Friday, July 12, 2013

Devarim (Ramban)

A Forgotten Anniversary

Shabbat Hazon and the week of Tisha b’Av are an appropriate time to remember, not only the Destruction of the Temple, but also the various misfortunes that befell the Jewish people throughout the ages as a result of their subservient and often humiliated status in the Christian and Muslim worlds, which was ultimately the consequence of this Destruction and Exile. This was particularly the case, but not only, in medieval Christian Europe; the Kinot for Tisha b’Av include at least two elegies relating to some of these events, such as the pogroms committed against the Rhine Valley Jewish communities during the First Crusade in 1096 and the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1239). This week marks the 750th anniversary of one such event—albeit one which might be viewed as a victory for the Jews, at least in the short term; this event was also arguably a turning point and quite possibly the most dramatic event in Ramban’s life. I refer to the Barcelona disputation, which occurred in July 1263, between the 20th and 24th of that month (I do not know the Hebrew dates, but it must have been during the Nine Days of Av). King James I of Aragon, at the behest of the Dominicans, ordered the Jews of his kingdom, and Ramban as their outstanding representative, to defend their faith and explain why they refused to accept Christianity and the belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Ironically, the main spokesman for the Church and the Christian position was an apostate Jew known as Pablo Christiani. But such ironies were all too common during the Middle Ages: many of the most outspoken and even vicious opponents of Judaism were former Jews, who no doubt harbored personal bitterness against the Jewish people for their rejection by their brethren, and whose intimate and “insider” knowledge of the Talmud and other Jewish sources were useful for the Church’s Anti-Judaic polemics. Thus, Nicholas Donin, who opposed R Yehiel of Paris in a similar debate in Paris in 1239, which culminated in the above-mentioned burning of the Talmud, was likewise a meshumad. And, most notoriously, Tomás de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor at the time of the Expulsion the Jews in 1492 who burned thousands at the stake, was of Jewish (converso) descent.

Shortly after the debate Nahmanides recorded the things said there in a small booklet under the title Vikauh or Milhamot ha-Shem (see the Ch. Chavell edition of Kitvei Ramban, [Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1963], Vol I: pp. 299-320; English, translated by the same author, in Ramban: Writings and Discourses [New York: Shilo, 1985]). The opening section of the Vikuah addresses the question as to whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. The discussion revolves around the interpretation of the verse in Jacob’s blessings of his sons at Genesis 49:10, in which he blesses Yehudah with the words: לא יסור שבט מיהודה ומחוקק מבין רגליו, עד כי יבא שילה ולו יקחת עמים: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the judge’s staff between his legs, until Shiloh shall come, and nations shall flock to him.” This verse is filled with ambiguities and riddles—particularly reading the enigmatic term “Shiloh” (proper name? place name?), but the gist of it is that it was accepted by both sides as a promise of rulership to the Davidic line of kings until Messiah comes. Friar Pablo argues that, as the Jews clearly have no king, and have not had one since at least the en end of the Second Temple period, this clearly implies that Jesus’ coming at that time was clearly a manifestation of this messianic promise. Ramban proposes various alternative interpretations to counter this claim—but, not surprisingly, he does not convince his opponents in the debate, although they acknowledge that he has held his own.

He then turns to more general arguments against Jesus’ messiah-hood. He emphasizes that the Messiah is a mortal human being, not God nor some eternal, supernatural apotheosis of the Divine. He adds that a central criteria for verifying his authenticity as Messiah is that he affect concrete changes in the real world. But let his powerful words speak for themselves (I have added some comments in italics):

I asked them: Do you agree with the words of those who say that the sin of Adam was nullified in the days of Messiah?

Our Lord the King and Friar Pablo answered: Yes. But not as you think, for the matter is that everyone would go to Hell because of that same punishment, but in the days of the Messiah Jesus it was nullified, for he took them out of there.

And I answered: In our country they say, “One who wishes to deny [lie] should send away his witnesses” [Rashi to Gen Rab 11.6], For many punishments are written regarding Adam and Eve: “Cursed is the earth because of you… thorns and thistles shall spring up… By the sweat of your brow… for you are dust” [Gen 3:17-19]. And also regarding the woman: “With pain shall you bear children” [ibid., 16]. And all this exists even today. And nothing visible or tangible was forgiven at the time of your messiah. But Gehinnom, which is not written there, you say has been atoned, because no person can disprove it. Send one person and let him return and tell us!
Also, God forbid, there is no punishment in Hell for the righteous for the sin of Adam their father, for my soul is equally close to my father’s soul and to that of Pharaoh, and I shall [surely] not enter Hell because of Pharaoh’s sin. But the punishments [for Adam’s sin] only involve the body, for my body is from my father and mother; just as it was decreed upon both that they should be subject to death, so too are their offspring forever mortal beings by nature.

That man [Friar Pablo] stood up and said: I shall bring another proof that the time of Messiah has already passed.

I said: Our Lord the King, listen to me [a little bit]. Our law and truth and rule are not primarily concerned with Messiah, for you are of more significance to me than Messiah. You are a king and he is a king. You are a Gentile king, and he is a king of Israel, for the Messiah is none other than a king of flesh and blood like yourself. And when I serve my Creator with your permission in exile and suffering and subjugation, and to the shame of the nations who constantly humiliate us, my reward is great, for I make a sacrifice to God of my own body. And in this I will merit to the life of the World to Come more and more. But when there will be a king of Israel ruling over all the nations by our Torah, and of necessity I will have to observe the Torah of the Jews, my reward will not be so great. [The point here is that a person is rewarded for the efforts he makes in fulfilling the Torah and in overcoming obstacles—implying that observance in times of Messiah, under Jewish autonomy, will be less previous to God]

But the essence of the judgment and dispute between the Jews and the Christians concerns something that you say about the Divine essence that is very bitter. Now you, our Lord the King, are a Christian, son of a Christian man [and woman], and your entire life you have heard the priests [and young people talking about the birth of Jesus], and they have filled your mind and the marrow of your bones with this thing, and you have become accustomed [to accepting it] out of habit. [He appeal’s to the king’s reason and common sense as a layman, hinting that he has been indoctrinated since childhood: an unexpected and rather courageous remark!] But this thing that you believe, which is the essence of your faith, is one which the mind cannot accept and which contradicts nature, and the prophets never said such a thing, and even miracles cannot extend to such a thing, as I shall explain with clear proofs in its time and place. Namely: that the Creator of Heaven and Earth [and all that are therein] should enter [as a fetus] into the womb of a certain Jewish woman, and grow therein for seven [or: nine] months, and be born as an infant and thereafter grow up, and then be given over to his enemies, and be judged and sentenced to death and executed; and they say that thereafter he returned to his original place. All this is intolerable to the mind of any Jew or of any person. And for naught and emptiness do you speak your words, for this is the essence of our dispute.

But let us speak of Messiah, as such is your wish.

Friar Pablo said: And do you believe that he has come?

I said: No. [Moreover,] I believe and know that he has not come. And there has never been any person who said or of whom they said that he was Messiah apart from Jesus [NOTE: what about Bar Kokhba? The other noted Jewish false Messiahs—Shlomo Molcho, Shabbetai Zevi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—were all after Ramban’s day}, and it is impossible for me (to believe in) his messiahhood. For the prophet [i.e., the psalmist] said of the Messiah, “And he shall reign from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth“ [Ps 72:8], and he [Jesus] did not enjoy any dominion, but in his lifetime he was pursued by his enemies and hid from them, and in the end he fell into their hands and was unable to save himself; how could he redeem Israel? And after his death he did not rule, for the empire of Rome was not for him. But before they started to believe in him Rome ruled over the entire world, and after they came into his faith they lost much of their rule. And today the worshippers of Mohamed have greater rule than them.

And the prophet says that in the time of Messiah “No man will teach his neighbor nor any man to his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all of them shall know Me…” [Jer 31:33]. And it says “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, like water covering the sea” [Isa 11:9]. And it says, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares…. And nation shall not lift up sword again nation, nor shall they study war anymore” [Isa 2:4]. Yet from the days of Jesus ‘till today the entire world is filled with violence and robbery, and the Christians engage in more bloodshed than all the other nations, and they also engage in lewd and licentious acts. And [imagine] how difficult it would be for you, our Lord the King, and for your horsemen, if they would not learn how to make war? [again, he is not afraid to use sarcasm]… (in Chavell, 310-311)

There is much more, but the above passages give the gist and flavor of his argument about the essence of the Christian faith. Particularly striking is his appeal to reason and intellect, and to plain common sense. He brings examples from concrete, down to earth reality—that, at least for the Jew, Messiah is not some rarified spiritual concept, existing in celestial spheres removed from this concrete world (which, by the way, is a possible Christian rejoinder: that Jesus’ redemptive activity exists as a metaphysical reality), but concerns the earthly here and now.
The debate then continues with a rather abstruse discussion about the chronology of Jesus relative to the Destruction of the Temple, the meaning of various midrashim which supposedly prove Jesus’ divinity and the doctrine of the trinity (at one point, rather astonishingly, turns to Pablo Christiani and refers to him as a “clever Jew”!), and so on and so forth.

In the end the king and his entourage were forced to admit that Ramban had indeed presented cogent arguments (although, as King James put it, in defense of an incorrect position). Eight days later, on Shabbat Nahamu (Vaethanan), Ramban delivered a major sermon at the main synagogue in Barcelona, attended by the king and other non-Jewish notables. This sermon, known as Torat Ha-Shem Temimah, is a major exposition of the concept of Torah and of the Ten Commandments (see Chavell ed., Kitvei Ramban, I: 139-175; we will, God willing, discuss this sermon next week).
But that was not the end of the story. The king was much impressed and, as a sign of his admiration, gave Ramban a gift of 300 gold coins. But some time later, after Ramban published the text of the Vikuah, the Dominicans insisted that he be tried for blasphemy against Christianity —even though one of the preconditions of the debate was that he be allowed full freedom to speak what he thought—and he was sentenced to two years of exile. He thus left Barcelona—it’s not clear whether to southern Spain or France—and thereafter realized his life-long hope and came to Eretz Yisrael. He lived briefly in Jerusalem, where he established the Ramban Synagogue in the Old City, but thereafter settled in Akko, where he spent the last years of his life writings his monumental Torah Commentary. He died in 1270, at the age of 75.

It is interesting to contrast the Barcelona Disputation with today’s “inter-faith dialogue, which is by and large marked by mutual respect and acceptance of the truth. My sense is that one reason for this is that “truth claims” are somehow less important today; there is a kind of tacit agreement that these are matters of “faith,” which can never be proven objectively. Many churches—the liberal, so-called “mainstream” Protestants, as well as the Roman Catholics—seem to have eschewed the notion that “There is no salvation outside of the church.” As I understand it, the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s, under Pope John XXIII, somewhat modified but did not rescind “supersecessionism” or “replacement theology,” according to which the Church has replaced the Jews as God’s covenantal partner. Many evangelical and other fundamentalist churches still adhere to traditional Christian theology; indeed, some of those groups that most enthusiastically support Israel and even the West Bank settlements do so because it fits into their own imminent eschatological scenario. Some modern Jewish theologians, beginning with Franz Rosenzweig, have responded in kind with various “two covenant” theories. (An interesting sidelight: the current king of Spain, Juan Carlos I, was the only crowned had of state to offer blessings to Israel President Shimon Peres upon his recent 90th birthday.)

* * * * *

Tisha b’Av Afterword: It’s worth noting that Ramban wrote a lengthy halakhic treatise about death and mourning, known as Torat ha-Adam (see Chavell, Vol. II: 9-303). Regarding our subject: he includes a chapter (ibid., 241-262), mostly halakhic, summarizing the discussion in the gemara and earlier poskim abot Tisha b’Av, which he refers to as aveilut yeshanah, “an old mourning.”
For teachings from previous years on this parashah, and on Tisha b’Av, visit my blog at, and search under the relevant heading


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