The Thought of the Ramban - Introduction

  • Rav Ezra Bick



            In this course, we will be studying the philosophic work of the Ramban, R. Moshe b. Nachman, sometimes known by the Latin name Nachmanides. The course will be text-based; that is, each session we will examine selected texts of the Ramban in order to understand his opinions. I will, each time, assign the texts for the following lesson, to give you a chance to learn them on your own and try and develop an opinion about their meaning and significance.  The course will be sent every other week.


            Before we begin our readings, I would like to present a short introduction, about the Ramban and his thought, and its relationship with the course of Jewish Philosophy.




The Ramban was born in 1194 and died in 1270, in Catalonia, Spain. He was born in Gerona, a small city north of Barcelona. He was, in many respects, the most influential figure of Spanish Jewry, and one of the major figures of Jewish history.


            The Ramban's influence was felt in almost all areas of Jewish scholarship. His Commentary on the Torah is second only to that of Rashi in popularity and influence, and since it contains not only explanations of the meaning of verses but also discussions of the significance of the verses and whole sections, is in fact the starting point for all extended discussions of Torah commentary. As a Talmudist, the Ramban was the most important figure in medieval Spain, and he is referred to by later generations as "Rabeinu hagadol," our great master. He was the first (together with his cousin Rabeinu Yona) to combine the analytical methods of the Tosafot with the scholarship of the Spanish school, and his extensive commentaries and novella on Talmud are studied to this day. The commentary to the Torah, as well as other writings, includes wide-ranging and extensive expositions of philosophic positions, which form the basis of the more elaborate and systematic systems of the later Spanish period. And finally, the Ramban was the first major rabbinic authority to promote the study of Kabbala, and he was considered by many to be the "father of the Kabbala."


            The thirteenth century, over which the figure of the Ramban towers, was in many ways the crucible of modern Judaism. The development of Kabbala, which was to dominate Jewish thought for the next five centuries, is directly rooted in the Ramban's writings. The interaction, friction, and clash of Aristotelian rationalism, under the monumental influence of the Rambam, and traditional thought, a process in which the influence of the Ramban was decisive, was at its height in those years.


            We are going to be examining the Jewish philosophy and religious thought of the Ramban. However, there is a basic difference between studying the Ramban and other famous Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages. Basically, it would be incorrect to call the Ramban a Jewish philosopher. This is first of all true concerning the form of his work, in that the Ramban did not write a systematic work of philosophy. His ideas are primarily embedded within his Commentary to the Torah, which makes it difficult to extract a systematic philosophy. But on a deeper level, the Ramban can be characterized as a commentator not only on the literary level, but inherently as well. His ideas consist of comments, not necessarily organized into overarching theories. This is reflected not only in the unorganized nature of the work, but also in the ideas themselves. His approach is piecemeal, solving one problem at a time, building up a picture slowly. Even in the end, even if we succeed in extracting all the varied strands of thought from the enormous corpus of work, I doubt that we will be able to construct a "system." As I shall try and show, this is not so much a failing of the Ramban, but a feature of his thought. The Ramban's thought is characterized by uncertainty, by a feeling that we are trying to grasp that which is way beyond our comprehension, by the belief that we are able to collect loose ends of a great picture, but never able to gather up the whole and comprehend it as a complete and coherent picture. This facing towards the incomprehensible is a basic philosophic position of the Ramban, but obviously not one conducive to lengthy and explicit philosophizing.


            This will dictate the manner of our study as well. Each week, we will examine a different topic in the Ramban, based on a select group of readings I will assign. The order of these topics is not based on a systematic exposition of the Ramban's positions, since such a system does not exist, or at least, it is not explicit. I hope that in the course of our survey, we will begin to discern the patterns of thought that characterize the Ramban, but, at least in the beginning, that will not be the dominant interest of our study.



B. Background


            In some ways, it might be said that the Ramban's philosophy is a reaction to the Rambam. It is undoubtedly true that there is a continued polemic with the Rambam in the Ramban's writings. The first Maimonidean controversy broke out in the Ramban's youth, and he attempted to play a moderating influence in it, writing to both sides and trying to lead them both, unsuccessfully, to a position of compromise. The Ramban's cousin and close colleague, R. Yona of Gerona, played an important role in that controversy, being squarely in the anti-Maimonidean camp. While it is true that the Ramban often sharply criticizes the Rambam, as we shall see, he also speaks of him with the highest respect, and in fact borrows both language and ideas from him. We shall naturally return to this issue in the course of our studies, but I wish to emphasize at this point that the assumption that we should divide Jewish philosophers into rationalists, followers of the Rambam, and anti-rationalists, such as the Ramban, is highly oversimplified and is clearly inapplicable to a figure as complicated as the Ramban. I think, and we shall see examples of this in the future, that at least in the Ramban's mind, he did not see himself as engaged in a campaign to overturn the Maimonidean system. The Ramban was by nature eclectic, and did not tend to see issues as black and white, or as requiring a sharp choice between one of two possibilities. Much of the Rambam's philosophy appeared to him to be correct, AS FAR AS PHILOSOPHY COULD BE CORRECT, though a deeper understanding, in his eyes, would be based on additional principles. This led him to disagree strongly with positions of the Rambam that would block the other insights that he was interested him, while adopting those positions that could serve as a basis for, what is in his eyes, the next level. I therefore think that it is more accurate to say that the Ramban is engaged in an ongoing DIALOGUE with the Rambam, not necessarily a friendly one, but not simply an adversarial one either.


            A point I just slipped in to the discussion, the idea that the Ramban believes in multiple levels of meaning, is an important one, which we shall discuss in the near future.


            In any event, the Rambam's writings are an important source for the Ramban, one to which he constantly refers.


            In his commentary to the Torah, the Ramban makes constant use of the commentary of Rashi, but rarely in the context of a philosophical issue. The Ibn Ezra, the other Torah commentary to which the Ramban habitually refers, is somewhat more important, but not nearly on the level of the Rambam.


            The other sources of the Ramban derive from his wide-ranging knowledge of midrash, of which he is a master. Unlike the Rambam, who frankly expresses his debt to Aristotle, and conceives of himself as explaining Judaism according to the principles of philosophy, the Ramban sees himself as being based completely on Chazal. This follows from his self-conceived role as a COMMENTATOR rather than a philosopher, but also from the extreme conservatism of his understanding of Judaism. The Ramban views Torah as KNOWLEDGE, as we shall shortly see, and the knowledge of Torah as the key to understanding. Rabbinic commentary, which is Torah she-beal peh, the orally transmitted Torah deriving from Sinai, is therefore the most important source of understanding and meaning.


            The final source for the Ramban is the Kabbala. The Ramban is the first person to publish and reveal the Kabbala to the general public, though, as we shall see, he did this in a manner that did not, in fact, disclose very much. Because we know very little about the actual contents of the Kabbala of the Ramban, and because the Ramban explicitly states that we can understand his thought without knowing the "secrets" of the Kabbala, we shall try to develop our understanding of his thought, to the extent possible, without delving excessively into Kabbalistic thinking. Admittedly, this will prove impossible, but I am stating at the outset that we will, as a methodological principle, not be engaged in a course about the Kabbala of the Ramban. As it arises in the course, and where it is important, I shall try and explain the philosophic significance of some of the Ramban's Kabbalistic principles. In doing so, I shall be transgressing the warning of the Ramban himself, at the conclusion of the introduction to the Commentary on the Torah, that if one does not possess an oral unbroken tradition concerning these secrets, one should not try and understand them through one's own intellect. In any event, it is important to stress that the Ramban believed the Kabbala to be the wisdom of the sages and part of the oral tradition, and he in fact rejected any Kabbalistic explanation for which he did not have a direct oral tradition from his teachers.


C. Our readings


            The most important source for this course is the Commentary to the Torah (TC), the best edition of which is the Chavel edition. This is available in both Hebrew and a translation. It also appears in all editions of the Mikraot Gedolot. I shall be relying on the Chavel translation during the course. You should have access to one of the editions of the TC.


            Aside from that, we shall make use of other writings of the Ramban. Rabbi Chavel edited those writings in a two-volume work called "Kitvei HaRamban," which is not translated. The most important work, for our purposes, from those volumes, is the "Derashat Torat HaShem Temima," which is found in v.1 of "Kitvei HaRamban," p. 139ff. Citations from that work and others will be provided in the course of the lectures, though it would be useful if you had your own copy.


            The Kabbala of the Ramban was explained, in a somewhat enigmatic manner, two generations after him, by a disciple of the Rashba, who was himself a disciple of the Ramban. That work, the "Keter Shem Tov" of R. Shem Tov ibn Gaon, is a major source for understanding the "secrets of the Ramban," together with another work written a few years later by another student in the Ramban's school of thought, the "Biur Sodot HaRamban." It is not easy to obtain a copy of either work, but I will occasionally make use of them.


            The next lecture will appear in two weeks. For that lecture, you should read, if possible, the introduction of the Ramban to the TC. This is a longer assignment than we will usually have for a single lecture, but it is also a simpler one to understand. I strongly urge you to prepare the text on your own, as learning to read and understand the Ramban is a major side-benefit of this course. The only way to learn to do this is to plunge in!