In my last essay, I included some of the facts about the great sage Nachmanides that are in my recent book “Nachmanides, An Unusual Thinker.” I did not include the supporting notes that are in the book. Here are some additional views by the great sage.
Reading Mystic ideas into halakhah
Nachmanides inserted his version of mysticism into his conception of halakhah, Jewish law. In his Kabbalah, Halakhah, and Spiritual Leadership,” for example, he insisted that white wine is unacceptable for the Shabbat Kiddush, the blessing over wine that introduces the Shabbat meal. Rabbinic non-mystical sources state just the opposite: if people have white wine that is superior to their red wine, the white wine should be used. Even the mystic Joseph Karo allowed white wine for Kiddush in his Bet Yosef.
God’s involvement in human affairs
Nachmanides states in Genesis 17:1, 46:15, Exodus 13:16, and Leviticus 26:11 that this world does not function through the laws of nature. God is constantly and directly involved in every human act and thought and frequently interferes and even controls them. He calls these divine manipulations “hidden miracles.” Thus, he contends that when the Midrash relates that the patriarch Abraham was saved when King Nimrod threatened to kill him, this happened because God interfered with nature and changed Nimrod’s intention; He “put it in the heart of that king to save him.” He used this principle of divine intervention to explain various other midrashim, which he considered facts, such as the unusual length of the lives of Moses’s mother, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, and King David’s ancestress Ruth.
Since he was certain in the truthfulness of the story of Abraham’s father being an idol worshiper and that Abraham was saved by God when Nimrod tried to kill him, he wondered how it was possible that Midrash Genesis Rabbah interpreted Genesis 15:15, “And you will come to your father in peace,” to say that Abraham would join his father, an idolater, in the world-to-come. He answers his question with the view of some rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 104a, that the merit of a son’s good deeds has the power to affect and benefit his father even though the father was evil during his lifetime, committed idol worship, despised his son’s behavior, and is now dead.
Nachmanides theory of war is another example of his view that God is involved in human affairs. He asserts that God manages the outcome of all wars, irrespective of human power. Still another illustration is his notion that God chooses every person who serves in every community function, from kings to “even a superintendent of the well is appointed in heaven.”
God physically descended to earth to investigate a matter
Genesis 18:20 and 21, as well as the narrative that follows, contain a rather remarkable story that raises fundamental and disturbing questions about how to interpret the Bible. “God said, ‘the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their misdeeds are very grievous. I will go down now and see whether they acted as [indicated in] the cry that has come up to me, then I will destroy them, if not I will know.’”
Leaving aside the many difficulties that the original Hebrew presents to the translator, these two verses, as well as the subsequent story of Abraham’s attempt to change God’s mind, raise quite a few theological and philosophical questions. One of the questions is whether the episode narrated in Genesis 18 actually occurred or was it only a dream?
Nachmanides insists that the Bible means what it says and the episode actually happened. God needed to descend to discover the truth about the people’s behavior.
Maimonides disagreed. He states in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:45 that all biblical prophecies, with the exception of Moses’s prophecy, were dreams. He states in 1:10 that scripture’s divine descent is only a figure of speech indicating a divine decision to render punishment. Thus, according to Maimonides, the story in chapter 18 never took place. It was a dream that Abraham experienced; Abraham dreamed of a conversation with God and thought of God in his dream in anthropomorphic terms.
Miracles occur daily
Nachmanides writes: “And now I shall declare to you a general principle in the reason of many commandments.” He identifies several groups of individuals with wrong-headed convictions. The first denies the basic principle that God created the world. The second refuses to recognize that God knows what occurs to humans. The third may think that God knows about people, but denies that God pays attention to them. They assert that God cares for humans as much as humans care for a bowl of goldfish. They look, admire and delight in them, but do not care for their individual lives. Just as it is ridiculous to imagine people rewarding and punishing fish for their behavior, so, too, these people say, God neither rewards nor punishes.
Many scholars are convinced that Maimonides denies the existence of miracles. All agree that he at least minimizes them. But Nachmanides was convinced, strongly and unyieldingly, that God is constantly involved in the world, as in the saying that no leaf falls from a tree unless God wills it to do so.
Nachmanides was persuaded that there are two kinds of miracles. The first, like the exodus from Egypt and the plagues that preceded it, are open and evident to all. Others are hidden and do not show God’s involvement, like the falling leaf, winter snow, and summer rain, even the shining sun. This belief in miracles was so significant and fundamental to Nachmanides that he proclaimed, “From [belief in] large perceptible miracles one [comes to believe] in hidden miracles, which are the very foundation of the entire Torah. A person has no share in the Torah of Moses our teacher until he believes that all that occurs is the result of miracles, not the laws of nature. … Everything happens by divine decree.”
Doctors are unnecessary
Nachmanides’ conviction of the involvement of God in human affairs impacted his view of medicine. Although some scholars believe that he was a physician, he felt that the physician’s role in medicine was misunderstood. Only God can heal people. He insisted that religious people have no need for medical treatment for God will care for them. He interpreted Exodus 21:19, “He will surely heal,” as a God given dispensation to doctors to assist those who are not righteous, as long as “the physician is aware of the source and limit of his healing power and sees them as a participation in God’s work.”
The duty to help God
As strange as this concept of God needing human help is, it is quite prevalent in Nachmanides’ thoughts and in that of mysticism generally. This notion influenced Nachmanides understanding of the Joseph story. In his commentary to Genesis 42:9, he raises the question how Joseph could disregard the feelings of his old father Jacob by putting his brothers and their father through a charade and not revealing his identity to his father who was mourning his apparent death and was in great distress. Nachmanides states that Joseph felt that it was more important to aid God and make sure that the divine predictions in his two dreams came true in all their details than to care for his father.
Reasons for God’s commands
Nachmanides’ view regarding the observance of the Torah commandments differed radically from those of Maimonides. Whereas his predecessor gave reasons for all the commands and enumerated the human individual and societal benefits, Nachmanides wrote, “You should not serve God in order to receive a reward but because of His simple will. [Because God said so, not because there is a rational basis for the command.] This is what obligates us to serve Him.”
Faith and reliance on God’s help
Nachmanides felt strongly that one must have rely on God and act with a certainty that when he encounters trouble, God will assist him. Thus, in his commentary to Genesis 12:11, he does not hesitate to criticize the patriarch Abraham for what he considers his great sin of faithlessness when he lied and claimed that Sarah was his sister. Abraham should not have resorted to a stratagem; he should have had understood that God would protect him.