The Unusual Thinker Nachmanides

 

                                                            Nachmanides’ View of Himself

 

Most rabbis consider the twelfth century Spanish rabbi Nachmanides one of Judaism’s greatest thinkers. Many do so without knowing that he was such a devoted mystic that he read mystical teachings into the words of the Torah and into the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, teaching not seen by Talmudic rabbis, Midrashim, teachers, or anyone before him; because these mystical notions are not in the plain reading of the biblical text. He was the first to do so.

 

Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel made a comprehensive study of Nachmanides, wrote books in Hebrew and English containing the correct text of Nachmanides’ works, and included his analysis of Nachmanides and Nachmanides’ introduction to his Bible commentary. The later two documents are significant because they aid readers in understanding how Nachmanides understood his commentary. The following is a summary of what they say.

Nachmanides’ introduction discloses that his goal was to reveal or at least hint about the mystical ideas that he was certain the Torah contains. He begins with a poem in which he avers that he will include in his commentary “the hidden matters of the Torah.”

He tells readers in his introduction to Genesis that Moses wrote the entire Torah “from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He.” When Moses descended Mount Sinai, he “wrote the Torah from the beginning of Genesis to the end of the account of the tabernacle. He wrote the conclusion of the Torah at the end of the fortieth year of wandering in the desert.”

God, Nachmanides continues, informed Moses about the creation of “all things, high and low. Likewise (God informed him of) everything that has been said concerning the esoterics of the Divine Chariot,” meaning that everything about Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Moses included all of this information in the Torah, although much of it is hidden in the “implication in words, in the numerical value of letters, or the form of letters…. (E)verything may be learned from the Torah.”

Nachmanides maintains that the Torah includes the secrets of divination, enchantments, sorcery, and secrets King Solomon knew and used. The Torah is also “comprised of the Names of the Holy One, blessed be He, and … the letters of the words separate themselves into Divine names when divided in a different manner.” That is why if a “mistake has been made in one letter (of the Torah) being added or subtracted (the Torah scroll) is disqualified.” The “masters of the Kabbalah” know how to read the Torah and see the divine names.

Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel comments upon this Nachmanidean introduction and his commentary in his preface. He writes that Nachmanides’ commentary is filled with “Kabbalah—the mystic teachings of the Torah – which Ramban (the Hebrew equivalent of Nachmanides) was the first to introduce into Biblical commentary.”

Chavel states that the “great Kabbalist of the sixteenth century Rabbi Yitzchak Luria spoke of Ramban’s presentation of Kabbalistic principles of thought in the highest terms: “Deep they lie, exceptionally deep; who can grasp them?” The wide extent of Kabbalistic influence on the coming generation can be traced to Ramban.”

Chavel writes that Nachmanides focused on “two prior works which had already gained wide acceptance,” by Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra. Chavel explains that Nachmanides differed with Rashi’s approach in three ways: (1) He disagreed with Rashi’s approach of explaining the biblical texts in a haggadic, homiletical manner. He preferred to seek the passages’ plain meaning. (2) He rejected Rashi’s view that the Torah was not written chronologically. He felt that the “whole Torah is written in chronological order except where Scripture itself tells us differently.” He also insisted that when these exceptional situations occurred they must have occurred for a special reason. (3) While Rashi explained obscure Hebrew words by relating them to foreign, non-Hebrew terms such as Aramaic, Nachmanides insisted that the divine Torah only contained pure Hebrew terms.

Nachmanides’ view of ibn Ezra, according to Chavel is as he wrote “open rebuke and hidden love” because ibn Ezra, as Chavel explains, frequently articulated “independent views (that) brought him into conflict with traditional authority.”

Chavel states that Nachmanides had enormous respect for Maimonides but disagreed with him strongly concerning Maimonides’ view that prophecy is a natural event, a higher level of intelligence, and that God is not anthropomorphic.

Although not mentioned by Chavel, Nachmanides also had immense respect for the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch called Targum Onkelos. Since the Torah is true and Onkelos is stating the truth, Nachmanides maintained that just as the Torah contains mystical teachings, so too does Onkelos. This position caused the sage to read matters into the Aramaic translation that the Onkelos translator never intended and, in many cases, even contrary to the thinking of the translator.

                                                                                To be continued.

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