Nachmanides: An Unusual Thinker

Gefen Publishing House just published my “Nachmanides: An Unusual Thinker.” In the book, I tell much about Nachmanides, his views about the Torah, about God, his praise but misunderstanding of Targum Onkelos, his views about such things as demons, hell, souls, and other subjects. The following is an abbreviated version of some of his unusual notions with the supporting explanatory footnotes deleted.

 

Midrashic legends are historical truths

Nachmanides insisted that midrashic tales are true accounts of past events. His commentary to Genesis 11:32 is an excellent example. He retells the imaginative non-biblical talmudic legend of Abraham destroying his father’s idols, and expands upon the story, giving his original details. He insists that the episode is true and warns us not to be misled by ibn Ezra who argues that the story is a parable that was invented to teach a moral lesson.

Still another example is his acceptance of the truthfulness of the midrashic tale, found in the Greek Plato’s Symposium. of the first human creation being a single body with both male and female parts that were later divided. He writes that the two sexes were an eizer, “helpmate,” to one another while being combined, but the Bible calls the female part eizer khenegdo, “a helpmate next to him,” after the separation.

 

Hell

Contrary to Maimonides, Nachmanides was convinced that a physical Hell (Gahanna) exists where bodies of certain sinners are punished for as long as twelve months. At the end of the year, their bodies are destroyed, but their souls continue to live. Sinners with heinous crimes have their souls destroyed. He also wrote of the existence of a physical paradise (Gan Eden), which, like Gahanna, he described at great length.

 

Transmigration of souls

Relying on Genesis 3:8 and especially on Leviticus 18:6, Nachmanides believed in the transmigration of souls, the passing of a person’s soul after death into another newly born body. He used this notion to explain why righteous people are punished. People suffer because of their sins and for no other reason. Righteous people suffer because of the sins their soul committed in a prior life. Conversely, wicked individuals may prosper because of righteous deeds they performed in their prior life. He also used this idea to explain the biblical command that one should marry the wife of his deceased brother when the deceased left no child: the living brother was making it possible for the transmigration of his brother’s soul within the family.

 

Women

The ancient attitude of many men to women, in Greece, Rome, and Judaism from at least the Greek and Roman period, if not earlier, was poor. The conception by men of women was on the whole based upon the observation that women, who were uneducated, act in unsophisticated ways. However, as poor as this attitude was, the idea of many mystics was worse, for they saw the female as the source of evil.

Nachmanides and other mystics thought that the world derives its power from the two sides of the sepherot, the divine emanations. They believed that the right side of God, the male side, is the source of good, and the left side, the female side of God, is evil. As Bachya put it, “This explains why Eve’s soul received input from the serpent (why she was seduced by the serpent to eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil in the Garden of Eden), since she was produced by the left emanations (of the divine sepherot), the female ones.” Thus, “it was entirely natural that the serpent had sex with her and not with Adam. The affinity between the origin of the soul of Eve and the origin of the serpent, made it likely that she would be a victim to instant seduction.”

The mystics viewed menstruation as a punishment inflicted upon all women because Eve ate a fruit from the tree of good and evil in violation of God’s explicit prohibition. They thought of the blood flow as effusion of evil. Nachmanides states that he agrees with people who have decided to distance themselves as much as possible from menstruating women. She contaminates even the earth upon which she steps. One should take no benefit from her. Even otherwise innocuous speech from such a woman is impure. A proper person does not even speak about such a woman or even ask about her health. Her contamination radiates from her: if she looks in a mirror for some time, red blood-like spots appear on the glass.

 

Raped women are defiled and prohibited to their husbands.

Nachmanides felt that raped women are polluted and can no longer have sex with their husbands. He explains that Reuben slept with his father’s concubine for mercenary reasons. He imagines that Bilhah, his father Jacob’s concubine, was the only woman left with whom Jacob could have children. The Bible states that Rachel died and Reuben supposed that Leah was too old to give birth and her servant Zilpah was also too old or had died. If Bilhah gave birth, Nachmanides argued, Jacob would have had another child and his share of the inheritance would be reduced. So he slept with Bilhah, defiled her, and made it impossible for Jacob to sleep with her again.

 

The sanctity of the land of Israel

Nachmanides had a profound love of the land of Israel, which he considered sacred ground, and contrary to Maimonides, he insisted that settlement in Israel is a divine commandment. His feeling that the Israel was holy was so intense that he stated that God killed Jacob’s beloved second wife Rachel just prior to the family entering the land of Israel so that the patriarch Jacob, who was allowed to marry two sisters outside of Israel, would not violate the Torah’s command forbidding matrimony with two sisters in Israel, thereby desecrating the holy earth.

Nachmanides was convinced that God only exercises divine power in Israel for only Israel is a holy land. God set other divine-like powers to control other lands. “There is in this matter a secret relating to that which the rabbis have said: ‘He who dwells outside of the land of Israel is like one who has no God.’” He understands that the Talmud is stating that people who live outside of Israel are under the influence and power of these other supernatural beings and even if they try to worship God it is as if they have no God. Maimonides rejected this notion out of hand. When he escaped the persecution of Jews in Spain and Morocco and came to Israel and saw the terrible conditions facing Jews in the land, and left and settled in Egypt where he was a fully practicing Jew.

 

Idolatry, magic, and divination

Nachmanides’ view of life and his contention that the world is dependent on the metaphysical, is seen in his view of idolatry, magic, and divination. Idolatry, he maintains, is not prohibited because it is based on a false belief in the existence of non-existing gods. The opposite is true. Jews are forbidden to worship idols because although they exist and are powerful, Jews may not have any dealings with them because Jews are God’s people and must not reject God by seeking help, which would be efficacious, from the idols. The Zohar also contends that the “gods of the nations” that are mentioned in the Bible are not useless material but actual celestial beings with real, but limited powers to influence the world and people.

 

Astrology

Similarly, although he was convinced that the sun, moon, stars, and constellations have power over people and influence them for good and bad, Jews are forbidden to worship these objects. The same applies to magic and divination, which works as is “well-known to the eyes of all viewers.”

Nachmanides used his belief in astrology to explain that Moses did not include the tribe of Simeon in his blessings because, among other reasons, Moses needed to divide the tribe of Joseph into two and this would have resulted in thirteen blessings. Simeon had to be excluded to bring the count back to twelve to correspond to the number of constellations.

 

Angels and demons

Maimonides rejected the notion that demons exist, defined angels as all things that do the will of God, including the elements of nature, such as rain being an angel, and held that “Satan” and “the angel of death” are metaphors for the powers that exist in nature. Nachmanides, Rashi, Judah Halevi, Rabad of Posquieres, and many others disagreed. They believed in the existence of angels and demons, both of which are corporeal and can have powerful positive and negative impacts upon humans, but God told Jews not to seek their assistance.

“Satan,” according to Nachmanides is an angel that causes evil and the “angel of death” is an angel that causes death. In his commentary to Leviticus 16:8, he states that God instructed Jews to bribe the chief demon every year on the holiday of Yom Hakippurim. Rashi states that Noah rescued the demons from extinction in the flood by taking them aboard his ark.

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