Rabbi Moses ben Nahman
As we have already seen, the Barcelona disputation of 1263 represented an effort on the part of the Christian initiators of that confrontation to test the new missionizing tactics developed by Friar Paul Christian. As a result, the Jewish leadership summoned by the king of Aragon to respond to the arguments of Friar Paul bore heavy responsibility for formulating and disseminating the requisite Jewish responses. The key figure, apparently singled out by the Jews themselves, was the venerable rabbi of Gerona, Moses ben Nahman. The technique of choosing one respected figure to respond was a calculated risk. The disadvantage was the inherent limitations in one man's capacity. Ranged against this consideration was the advantage that flowed from a unified, consistent, and coherent response to the new assault. Given the later experience at Tortosa, where a projected group response often degenerated into internal disagreements and backbiting, the choice at Barcelona was probably a good one. To be sure, Rabbi Moses' stature may have made the decision relatively easy.
By 1263, Rabbi Moses was already in his late sixties and had achieved unusual eminence among his coreligionists. Scholars of the past few decades have begun to investigate in depth his diversified oeuvre and to suggest that he was one of the most creative figures in medieval Jewish life. In introducing a volume of studies devoted to aspects of Nahmanides' wide-ranging achievement, Isadore Twersky asserts:
We may, with care and precision, with complete semantic accountability, affirm that Ramban was truly versatile, original, and profound. His creative contributions to the multiple disciplines which molded Judaism and through which the Jewish genius expressed itself were innovative and substantive, intense and penetrating. Furthermore, his massive and original literary oeuvre was historically influential and vibrant; his great song continued to reverberate through the ages. Nahmanides is not merely of arcane or antiquarian significance—an interesting figure whose works should be salvaged and studied in compliance with the rules of the scholarly game; he appears on the historical scene as a towering figure whose resplendent multidimensional achievement was formative and remained resonant—constantly relevant, exciting and stimulating, eliciting admiration and amplification and, of course, dissent and qualification. His works were always alive and influential.
Beyond his sheer intellectual power, Rabbi Moses offered additional virtues to his fellow Jews at this critical juncture. A number of decades earlier, during a period of concern over the writings of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (a concern that laid bare a number of fundamental tensions in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Jewish life), Rabbi Moses ben Nahman had played an important conciliatory role. Thus, in 1263, he had already established his credentials as a man of intellectual ability and social sensitivity. Both qualities were essential for Jewish success at Barcelona. In addition, if we are to believe Nahmanides himself, he already enjoyed the favor of the King of Aragon.
Rabbi Moses bore the heavy responsibility of adequately formulating a public Jewish response to the new missionizing arguments of Friar Paul. He had to address simultaneously two different audiences—Friar Paul and the Dominicans and (more important) his Jewish confreres. Nahmanides was attempting to persuade Friar Paul and the Dominicans of the fundamental flaws in their new missionizing argumentation, hoping to convince them to abandon it. Such success would represent optimal Jewish achievement under the trying cir-
cumstances of 1263. His second goal was to prove to his fellow Jews that the new missionizing arguments were as unconvincing as the old. In pursuing this second objective, Rabbi Moses had to respond first to the substance of the new argumentation and find adequate counterthrusts. At the same time, he also indulged—at least in his written report—in an ad hominem assault on Friar Paul Christian, hoping to show his Jewish audience that their adversary was unlettered and unskilled and thus, by implication, his arguments were void of significance. It seems doubtful that Rabbi Moses could have denigrated Friar Paul in the public manner that he reports; nonetheless, this was an important element in his overall strategy.
The main lines of Nahmanides' argumentation took several directions. The most fundamental but least efficient tactic was to contest the interpretation of individual rabbinic passages advanced by Friar Paul. Let us note two examples of such argumentation.
Friar Paul's opening gambit was to cite the traditional Genesis 49:10 and to claim that the disappearance of Jewish political authority clearly meant that the Messiah foretold in Jacob's utterance had already come. Nahmanides' predictable response was to argue that Jacob's statement focused on the promise of eventual rule to be vested in the tribe of Judah. The verse in no way, according to Rabbi Moses, obviated the suspension of Judah's rule for periods of time, and indeed such suspensions of Judean rule had already taken place prior to early Christianity. Despite all suspensions, Jacob's prophecy indicated that rule would eventually be vested in the tribe of Judah. All of this was standard. The novelty of Friar Paul's approach lay in his next move, in which he argued, on the basis of rabbinic tradition, that no such suspension had ever taken place in early Jewish history and thus the current and obvious lack of Jewish political authority can only mean that the Messiah has come. To prove this contention, Friar Paul adduced the exegesis on Genesis 49:10 found in the Babylonian Talmud. According to this rabbinic statement, the scepter of the verse refers to the exilarchs of Babylonia and the legislator to the patriarchs of Palestine. Thus, concludes Friar Paul, rabbinic understanding of the verse shows unbroken political authority from early Israelite history on, with a break occuring only once and clearly associated with the advent of the Messiah. Rabbi Moses contends in response that Friar Paul has simply not understood the meaning of the talmudic passage.
I shall inform you that the intention of the rabbis of blessed memory was never to explain the verse except in terms of actual kingship. However,
you fail to understand law and halachah, [comprehending] only a bit of the aggadot with which you have become familiar. This matter which the sages mentioned relates to the fact that, in narrowly legal terms, no one should judge a case by himself and be free of liability, unless he received authorization from the patriarch who is like a king. They said that, during the time of exile, since there are those who are of the seed of the monarchy and who enjoy some authority from gentile kings, like the exilarchs in Babylonia and the patriarchs in Palestine, they have the right to confer authorization. This practice was in force for the sages of the Talmud for more than four hundred years subsequent to Jesus. But it was not the sense of the sages of the Talmud that [this was a reference to] the seed of the scepter and legislator which are from Judah. But the prophet promised Judah that kingship in Israel would be his, and the promise was made of complete kingship.
Rabbi Moses's charge is that Friar Paul has distorted the meaning of the rabbinic text, taking it far beyond the narrow legal framework intended by the rabbis.
At a later point in the disputation, Friar Paul introduced rabbinic exegesis on Isaiah 52:13.
Behold your sages said, concerning the Messiah, that he is more exalted than the angels. Now this can only be a reference to Jesus, who is both messiah and divinity. He brought [as proof] what is said in the aggadah: " '[He] shall prosper, be exalted, and be raised to great heights.' He shall prosper beyond Abraham, be exalted beyond Moses, and be raised to greater heights than the serving angels."
Nahmanides suggests in rebuttal that, because of his lack of knowledge of rabbinic literature, Friar Paul has simply misread the rabbinic statement.
Our sages say this regularly of all the saintly—the saintly are greater than the serving angels. Indeed Moses said to an angel: "Where I sit, you have no right to stand." With regard to all Israel they said: "Israel is more beloved than the serving angels." Rather, the intention of the author of this aggadah concerning the Messiah was as follows. Abraham converted the peoples and preached to them the faith of [the Holy One] blessed be he and disputed Nimrod and was unafraid of him. Moses did yet more, since he stood in his insignificance in opposition to Pharoah, the great and wicked king, and showed him no quarter with respect to the terrible plagues with which he afflicted him and removed Israel from his grasp. The serving angels are deeply involved in the matter of redemption. . . . But the Messiah will do more than all of them. "His mind will be elevated
in the ways of the Lord." He will come and command the pope and all the kings of the nations in the name of God: "Let my people go that they may worship me." He will perform great and many signs and will be utterly unafraid of them. He will stand in the city of Rome until he destroys it.
Again, Nahmanides suggests a misunderstanding of the true meaning and intent of the rabbinic statement adduced by Friar Paul. Here the failure is alleged to be a reflection of the friar's woeful lack of knowledge of rabbinic literature, leading him to misunderstand commonly used imagery.
This first tactic was both uneconomical—in that it required separate argumentation on each specific rabbinic citation—and somewhat problematic. Exegesis of rabbinic statements and counter-exegesis can quickly bog down, although this ultimately was advantageous to Rabbi Moses and not to Friar Paul. Rabbi Moses took a number of approaches that were broader and more efficient.
The first of these pressed a line already noted in Rabbi Isaac ben Yedaiah—the contention that rabbinically held Christological views are inherently implausible. This was, in fact, Nahmanides' opening ploy, even before Friar Paul cited his first text. Friar Paul claimed that numerous statements submerged in rabbinic literature, when properly combined, present a picture of the Messiah that Jesus of Nazareth could readily be seen to fulfill. The obvious problem with such a claim is that it presupposes a remarkable level of insensitivity on the part of generations of Jewish scholars; it means that none of them properly understood texts with which they were deeply absorbed. Nahmanides was quick to pounce on this issue.
Let him answer me on this matter. Does he wish to say that the sages of the Talmud believed that Jesus was the Messiah and believed that he was fully human and truly divine, as believed by the Christians? But it is well known that the incident of Jesus took place at the time of the Second Temple and that he was born and killed prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. However, the sages of the Talmud lived after this destruction, sages like Rabbi Akiva and his associates. Those who codified the Mishnah, Rabbi and Rabbi Nathan, lived long after the destruction of the Second Temple—all the more so Rav Ashi, who composed and wrote the Talmud and who lived approximately four hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple. If these sages believed in the messianic role of Jesus, that he was truly the Messiah and that his faith and religion were true, and if they wrote these things from which Friar Paul
intends to prove this, then how did they remain in the Jewish faith and in their former tradition? For they were surely Jews, remained in the Jewish faith, and died Jews.
Here Rabbi Moses expresses the problem in extreme fashion, asking how the Jewish sages could have believed in Jesus and remained Jews. In fact, however, Friar Paul was not claiming that these sages believed in Jesus; he was arguing that their utterances reveal a view of the Messiah that Jesus, in fact, fulfilled. Rabbi Moses addresses this subtler view as well.
Why did they not apostasize and convert to the religion of Jesus as Friar Paul did? He understood from their words that the faith of the Christians is true—heaven forfend—and went and apostasized on account of their words. But these sages themselves and their students who learned Torah from them lived and died Jews, as we are today.
This formulation is more to the point. If there are such clear implications in the teaching of the rabbis, then why were none of them or their followers attuned to them? The possibility of such corporate insensitivity is very remote. Nonetheless, since it is possible, although unlikely, Friar Paul insisted on examining the issues on their merit. While this argument was not successful in obviating the debate and derailing Friar Paul's effort, this claim of Nahmanides remained an important point of defense addressed to his Jewish audience. It suggested that this entire new line of Dominican argumentation was fundamentally fallacious.
In many ways, Nahmanides' most effective weapon at Barcelona was to insist, from the outset, on direct discussion of the Christological implications of the rabbinic dicta advanced by Friar Paul. Rather than debate the messianic implications of these rabbinic statements in the abstract, Nahmanides introduced Jesus at every turn. Sensing a serious weakness in many of the claims of Friar Paul, Rabbi Moses pressed the issue repeatedly, urging that the rabbinic statements cited be juxtaposed to the historical Jesus.
The Latin report contains an interesting reference to this ploy.
There in the palace of the lord king, the said Jew was asked whether the Messiah, who is called Christ, had come. He responded with the assertion that he has not come. He added that the Messiah and Christ are the same and that, if it could be proved to him that the messiah had come, it could be believed to apply to none other than him, namely, Jesus Christ,
in whom the Christians believe, since no one else has come who has dared to assume for himself this title nor has there been anyone else who has been believed to be Christ.
Nahmanides did, in all likelihood, say this. The statement was not wrung out of him, however; it was exploited by him as a means of refuting Friar Paul's contentions.
To put this line of Jewish rebuttal in context, let us note one of the earliest exchanges. When Friar Paul adduced the well-known story that tells of the simultaneous destruction of the Second Temple and birth of the Messiah, Nahmanides agrees to accept the story provisionally, "for it affords proof for my case." He goes on to spell this out.
Behold it says that, on the day of destruction, after the Temple was destroyed, on that very day the Messiah was born. Thus, Jesus is not the Messiah as you say, for he was born and killed prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. Indeed his birth was in fact approximately two hundred years prior to the destruction of the Temple, and even according to your reckoning it was seventy-three years earlier.
According to Rabbi Moses, this silenced Friar Paul. However, an observer stepped in to press Friar Paul's strategy.
The debate does not now concern Jesus. The question is only if the Messiah has come or not. You say that he has not come and this book of yours says that he has come.
Here the two strategies are clearly contrasted: the Christian effort to abstract deliberately and create a broad portrait of the Messiah and the Jewish attempt to introduce Jesus immediately and concretely. There can be little doubt that this tactic of contrived abstraction was artificial and weak. Since the ultimate goal was to convince Jews of the truth of Christianity, the artificiality of this tactic made this line of Jewish response particularly telling. Again, for Rabbi Moses's Jewish audience, this was an effective rebuttal, and, in fact, it is clear that the Dominicans absorbed this criticism and made necessary alterations in their approach as a result.
Let us note one more instance of Rabbi Moses's insistence on introducing the historical figure of Jesus. Here, the Jewish spokesman goes beyond the rabbinic texts cited by Friar Paul and beyond the limits imposed on Jewish rebuttal. It is this exchange and Rabbi Moses's record of it that in all likelihood most aroused subsequent Dominican
ire. In his long opening remarks on the second day, Rabbi Moses returned to the issue of the historical Jesus. When badgered by Friar Paul about whether he believed that the Messiah had come, Nahmanides replied:
No. Rather I believe and know that he has not come. There has been no one who has claimed or concerning whom it has been claimed that he is the Messiah, except for Jesus. And I cannot believe that he is the Messiah. For the prophet had said concerning the Messiah: "He shall rule from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth." Jesus, however, had no rule; rather, during his lifetime, he was pursued by his enemies and forced to hide from them. Ultimately he fell into their hands and could not save himself. How then could he redeem all of Israel? All the more so after his death he had no rule. For Roman rule does not come from him. Rather, even before they believed in him, the city of Rome ruled the world. After they took on his faith, they lost much power. Now the followers of Mohammed have greater rule than the Romans. Furthermore the prophet says that, in the times of the Messiah, "no longer will they need to teach one another to know the Lord; all of them shall know me." He says: "For as the waters fill the sea, so shall the land be filled with knowledge of the Lord." He also says: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war." However, from the days of Jesus to the present, all the world has been full of violence and robbery. Indeed the Christians spill blood more than the other peoples, while at the same time they are sexually promiscuous. My lord the king, how difficult it would be for you and your knights if they could "never again know war." The prophet further says concerning the Messiah: "His mouth shall be a rod to smite the land." The rabbis explain in the book of lore in Friar Paul's possession: "They report to King Messiah, 'A certain state has rebelled against you.' He then says, 'Let the locust come and destroy it.' They report to him, 'A certain district has rebelled against you.' He says, 'Let the locust come and decimate it.' This, however, did not happen with Jesus.
What Nahmanides has done again is refuse to allow Friar Paul to reconstruct piecemeal his portrait of the rabbis' Messiah. He insists on introjecting the historical Jesus and arguing that he did not fulfill the criteria established for the Messiah. While he closes this lengthy statement with a reference to rabbinic utterance and thus returns to the ground rules established for the confrontation, in fact, Rabbi Moses went beyond the established guidelines and argued, along lines we have already encountered, that Jesus did not fulfill biblical criteria
either—a statement that undoubtedly aroused the ire of his Dominican listeners.
Rabbi Moses used one last ploy. While the most dramatic and potentially effective of his tactics, it was also the most problematic. From early in the discussion, Nahmanides claimed that belief in rabbinic aggadot was in no sense binding and mandatory, in effect, emasculating the innovative argumentation of Friar Paul. If rabbinic aggadot are not authoritative, then biblical proofs buttressed by rabbinic exegesis and further proofs drawn from freestanding talmudic dicta lose all force. It must be remembered that ultimately both Friar Paul and Nahmanides were addressing a Jewish audience, an audience for which broad disavowal of rabbinic aggadot would be—as it was for Nahmanides himself—difficult to accept. This last argument, directed forcefully at Friar Paul and his associates in the hope that it might discourage them from pursuing this argumentation any further, also had significant but problematic implications for Jewish auditors.
It is interesting that Nahmanides describes his utilization of this tactic as tentative at the outset. When Friar Paul introduced, early on the first day, the aggadah concerning the destruction of the Second Temple and the birth of the Messiah, Rabbi Moses depicts the following exchange.
I responded and said: "I do not believe in this aggadah, however, it is proof for my views." Then he cried out and said: "Behold he denies their texts." I said: "Truly I do not believe that the Messiah was born on the day of the destruction of the Second Temple. Thus either this aggadah is not true or it has another meaning related to the mysteries of the sages. However, I shall accept it literally, as you have suggested, for it affords proof for my case."
On the next day of the discussion, perhaps realizing that the challenge was in fact a serious one and that the tactic of negating the authority of aggadah might have to be resorted to more extensively, Nahmanides elaborated on this sensitive issue. Moreover, the Christian criticism of Nahmanides' dismissal of authoritative texts necessitated a more nuanced presentation.
Know that we have three categories of texts. One is the Bible, in which all of us believe completely. The second is called Talmud and consists of a commentary on the commandments of the Torah. For in the Torah there are six hundred and thirteen commandments, and there is not one of them which is not explained in the Talmud. We believe in the Talmud
regarding explanation of the commandments. In addition, we have a third text which is called midrash, that is to say sermons, such as when the bishop stands and delivers a sermon and one of the listeners enjoys it and writes it down. He who believes in this text, well and good; he who does not believe in it does no harm. Thus we have sages who wrote that the Messiah will not be born until close to the time of redemption, when he will come to take us out of exile. Therefore I do not believe in this text, where it says that he was born on the day of the destruction of the Second Temple. We also call this text aggadah, i.e., tales, that is to say that they are only stories told by one person to another.
In this speech, Nahmanides attempts to portray aggadah as unrelated to both the Bible and the Talmud. He depicts it as a literature of sermons and tales, copied down rather haphazardly. This is obviously not an accurate portrait of aggadah; Rabbi Moses is attempting, after all, to contrast sharply the authority of the Bible and Talmud (really halachah) with the lack of authority of the aggadah, all in an effort to undercut the basic approach of Friar Paul. If Nahmanides had been willing to espouse this view wholeheartedly and consistently, Friar Paul's challenge would have been totally repudiated. To the extent that Rabbi Moses was ready to fall back on this tactic, it was the most effective weapon at his disposal. Clearly, however, it was a ploy that was utilized sparingly and hesitantly.
The reaction of the Latin report to this important strategem is revealing.
Although he did not wish to confess the truth unless forced by authoritative texts, when he was unable to explain these authoritative texts, he said publicly that he did not believe those authoritative texts which were adduced against him—although found in ancient and authentic books of the Jews—because they were, he claimed, sermons, in which their teachers often lied for the purpose of exhorting the people. As a result, he denied both the teachers and the sacred writings of the Jews.
This description is not far from that of the Hebrew account. It differs only in two major respects. First, it turns Nahmanides' tactic into a ploy of desperation, which it was not in the Hebrew narrative. Second, it differs in its evaluation of the repudiation of aggadah. While the denial of aggadic texts was surely a difficult step for Rabbi Moses, it was far from an impossible one. For the Christian reporter, however, steeped in his own tradition's attitudes toward auctoritates, it was an unthinkable blasphemy. Nahmanides himself attributes such
impassioned recoiling to Friar Paul Christian. After describing his first statement of disbelief in an aggadic text, he depicts Friar Paul's violent reaction: "Then he cried out and said, 'Behold he denies their texts.' " It is quite likely that this is an accurate report; the same shock is reflected in the later Latin account of the proceedings. To the medieval Christian mind, particularly to a Dominican mind, such treatment of auctoritates was unthinkable.
The issue of Nahmanides' own view of the repudiation of aggadic statements requires a bit more analysis. The general tendency of those who have dealt with the position espoused by Rabbi Moses at Barcelona has been to see his denial of aggadah as a stance taken out of dire necessity and inconsistent with the personal attitudes of a thinker who is, after all, viewed as one of the giants of early kabbalistic speculation. Recently, Bernard Septimus has argued for a far more nuanced view of the Nahmanidean intellectual position in general and his stance toward aggadah in particular.
Another integrating perspective on Nahmanides is to view him as a genius at intellectual crossroads. At Nahmanides' birth, the Tosafists had just completed their revolution of talmudic studies; Kabbalah had recently emerged into the light of history in Provence; and Maimonides, the greatest representative of the Andalusian tradition, was completing his career in exile. All of these traditions converged at the turn of the twelfth century in Catalonia during a period of relative security and prosperity, releasing a remarkable burst of creative energy and versatile achievement. Nahmanides was the leading figure in this little Catalan renaissance.
Septimus proceeds from this general assessment to important specific observations with regard to Nahmanides' position on the authority of aggadah.
Although Nahmanides' attitude toward the nonhalachic material in classical rabbinic literature in highly complex and undoubtedly more reverent than Ibn Ezra's, he almost invariably attaches the term "aggadah" to those interpretations about which he seems uneasy, which make sense only when interpreted non-literally, or whose seriousness and authority he is calling into question. "Aggadah" can even be rejected in favor of kabbalistic interpretation. There is also support in Nahmanides' usage for the linkage of the term "aggadah" and popular homiletics—including one striking instance of an original interpretation proposed by Nahmanides "in the manner of aggadah." By contrast, a position referred to by Nahmanides as "the words of our masters" (divrei rabbo-
tenu ) is treated with respect and seriousness of a different order. The term "rabbotenu" tends to suggest a somewhat more weighty consensus. Nahmanides' tendency may therefore be akin to those geonic and Andalusian authors who deny absolute authority to individual aggadot while recognizing the more binding character of rabbinic teachings that represent a classical consensus. I wish to stress, however, that, though the term "rabbotenu" generally accompanies respectful treatment, it does not imply acceptance as a binding last word.
The implication of this careful analysis is that Rabbi Moses ben Nahman was not being unfaithful to his general position in taking the stance that he did at Barcelona. Indeed, a closer look at his own statements there corroborates the conclusions of Septimus. Rabbi Moses does introduce into his discussion two identifiable bases on which specific aggadot might be repudiated. In his longer statement, delivered at the opening of the second day of discussion, he notes a significant issue with regard to the authority of aggadah, namely, the reality of dissonant aggadot. Thus, after citing again the rabbinic statement that identifies temporally the destruction of the Temple and the birth of the Messiah, he indicates that "we have sages who wrote that the Messiah will not be born until close to the time of redemption." Given the reality of unresolved differences of opinion in the realm of aggadah, there is nothing unthinkable in a decision by Nahmanides to reject one aggadic tradition in favor of another diametrically opposed to the first. In his earlier statement on the first day, he opens yet another avenue for repudiating certain aggadot, at least, understood simplistically. Again, with regard to the aggadah mentioned a moment ago, he says: "Thus either this aggadah is not true or it has another meaning related to the mysteries of the sages." Thus, Nahmanides does not take a position inimical to his own views as expressed elsewhere or unthinkable in a traditionalist context. To be sure, put as bluntly as formulated in Barcelona, his view had to encounter some resistance in sectors of the Jewish world (as indeed it did); it was in no sense, however, as unthinkable a position as Friar Paul and some moderns have made it out to be.
Again, in considering this issue, the reality of two disparate audiences noted at the outset must be firmly borne in mind. For his Jewish listeners and readers, Nahmanides was advancing a position with regard to the specific aggadah that juxtaposes the destruction of the Temple with the birth of the Messiah which was perfectly acceptable and respectable. Rejecting such a statement on the grounds that it
conflicted with other aggadic pronouncements or on the grounds that it must have a hidden meaning is fully consonant with Nahmanides' general stance on aggadah and with a broad traditionalist perspective. The formulation presented in Rabbi Moses's long speech opening the proceedings of the second day is clearly not designed for a Jewish audience. It represents an extreme and somewhat skewed statement—still not blatantly inaccurate—designed to address the Christian listeners and to convince them that the entire new approach proposed by Friar Paul would be utterly unavailing.
In sum, the defense of Rabbi Moses—intended to discourage the Dominicans in their future efforts and to reassure his fellow Jews—was intelligent and diversified. It followed four major directions: (1) intense and specific battling over each and every rabbinic source adduced by Friar Paul; (2) dismissal of the implausible notion that the rabbis held Christological views without understanding their implications; (3) refusal to allow Friar Paul to build his case in the abstract and insistence on testing individual rabbinic texts against the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth; and (4) repudiation of certain aggadic statements. To these lines of defense explicitly pursued at Barcelona we must add one more, implicit in all likelihood in some of Rabbi Moses's statements during the confrontation and explicit in his Hebrew report on the proceedings. This last tactic was the consistent discrediting of Friar Paul for his general lack of intelligence as well as for his more specific lack of knowledge of the rabbinic literature on the basis of which he was claiming to build his new case.
It is not easy to assess these defensive efforts. If Rabbi Moses had hoped to argue so effectively that the new missionizing argumentation would be thoroughly discredited, then he had to be disappointed. As we have already seen, the new missionizing went on vigorously. However, some of his arguments did result in a rethinking of issues in the Dominican camp and in a refinement of the new approach, as seen strikingly in the Pugio Fidei. While certainly not the goal of Rabbi Moses, this refinement is a tribute to his acuity. More important from his own point of view, Nahmanides did crystallize a number of cogent Jewish responses, which could be utilized by Jews everywhere in meeting the new Christian claims. He performed the extremely important task of meeting the new challenge directly, blunting its immediate impact, and setting guidelines for his fellow Jews as they prepared to meet similar assaults.
Unfortunately, we are not well informed as to subsequent Jewish activities and attitudes. Two major items in this ongoing response to the new missionizing have survived. The first is Nahmanides' own report of the proceedings. This detailed narrative must certainly be seen as an element in the postdebate activity on the part of the Jews. It was composed by Rabbi Moses of Gerona for a number of purposes: first and foremost, to serve as a guide to the proselytizing thrusts of Friar Paul and to provide answers that might be given in the face of these thrusts. Nahmanides was thus compelled to write a highly detailed description. While no such comprehensive manual was required—for the moment—from the Christian side, there was no certainty as to the subsequent targets of Friar Paul's efforts. The Jews of Spain, and indeed of all Europe, had to be informed of the nature of the new challenge and of the lines of defense adumbrated by a distinguished Jewish thinker. That is why the account penned by Rabbi Moses is lengthy and explicit; it is also why the Jewish replies occupy so much more space than the Christian questions. We may surely assume that Friar Paul did not limit himself to the brief statements depicted by Rabbi Moses. As we shall see, Nahmanides' account was utilized by the Jews of this period as precisely the kind of manual its author intended it to be.
There is, at the same time, an interesting note of historical narrative in the account of Nahmanides. Rabbi Moses provides more than simply a manual of Jewish responses. He transforms his report of the confrontation into an absorbing tale replete with villains, heroes, and drama. This transformation had a serious purpose. As we have already noted, part of Nahmanides' technique was to discredit the Christian protagonist as a means of rebutting his arguments. The dramatic quality of the narrative, particularly its vituperative depiction of the Dominican and the contrasting self-portrait of the Jewish spokesman, serves to convey to the Jewish reader the sense that the new Christian argumentation could hardly be taken seriously.
There seems to be, finally, a note of personal apologetics as well. Both the Latin and Hebrew reports mention the rabbi's efforts to halt the proceedings, undertaken on the advice of Christians and Jews alike. According to the Latin account, this involved some sharp criticism of Rabbi Moses by his coreligionists; Nahmanides himself omits any reference to such criticism. In any case, the confrontation was a trying experience, and it is not surprising that the protagonist of the
minority would have wished to present the events in such a way as to refute any actual or potential criticism. The personal apologetics of Rabbi Moses are reflected in a number of ways. First, he attempts to portray himself as self-confident and in command throughout. His answers are long and thorough, while the questions posed by his rival are brief and sketchy. Second, while emphasizing throughout that the debate was forced on him, at the same time, he tries to show himself as less than totally passive. We have noted earlier an outstanding example of this in his depiction of the establishment of the agenda. We have suggested that the role imputed by Nahmanides to himself is a purely fanciful one and that even his description of the items on the agenda is distorted in such a way as to mute the evidence of Christian initiative and control. Thus, Rabbi Moses seems, on the one hand, to be presenting himself as disputing against his will and, on the other, to be portraying himself as retaining a measure of active power. Related to this is the ambiguous description of the relationship between King James I and the Jewish spokesman. Nahmanides goes to great lengths to emphasize the positive relationship between himself and the monarch. As has often been noted, he has the king calling a halt to the proceedings after the fourth day and observing, "I have never seen a man whose case is wrong argue it as well as you have done." More striking yet is the Jewish sage's claim that he was unwilling to expound publicly the full anti-Roman (i.e., anti-Christian) content of a particular aggadah but that he did explain it to the king privately. This description of a warm and friendly relationship is belied somewhat by Nahmanides' own depiction of the formal behavior of the king, who time after time refuses peremptorily the requests of the rabbi. Again, this ambiguity seems to flow from Rabbi Moses's desire to paint himself as both reluctant and aggressive, forced to debate against his will but enjoying the good graces of his sovereign.
There are thus both public and private purposes to the composition of Nahmanides' report. One further source reveals that this Hebrew record did, in fact, serve as the kind of manual its author had intended. Subsequent to his preaching efforts in Spain, Friar Paul Christian, in the late 1260s, turned his attention to the realm of King Louis IX of France. Arriving during the monarch's preparations for his second and final crusading venture, Friar Paul took full advantage of the heightened fervor of the royal court to press a number of his programs, in particular, his missionizing campaign. Chance survival of an interesting Hebrew document shows the Jews of northern France
benefitting from the experience and narrative of Rabbi Moses ben Nahman. The Hebrew document introduces itself as follows:
Be painstaking in the study of Torah, and this is what you should respond to the unbeliever. Behold now, in the year 1269, an apostate from Montpellier has arrived, revealing the secrets of the Torah and reviling the aggadot of our Talmud. He had already undertaken a debate with Rabbi Moses ben Nahman before the King of Aragon in Barcelona.
Following this introduction, there is a résumé of Rabbi Moses' report, giving Friar Paul's arguments and Nahmanides' responses. The northern French Jew who fashioned this résumé in effect urged his fellow Jews to acquaint themselves with these claims and counterclaims so as to prepare themselves for the anticipated sermons of Friar Paul. Having said this, we must further observe that this Jewish leader was superficial in his reading of Nahmanides' text. All he did was copy a series of arguments and counterarguments. There is, for example, no clear understanding of Friar Paul's strategem of deliberate abstraction and thus no full appreciation of Rabbi Moses's insistence on introducing Jesus of Nazareth at every turn. Yet more interesting is the refusal of this northern French Jew to follow Nahmanides' lead in disclaiming the authority of aggadic texts. At no point in the résumé is this tactic mentioned or recommended. Divergences notwithstanding, it is clear that Nahmanides' account was in fact widely known and that it did serve as a manual for rebutting the contentions of Friar Paul. The Jews who read his report came to share his view that the challenge posed by the formerly Jewish Dominican preacher was a formidable one; they also shared his sense that the lines of defense adumbrated at Barcelona had proven to be effective and could be usefully imitated by other Jews subjected to the new missionizing argumentation.