [hear that mercaz harav, chabad, daas torah maximalists, etc.?].

  2. Shlomo says:

    Here is something I recently wrote in an email, which may be relevant.

    “Marc Shapiro argues that none of the Rambam’s 13 principles were ever
    fully and universally held. But what did the rabbis have in common,
    beyond the accident of ancestry, if not something intellectual? My
    speculation is that, to a large extent, their commonality consists of
    certain emotional traits and attitudes. For example, believing that
    the Torah’s text comes from a certain source may not be required, but
    the sense of reverence which commonly accompanies that belief is
    required. Similarly, many rishonim held that hashgacha pratit was very
    limited, which was an acceptable belief for them, but perhaps not for
    us because otherwise our advanced technology encourages a feeling of
    superiority and arrogance toward the world, therefore “frum” people
    nowadays intuitively flock to the belief that hashgacha pratit is

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