The way in which the Creator runs the world is termed in classical Jewish sources as hashgahah (השגחה) which means “supervision.” The concept of “supervision” is subdivided into the categories of hashgahah peratit (השגחה פרטית), “direct (or, specific) supervision,” and hashgahah kelalit (השגחה כללית), “indirect (or, general) supervision.” The former being a direct intervention by HaShem into the events of the world, and the latter being that HaShem has pre-programmed the world – and its various components – to function a certain way and thus they continue in their created path.
It is important to understand that hashgahah peratit does not indicate “[something] within God’s control/knowledge/domain” and hashgahah kelalit does not indicate “[something] outside of God’s control/knowlege/domain” (has va-shalom). Rather, the entire world is under HaShem’s hashgahah – some things being directly effected and/or managed and others being effected and/or managed indirectly, or it is possible to say “actively” and “passively.” However, these are terms used by us in order to facilitate understanding and cannot in their fullness apply to the One Transcendent Creator, may his name be blessed.
Some common examples of hashgahah kelalit would be leaves falling from trees, spiders catching flies, bigger fish eating smaller fish, et al. While the Creator is certainly aware of these events and has designed the nature inherent in each of them, He does not actively determine which leaf will fall or where it will land, which fly will be caught by which spider, or which fish will be swallowed by another. These are natural events that are a part of the world which He has designed to function in this way. Inherent also in hashgahah kelalit is the idea of “chance” – which is essentially nature taking its course with the scientific variables being too far beyond conscious human perception for us to know with certainty what will happen next. This concept is expressed by Hazal where it states: “olam ke-minhago noheg – the world continues on its natural course.” (b.Avodah Zarah 54b).
The cognate to this is when the Creator specifically intervenes in the lives of certain humans, “bending” the course of the natural world to accommodate them in various ways according to His will. The condition for this type of hashgahah is that the individual draw close to HaShem’s will in thought, word, and deed. To the extent that a person trusts in and aligns himself with the Creator at any given moment, he is able to “draw” – as it were – the Creator’s specific supervising influence into the events of his life. A common example of this is the life of Yosef HaTzadik in the Torah. Other such individuals on this level, like Avraham Avinu, were granted special hashgahah peratit for the sake of HaShem’s overall plan for mankind.
Most Rishonim – if not all – limit the scope of hashgahah peratit in some way. And according to the majority of those do, the world and the various creatures which it contains, are governed mainly by hashgahah kelalit and hashgahah peratit is limited in scope to human beings – specifically the righteous among the Jewish nation. This view is expressed by the Rambam (Moreh HaNavokhim III:17-18), the Ralbag (“Gersonides,” Sefer Milhamot HaShem IV), the Rihal (Sefer Kuzari 1:109), the Ramban (“Nahmanides,” Pirush Al HaTorah – Shemot 13:15), and those Rishonim who are essentially Maimonidean in their philosophical orientation (e.g. Radak, Ibn Tibbon, Seforno, Me’iri, et al).
In fact, the Sefer HaHinukh (attributed to the Spanish Rishon, Rav Aharon Levi HaBartziloni) states this limitation quite succinctly:
שיש כתות בני אדם יחשבו כי השגחת הש״י על כל ענייני העולם בין בעלי חיים או כל שאר הדברים כלומר שלא יתנועע דבר אחד קטן בעולם הזה רק בחפצו ב״ה ובגזרתו עד שיחשבו כי בנפול עלה אחד מן האילן הוא גזר עליו שיפול וא״א שיתאחר או יקדם זמן נפילתה אפי׳ רגע וזה דעת רחוק הרבה מן השכל
“There are sects of people who think that the hashgahah of HaShem yitborakh is upon all matters of the world, whether animals or other things, that is to say that not even one small thing in the world moves except by His will, blessed be He, and by His decree, to the point that they think that with regard to the falling of one leaf from a tree that it is [Divinely] decreed upon it that it should fall and that it is impossible that it could have fallen either earlier or later than the [Divinely decreed] time of its falling even by a single moment. Such an understanding is very far from intelligent.” (Parashat Tazria, Mitzvah 169)
The idea commonly espoused by many in the Jewish world today (described as incorrect by the Sefer HaHinukh), namely that everything in the world and everything that happens in the world is subject to and governed by hashgahah peratit, was virtually unknown until the mysticism of Isaac Luria (16th century) the preaching of the Baal Shem Tov (17th-18th centuries). The adages [apparently] spoken by Baal Shem Tov vary depending on the source retelling them, but at times he said to have attributed hashgahah peratit to the turning of a leaf, a blade of grass in the wind, or to grains of sand falling into a hole. In their estimation, the concept of hashgahah kelalit either did not exist or was an illusion – a blatant departure and re-invention of standard hashkafah that threw the doors wide open for all manner of divination and avodah zarah in the name of “kabbalah.”
The reasoning is that if God actively wills the occurrence of every detail in the physical world, then those details must have some sort of meaning, and this meaning (the “omen”) can be “decoded” through mystical means. This error led to the widespread engagement in “readings” by mystics and rebbes: the flight patterns of birds (ornithomancy), the shape of smoke as it rises (capnomancy), the letters of a person’s name (onomancy), the palms (cheiromancy), the face (schematomancy), and others – all of which are expressly forbidden by the Torah (Devarim 18:10-15).
In my humble opinion, such a stance is in stark contradiction to centuries, comprising more than a millennium, of consistent Torah teaching on the subject (not to mention that such a view leads inevitably to the attribution of absurdity – has va-halilah – to the Creator, may he be blessed, and a host of other philosophical errors). Therefore, it seems that it must be rejected like any other latter-day teaching that sets aside the Torah and Hazal in favor of “new revelations” (see Devarim 12-13).