The curious views of Nahmanides


Nachmanides was a famed Bible and Talmud commentator. His real name was Moses ben Nahman Gerondi. He is known in Hebrew as Ramban and in European languages as Nahmanides, also spelt Nachmanides (1194-1270). He was a mystic and had mystical ideas. What are some of his views?

Among much else, Nahmanides believed that Jews must accept every part of the Torah literally. The snake actually spoke in the Garden of Eden. Balaam’s donkey talked to him. In contrast, Maimonides (1138-1204) explained that these were parables.

Maimonides’ approach to the Torah was very different than that of Nahmanides. For example, Maimonides said the reason why the Torah demands that people chase away a mother bird before taking its young is because animals have feeling. Nahmanides, in contrast, argued that animals have no feelings and the law was instituted to teach humans to be sensitive to the feelings of other humans.

Nahmanides minimizes the value of the human body and stresses that the function of the body is to serve the soul, which is the only significant part of people and is immortal. Maimonides felt that many biblical commands are designed to protect the body, such as the kosher laws. Maimonides repeatedly stressed the importance of the intellect, which he understood was the tzelem Elohim that Genesis states God placed in humans; and he said that a person who fails to use the intellect is no better than an animal and plant. Indeed, the purpose of the Torah is to teach some truths, to help a person improve, and aid people in improving society.

Nahmanides said there are two kinds of miracles, those that are open and clear such as those described in the Bible, for instance the splitting of the Red Sea, and hidden miracles that occur even today, at all times during the day, such as God helping people succeed in a task, because God is involved in everything, and nothing happens on earth unless God wills it to happen. Nahmanides calls the hidden miracles the greatest secret of the world. Most scholars recognize that Maimonides felt that miracles do not occur. He said that the talmudic rabbis recognized this when they listed famous “miracles,” such as the splitting of the Red Sea and said they were created during the six days of creation, which Maimonides understood to mean that the talmudic rabbis recognized that the so-called miracles are actually, like everything else, part of natural law.

The centrality of the Land of Israel in the divine scheme of the universe is a momentous motif in Nahmanides’ theology. Nahmanides criticized Maimonides for not listing the command to dwell in Israel as one of the 613 commandments. He criticized the patriarch Abraham for leaving Israel during a famine and going to Egypt where there was food. He said Abraham sinned. Nahmanides wrote: It was on account of this deed that it was decreed that his descendants [would be punished for their ancestor’s sin and] would be exiled in the land of Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule.  He felt that the land of Israel was so holy that when the Bible ordered the Israelites to obey certain commands, these commands were only obligatory in the land of Israel. Jews obey biblical commands outside of Israel, not because they are mandated by the Torah, but because the rabbis ordained that they should be observed also outside of Israel, and Jews accepted this rabbinical command.

He felt that the land of Israel is so holy that it cannot stand improper behavior. Thus, God killed the patriarch Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel when Jacob was returning to Israel after a twenty-some year absence with two sisters as his wives. Since the later-given Torah prohibits marriage to two sisters, God killed Jacob’s beloved Rachel so that Jacob would not disturb the holiness of the land of Israel with this violation.

In short, while Maimonides took a rational approach to the Torah and its commands, Nachmanides was the first person who saw the Bible as a mystical document. It was as if he argued, the Torah is true and mysticism is true, therefore the Torah must be a mystical document and contain mysticism.

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