Friday, July 19, 2013

Vaethanan (Ramban)

“The Lord’s Torah is Perfect”

As we mentioned last week, following the successful conclusion of his debate with the Christian polemicist Pablo Christiani, Ramban remained in Barcelona another eight days and (most probably) on Shabbat Vaethanan delivered a major sermon entitled Torat ha-Shem Temimah (see Chavel, Kitvei Ramban, I: 139–175), at which King James I of Aragon, who seems to have become somewhat of an admirer of Ramban’s (even though he thought he was wrong about Jesus) was present.

Contrary to what I wrote last week, I must postpone a full discussion of this major work for a later date, due to various other pressing obligations, and will treat it here only briefly. The title of this derashah is taken from Psalm 19—a psalm that is no doubt familiar to many readers as the first of those special psalms added to Pesukei de-Zimra on Shabbat morning. This psalm is divided into two balanced, complementary sections: one praising God for His manifestations in the Creation (“the heavens declare the glory of God…”), particularly in the sun, which sheds its light daily upon the entire world daily; while the second half praises God for His manifestation in Torah—a division reminiscent of the two blessings preceding the reading of Shema in the Morning Service (Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah). Ramban, who devotes this address to the centrality of the Torah and to an exposition of the Ten Commandments—that portion of the Torah that was revealed directly to the entire people at Sinai, and whose text is repeated here, in Parashat Vaethana—explains why the latter is in some sense superior to the former:

It is written: “The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making wised the fool” [Ps 19:8]. After saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God” [ibid, 2], he [the psalmist] turned and explicated the praise of the Torah, saying that it declares the praise of the Holy One blessed be He even more so than the heavens and the sun and the moon and the stars mentioned earlier, at the beginning of this psalm. And the meaning of this matter is that David began by stating that the heavens tell the glory of God, because the movements of the heavens are constant and eternal, and everything that is in motion requires that which sets it in motion [that is, every phenomenon must have a cause]. Thus, the heavens make known the glory of God—that is, that there is a powerful God who moves them through His power and His Divinity; hence, it speaks of El [i.e., the generic term for God, signifying power], as in “I have the power to…” [יש לאל ידי; Gen 31:29]. And the firmament is the uppermost sphere, which moves from east to west, opposite to the motion of the others, thereby declaring the works of his hands, which are the created things. And this matter is clear, and a proof that the philosophers established through speculation alone.

Ramban here presents, in a nutshell, the well-known argument for the existence of God from the orderly working of Creation. Note his pre-Copernican world-view—te earth at the center, surrounded by a series of concentric celestial spheres—which was how everybody thought in his day. But he then turns to the assertion that the Torah is an even better argument for God—a subject that forms the main subject of this lengthy homily:

But after he spoke of how the heavens and the sun tell [of God’s glory], saying “There is no speech and no words… their rays are gone out to the entire earth” [vv. 4-5] up to “and naught is hidden from its heat” [v. 7], he then said, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul”—that is: true, these are clear proofs of the glory of God, and all of them are the works of His hands, but the Torah of the Lord [NB: from here on the psalmist uses the God’s “proper name,” YHWH] is more perfect than that, and it restores the soul and conveys wisdom to the fool—that is, it removes all doubt from the hearts, for the Sages, and even for those who do not comprehend the laws of the heavens and of the celestial order system of the stars [the Torah does so]. And he engaged in hyperbole in the praise of the Torah in this psalm….

All this is only by way of introduction. He asserts that the Torah tells of God’s praises even more so than the cosmos, as even one who does not understand the laws of physics and the argument from creation can know of God’s greatness through the Torah—but the details of this argument are developed during the course of this sermon, to which we will return, bli neder, next week, Parshat Ekev, in greater depth.

TISHA B’AV: Afterthoughts

1. On Tisha b’Av morning I led the reading of the Kinot (in abbreviated form) at one of the local shuls, I began with a concise but basic insight: Prayer and Torah study are the central channels for the Jewish way of relating to God, The absence of both of them is the striking sign of the stark difference between this day and all other days of the prayer—it is, before all else, a day of hester panim, of God’s hiddenness, when we feel God to be distant, in accessible. We do not study, and whatever prayer we do is pro forma, the minimal nusah. Nor is it a ta’anit tzibbur, a public fast day inm the usual sense of a day devoted to teshuvah, to inward soul-searching and correction of public faults, but a day of bitter mourning, of bewailing the Destruction, the archetype of all Jewish tragedies, and also a day of daring to question God’s justice, of asking questions of theodicy.

All this applies to the evening and morning of Tisha b’Av; during the afternoon, as mentioned earlier, the mourning is somewhat muted, the themes of teshuvah and the possibility of prayer are reopened, and there are certain rays of hope, of the possibility of redemption.

But I noticed something interesting. Most of the haftarah read in the morning is devoted to a graphic description of the catastrophe and feelings of despair (“The harvest is past, the summer is gone, and we have not been saved… Death has climbed into our windows, come into our mansions”: Jer 8:20; 9:20). But it concludes with a verse of a very different valence: “Let not the wise man take pride in his wisdom, nor the hero in his strength or bravery, nor the rich man in his wealth; but let he who would be praised do so for this: in comprehending and knowing Me; for I am the Lord, doing kindness, justice, and righteousness in the land…” (Jer 9:22-23). Interestingly, these are the very words chosen by Maimonides to end his philosophic magnum opus, The Guide for the Perplexed (III.54), as if to say: the ultimate goal of human life is not cognitive, philosophical knowledge of God, (notwithstanding that he states this as the activity in which human beings will engage in the End of Days, as per Hilkhot Melakhim 12), but ethical behavior, inter-personal righteousness, the pursuit of social justice and helping others. This we come full circle to the goal of teshuvah, and to what is the ultimate correction to the sins of social injustice and needless hate (which I would translate into modern terms as lack of social cohesion) which, so Hazal tell us, precipitated the Destruction.

2. During the afternoon I listened by webcast to a shiur given by Rabbi J. J. Schachter—an impressive scholar and teacher, one of the heirs to Rav Soloveitchik’s Tisha b’Av teaching tradition, who combines the attributes of talmid-hakham and serious historian. He addressed the question as to whether or not that ought to be separate days of mourning for various tragic events—viz., today, how to commemorate the Holocaust—or whether they ought o be subsumed under the exclusive archetypal status of Tisha b’Av. There are precedents for both positions in the history of the halakhah and Jewish practice. Thus, following the Crusader ‘s massacres of the Rhineland communities in 1096, there were those who introduced local fast days. There was even discussion as to whether one might decree a fast day on Rsh Hodesh Sivan, the day that Worms was overrun, and if so, how (a compromise was reached by fasting half a day); likewise whether on might say Tahanun on the 3rd of Sivan, the day Magenze was decimated. On the other hand, the kinah, Mi Yiten Roshi Mayim, which commemorates these events, stipulates that “as we do not add days of weeping and dirges,” we do so on Tisha b’Av.

In 1171 there was a massacre of Jews in the French town of Blois, in wake of a blood libel, and 20th Sivan was instituted as a fast day. Over time, it feel into disuse, but after Chmelnicki massacres in the Ukraine in 1648-49, it was revived, and 20th Sivan was observed as a fast throughout Eastern Europe until the early twentieth century.

In modern times, there was a debate as to whether or not to institute a fast day and or day of commemoration for the Shoah; there are records of interesting exchanges between the Haredi leader, the Hazon Ish, and Israel’s Chief Rabbi Herzog, over this issue, the former opposing any such innovation, the latter invoking earlier precedents for introducing new days in wake of major catastrophes. Interestingly, in this respect Rav Soloveitchik displayed a very conservative tendency, concentrating all mourning and commemoration on Tisha b’Av. He did not even see the need for a new kinah for the Holocaust, preferring a kind of archetypal thinking: “When we mention Speyer in that kinah, we think of Vilna; when we say Worms, we think of Warsaw”—and so on (and if so, I would add, let Magenze stand for Odessa).

3. Another simple, even obvious insight that occurred to me, but which I never heard stated explicitly: that the Kinot are arranged in a very definite logical order, divided into several groups:

a. Piyyutim by R. Eleazar Hakalir about the Destruction of the Temple (mostly First?) per se. Most of these are built upon phrases from Eikhah and/or alphabetical acrostics; several raise questions of theodicy. One lengthy kinah is built around the 24 priestly mishmerot (“watches”)—rotating groups each one of which served in the Temple for one week every half-year.

b. Events surrounding and following the Destruction of the Second Temple: the Ten Martyrs (Arzei ha-Levanon); the son and daughter of R. Yishmael sold into slavery (Ve-et nevei hatati ahimah).

c. Kinot relating to the person of Jeremiah: his dialogue with the patriarchs upon visiting their graves; with the Shekhinah; mourning King Josiah (Az bahalokh Yirmiyahu).

d. Tragedies of the Middle Ages: the Crusaders destruction of the Rhineland communities (Mi yiten roshi mayim); burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1242 (Sha’ali serufah ba-esh); etc.

e. Tziyonim: R. Judah Halevi’s piyyut of yearning for Zion (Tzion halo tishali lishlom asirayikh) and a long series of others based upon it.

f. Concluding section: Avraham Rosenfeld’s kinah for the Holocaust; Eli Tzion ve-araeha, whose melody that serves as a musical leit-motif for this period of mourning; and the concluding prayer, “Have mercy on Zion” (terahem Tzion).

Beyond the excellent line-by-line commentaries on the Kinot by Daniel Goldschmidt and, recently, in Englsih , of Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings, a simple outline of the kinot, with a one-or-two line summary of the author, background and contents of each one is a desideratum. Bli neder, if Messiah doesn’t come by next year.

Tisha b'Av (Ramban)

God’s Prayer and His Blessing

A brief thought for Tisha b’Av. The gemara at b. Berakhot 7a brings two closely related stories about God’s prayer and His pain:

R Yohanan said in the name of R Yossi: From whence do we know that God prays? As it is said: “And I shall bring them to My holy mountain, and I shall rejoice them in My house of prayer” [Isa 56:7]. It does not say, “[the house of] their prayer” but “my prayer.” It follows from this that the Holy One blessed be He prays. And what does He pray? Rav Zutra bar Tuvia said in the name Rav: “May it be My will before Myself that My mercies conquer My anger, and that My mercy overwhelm My [other] qualities, and that I may behave with My children with the quality of mercy, and enter with them beyond the measure of the Law.”

It is difficult to imagine anything more paradoxical than God praying. We think of prayer as a human expression of need, of petition addressed to the Almighty. How can God pray to Himself? And how can He possibly need to pray, to request anything of Himself, if He is already omnipotent? The immediate midrashic explanation is based a clever word-play, shifting the referent of the conjunctive pronoun: the phrase “My house of prayer” in Isaiah 56, which in the literal sense refers to that House consecrated to prayer addressed to Him, is here, in an almost Hasidic twist, read as the “house of My prayer.” (Incidentally, a page or two earlier the Talmud discusses the idea that God, as it were, wears tefillin, as a counterpart to Israel’s tefillin; like a man wearing a wedding ring, God wears tefillin as a sign of His side in the covenant with Israel.) As to why God needs to pray, and for what, we shall examine the next passage and then elaborate:

A tannaitic teaching: R. Yishmael ben Elisha [who was a high priest] said: Once I entered to offer incense in the innermost sanctum [evidently on Yom Kippur], and I saw Akatriel Yah the Lord of Hosts seated upon a high and exalted throne. And He said to me: Ishmael my son, bless me! I said to Him: May it be Thy will before Yourself, that Your mercies overcome Your anger, and Your mercies overwhelm Your attributes, and that You act with Your children with the attribute of Mercy, and enter with them beyond the letter of the Law.“ And he nodded to me [as if in agreement] with His head. We learn from this, that the blessing of a layman ought not be a trivial thing in your eyes.

The idea of God being in need of the blessing of a human being is almost as paradoxical as that of God praying. (What we usually refer to as berakhot, often translated as “blessings,” are in fact something quite different, more precisely rendered as “benedictions”: that is, liturgical formulae of praise and thanksgiving for all the various gifts that God bestows upon us in our lives in the world.) R. Yishmael did not miss a beat: he immediately formulated a blessing, very similar to God’s own self-prayer. (Incidentally, the name Akatriel means something like “God encrowned”: as far as I can tell, it is a rare term, in all of Rabbinic literature appearing here alone; it seems to refer to a vision of the Godhead Itself, and not to an apotheosis.)

What is this all about? The essential idea is that God, far from being a complete and perfect being, is in conflicted within Himself, pulled in two divergent directions: on the one hand, He is filled with love and compassion for His Creation and for human beings, in general, and for the people of Israel, in particular, accepting and tolerating their all-too-human weakness and foibles as part of their nature (as He Himself created them). On the other hand, His awareness of the moral standard, of the dimension of Law—which He has created as one of the deepest expressions of His will, and which in some sense must be an absolute—brings him in the direction of Judgment, of Sternness—this is Midat ha-Din. It is not simply a matter of being harsh and severe, but that the world can only exist if there are objective rules by which it is run. Just as the stars and the sun and the moon and planets move by the laws of celestial mechanics, so too must human beings live by a certain moral law—and if they disobey it must be enforced by sanctions, even by harsh punishments ands retributions—for without sanctions there can be no meaningful law. Yet He is nevertheless torn between the two. The God portrayed by the Sages is not the Neo-Aristotelian unmoved mover of Maimonides negative theology, but a passionate being, a Heavenly Father who is involved with His “children,” who loves them, who doesn’t want them to experience suffering or harm — yet who also knows that from time to time they must be chastised and punished, even harshly, to make the Law meaningful and real. This inner conflict is portrayed here in graphic human terms, in the poignant cry, “Ishmael, my son, bless me!” As if God somehow needs the blessing/affirmation/encouragement of a human being to push Him in the direction in which, deep down, He wishes to go.

This is the essential dynamic entailed in Tisha b’Av. Critics of Judaism often portray it as a religion of a harsh, vindictive, cruel God. Christianity often contrasts the “wrathful God of Old Testament” with the “God of Love” of the NT—and the prime example of this is Tisha b’Av: the destruction and exile which are portrayed by prophets such as Jeremiah as punishment for sin. Yet at the same time God Himself is portrayed in the aggadah as being “with them” in their suffering, as going into exile with them or, as in these two aggadot, praying to Himself that His mercies emerge triumphant over His stern lawfulness. At times this duality is embodied in the figure of the Shekhinah, the female personification of God (which, in Zoharic Kabbalah, becomes a kind of consort; the mythic-sexual union of the Holy One blessed be He and the Shekhinah, or of other male and female symbols such as Hokhmah and Binah [also called Abba and Imma] or Tiferet or Yesod and Malkhut, serving as being the central metaphor for that longed-for cosmic unity that will heal the brokenness of this world.) There is one kinah for Tisha b’Av, Az bimlot sefek, perhaps the most mysterious and enigmatic in the entire collection, which describes the prophet Jeremiah’s encounter with a “beautiful but disheveled woman” who bemoans the loss of her children, who is evidently a personification of the Shekhinah.

Tisha b’Av is, in fact, not merely a static day of bereavement and shock, “like one whose dead one lies before him,” but is marked by a kind of dynamic process. It begins with a sense of total alienation and estrangement between God and His people (“You have covered yourself with a cloud, from allowing prayer to pass through to You”: Lam 3:44) —from which there developed the Ashkenazic custom of not wearing tefillin on Tisha b’Av morning.

(Interestingly, I discovered this year that Ramban sees the evening and morning as a time when public prayers as a whole is abolished or greatly modified: in Torat ha-Adam he states that in the evening each person prays by himself, without Kaddish and Barkhu, or any other public response, and that even in the morning there is Barkhu and Kaddish, but no Kedushah!) But then, in the afternoon, it turns towards a kind of reconciliation and the beginning of a healing of the ruptured relation with God, symbolized by the more muted mourning of the afternoon, so that at Minhah one once again dons tallit and tefillin, sits on regular chairs, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are read from the Torah, there is a special prayer, Nahem, asking God to comfort us, and the service culminates with the recitation of the Priestly Blessing.

* * * * *

One more thought about the Vikuah, which we discussed last Shabbat: It occurred to me, after writing up Ramban’s Barcelona confrontation with his Christian interlocutors and his defense of Judaism’s rejection of the Christian Messiah, that this was what he did his whole life. Ramban was Judaism’s great polemicist, who argued, with well-crafted arguments and proof-texts, in the areas of both Written Torah, Talmud and halakhah, with Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Onkelos, Ba’al ha-Maor, Saadya Gaon, Rambam, and many others. For such a man, arguing with Pablo Christiani must have been a piece of cake!

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.)

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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

Matot-Masei (Ramban)


Pinhas (Ramban)


Balak (Ramban)


Hukat (Ramban)


Korah (Ramban)