Monday, July 20, 2009

The Great Disputation

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides c. 1194-1270) was one of the great personages of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. He authored commentaries on the Torah and the Talmud and was known as a great mystic. He was also a renowned physician.

In 1263, King James I of Aragon ordered Nachmanides to debate Pablo Christiani, a Jew who had converted to Christianity and had become a Dominican monk. Nachmanides agreed on one condition – absolute freedom of speech (as opposed to the usual rule that nothing seemingly insulting to Christianity be said).

The “Great Disputation,” as it is called, began on July 20th and lasted for 4 days. The critical issue of the disputation was the Jewish belief in the Messiah and whether it had been fulfilled by Jesus. While both debaters cited the Talmud, Nachmanides thoroughly outclassed his opponent. King James I declared him the winner, awarded him a monetary prize and declared: “I’ve never heard anyone defend so brilliantly something so wrong.”

While King James had declared Nachmanides the winner, the Dominicans asserted that they had won. They were a powerful force, and when Nachmanides published a transcript of the Disputation, the Dominicans saw to it that the great scholar was exiled from Spain.

Nachmanides went to Israel, where he was instrumental in reestablishing the Jewish community in Jerusalem. In one of the abandoned houses he built a synagogue that became known as the Beit Knesset HaRamban, the Nachmanides Synagogue. This synagogue existed from that time (c. the 13th century) until it was destroyed in 1948 by the Jordanian Arab Legion during Israel’s War of Independence. It has since been rebuilt.

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