Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Barcelona and Beyond: The Disputation of 1263 and Its Aftermath by Robert Chazan

This critical study of Nachmanides' public disputation with the apostate Paul Christian is unique in that the author does not credit the Ramban with winning the debate.  Professor Chazan takes on the scholarship of Yitzchak Baer and dismisses the Ramban's account as embellishment and exaggeration and accepts the Church's Latin account (which basically eviscerates the Ramban) as reasonable.  As to who won the debate, Professor Chazan believes the truth lies somewhere in between, a toss up so to speak.  Since Christian was not dismissed in humiliation and kept on missionizing and since the Latin account had the seal of approval of the King James I of Aragon, the Ramban could not have been the victor.  The author acknowledges that the Ramban's written account displays the rabbis exceptional talents and calls the effort a 'Tour de force' noting that this Jewish account goes on to be one of the most popular polemics from Medieval history.

Professor Chazan relies heavily on the argument that the Latin account can not be dismissed since the King put his seal of approval on it. Dismissing it would imply impugning the integrity of the King. The professor believes that had the Latin account been a miscarriage of the truth the King would never have put his seal to it.  I find this argument weak.  Professor Chazan acknowledges in the book that the King sided with the Church, identified with the mission of the Church.  I find it hard to conceive under what conditions the King would refrain from affixing his seal since he must identify himself with Church authority.  Defiance of the monarch in opposition to the Church may manifest itself when the economic demands of the royalty or the monarch's cupidity conflict with the demands of the Church but rarely when a monarch shows his spiritual credentials identical to the Church.

The author does not like the sweeping dismissal of the Latin account by Baer.  Baer shows that in comparing the two accounts the Latin account is incredibly out of order and lacking.  Dr. Chazan is satisfied with an internal analysis without comparing the document with the Ramban's account.  He assumes the Latin account was not for a general audience and was specific to the program of missionizing of the Jews.  As such the document is considered acceptable and reasonable in Prof. Chazan's view.

The author never really investigates the question of motivating the Ramban to write his account.  When the Ramban explains that a local Bishop asked him to write one, Prof. Chazan questions the veracity of such a request.  Given the brevity and impugning of the rabbi's ability to respond in the Latin account, I find it easy to understand a local cleric desire to hear the truth from a well known Jewish leader.  Although the professor acknowledges the greatness of the Ramban as a writer, he does not give credence to his oratory public abilities.

The author dismisses the Ramban's account as a true report of the event because in the authors view Ramban inconceivably makes terribly offensive statements about Christianity and believes that with the rabbi always getting in the final word and making the apostate look foolish strains credibility. Such arguments belie ever experiencing a 'Gadol'-Giant in Torah. More simply put: A professor of chemistry can make a freshman chemistry student look very foolish.

The Ramban was not merely the local rabbi of Gerona, he was a virtuoso master of Biblical and Talmudic literature who's impact is still being felt today. His integrity for truth is felt throughout his Biblical and Talmudic exegesis.  Ramban must have realized his account would have been read by the Church, certainly by the likes of people like Paul Christian and yet he was unafraid to publish it.

One could argue that the Ramban did achieve some success by the fact that the Church strategy, its rules of engagement in  public disputation in Spain were changed and refined by the time the Tortossa dispute convened.  Those winning elements highlighted in Ramban's account are not present later.  Instead of free speech, complete controlled speech would be monitored.  Instead of one master Jewish disputant, a team of disputants would participate to make sure that no consistent response could be achieved.  And finally the choosing of an apostate who was a former rabbi fluent in the language of the Talmud to make sure that the Church would not be bested by a Jew.

For a Ramban victory, Professor Chazan expected the dismissal of Paul Christian for being incompetent and would disappear into oblivion. I believe, however, that Paul Christian continued as a  missionary not because he was successful against the Ramban, but rather his credentials as a former Jew fit too well into the Church program.  The appearance of a former Jew (without even opening his mouth) was a powerful argument in and of itself and could not be passed up by the Dominicans and Franciscans.  At such an early stage of the missionary work, Paul Christian was an invaluable commodity for the Church.


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