Nachmanides’ ideas are not what people think they are

My next book, “Nachmanides: An Unusual Thinker,” will be published in a few months. It is my most controversial book. Most people have no idea what this great sage actually believed, that he was influenced by mysticism. Most people read what he says but only see what they want to see, or need to see – since Nachmanides, they think, was a great sage, he must have thought like me. The following is chapter three from this upcoming book.

 

                                                                                       Nachmanides’ View of God

 

Nachmanides’ views of the world and the Bible are often different than those of many people in the modern world. Modern readers may consider some of his thirteenth-century thoughts superstitious notions. But fairness requires that readers should recognize that Nachmanides’ beliefs were held by most of his contemporaries, Maimonides being a startling exception. Even today, many Jews and non-Jews would champion quite a few of the Gerona rabbi’s opinions.

Nachmanides’ Bible commentary raises many questions, such as those addressed in this chapter: Was Nachmanides convinced that God is involved in everything that occurs on earth? Did he suppose that miracles occur daily, most of them unseen? Did he consider God as the healer of people and on whom people should rely? Was he convinced that people have a duty to influence God? Is it his view that God needs sacrifices? Did he believe that people must help God who needs their help? Was he certain that God has physical parts? Why did he think that God gave humans commands? Is faith that God will aid people an integral part of his belief system? Did he feel that God assures that injustice will not occur? Did he say that God does not care about the feelings of animals?

Reading Mystic ideas into halakhah

Nachmanides inserted his version of mysticism into his conception of halakhah, Jewish law. In his Kabbalah, Halakhah, and Spiritual Leadership,”[1] for example, he insisted that white wine is unacceptable for the Shabbat Kiddush, the blessing over wine that introduces the Shabbat meal. Rabbinic non-mystical sources state just the opposite: if people have white wine that is superior to their red wine, the white wine should be used. Even the mystic Joseph Karo allowed white wine for Kiddush in his Bet Yosef. [2]

God’s involvement in human affairs

Nachmanides states in Genesis 17:1, 46:15, Exodus 13:16, and Leviticus 26:11 that this world does not function through the laws of nature. God is constantly and directly involved in every human act and thought and frequently interferes and even controls them. He calls these divine manipulations “hidden miracles.” Thus, he contends that when the Midrash relates that the patriarch Abraham was saved when King Nimrod threatened to kill him, this happened because God interfered with nature and changed Nimrod’s intention; He “put it in the heart of that king to save him.” He used this principle of divine intervention to explain various other midrashim, which he considered facts, such as the unusual length of the lives of Moses’s mother, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, and King David’s ancestress Ruth.

Since he was certain in the truthfulness of the story of Abraham’s father being an idol worshiper and that Abraham was saved by God when Nimrod tried to kill him, he wondered how it was possible that Midrash Genesis Rabbah interpreted Genesis 15:15, “And you will come to your father in peace,” to say that Abraham would join his father, an idolater, in the world-to-come.[3]  He answers his question with the view of some rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 104a, that the merit of a son’s good deeds has the power to affect and benefit his father even though the father was evil during his lifetime, committed idol worship, despised his son’s behavior, and is now dead.[4]

Nachmanides theory of war is another example of his view that God is involved in human affairs. He asserts that God manages the outcome of all wars, irrespective of human power.[5] Still another illustration is his notion that God chooses every person who serves in every community function, from kings to “even a superintendent of the well is appointed in heaven.”[6]

God physically descended to earth to investigate a matter

Genesis 18:20 and 21, as well as the narrative that follows, contain a rather remarkable story that raises fundamental and disturbing questions about how to interpret the Bible. “God said, ‘the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their misdeeds are very grievous. I will go down now and see whether they acted as [indicated in] the cry that has come up to me, then I will destroy them, if not I will know.’”[7]

Leaving aside the many difficulties that the original Hebrew presents to the translator (such as the one previously footnoted), these two verses, as well as the subsequent story of Abraham’s attempt to change God’s mind,[8] raise quite a few theological and philosophical questions. One of the questions is whether the episode narrated in Genesis 18 actually occurred or was it only a dream?

Nachmanides insists that the Bible means what it says and the episode actually happened. God needed to descend to discover the truth about the people’s behavior.[9]

Maimonides disagreed. He states in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:45 that all biblical prophecies, with the exception of Moses’s prophecy, were dreams. He states in 1:10 that scripture’s divine descent is only a figure of speech indicating a divine decision to render punishment. Thus, according to Maimonides, the story in chapter 18 never took place. It was a dream that Abraham experienced; Abraham dreamed of a conversation with God and thought of God in his dream in anthropomorphic terms.

Miracles occur daily

Nachmanides writes[10]: “And now I shall declare to you a general principle in the reason of many commandments.” He identifies several groups of individuals with wrong-headed convictions. The first denies the basic principle that God created the world. The second refuses to recognize that God knows what occurs to humans. The third may think that God knows about people, but denies that God pays attention to them. They assert that God cares for humans as much as humans care for a bowl of goldfish. They look, admire and delight in them, but do not care for their individual lives. Just as it is ridiculous to imagine people rewarding and punishing fish for their behavior, so, too, these people say, God neither rewards nor punishes.

Many scholars are convinced that Maimonides denies the existence of miracles. All agree that he at least minimizes them. But Nachmanides was convinced, strongly and unyieldingly, that God is constantly involved in the world, as in the saying that no leaf falls from a tree unless God wills it to do so.

Nachmanides was persuaded that there are two kinds of miracles. The first, like the exodus from Egypt and the plagues that preceded it, are open and evident to all. Others are hidden and do not show God’s involvement, like the falling leaf, winter snow, and summer rain, even the shining sun. This belief in miracles was so significant and fundamental to Nachmanides that he proclaimed, “From [belief in] large perceptible miracles one [comes to believe] in hidden miracles, which are the very foundation of the entire Torah. A person has no share in the Torah of Moses our teacher until he believes that all that occurs is the result of miracles, not the laws of nature. … Everything happens by divine decree.”

He states that many Jewish practices were instituted for no other purpose than to teach or remind Jews that miracles occur daily. This, for example, is the reason that the Passover Seder is celebrated.

Doctors are unnecessary

Nachmanides’ conviction of the involvement of God in human affairs impacted his view of medicine. Although some scholars believe that he was a physician, he felt that the physician’s role in medicine was misunderstood. Only God can heal people. He insisted that religious people have no need for medical treatment for God will care for them. He interpreted Exodus 21:19, “He will surely heal,” as a God given dispensation to doctors to assist those who are not righteous, as long as “the physician is aware of the source and limit of his healing power and sees them as a participation in God’s work.”[11] He emphasized that Rachel’s conception following years of barrenness, was “through prayer and not by way of human cures.”[12]

The human duty to influence God

While humans are extremely limited in exercising control over themselves and other matters of this world, Nachmanides was convinced that people, especially Jews, can, and indeed are obligated to participate in supernatural matters and influence God. Thus, the concept of “sympathetic magic,” a human act forcing a similar one from God,[13] was a cornerstone of his theology. God and Israel need each other. Israel, according to Nachmanides, “cannot be conceived without its intimate connection to God (and God) … cannot be conceived apart from Israel.”[14] Nachmanides stated[15] that the Torah is composed of God’s names. “In other words, in the Torah, God is ultimately speaking of himself and his own needs, needs that Jews can help God achieve.” The Torah, according to Nachmanides, is directed not merely to the human situation, but is the Jews’ “opportunity to participate in the divine life (emphasis added).”[16]

God needs sacrifices

Maimonides and Nachmanides differed over whether God wanted and needed sacrifices. Maimonides contended that God did not want or need them. The Torah allowed sacrifices only because the Israelites, like their contemporaries, were so accustomed to them that it would have been psychologically impossible to wean them away from sacrifices at that time. Maimonides cited the views of the prophets to support his contention.[17] Nachmanides, as we noted above, felt that humans have a duty to help God who needs them to do so. He insisted that God wants and needs sacrifices to bring about harmony between the ten divine Sefirot parts.[18]

The duty to help God

As strange as this concept of God needing human help is, it is quite prevalent in Nachmanides’ thoughts and in that of mysticism generally. This notion influenced Nachmanides understanding of the Joseph story. In his commentary to Genesis 42:9, he raises the question how Joseph could disregard the feelings of his old father Jacob by putting his brothers and their father through a charade and not revealing his identity to his father who was mourning his apparent death and was in great distress. Nachmanides states that Joseph felt that it was more important to aid God and make sure that the divine predictions in his two dreams[19] came true in all their details than to care for his father.[20]

Belief in an anthropomorphic God

Like many mystics, Nachmanides thought of God in an anthropomorphic manner. This idea will be discussed in some detail in my analysis of his commentary to Genesis 46:1. It should be noted here that Nachmanides was convinced that if a husband and wife concentrated on the ten parts of God’s anthropomorphic image during their sexual intercourse they could produce a son that fits the holy form that they pictured. As Arthur Green wrote:[21]

Both partners are to concentrate on the divine anthropic form during intercourse, the beauty of the union (of God’s parts) above … and the child of their union will be that beautiful form they have gazed upon during lovemaking.[22]

Reasons for God’s commands

Nachmanides’ view regarding the observance of the Torah commandments differed radically from those of Maimonides. Whereas his predecessor gave reasons for all the commands and enumerated the human individual and societal benefits,[23] Nachmanides wrote, “You should not serve God in order to receive a reward but because of His simple will. [Because God said so, not because there is a rational basis for the command.] This is what obligates us to serve Him.”[24]

God does not allow an injustice to occur

Nachmanides’ position that God is involved daily in human affairs and that God manipulates human behavior, has led, as we have seen, to positions that many rationalists would find hard to accept. We see it again in his interpretation of Deuteronomy 19:19. The section discusses the law of the ed zomeim, the false witness who gave his testimony as part of a plot to harm the person he is testifying against. The halakhah states that the plotting witness is punished with the same punishment he attempted to inflict upon the person he is testifying against. An exception to this rule is the situation where, in a murder case, the witness is found to be false only after the person he was testifying against has been executed. The law is that the false witness is not executed.[25] Nachmanides states that the witness is not killed because it is obvious that, despite all evidence proving that the witness lied, he must have been telling the truth. God, he insists, would never allow an innocent person to be killed.[26]

Faith and reliance on God’s help

Nachmanides, as we saw, felt strongly that one must have rely on God and act with a certainty that when he encounters trouble, God will assist him. Thus, in his commentary to Genesis 12:11, he does not hesitate to criticize the patriarch Abraham for what he considers his great sin of faithlessness when he lied and claimed that Sarah was his sister. Abraham should not have resorted to a stratagem; he should have had understood that God would protect him.

Compassion to animals

Nachmanides and Maimonides are markedly different in their attitude to animals. Deuteronomy 22:6 commands: “If you chance upon a bird’s nest along the road, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, and the mother is sitting over the fledglings or the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.” Leviticus 22:28 is similar: “No animal from the herd or from the flock should be slaughtered on the same day with its young.”

In the Guide of the Perplexed,[27] Maimonides explains that animals, like humans, have feelings and the Torah prohibits people from tormenting them.

“[Regarding the slaughtering of animals,] the Law enjoins that the death of the animal should be the easiest. It is not allowed to torment the animal by cutting the throat in a clumsy manner, by poleaxing, or by cutting off a limb whilst the animal is alive.”

It is also prohibited to kill an animal with its young on the same day, in order that people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother; for the pain of the animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings.

Maimonides gives three reasons for the prohibition against taking the dam and its young: (1) the animal’s feelings, (2) assuring that humans eat healthy food, and (3) training: teaching people to be similarly sensitive to the feelings of other humans.

The same reason applies to the law which enjoins that we should let the mother fly away when we take the young. The eggs over which the bird sits, and the young that are in need of their mother, are generally unfit for food, and when the mother is sent away she does not see the taking of her young ones, and does not feel any pain. In most cases, however, this commandment will cause man to leave the whole nest untouched, because [the young or the eggs], which he is allowed to take, are, as a rule, unfit for food. If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow men.

Nachmanides disagrees. He contends:[28]

“…that it was not a matter of God’s mercy extending to the bird’s nest or the dam and its young, since His mercies did not extend so far with them, for, if so, He would have forbidden slaughter altogether. But the reason for the prohibition [against taking the dam with its nest, or against killing the dam with its young in one day] is [only] to teach us the trait of compassion and that we should not be cruel, for cruelty proliferates in man’s soul.”

Nachmanides concludes by stating that there is also a mystical reason for the command, but he does not elaborate, and his commentators differ in suggesting interpretations of his intention.

Summary

Nachmanides’ mystical views of God, the Torah, the universe, and natural law were very different than those of the rational Maimonides. It is important to note that his mystical preconceptions led him to his conclusions. He read his own views into the biblical writings. views never intended by, indeed alien to the Bible.

 

[1]    Page 69.

[2]    Orah Hayyim 272, s.v. garsenan. Nachmanides’ approach to halakhah, reading material into texts that is not present and which can only be seen by an adept in mysticism helped in the development of the charismatic leader, the pious rabbi who understood and who alone could pass on truth.

[3]    The conflict between midrashim does not exist when one realizes that each Midrash is not recounting a truthful event, but is only telling a tale as a parable to teach a lesson.

[4]    This concept of zachut avot and zachut banim is in the Targums Pseudo-Jonathan and Neophyti, but is absent from Targum Onkelos. See I. Drazin, Targumic Studies, pages 77–103.

[5]    Commentary to Deuteronomy 8:18.

[6]    Commentary to Deuteronomy 17:15. Nachmanides seems to recognize that people can sometimes choose a community official whom God does not want, but he is unclear as to when and how this occurs. The issue is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 58a.

[7]    This last phrase is obscure in both Hebrew and English and has been the subject of various attempts at clarification. The simple meaning is that God does not know if what He is hearing is correct, and He needs to descend to the earth to investigate what is really happening. In the prior phrase, He states that if He discovers that people have been acting improperly, He will “destroy them.” He then concludes “if not,” meaning that if they are not doing wrong, “I will know” this and not harm them.

[8]    The idea that humans can change God’s mind is problematic because it assumes that God is not altogether wise and that humans have, at least sometimes, a better understanding of a situation than does God.

[9]    Nachmanides’ commentary to Genesis 18:1 and 32:33, where the question of dreams reappears.

[10]   Commentary to Exodus 13:16.

[11]   Novak, page 84. See D. Margolith, Ramban as Doctor, Sinai, 1957, pages 147–57. See also Nachmanides’ Commentary to Exodus 15–26.

[12]   Commentary, Genesis 30:14.

[13]   An example would be: when a person pours water on the ground as part of a rain ceremony, such as in a dance by Native Americans, the heavens must produce rain.

[14]   Commentary, Exodus 23:21 and Numbers 14:4. Novak, page 122, 123.

[15]   Genesis Introduction on the Commentaries.

[16]   Novak, page 123.

[17]  Guide of the Perplexed 3:32.

[18]   Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed 3:32, 46; Nachmanides, Commentary to Leviticus 1:9; I. Tishby, Mishnat Hazohar, 2 volumes, Jerusalem, 1957, pages 194–206.

[19]   Genesis 37.

[20]   “Nachmanides seems to be of the opinion that helping Providence is the right thing to do, though we may doubt the theology of this.” Jacob Licht, Story Telling in the Bible, The Magnes Press, 1986, page 81, emphasis added.

[21]   Green, A., on page 35, note 141.

[22]   Kitvei Ramban, volume 2, page 331 (Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook) 1964.

[23]   Guide of the Perplexed 3:25–49. Y. Leibowitz, Conversations with Yeshayahu Leibowitz on the Moreh Nevukhim of Maimonides (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 2003.

[24]   Commentary, Leviticus 19:2.

[25]   Sifre; Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 5a; Rashi; Malbim; and others.

[26]   For the contrary view of H. Crescas, Y. Arama, and Sforno to Leviticus 4:3, see Not in Heaven (Hebrew: Lo Bashamayim Hi), Da’at Tevunot, 5757, page 92, notes 120, 121.

[27]   3:48. Translation of M. Friedlander, pages 371.

[28]   Commentary to Deuteronomy 22:6, translation by C. B. Chavel, in Ramban, ibid, page 271.

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