Life and work of a medieval Jewish mystic

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Life and work of a medieval Jewish mystic

      Nachmanides: An Unusual Thinker by Israel Drazin, Gefen Publishing House, US $24.95, Pp 240, June 2018,       ISBN 978-9652298874

With at least fifty scholarly works to his credit, Nachmanides — also known as Rabbi Moshe ben Nachmanides — was one of the great Jewish Bible and Talmud commentators of his generation. The fifty scholarly works that have survived are evidence of his brilliance as a Bible commentator of his generation. Many modern Jews refuse to accept Nachmanides’ ideas. Nachmanides was a kabbalist — a mystic. In Nachmanides, Israel Drazin discusses Nachmanides’ life, works and thought. Drazin says, as a mystic, Nachmanides was the first scholar to introduce the idea that the Torah contains mystical notions. He was also the first Torah commentator who offered a mystical interpretation of the Bible. It was him who stated for the first time that the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, ‘Targum Onkelos,’ contained imaginative aggadic material and mysticism. Drazin says that it was as if he was arguing that if the Torah is true, and mysticism is true, and ‘Targum Onkelos’ is true, then it follows that the Torah and ‘Targum Onkelos’ must contain mysticism.

Nachmanides is also known by his Hebrew acrostic of this name, Ramban, Rabenu Moshe Geronde, and Bonastru da Parta. He was born into a prominent family in Gerona in northern Spain in 1194 or 1195 and died in 1270 in the land of Israel where he had moved in 1267 to escape persecution following a public religious debate before King James I. Drazin tells us that the debate took place in 1263 in Barcelona and concerned the validity of Judaism versus Christianity. The apostate Jew Pablo Christiani contended that some of the midrashic stories that Nachmanides had insisted were true occurrences foreshadowed the birth and mission of Jesus. Nachmanides sidestepped Pablo’s trap by disclaiming his belief in the truthfulness and the authority of Midrashim, and said that they were only legends.

Unlike his predecessor, Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), whose philosophical ideas were based on systematic logic and conviction that humans are endowed with intelligence that they are obligated to use to orient and control their lives, Drazin says that Nachmanides downplayed the efficacy of the intellect and stressed the pervasive impact that the kabbalistic sefirot (the ten divine emanations) have upon humans. While Maimonides was a rationalist, Ramban’s basic ideas are rooted in the metalogical realm of the Kabbalah. Their manner of expression is the allusion, which only a select few were able to fathom throughout the generations. Nachmanides was a leading Sephardic Rabbi of his time as well as the leading medieval scholar.

Despite his brilliance and broad knowledge of Jewish sources, Drazin shows that many of Nachmanides’ biblical commentaries and the majority of his ‘Targum Onkelos’ interpretations are puzzling. Drazin reveals some unusual and generally unknown facts about Nachmanides’ thoughts. Drazin says, contrary to the thinking of most people, neither Rashi and Ibn Ezra nor Nachmanides felt obligated to offer only ancient rabbinical views of biblical passages. They felt free to present their own novel never-before-heard interpretations. Nachmanides stated that he would reveal the true plain meaning of the biblical text, but this was not his real goal. Nachmanides used the commentaries of Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra, and less frequently Maimonides as a springboard with which to contrast his own original mystical biblical interpretation. Drazin says that Nachmanides generally disagrees with these sages, often with strong disparaging words. He also cites the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, ‘Targum Onkelos,’ but always with admiration, deference, and respect. Yet, although he mentions ‘Targum Onkelos’ 230 times in his commentary to the Pentateuch, generally to support his own understanding of the scriptural text, more than half of his interpretations present problems. Nachmanides’ biblical interpretations are very frequently based on his own translation of words, nonsequiturs, and the reading of elaborately invented event into a single word itself does not imply.

Nachmanides is a very important and much-needed addition to the existing scholarly literature on the life and work of Nachmanides who has remained little known up until now. Nachmanides is an authentic and comprehensive study of Nachmanides. With his unmatched scholarly credentials as a historian of Judaism and Jewish scholars, Israel Drazin sheds a light on largely ignored and unknown aspects of Nachmanides’ works. In this meticulously researched study, Drazin shows that his mystical thinking on important issues such as medicine, magic, astrology, the land of Israel, life after death, and even God is not accepted by most modern Jews. Nachmanides is a must-read for the students and experts of Judaism. Both scholars and lay people will equally benefit from this readable scholarly work.

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