Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban
by Rav Ezra Bick
Shiur O2: Torah
Our reading today is from the introduction that the Ramban appended to the Commentary on the Torah (CT). In his introduction, the Ramban chooses to give us a picture of the nature of Torah, and we can assume that what he chose to write here was important, to the extent that he wished to clarify these concepts before one begins to learn Torah. We shall review the basic ideas of this section, with the understanding that, at least for some of these concepts, the full significance will be apparent only after we have gotten a fuller picture of the Ramban's philosophy.
The English translation of the entire introduction was posted on the VBM website ( http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/rambanscan.htm ). You should have either the English or the Hebrew original before you as we proceed.
The Ramban opens by stating that "Moses our teacher wrote this book of Genesis together with the whole Torah from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He." What does he mean by "from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He"? He makes this explicit a few lines later when he states,
The reason for the Torah being written in this form [namely, the third person] is that it preceded the creation of the world, and, needless to say, it preceded the birth of Moses our teacher. It has been transmitted to us by tradition that it [the Torah] was written with letters of black fire upon a background of white fire. Thus Moses was like a scribe who copies from an ancient book, and therefore he wrote anonymously.
The Ramban is emphasizing that Moshe was not the author, in any sense, of the Torah. He explicitly compares this to the other prophets, who refer to themselves as the authors of their respective books, even though they were recording words of prophecy. Prophecy is, of course, the word of God, but in some sense there is also input of the prophet. The Torah, on the other hand, bears no impression of Moshe's personality or intelligence; he only faithfully recorded, word by word, the text as dictated to him by God.
Why is this point important to the Ramban? The Ramban views Torah not as a Divine-authored book of wisdom and instruction, but as an emanation of God Himself, containing all possible knowledge. The Torah was written originally as "black fire on white fire;" i.e., it is inherently immaterial and precedes creation. The Ramban views prophecy as the highest human achievement, as we shall see, but Torah is on a fundamentally different level.
The Ramban emphasizes that Torah precedes creation. He explicitly states that this is the reason that Moshe does not write about himself as the author of the Torah. The Torah is not the wisdom of Moshe, not even the divinely inspired wisdom of Moshe, but the word of God.
The Ramban utilizes two different similes to describe the transmission of Torah from God to Moshe. One time he writes, "Moses our teacher wrote this book of Genesis together with the whole Torah from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He." Later on, he summarizes, "that the entire Torah reached the ear of Moses from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He." Here we have the epitome of oral transmission, from the mouth of God to the ear of Moshe. A second time, he writes, "Moses was like a scribe who copies from an ancient book." Here we have a visual exemplar, Moshe seeing the Torah, in its primordial state, and copying it down. The second simile is stronger, from the point of view of the Ramban's motive. The Ramban has no interest in minimizing the figure of Moshe Rabeinu; rather, he is interested in demonstrating the supernatural, eternal, and metaphysically superior status of the Torah. The idea of an eternal book, which can be copied but not changed, captures this idea.
The Ramban takes this idea much further when he continues and states that all wisdom is included in the Torah and was transmitted to Moshe. The Torah includes, "explicitly or by implication,"
the manner of the creation of heaven and earth and all their hosts, that is, the creation of all things, high and low . everything that has been said by prophecy concerning the esoterics of the Divine Chariot and the process of Creation, and what has been transmitted about them to the Sages . together with an account of the four forces in the lower world: the force of minerals, vegetation in the earth, living motion, and the rational soul. With regard to all of these matters - their creation, their essence, their powers and functions, and the disintegration of those of them that are destroyed.
Fifty gates of understanding were transmitted to Moshe, and are present in the Torah, and they include
one gate of understanding pertaining to the creation of the minerals, their force and their effects, one gate of understanding pertaining to the creation of the vegetation in the earth, and similarly, as regards the creation of trees, beasts, fowl, creeping things and fish. This series culminates in the creation of the rational soul enabling man to contemplate the secret of the soul, to know its essence and its power .And from there a man can ascend to the understanding of the spheres, the heavens and their hosts, for pertaining to each of these there is one gate of wisdom which is unlike the wisdom of the others.
Not only does the Ramban claim that all wisdom is found in the Torah, meaning it can be derived from it, he makes the rather extraordinary claim that all wisdom is found only in the Torah, and it is the original fount from where all human wisdom derives. This claim is not found in the introduction to the Torah Commentary, but is mentioned in Derashat Torat HaShem Temima (DTHT).
The DTHT opens with the statement that the Torah is perfect ("temima"), "more dear and more honored than anything else in the world" (Kitvei HaRamban II,142). He then asks, what is so special about the Torah, for it appears to be simple, and anyone can read it and understand it. Most of the Derasha is then devoted to answering that question. His first point is that
First of all, one must know that everything that creatures know and understand is all the fruits of the Torah, or the fruits of its fruits. Other than that, there is no difference between a man and the donkey on which he rides. Hence, you can see today that the nations that are distant from the land of Torah and prophecy, who dwell at the extremes, such as the residents of Romania and the Tartars who do not know the creator and believe that the world is eternal, and do not actually think at all whether it is eternal or created, or whether the spheres move themselves or are moved by others who have not heard of the Torah, for a man by his nature without a teacher is like an animal. And even if a man's reason can, without a teacher, allow him to think about creation, because he sees that the sphere cannot move itself but is moved by another, he nonetheless has no commandments or prohibitions, no wisdom or thinking, and no action is for him better or more desirable than another, and even more are the days and years all the same to him. So everything is the same to him, as he is the same as the animals.
All human knowledge, says the Ramban, is "the fruit, or the fruit of the fruit, of the Torah." Lest we think that this is a metaphor, he backs this up by claiming that we can track human wisdom by the distance from the Land of Israel, the land of Torah and prophecy. This claim is so extreme that the Ramban can hardly maintain it, and, as he continues, he basically supports it only in relation to moral and religious knowledge. The difference between Man and the animals is the knowledge of God and the knowledge of what is right and wrong - and that, he believes, comes only from Torah; that is, comes only from God in revelation.
Since true wisdom is about God and how He wants man to behave, we naturally turn to the Torah for that knowledge. The Ramban adds that if there are nations who possess this knowledge, it is because
they are close to the center of the settlement of the world, such as the Christians and the Muslims, for they have copied the Torah and learned it, and when Rome conquered the farthest extremes, they learned from her Torah and made statutes and laws like the Torah. But the people who live in the most distant extremes, who have not learned Torah or seen the Jews and their customs, or have not heard of them because of the borders between them, are complete animals.
Taken together, there is a double claim here. First, the Torah is the exclusive source of true wisdom, which is knowledge of God and moral instruction how to act in the proper manner. Secondly, implicitly, and through hidden hints and references, such as the "crowns" of the Torah letters, all knowledge is found embedded in the Torah. The Torah then is both a message of God to Man how to act, and an independent embodiment of Wisdom itself. Much of the second component is lost to us, since we do not have the methods of interpretation, but the Ramban emphasizes that it was given to Moshe. In other words, it is in principle attainable and in our hands, and, at least once, was in fact comprehended. In fact, the Ramban goes on in the Introduction to the Torah to describe how King Solomon, the wisest of all men, utilized this knowledge to obtain mastery over the natural world.
The Ramban then presents a second theory, which he explicitly labels as being mystical. He states that the "original" Torah, written with black fire on white fire, did not have any spaces between words. Our way of reading the Torah, parsed according to the tradition of the Sages handed down from Moshe, is just one way of many. For instance, read in another way, given to Moshe orally, the entire Torah consists of the names of God. This implies, though the Ramban does not state this explicitly, that there could be countless ways to read the Torah, each with more secret contents. We relate to the Torah, the repository of all possible wisdom, only through one subset, but in fact the Torah is far vaster and all encompassing than we can imagine.
The Ramban does place one limit to the knowledge granted to Moshe. If there are fifty gates of knowledge, Moshe received only forty-nine. The fiftieth, the knowledge of the essence of God, was not given him. He seems to imply that there are limits to the knowledge of Man. In fact, the Ramban is very much aware of the limits to his own knowledge. The feeling that we are grasping at only the edge of the great knowledge of Torah is one that permeates the Ramban's thinking, with a sense of loss and inadequacy that is always just a few inches beneath the surface of his explanations. This is very different from the feeling one often gets from reading mystics, where they seem to promise to share with us the deepest secrets of existence. The Ramban has "secrets," which he in fact is loath to share, but never does he seem to claim that he possesses the entirety of "true knowledge." On the contrary, we are at the end of a great process of loss. Since, in the concluding paragraph, the Ramban warns us that logic and reasoning cannot achieve understanding of that lost knowledge, but only direct transmission from "the mouth of a wise Cabalist speaking into the ear of an understanding recipient," there is no way to recover the wisdom that is lost. In this sense, we are no different from the nations he described in the DTHT. If you do not have a teacher (of Torah), you cannot achieve wisdom, and if you do not have a direct oral teacher of Kabbala, you cannot comprehend the secrets of the Torah.
The Ramban followed his own advice in these matters. In the one explicitly kabbalistic work written by the Ramban, a commentary to Sefer HaYetzira, he ends the book after the second chapter, writing that he has no "received commentary" ("kabbala") on that chapter. If you do not have an unbroken chain back to Moshe, then you do not have a way to understand the inner hidden meaning.
One implication of the Ramban's thesis relates to the status of human wisdom. The Rambam refers to human wisdom as aid to the true knowledge, that is as something valuable, but nonetheless extraneous to true knowledge. According to the Ramban, human wisdom is actually part of Torah, part of Divine wisdom. Practically speaking, it is found today in a fragmented and debased form, as its transmission was distorted over the ages and over distances. But nonetheless, at least in principle, it is "the fruit of the Torah."
One final point. In this example of how the words of the Torah are ordered, the Ramban has explicitly indicated that there are multiple yet valid ways of understanding the Torah. This case is rather esoteric; yet the Ramban consistently exemplifies this principle throughout the Commentary to the Torah. Unlike the Rambam, as well as contemporary mystics, who claim that the inner meaning of the Torah is the correct one and the outer meaning a superficial mistake, the Ramban always devotes great effort to explaining the "plain meaning" ("pshat") of a verse, even where he also has a "secret" meaning. The inner meaning is in addition to the plain meaning and not in place of it. There are multiple layers to the Torah, and consequently multiple layers of wisdom, and it is pointless to skip to the deeper layers without understanding the outer ones. This is one reason why we are justified in our quest to understand the Ramban, even though most of his kabbalistic teachings are unrecoverable. The pshat that he presents is just as important, and represents a coherent philosophy for us to learn.