Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ramban's Going With God - Magic Works but Forbidden.

As we saw in the last post, Ramban’s world is not run by laws of nature. It is controlled indirectly by God via the stars or directly by Him but only in the case of certain rare individuals. Unlike Rambam’s worldview in which these special individuals have apprehended how God runs the world and are actively participating in the process emulating God, we have to define what makes the individuals special in Ramban’s view. To Ramban, nature is not predictable how then does one emulate God being that He is known only through nature? Can one even emulate Him? How does he interpret the commandments of walking in God’s ways – Vehalachta Biderachav and other similar statements found repetitively in the Torah?

As we saw, Ramban sees the spiritual world as part of the natural order of things. The spiritual world controls and runs nature while it is ultimately under God’s control operating independently only at His behest. There are therefore two ways man can take control of his destiny; influencing the spiritual world or beseeching God to either directly or indirectly watch out for him. Although man can influence the spiritual world by magic, necromancy and other such “sciences”, we Jews are forbidden to do so. We may only avail ourselves of the second approach, beseeching God directly. Instead of magic, the “science” of the spiritual world, we were given prophecy, the divine “science”. (For a detailed discussion see, Ramban’s Torat Hashem Temimah in Kitvei Haramban Chavel edition (Hebrew) pages 146 – 150). Unlike Rambam who describes Avraham as arriving to his conclusions on his own, that being the great innovation he brought into the world[1], Ramban held that Avraham received much of his theology from Noach and others whom he met. Avraham’s big teaching was that man could bypass the sometimes-capricious spiritual world and deal directly with HKBH who is just[2]. He learned that from Noach and was successful in promulgating it. That success, and the success of his progeny to do so, is what make Jews special. It is this belief that triggers God’s direct involvement. When man turns to HKBH instead of the spiritual world, He responds.

Ramban introduces this idea with Noach. In his commentary on Breishit 6:9, on the verse, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹח Noah walked with God he writes:

אמר שהיה מתהלך את השם הנכבד ליראה אותו לבדו

He says that he was walking with HKBH fearing Him only

איננו נפתה אחרי הוברי שמים ומנחש ועונן

He was not tempted to follow the different astrologers and magicians

וכל שכן אחרי עבודה זרה

Even more [was he not tempted to follow] idolatry

ואיננו שומע להם כלל, רק בשם לבדו הוא דבק תמיד

He would not listen to them at all for he was always attached to God only

והולך בדרך אשר בחר השם, או אשר יורה אותו, כי נביא היה

He followed the path that God chose or taught him, for he was a prophet.

Walking with God means choosing to attach oneself to God and repudiating the magical world replacing it with prophecy. Ramban continues to explain that this theology of Noach, who got it from Shem and Ever and Adam Harishon[3], was the source for Avraham and eventually the Jewish people’s ways -

וזה כטעם אחרי ה' אלוהיכם תלכו ואותו תיראו (דברים יג ה

This is similar to the verse “go after Hashem your God and fear Him”

הנאמר בהרחקת המתנבא לעבוד עבודה זרה ונותן אות ומופת, כאשר אפרש

[This verse] is referring to the distancing from a person who, after offering signs and miracles, prophesizes that idols should be worshipped.

ועוד אזכיר זה בפסוק התהלך לפני והיה תמים (להלן יז א,

I will address this further in the verse [where God tells Avraham], “walk with me and be blameless”.

Ramban clearly ties together Noach, Avraham and the laws of the torah against idolatry. Ramban understands that although the spiritual world is real and can be accessed, that is not the way a person who wants to “walk with God” acts. He expands on this in Breishit 17:1

והענין בשניהם
שיאמין בלבו כי הקב"ה לבדו הוא בעל
היכולת בתחילה ובסוף הוא היכול לעשות ולבטל, ולא ישמעו אל מעוננים ואל קוסמים או
למנחש ומכשף,
ולא יאמין שיבאו דבריהם על כל פנים, אבל יגזור בלבו שהכל ביד עליון
העליונים, שהוא
"אל שדי"
, עושה טובה שלא היה במזל ומביא
רעה בהיות המזל טוב ויפה, כפי שיתהלך האדם לפניו, מפר אותות בדים וקוסמים יהולל
ישעיה מד כה). וזהו שאמרו (שבת קנו א): צא מאצטגנינות שלך וכו': )

The idea in both [“walk with me” and “be blameless”] is that he [Avraham] should believe in his heart that HKBH alone, being always [literally: at the start and at the end] powerful [literally: the owner of ability], is also the One who can do or undo. He [literally: they] should not listen to the different practitioners of magic, and in all circumstances, should not believe that what they say will happen. [The reason that these things will not happen is because] he should make up his mind that everything depends upon the Highest among the high ones who also is “the strong One” and also “the power behind the stars[4]”. [For] He does good things that were not in [the person’s] star [horoscope] and brings bad things when the star [horoscope] is good and well. Depending on how the person walks with Him, He “frustrates the tokens of the imposters, and makes diviners mad”. That is the meaning when the Rabbis say [God said to Avraham when his name was changed from Avram] “exit from your Horoscope”.

The picture we get from the above is that to Ramban man cannot understand the world he lives in because it is not 100% consistent. It is run by thinking entities that can be capricious. Without prophecy and knowledge transmitted by tradition all the way back to the first human, Adam Harishon, who “knew” God personally, man depends on those intermediary powers. He therefore rightfully tries to placate them, learn their psychology and thus manipulate them for his favor. The “scientists” who are adept at this are the magicians, each with his particular specialty. However, those who have a prophetic tradition going back to the beginning know that God is above all this and that He is the ultimate power behind it. “Walking in God’s path” means accepting that tradition and trusting in God by following His prophet’s teachings thus bypassing the power of the stars. These prophetic teachings were eventually all gathered up, restated and given to Moshe in the form of the Torah. The Jewish people who received this Torah, when they follow it bypass the power of the stars and place themselves under the direct governance of God. The Torah and Mitzvot are a formula that teaches how to fall under God’s direct control.

In a general macro sense both Rambam and Ramban have the same schematic. Man can chose to be under the sway of nature or under God. According to Rambam, man knows nature and may choose to use this knowledge to find God, understand His ways and act in a way that is consistent with those ways. Man takes control and emulates God in his actions. He is thus under God’s control!

According to Ramban, man cannot know how nature works. Nature is run by independent spiritual entities. He is dependent on prophecy to tell him how to remove himself from these capricious entities and put himself under the control of God who is just and good. While Rambam’s man is powerful and self-sufficient using his abilities to the utmost to decide how to act, Ramban’s man is dependent on forces outside himself having the choice under which force he should throw himself – the stars or God. Interestingly both thinkers’ theology is based on each one’s understanding of science.

What I have described here are the two major trends in Judaism since medieval times. Ramban’s approach is the one underlying what we call the Kabbalah tradition and it has its antecedents in R. Yehudah Halevi in his Kuzari. We can find strong support for this approach in the earlier Mishna and Gemara and many Midrashim. Rambam’s approach is the one underlying what is called “rational” Judaism. It also has antecedents in Rabbeinu Bahya (Chovot Halevavot), Ibn Ezra, R. Sa’adyah Gaon and other medieval thinkers. It also has strong support in earlier sources of Tannaim and Amoraim. Both approaches have had to evolve over time and adapt to the new realities and scientific developments that the advances of civilization have brought about. Although personally I find myself at home more with the “rational” approach, I can see how some would prefer the alternate one – Ramban’s Derech and its different evolutions imagining that they address the jarring difference between it and contemporary scientific knowledge. What I have difficulties with is when people are inconsistent, mixing parts of one approach with parts of the other, not realizing and I suspect, sometimes consciously, fusing two contradictory premises.

I know this post is becoming longer than I like and I do not want to ramble on, but I have to make one more point. Both Rambam and Ramban’s approach put a lot of emphasis on man’s choices; he can choose to follow in God’s path or rely on nature in the two different understandings of the two terms. However, in Ramban’s understanding man really cannot control his destiny. He is completely and constantly dependent on outside forces in everything he does. His only choice is under which force he should place himself. Mitzvot and many of man’s actions are not necessarily consequential but rather work in an indirect way. They are a formula for placing man under God’s oversight. This understanding has the propensity to let people not take responsibility for their actions. Everything is dependent on “providence” – it is “Bashert”. It encourages people to put more emphasis on certain things that they believe are more influential in how God should respond and less on others. It is difficult to shake the feeling that we do things to placate God. Although it clearly was not Ramban’s intent, it has evolved in this way and I believe this distortion is behind the many ills in our society. It is the thinking behind Segulot, Amen clubs, magical “Rabbis” and many of the superstitious nonsense we witness. We need to take responsibility for our actions and understand that there is a direct correlation between cause and effect. Ramban teaches that we should rely on HKBH and not on magic notwithstanding what form it takes on – Segulot or idols.


[1] Rambam in Hilchot Avodah Zara notes that individuals like Shem and Ever continuously taught about God, as far as I know he does not tie in Avraham with them.
[2] It is interesting that while contemporary Jewish thought accepted Ramban as to providence, they did not accept his understanding of Avraham but rather Rambam’s view of him finding God. This is only a smaller of the many inconsistencies in current thought. It would be a study with quite relevant lessons, to understand and explain these inconsistencies.
[3] Torat Hashem Temimah page 144.
[4] For the definition of these two names as I translated, see preceding Ramban on this verse.


  1. I can see how some would prefer the alternate one – Ramban’s Derech and its different evolutions imagining that they address the jarring difference between it and contemporary scientific knowledge
    if the science of the ramban wasong how can you understand that some would prefer this derech of thought. The ramban himself would have probably changed his philosophy if he knew the science of our times.The people who foloow the scince of the ramban are just plain tipshim and fools

  2. Anonymous,

    You are right of course and I was thinking of posting a follow up post admitting that I have to say ramban is not correct. I have however great respect for the man and I feel it is not right. But again you are right that anyone nowadays that follows his derech is either blind or fooling himself. The problem is that we have been so indoctrinated with the "truth" and how we do not understand everything that we feel guilty following our rational mind.