Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism


Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism by Moshe Halbertal [Translated by Daniel Tabak] (Yale University Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In this book, Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal presents us with an intellectual biography of the methodologies and ideas espoused by Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban), also known as Nachmanides. The first quarter of the book is devoted to explaining Nachmanides' halachic methodology, and how his approach differed from those of Provencal scholars in Southern France, the Tosafists in Northern France and Germany, and Maimonides in Andalusian Spain. The next half of the book comprises an exposition on Nachmanides’ Kabbalistic ideas and the implications of the positions he takes, while the final quarter of the book discusses Nachmanides’ view of the reasons behind the commandments.

In elaborating on Nachmanides’ halachic epistemology, Halbertal contrasts Nachmanides’ approach to “Torah from Sinai” with the very different approaches of Maimonides and the Geonim. Maimonides isolates a kernel of Sinaitic revelatory content, and understands the rest of the halachic corpus as the results of the rabbis’ creative process, as explicitly endorsed by the Bible. According to Maimonides, the notion of “dispute” (machloket) stems from different ways of inducing and deducing new conclusions from that core truth. On the other hand, the Geonim understand the true content of the Sinaitic Revelation to be somehow lost in transmission, such that "truth" is defined as that which matches the knowledge given by the Divine at Sinai. The body of halacha thus comprises of the results of the quest for rediscovering those lost truths and what they entailed; the Geonim accordingly understand that machloket comes from different ways of trying to restore the original Sinaitic truth.

Nachmanides rejects both of those positions. As Halbertal demonstrates, Nachmanides understands the Sinaitic Revelation in a broader sense to include all the possible options found within the corpus of rabbinic tradition, while maintaining that the Torah mandated that the majority of rabbis in each generation decide which viewpoints—out of a plurality of multiple legitimate viewpoints—to accept in practice and which, to reject. In Nachmanides’ view, machloket is built into the system of halacha, and does not derive from mistaken transmission or a subjective creative process. As opposed to Maimonides and the Geonim, Nachmanides would say that machloket is a feature, not a bug.

Throughout his halachic works, Nachmanides shows great reverence for the Geonim and, especially, for Alfasi. As a staunch conservative, Nachmanides generally strove to justify and preserve his predecessors’ rulings, even when he must resort to the innovative mental gymnastics typified by the Franco-German Tosafists in order to justify those positions. Nachmanides even penned works to defend Alfasi against the likes of the Baal HaMaor and the Raavad.

In explaining what drove Nachmanides to so strongly defend the Geonim and Alfasi’s rulings, Halbertal shows how Nachmanides used a sort of time-series analysis to introduce a distinction between Alfasi/Geonim, whom he branded Rishonim ("earlier sages"), versus Alfasi's students (like Ibn Migash) and grand-students (like Maimonides), whom he branded Acharonim ("latter-day sages"). Using such temporal distinctions to grade the authority of different halachic personalities remains an important tool in the halachic process to this very day.

Halbertal notes that some scholars argue that Nachmanides' role as a practical halachist informed his general worldview, and led him to take a more corporeal approach to Jewish eschatology. In other words, Nachmanides seems to give the human body special significance by explaining—contra Maimonides—that the Resurrection of the Dead will entail the soul returning to its body. The argument goes that Nachmanides' scholarship and prominence in the more "practical" realm of halacha led him to thinking that the physical body will retain its centrality even in the post-Messianic Era.

However, Halbertal explicitly disagrees with this approach, instead preferring to explain that Nachmanides' view of the significance of the human body stems from his Kabbalistic understanding of the human body and the human condition as reflecting as sort of Divine Drama played out in the cosmic cycles that we call history.

Interestingly, Halbertal makes a point of noting that Nachmanides sides with the Ashkenazic tradition of identifying “the final boss” to be vanquished in the End of Days as the Esau-Edomite-Roman-Christian axis. This contrasts with the view taken by Maimonides and Ibn Ezra that identifies the fourth beast in Daniel’s prophecy as representing the Ishmael-Islam typology.

In the Kabbalistic sections of this book, Halbertal dedicates much space to discussion of the perceived falling-out between the Sefirot of Tiferet and Shekhinah. As Halbertal understands Nachmanidean eschatology, the final reconciliation of those two conflicting elements within the so-called Godhead will only take place in the End of Days. He writes that “the pendulum of history swings from hardship to salvation and back in tandem with the complex movement between Shekhinah and Tiferet” (page 222).

In his commentary to the Pentateuch, Nachmanides famously writes that from God's perspective "hidden miracles" and "open miracles" are both equally miraculous, only that the former are less obvious to man because they are obscured by nature, while the latter are clearly supernatural phenomena. Halbertal tries to expand on this distinction by arguing that these two sorts of miracles are rooted in two different Sefirot (Kabbalistic mechanisms or modalities) by which God operates. After making this argument, he remarks: "Examining the miracles through a kabalistic lens, however, has afforded us the additional insight that the two kinds of miracle are profoundly and metaphysically distinct, and not only observationally so" (page 150).

That said, the heresy inherent in viewing miracles as the results of a cold, mechanical sefirotic process is that through such an understanding “God’s voluntary involvement dissipates” (page 156). In fact, this reviewer objects to the usage of the term “Godhead” which implies that God Himself is comprised of multiple, contradictory traits or attributes. Those contradictions only exist in man’s perception, but the metaphysical reality always remains that there is One God, always indivisible and unchanging (see Mal. 3:6). After all, Judaism is a monotheistic religion. What Halbertal fails to emphasize in these discussions is that it is precisely God who created the entire sefirotic structure and who continuously provides the energy that powers the chain-reactions therein. In order words, God’s will always remains the starting point from which everything percolates down into increasingly coarse/physical aspects; the Sefirot are simply the tools He created to channel His energies in certain ways.

Halbertal continues to clarify Nachmanides’ view of the special divine protection afforded to those righteous men who cleave unto God and to those who live in the Holy Land (which allows them to escape astrological fate and other natural mishaps) . He again explains those phenomena as results of an automatic process of connecting to one Sefirah to escape the effects of another, which harkens back to the Divine drama mentioned above. This essentially pagan understanding downplays the concept of Divine volition and reduces reward/punishment to pawns within a divine game playing out within the Godhead (see page 163–169). Halbertal again uses this model to argue that Nachmanides understands the various levels of prophecy to similarly be the “natural” results of the interplay between different parts of the Divine.

In explaining Nachmanides’ view of the reason(s) behind the commandments, Halbertal argues that there are two “unbridgeable” (page 284) layers of understanding. The exoteric approach presents the commandments as beneficial (in various palpable ways) to the individual and/or society at large, while the esoteric aspect presents the commandments as theurgic, or magical, ways of inducing God to reunite the various sefirot that are in conflict, and consequently shower His positive influence upon creation. This model deemphasizes the commandments as an expression of God’s will—a third factor which Nachmanides himself emphasizes when discussing the Tower of Babel and Golden Calf (which were theurgic in nature but contravened His will), as well as the Scapegoat (which was also theurgic, but reflected His divine will).

This book’s final chapter documents how and why Nachmanides took a middle-of-the-road approach concerning the controversy behind Kabbalah. Unlike the other pro-Maimonideans of his time, Nachmanides accepted and embraced Kabbalah; yet, on the other hand, unlike other contemporary Kabbalists (notably those operating in Gerona), Nachmanides did not agree that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah ought to be open to the public. In striking a happy medium between these approaches, Nachmanides limited the esoteric content in his own works to a few score Kabbalist “allusions” in his commentary to the Pentateuch. This showed his allegiance to the Kabbalist tradition with which he is often associated, but still allowed him to retain that esoteric tradition as a “secret.”

Nachmanides's legacy continued in subsequent generations through the Catalonian School, typified by the output of his students and grand-students, most notably Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and Nimmukei Yosef. Those scholars are more well-known for their novellae on the Talmud and Alfasi, but were also accomplished exegetes of Kabbalah and philosophy as well.

In his concluding chapter, Halbertal summarizes the different schools of thought that flourished in the thirteenth century and how Nachmanides drew from all of them. Whereas Nachmanides’ staunch defense of Maimonides might peg Nachmanides as Andalusian, his acceptance of Kabbalah might associate him more with the Provencal school. Whereas Nachmanides’ halachic methodology more closely follows that of the Franco-German Tosafists, his actual rulings reflect the Spanish tradition. These various cosmopolitan influences on Nachmanides led to Halbertal’s final analysis in characterizing the great sage as “the first European Jew” (page 320).

While this reviewer quibbles over the finer details of how to understand certain Kabbalistic aspects in which Nachmanides engages, the author Moshe Halbertal clearly displays an intimate familiarity with all of Nachmanides’ written works, plus much of his students’ and grand-students’ as well. All in all, this book provides the reader with a much-needed framework for understanding the context of almost everything Nachmanides ever discusses. Kudos to the translator Daniel Tabak as well for providing us with an English rendition of Halbertal's work in such a way that coins new theosophical terminology that can be applied to the study of the Ramban and beyond.