Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Nahmanides, Ramban) was born in Gerona, Catalonia, in the kingdom of Aragon in northern Spain in 1194 CE. One of the giants of medieval Jewish leadership and creativity—a polymath whose expertise included law, medicine, and mysticism—Ramban is best known for his monumental Commentary on the Torah. Nahmanides came into maturity in the period immediately following another great Torah scholar, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides, Rambam). When the latter died, the former was nine years old—and clearly, Ramban was deeply influenced by the writings and teachings of his predecessor. And yet, despite this philosophical influence, Ramban was first and foremost a kabbalist—he believed that the deepest truths of the Torah are allusions to the inner mysteries of God. His Commentary is filled with references to "the way of truth" (derekh ha-emet)—a path of spiritual interpretation that is open to those who have learned to recognize the symbols and signs encoded in the sacred text.
Over the course of his lifetime, Ramban came to be known as an extraordinary Torah scholar. In fact, throughout the Spanish Jewish community, it became a custom to refer to him as "the teacher" or "the rabbi." Nahmanides functioned as the chief rabbi of Catalonia until his migration to the Land of Israel later in his life. Three traits of this scholar stand out in particular: his commitment to making peace among Jews, his passionate and articulate defense of Judaism before an audience that was becoming increasingly provocative, and finally his uprooting from his native land and resettlement in Israel.
Nahmanides' commitment to peacemaking within the Jewish community is evidenced by his role during the great Maimonidean controversy. Not unlike the times in which we live (and the tensions that seem to be all too pervasive both in the American Jewish community and Israel), a polarizing debate between traditionalists and innovators threatened to break the solidarity of European Jewry in 1232. Sparked by Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed (Moreh Nevukhim), Ashkenazic Jews railed against the perceived heresy of Moses Maimonides in allowing his arguments to be shaped by Greek philosophy. Since such an approach was seen as a foreign influence bordering on idolatry, a movement began in northern France to ban Rambam's book. Supporters of Maimonides in southern France lashed out and a controversy spanning some forty years was born. Nahmanides attempted to bridge the gap between the opposing camps, even suggesting that different curricula be followed vis-à-vis Jewish learning in these respective communities.
Secondly, Nahmanides is perhaps best known for his performance of 1263—in which he was invited by King James to participate in a disputation (philosophical boxing match) between himself and an apostate known as Pablo Christiani. The debate was held in July of that year, and Nahmanides argued masterfully and passionately in defense of the beliefs of his ancestors. He was so impressive that King James awarded him the sum of 300 dinars. Ramban went on to write a book entitled Sefer HaVikuakh (The Book of Argument), in which he outlined his major points. It was a pyrrhic victory for the budding scholar, as subsequently the Dominicans launched a campaign to persecute Ramban; so aggressive were they in their tactics that they drafted the assistance of Pope Clement IV. The church's pursuit of Nahmanides left him few options, leading us to the third characteristic that distinguishes this commentator—his resettlement in Israel. Ramban arrived in the port city of Akko and quickly journeyed to a neglected Jerusalem, where he tried to unite the remnants of the Jewish community. He became a Pied Piper of sorts, rallying the Jews of Israel to a greater sense of hope and even building a synagogue in Jerusalem. (Today, it is the oldest active synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.) It was in Israel that he completed his voluminous commentary on the Five Books of Moses-a masterful integration of literal, homiletical, and kabbalistic interpretations.
Yet, above all else, Ramban distinguishes himself in the respect given to his teachers and predecessors. In a poem found in the introduction to his Torah commentary, Ramban writes:
What shall I do; for my soul delights in Torah—it is like a consuming fire
that burns from within . . . to walk in the footsteps of the pioneers, the
lions among them, geniuses of the generations . . . I will place for the
illumination of my face the lights of a pure candelabrum—the
commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo (Rashi), crown of beauty and glory . . .
in Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud, to him belongs the rights of the
firstborn! In his words I will meditate and in their love I will rise . . .
Ramban goes on to mention the influence of Abraham Ibn Ezra, another inspiring exegete.
Taken collectively, Ramban's pursuit of peace, defense of the tradition, attachment to Israel, and unbounded respect for his teachers place him in a category of commentators and leaders worthy of emulation. May we learn and be inspired together by the words and writings of this exceptional commentator.