History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Nachmanides and the Disputation.

We have now to tell of another scholar of the Spanish school — Nachmanides. It was he who took the leading part in the famous Disputation under King James I of Aragon. Moses ben Nachman Gerundi, known also by his initials RaMBaN, was born in the year 1194 in Gerona, some sixty miles from Barcelona, the home of Rashba, whose pupil he may have been. In studying the latter we noticed that his life-work was not characteristic of the Spanish school, noted for the versatility of its literary interests and the breadth of its views. The distinction is almost as marked in Nachmanides; though living in Spain, he really belonged to the school of Northern France and Germany.

The Mystic versus the Logician.

Born a decade before Maimonides' death, the two men stand at opposite poles. Rambam was a rationalist, Ramban a mystic. The former was reached through his reason, the latter through his emotions. Maimonides sought to prove Judaism, Nachmanides accepted it unquestionably. Even the teachings of the Talmud and the Geonim he, like Rashi, received in the same trustful spirit. Here was a man of faith, reverently bowing to the authority of the past. "Be ours the duty," he might have said, "but to sit at the feet of the scholars of old, not to criticise their teachings, but only to expound them."

So his theory of the universe was in strong contrast with that of Maimuni. The world for him is not governed by law, but by separate acts of divine will. He not only believed in miracles, but they were vital to his conception of Providence. He believed in evil spirits, in the transmigration of the soul and that all knowledge was hidden in the Torah.

His Human Side.

Yet withal, he was a man of broad erudition who took a profound view of life and felt its grandeur. He was a physician as well as an expounder of the Talmud and deserved the posts of rabbi and chief rabbi to which he was respectively called.

He is nearer to us than Maimonides because he is more sweetly human. While the former advocated an exalted philosophic calm to meet the adversities of life, Nachmanides bids us give natural outlet to joy and sorrow without stoic reserve. He further taught that we should gratify, though temperately, our human capacity for joy, not as a concession to lower nature, but as fulfillment of the divine benevolent purpose in the creation of such capacity. This was of the very spirit of Judaism which discouraged asceticism and only tolerated the Nazarite.

We may infer, then, that such a man who, though he shunned Aristotle as he would shun evil, would, on the other hand, be hardly likely to agree with the obscurantists. After all, he was too much of a Spaniard to sanction ignorance or endorse blind belief. He bowed to the Halacha, he accepted the Agada as Agada — i.e., for what it was, metaphor, homily, picture.

What part, then, did he take in the Maimunist-anti-Maimunistic struggle? He sided with the latter, it is true. He disapproved of the "Guide to the Perplexed," but not of Maimonides. He suggested, therefore, as a compromise, that only this work be put under the ban (on the "Index Expurgatorium," as the Church hath it), but that no bar be placed against the study of Maimonides' "Yod" (summary of Jewish Law), even though it contained some philosophic teachings. But the compromise failed to satisfy either party. It involved, in fact, a difference fundamental in human nature. If men would only realize that God has not constructed our minds to think alike on all things, and therefore that we should respect each other's differences, we then might realize, too, that truth can be viewed from varied points of view.

The "Disputation."

But however divided Israel may have been within its owns ranks on divergent questions of Jewish belief, as against the Creed of the Church, it presented a united front. So Nachmani deserved and won the approval of all parties for the dignified defense of Judaism in the Barcelona disputation in 1263, now to be considered.

These public theological arguments convinced none, added nothing to the cause of truth, and injured instead of furthering the spirit of religion. For our beliefs are not the results of philosophic deduction and cold analysis. We reach faith through the heart rather than through the mind, and religion finally finds expression in terms of life. In fact, these particular disputations arranged by the Church, and in which Jews were forced to take part, were really a species of Jewish persecution in disguise; for, being a helpless minority, it was more perilous for them to win than to lose. The discussion usually centered around the question as to whether Christian doctrine was contained in Jewish Scripture.

This particular disputation was put on foot by Pablo Christiani, an apostate from Judaism, one of a class that almost did as much harm to Israel as Christian fanatics. He induced Raymond dc Penyaforte, head of the Dominican Order, to arrange this puhlic discussion between himself and Nachmanides, hoping to discomfort his former co-religionists by his intimate knowledge of their literature and their current views.

Nachmani had no choice but to respond to the summons to appear before King James in the palace where the discussion was to take place. He but asked perfect freedom of speech, which the well-disposed monarch readily granted. On the whole, the controversy was conducted in a scholarly spirit and lasted four days. In the course of the discussion Nachniani brought out the following points:

1st. The coming of the Messiah around which the discussion waged has not the doctrinal importance for the Jew that it has for the Christian. (To the latter he is a Saviour and Divinity, to the former a human king.)

2nd. The Talmudic Agada, on which the apostate expected to score most of his points, were only homilies, moral lessons, parables, ideas of God's dealing told in simple metaphors, and therefore they carried no authority of doctrine or of law.

3rd. As the merit of religious fidelity is proportioned to the sacrifice entailed, therefore it was more meritorious, just because it was harder for the Jews to live loyally to their faith under a Christian ruler than under their own Messiah in their own land.

It ended as all such contests must—without result. Nachmani had the better of the argument and was complimented and even rewarded by the fair-minded king for the intellectual skill and self-restraint he had displayed. But the persistent Dominicans obtained the royal permission to send Pablo as a missionary to all the Jewish communities in Christian Spain, where they were to be forced to listen to arguments against Judaism and to pay his expenses to boot. The apostate preacher attacked the Talmud and so exaggerated its less tolerant passages as to induce the Pope to issue a "bull" (edict) against it. All passages considered undesirable by the Church were now erased: This was the beginning of censorship — another form of persecution; censoring the Talmud was occasionally more mischievous than burning it.

Nachtnanides Banished.

To offset the virulent preaching of Pablo, Nachmani circulated a complete account of the Disputation among his brethren. The Dominicans had his pamphlet burnt; and, not succeeding in having the author burnt, too, induced the reluctant king to exile the aged scholar. So ultimately the argument, as in all those disputations, went in favor of those in power.

Weighted with his seventy years, Nachmani had to tear himself from his family, leave his native land and become a wanderer. With something of Jehuda Halevi's love for Zion, he turned his steps to the Holy Land. Alas! he found Jerusalem in ruins, for a war was raging against the Eastern Caliphate. But to his co-religionists there his presence brought new life. He established an academy for Jewish study and students crowded about him. He brought to the East something of the spirit of Spanish culture and wrote a commentary on the Bible to acquaint his disciples with western modes of biblical exposition. Not that his treatment was strictly western, either — i.e., if western meant rationalistic. He believed that the Pentateuch contained all wisdom; certainly his commentary on it contained the best of his. It contained his philosophic conclusions as well as his mystic fancies. But it was the latter that most appealed to his Oriental pupils. He was fond of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, especially on such themes that invited it, as Creation, the Tree of Life; these gave free play to the imagination and encouraged a relaxation of the discipline of logical thought. Like many another commentator, he was inclined to read later history into the Scripture. He also wrote extensively on the Talmud.

But his influence on his surroundings was good and wholesome, due as much to his winning personality as to his learning. So, solaced by the companionship of loyal friends, he passed away in the year 1270. He had awakened in the hearts of many of his western brethren a new desire to visit the land of Israel.

We append here one of Nachmani's liturgical poems, a hymn for the New Year:

My King.

Ere time began, ere age to age had thrilled,

I waited in His storehouse, as He willed;

He gave me being, but, my eyes fulfilled,

I shall be summoned back before the King.

He called the hidden to the light of day.

To right and left, each side the fountain lay.

From out the stream and down the steps, the way

That led me to the garden of the King.

Thou gavest me a light my path to guide,

To prove my heart's recesses still untried;

And as I went, Thy voice in warning cried.

'Child, fear thou Him who is thy God and King!'

True weight and measure learned my heart from Thee:

If blessings follow, then what joy for me!

If naught but sin, all mine the shame must be,

For that was not determined by the King.

If hasten, trembling, to confess the whole

Of my transgressions, ere I reach the goal

Where mine own words must witness 'gainst my soul,

And who dares doubt the writing of the King?

Erring, I wandered in the wilderness.

In passion's grave nigh sinking powerless:

Now deeply I repent, in sore distress.

That I kept not the statutes of the King!

With worldly longings was my bosom fraught,

Earth's idle toys and follies all I sought':

Ah, when He judges joys so dearly bought,

How greatly shall I fear my Lord and King!

Now conscious-Stricken, humbled to the dust,

Doubting himself, in Thee alone his trust,

He shrinks in terror back, for God is just —

How can a sinner hope to reach the King?

Oh, be Thy mercy in the balance laid,

To hold Thy servant's sins more lightly weighed,

When, his confession penitently made,

He answers for his guilt before the King.

Thine is the love, O God, and Thine the grace,

That folds the sinner in its mild embrace:

Thine the forgiveness bridging o'er the space

'Twixt man's works and the task set by the King.

Unheeding all my sins, I cling to Thee;

I know that mercy will Thy footstool be:

Before I call, O do Thou answer me,

For nothing dare I claim of Thee, my King!

O, Thou who makest guilt to disappear.

My help, my hope, my rock, I will not fear:

Though Thou the body hold in dungeon drear,

The soul has found the palace of the King.

Translated by Alice Lucas.


Studies in Judaism, by Dr. S. Schechter, J. P. S. of A. In article on Nachmanides, he writes: "If he was not a profound thinker like Maimonides, he had that which is next best, he felt profoundly." From a letter of Nachmanides there quoted, we get an insight into the condition of Jerusalem at this time.

Censorship:—Graetz: History of the Jews; translation, vol. iv, pp. 659-660.

Theme for Discussion:—Why was it more dangerous for Jews to win than to lose in disputations with the Church?