Spain’s Other Philosopher- Son Gets Some Recognition


By Elizabeth Landau

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For philosophers, historians and theologians from many faiths, the greatest Spanish Jewish thinker of all time is unquestionably Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides (1138-1204). Hailing from the medieval pueblo of Cordoba, Spain, the prolific Maimonides championed, among other things, the school of religious rationalism. We credit him with writing the first codification of Jewish law, authoring the Yigdal chant and creating the concept of the 613 commandments — among a slew of other accomplishments. Today he is one of the most widely studied Jewish scholars, and remains a household name among Jews worldwide.

But the local government of Girona, a small medieval Catalonian city some 460 miles from Cordoba, recently has decided to pay homage to Maimonides’s most famous critic, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, or Nahmanides (1194-1270). And now, thanks to a restoration project bearing his name, the town — which is bereft of any Jewish life at all — now boasts one of the best-preserved medieval Jewish Quarters in Europe.

Superficially, Maimonides and his Catalonian rival seem almost confusingly alike. The former is called Rambam, an acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, and the latter is Ramban, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman. Both lived around the same time in medieval Spain, studied rabbinics and medicine, fled their home country because of antisemitic persecution and died in the Middle East above age 65. Perhaps both have been called “the greatest Moses since Moses.”

Yet while Maimonides maintained a logical, rationalistic approach to religious texts, Nahmanides stressed the miraculousness of the stories. Maimonides taught that the texts must be interpreted, or reinterpreted, to match scientific facts. Nahmanides criticized this view, believing that earthly affairs do not necessarily conform to any natural order, and that divine powers do not have to operate according to scientific laws.

Apart from writing the first Torah commentaries that incorporate kabbalistic mysticism, Nahmanides claims fame for successfully defending core beliefs of Judaism against the converted Jew Pablo Cristiano in the famous Dispute of Barcelona in1263. Despite Nahmanides’s apparent victory, however, subsequent backlash and persecution from Christians forced him to flee his beloved Girona in 1266.

Now Nahmanides’s Catalonian name Bonastruc ça Porta, symbolizes a massive restoration of Girona’s medieval Jewish Quarter, as well as an education project to teach about Girona’s history as a center of medieval Kabbalistic thought. The site of his house is a city monument, and the Bonastruc ça Porta Center for Jewish Studies includes a library with medieval Jewish documents, the Institute for Sephardic and Kabbalistic Studies, and the Museum of the History of the Jews of Catalonia.

But why is Girona, which currently claims no practicing Jewish inhabitants, celebrating its Sephardic heritage now?

The Catalonian people always have taken pride in the characteristics of their culture and history that distinguish their province from the rest of Spain. Since the 1975 death of dictator Francisco Franco, who denied Catalonia the autonomy it craved, and forbade official and public usage of the Catalan language during the 36-year reign, the province has relished the recovery of its identity during the last 30 years. As the Bonastruc ça Porta Project, spearheaded by Joaquim Nadal, reveals, the medieval Jews of Catalonia are an integral part of that identity.

In Catalonia, the Jewish Quarters are referred to as the Call. Girona’s Call, an antiquated stone maze of narrow streets and steep inclined walkways, had 800 to 1,000 inhabitants from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Initially, the Jews lived in relatively peaceful convivencia with Christians and Muslims, but as 1492 loomed nearer, antisemitic prohibitions made the Call a marginalized neighborhood of reclusion.

After the expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492, the old Jewish Quarter of Girona was sealed off, its stone archways and twisting cobbled alleys buried for almost 500 years. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Spaniards built apartments on top of the old city, moving out en masse when a new part of town developed.

Then, in the 1970s, when the Old City regained its real estate appeal, people like Jose Tarres began excavating some of the buildings. Tarres essentially discovered Nahmanides’s house and sold the property to the city in 1987.

These escavations led to the Bonastruc ça Porta (Nahmanides) Project, restoring buildings and uncovering artifacts and manuscripts, some 1200 documents. Rabbis and scholars flocked to Girona to analyze the parchments, which included commentary on the Talmud, accounts of domestic life, and a description of the synagogue.

This research has revealed the names of Jews who chose to convert to Christianity instead of fleeing Girona in 1492. Some citizens of Girona share variations of these names, suggesting that the Nahmanides Project could help educate the people of Girona about Jewish roots they never knew they had.

At least one person has become inspired to trace his roots all the way to Nahmanides: Ben Nahman of California. Owner of a Sephardic genealogy Web site, he has published online a list of medieval Spanish Jewish surnames, as well as the history of his own family.

About the excavations, Tarres told Nahman: “We knew when we saw the buried arches in the cellar or below ground of our original diggings that we had uncovered something of great importance. Not only for us, not only for Girona, not only for the Jews but for Catalonia, for Spain and for history.”

Elizabeth Landau is a student at Princeton University, majoring in anthropology and Spanish.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.