Menachem Mendel

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What’s This Dispute About?

For those who are interested in reading a defense of agenda-driven Artscroll-type history, read Gil Student’s post on modern historiography of the Barcelona Disputation of 1263 and the ensuing comments. The following quotation will suffice to get some idea of what history is for some.

I would have responded that this accusation is patently offensive. While I lack the historical tools to adequately answer the points raised, I know Ramban from his extensive writings as a pious man, one of the ba’alei ha-mesorah, bearers of our tradition. It is inappropriate to impugn his honesty based on speculation centuries later. Good questions do not give us the right to draw bad conclusions.

Reading a person’s “extensive writings,” especially if it consists of commentaries and philosophical works, will not necessarily give you much insight into who he/she was as a person. The writing of history isn’t perfect, but the post at Hirhurim seems to be supporting a writing of history that is more appropriate for My Uncle the Netziv than any serious historical writing. Agenda-driven history has its place and most historical writing is to some extent agenda-driven, but it comes in different shades and degrees, and this one would have difficulty making it into the serious history cart.

I did find the following discussion in Nina Caputo’s Nahmanides in Medieval Catalonia: History, Community, and Messianism (102-103) interesting. She discusses some of the modern historiography on the disputation, and focuses on a theory proposed by Jaume Riera i Sans.

Inconsistencies between the Hebrew and Latin disputation narratives brought Riera i Sans to reexamine the manuscript traditions of the texts. Confronted with two contradictory depictions of the same event, Riera i Sans argues that neither of the extant sources is what it appears to be. Though the anonymous Latin document has been generally accepted as a summary of the proceedings written by an observer for the official royal record, Riera i Sans suggests that it was a summary of the disputation arguments written by Friar Paul for King James I, his royal sponsor. In the same vein, he sees the Hebrew text not as a first-hand account of the debate written by Nahmanides, but rather as a fictional representation composed some two to three hundred years following the event.

Fascinated by the disparity between the two accounts (as had been many of the scholars who analyzed the textual remains of this event before him), Riera i Sans took an inventory of the extant manuscripts of the Hebrew recension. The Latin version exists in only one manuscript copy that can be dated to the late thirteenth century; however, there is not a single manuscript copy of the Hebrew text that dates from the thirteenth, or even the fourteenth century. Based on this lack of physical evidence, he suggests the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century as a possible date of composition. This late date of authorship, Riera i Sans argues, also accounts for the unique dramatic and fictional flourishes used in this document. The author’s sense of showmanship, ironic sense of humor, and self-consciousness about pomp of court rituals are narrative techniques and themes typical of literary production during the Italian Renaissance, not, according to Riera i Sans, of Jewish authors in the late thirteenth century. Instead, he argues that the Hebrew account was written by an unknown scholar who could not believe widespread reports that the talented exegete and legal authority had faltered so badly and embarrassingly in the public debate with Friar Paul. Riera i Sans superimposes on this anonymous author the same concerns that motivate many scholars today. He thus redeems Nahmanides’ name from the charge that he dishonestly represented the disputation and restores his reputation as a great textual authority.

Caputo disagrees with Riera i Sans’ argument.

This argument is intriguing. It makes sense of the discrepancy between two representations of the disputation, but without impugning Nahmanides’ authorial integrity. However, the suggestion that the Hebrew documentary evidence of the Barcelona disputation was fabricated post facto, literally to change the historical record by transforming a minor and embarrassing event in the life of one of the most important figures of medieval Jewry into a glorious fable, does not raise sufficient doubt about the authenticity of the text

Caputo finds support for the authenticity of the Hebrew account in archival findings.

[The] royal archive contains evidence that some two years following the debate Nahmanides circulated a document recouting his performance in this encounter. These documents indicate that the style and content of Nahmanides’ disputation narrative, combined with the fact that Nahmanides presented his account to the bishop of Girona, raised the ire of the Dominican friars and ultimately resulted in his banishment from the Crown of Aragon.

Caputo does not take Nahmanides’ account literally, emphasizing the rhetorical aspect of his account and the dialogue that he himself was in with both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.

4 Responses to “What’s This Dispute About?”

  1. 1
    Michael Makovi:

    I find Rabbi Student’s approach to be distasteful not only because he plays fast-and-loose with history, but furthermore, because he doesn’t even have to do so in order to help RambaN save face! That is, not only does he distort history, but he does so unnecessarily! One could easily say that RambaN was constrained by the limitations of the debate – for even with the king’s promise to protect RambaN’s freedom of speech, I’m sure RambaN knew there were limits to what he could safely say, if for no other reason than that he was the one on trial and on the defense, and lacked suitable opportunity to go on the offensive – and that the RambaN wrote down what he would have said had he the opportunity.

  2. 2
    Guest:

    I don’t think we have to conclude one way or another about the issue to have a problem with the post. In other words, don’t decide that Chazan is right because Student is wrong.

  3. 3
    Menachem Mendel:

    I agree that my rejection of Gil’s premise doesn’t make Chazan’s interpretation any more correct.

  4. 4
    Guest:

    Sorry, that was directed at Michael Makovi who appeared to have concluded that Chazan is simply correct (remarking that Student “distorts history,” presumably because he didn’t accept Chazan’s thesis).

    I didn’t assume that was your point – sorry for being unclear.

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