Any serious study of Nachmanides’ Disputation in Barcelona in 1263 would need to include a careful analysis of his sermon, Torat HaShem Temimah. The sermon, which was delivered in the largest synagogue in Barcelona, was not only prepared in the same summer, it was actually delivered on the last day of the disputation, following a missionary appeal by King James of Aragon.
The overlap between the contents of the sermon and the disputation is relatively clear. Firstly, Nachmanides explicitly speaks about Christianity in the sermon. Secondly, he discusses the ultimate redemption, a major point of contention at the disputation, as Pablo Christiani, his adversary, brought rabbinic sources that appear to say that the messiah had already come.
The sermon should not be read simply as a contemporary document, but as a valuable source to gain an insight into Nachmanides’ thought processes about his role in the disputation. Besides the obvious, but challenging, task of proving the authenticity of the Jewish tradition (possibly in the presence of his Christian detractors, although historian Salo Baron and scholar Rabbi Charles Chavel cast doubt on the possibility that the king and Christiani were in attendance by the time Nachmanides’ sermon started), Nachmanides chose to make an even bolder argument. He was suggesting that Judaism is the only faith, not just the best one. This idea can be seen in four ways:
First, in addition to some broad themes, including the purpose of the narrative in the Bible, the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and its followers, the explanation for the commandments, he speaks about the patriarch Abraham’s defence of his own beliefs and the hardship he is said to have endured as a result. By adding this midrash to his sermon, Nachmanides seems to be presenting himself as an Abraham defending the one true faith and who would also be likely to face hardship for publicly expressing his views.
Second, this can be seen from the way Nachmanides contends with Maimonides’ view that Christianity brought the world closer to monotheism. Nachmanides
responds to this claim in two ways. He says that, since the start of Christianity, there had been more confusion about the law, not less. He also says that those without access to the Torah are compared to “cattle.” Nachmanides thus turns Maimonides’ point on its head by arguing that Christianity has not made that much progress: by translating and reading the Torah, the nations of the world have simply become human; not godly.
Third, Nachmanides precludes the possibility of the existence of other genuine faiths. He does so when he states that without knowledge of the Creator, it is impossible to ascertain the purpose of creation. The logical outcome of this statement is that a faith that develops based on a natural theology – that is, what it ascertains from nature alone – would be “[cognizant of] neither commandment not transgression.”
Fourth, Nachmanides’ view of Judaism as the only faith can be seen from the exclusivity that he grants to prayer. When Nachmanides explains the reason for prayer – namely, an opportunity for people to assemble and express thankfulness to God for having been created – he seems to imply that Jews are the only people who pray. He knew, however, that Christians pray as well. By stating this so one-sidedly and matter-of-factly, Nachmanides betrays his assumption that Jewish prayer is the only prayer, at least as far as he is concerned. This reinforces the idea that Nachmanides presents Judaism as the one and only faith.
Nachmanides, who was by then 69, had earned quite a reputation. As Prof. David Novak has said, he was by that point “a halachic authority respected in all quarters of the Jewish world.” His erudition, sharp mind, and exegetical skills, which helped him defend his faith throughout the disputation, are on full display in the sermon.
Still, his task was not an easy one.
Jonathan Milevsky is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.