I don’t know how it took me this long to write a post about Ramban.
He happens to be my personal favorite Biblical commentator, because his Hebrew writing is so clear and expressive. When studying his commentary in high school, I got a huge kick out of the fact that he would quote Rashi–Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 11th-century Provence, the spiritual father of all Biblical and Talmudic commentary–and then just say “אינו נכון” (“This is incorrect”). About Rashi. That’s like a college freshman standing up in the middle of a lecture by a senior professor at university and saying, “That’s wrong.” What a badass, I thought.
I didn’t know the half of it.
“Ramban” is a Hebrew acronym of his name, which was Rabbi Moshe ben (son of) Nachman. But guess what? He had a Catalan name, too: Bonastruc ça Porta. That’s right: he was born in Girona in 1194, and lived there for most of his life. He is also known as “Moshe ben Nachman Gerondi”–Moses, son of Nachman the Gironan.
Ramban was a central feature of the Golden Age of Sepharad. He was 8 years old when Maimonides died, and Rabbenu Yonah (Jonah Gerondi), a rabbi and moralist most famously known for his ethical work Sha’arei Teshuva (“The Gates of Repentance”), was his cousin. He began his writings on Jewish law at age 16, and soon emerged as a prominent Jewish scholar, eventually being named rabbi of Girona and later, chief rabbi of Catalonia. He was also a doctor, like many other famous Jewish scholars of that age, and aside from the aforementioned Biblical commentary, wrote a number of notable works on Jewish law and philosophy. He seems to have lived most of his years in relative peace–until the event in 1263 that turned his life upside down and secured him a place of honor in the Jewish Hall of Badassery.
The Disputation of Barcelona
Most of what I know about the Disputation I learned from a thorough article on the topic by Rabbi Berel Wein, a well-known Jewish historian, called Ecumenicism and Dialogue 1263 C.E.. I also consulted Ramban’s own account of the debate, Vikuach HaRamban (“The Ramban’s Disputation”), in the original Hebrew.
The debate was initiated–as it often is–by a Jewish convert to Christianity (seriously, we are almost always our own worst enemies) who took the name Pablo Cristiani upon conversion. Cristiani convinced King Jaume I of Aragon to order a public debate between himself and the chief rabbi of Catalonia. The king summoned Ramban to Barcelona for a dialogue that began on the 20th of July, 1263, and continued through four debating sessions, the last of which concluded on July 31st.
Rabbi Wein points out that open interfaith dialogue is a fairly recent phenomenon. During the Middle Ages, the Church got into the habit of holding such public “debates” for the usual reason: to discredit Judaism and persuade more Jews to convert to Christianity. In most cases, it was a bit of a kangaroo court, because whatever poor rabbi was summoned to defend Judaism in these debates was never actually permitted to speak freely. I wonder why the Christian side always won!
The Disputation of Barcelona was different. Before opening the debate, Ramban asked the king for the right to speak freely–and the king granted it. “Because of this right, Ramban at all times spoke boldly, incisively, and openly,” writes Rabbi Wein. “Here, perhaps for the only time in the annals of medieval Christian European history, Jew meets gentile as equal, and for the majority of the debate is not the defendant or apologist but rather presses home his criticism and disbelief of Christian concepts and principles.”
In other words, Ramban got up there and not only effectively defended Judaism against Cristiani’s arguments, he repeatedly set Cristiani and his buddies on the defensive–with epic levels of sarcasm, I might add. When Cristiani quoted passages from the Talmud and Midrashic literature trying to prove that the Jews of Jesus’s time believed he was the Messiah, Ramban easily refuted their interpretations and added, “The prophet says that at the time of the Messiah ‘they shall not teach their friends war, etc.’… and from the days of Jesus until now, the entire world is full of robbery and pillaging, and the Christians have spilled more blood than any of the other nations, and they are also sexually immoral. How hard it would be for you, my great king, and for your knights, to survive if there would be an end to warfare!”
Yeah. He actually said that. To the face of James I the Conqueror.
And if you think that’s chutzpah: “You believe this bitter thing [the Virgin Birth and the concept of the Trinity] because you are born a Christian, the son of Christian parents, and you have been indoctrinated your entire life by priests who have filled your mind and marrow with this belief, and you now accept its truth by basis of habit alone. But the thing you believe, that is the core of your faith, is completely illogical.”
Shockingly, Jaume didn’t order him beheaded on the spot. In fact, he related to Ramban with great admiration and respect, and comes across as a pretty good guy through this ordeal. When the debate was called off (apparently for fear of rioting–it was never formally closed), Jaume said to Ramban, “I have yet to see such a man as you, who, though being wrong, has yet made an excellent presentation of his position.” Ramban also reports that Jaume gave him a gift of three hundred coins and parted with him “with great affection.”
The Dominican priests claimed victory, and Ramban felt obliged to publish his account of the debate to let the public decide who had won. The Dominicans didn’t even try to refute his account–they accused him of blasphemy instead. King Jaume, mistrusting the Dominican court, called a special commission and ordered that the proceedings be conducted in his presence. Ramban’s defense argued that though he had indeed spoken out against Christianity, he had been granted permission to say all these things by the king himself. The king recognized that his case was just, but felt obliged to do something do calm down the Dominicans, so he sentenced Ramban to two years’ exile. The Dominicans felt that this wasn’t enough and appealed to the Pope, who expanded the punishment to permanent banishment.
Ramban Reestablishes a Jewish Presence in Jerusalem
So Ramban was forced to leave his family in Catalonia, and apparently spent the next three years wandering around in Castile or southern France, until he settled in Jerusalem–which, no thanks to the massacres and expulsions courtesy of the recently defeated Crusaders, had only two Jews living in it at the time. So he established the Ramban Synagogue, which still stands in the Old City today–likely not in the original location, but the building it’s currently in is still the oldest synagogue in the Old City. (It’s also, by the way, the first synagogue you ever walked into and prayed in. I know. I was there. 😉 )
Ramban’s reestablished community was the beginning of a 700-year continuous Jewish presence in the Old City of Jerusalem, all the way up until the War of Independence in 1948, when it fell to Jordan. It was in Jerusalem that Ramban wrote his magnum opus: his Biblical commentary. He also maintained a correspondence with his family and community in Sepharad, trying to create a stronger connection between the Jewish communities of Judea and Spain. He died after three years in the Holy Land at the age of 76.
If you want to read Rabbi Wein’s full article about the Disputation that summarizes the main points of the debate, you can find it online here; it was published in a collection of essays of Jewish responses to missionaries called The Real Messiah? (and if that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s mentioned in By Light of Hidden Candles!).
Speaking of awesome Catalans (albeit not Jewish ones), I am still following your news carefully and waiting with bated breath to see what happens next… and for those of our readers who have missed them, I’ve written three Josep-approved op-ed pieces for The Times of Israel on Catalan independence, which you can read here.
This post is #3 in my Awesome Jews of History series, the previous two being portraits of King David and Don Isaac Abravanel. Are there any awesome Jews of history you’d like me to write about? Let me know!