Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Aaron Tugendhaft reviews Nahmanides

Moshe Halbertal. Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism, trans. Daniel Tabak. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2020. 434 pp.

Review by Aaron Tugendhaft

8 December 2021

“You seem to think, and I believe rightly, that the time has now come for letting the cat—or rather her 10 invisible kittens—out of your old sorcerer’s bag.”[1] So opens a March 1959 letter from Leo Strauss to Gershom Scholem, making reference to the ten Sephirot that are at the heart of the kabbalistic speculations to which the latter devoted his life. “I like the auras and the inaudible purrings,” Strauss continues, “but they do not feel at home with me . . . I myself am entirely comfortable with them because the dogs and hares which are my teachers had already taught me the exciting things with which your kittens are trying to tease me.”[2] Foremost among Strauss’s “dogs and hares” was the twelfth-century philosopher Maimonides, whose Aristotelianism marked one intellectual pole in medieval Judaism, set against the mysticism of the kabbalists. In another letter, written a quarter century earlier, Strauss tells Scholem that the dispute between Maimonides and the kabbalah will have to be repeated—a repetition that would come to be embodied in the forty-year exchange between these two great German-Jewish thinkers. Because they both agreed “that modern rationalism or enlightenment with all the doctrines peculiar to it and in all its forms (German idealism, positivism, romanticism) is finished,” Strauss and Scholem revived a medieval dispute that modernity was supposed to have rendered obsolete.[3]

Thanks to Moshe Halbertal’s splendid new book, we now possess an insightful, articulate, and erudite guide to that medieval dispute between philosophy and mysticism. Rabbi Moses b. Nahman (1194–1270), known in English as Nahmanides, is remembered today primarily for his biblical commentary and participation in the Barcelona Disputation of 1263. Nahmanides emerges from Halbertal’s account as a thinker of the first order, who articulated a comprehensive alternative to Maimonides’s philosophical teaching. Halbertal shows how the kabbalah, no less than philosophy, employed esotericism as a vehicle for replacing rabbinic tradition’s anthropomorphic conception of God with a causal-systemic one. “There are, to be sure, stark differences between these esotericists,” Halbertal admits, “but they stem primarily from the different causal and cosmological schema each one chose as the foundation for his reinterpretation of tradition” (p. 5). With piercing analytical lucidity, Halbertal walks the reader through the key components of these opposing schemata. The book covers such major themes in Nahmanides’s thinking as law, sin, death, redemption, miracles, revelation, and history; Halbertal elucidates each in order to show how they fit together into a unified vision—and how that vision contrasts with Maimonides’s philosophical position.  

Both the kabbalah and philosophy agree that the personal God familiar from the Bible, a God who willfully acts in the world, is but an exoteric teaching. Both reject the occasionalist arguments that justify such a willful God and deprive the world of causality. Yet they differ in how they understand the causal world. The philosophers think of it as unchanging nature (phusis), whereas the kabbalists see it as the godhead undergoing an inner drama. For Maimonides, Halbertal writes, nature is “the main medium of expression for God’s wisdom and perfection; anything that threatens the causal structure of existence implies a deficiency in that wisdom and perfection” (p. 205). By contrast, for Nahmanides, nature (as we know it) is but one chapter in an ongoing divine drama; as that drama proceeds, our relationship to the world evolves. “Humans are caught in this current, although they possess the ability to affect its character and directionality” (p. 205).

“The universe is like a massive ecosystem in which all elements form an organic unity,” Halbertal explains. “If humans abuse one element and isolate it from the rest, they place the entire structure in jeopardy and are guilty of ruinous rebellion” (pp. 265–66). Without saying so explicitly, Halbertal suggests that this kabbalistic thought holds special import for us in the age of humanly induced climate change. Rather than liberate people from fantasies of the imagination, as Maimonides believed it would, Aristotelian science, Nachmanides thought, promoted a distorted perception of the human relationship to the world—a static view that failed to recognize either humankind’s destructive capabilities or their capacity for cosmic care. The medieval dispute between Maimonides and Nahmanides takes on new urgency in the wake of what Bill McKibben has called “the end of nature.”[4] We are forced to wonder whether there may be an empirical basis for adopting the mystical over the philosophical account.

Strauss claimed to be constitutionally unable to follow Scholem and his ten kittens. Even if Scholem’s characterization of the kabbala as myth didn’t retain elements of Romanticism (as Strauss suspected), the medieval mystics, as seen from the perspective of political philosophy, were poets working in the tradition of their biblical and rabbinic forebears. Halbertal intervenes in this dispute by repositioning Nahmanides’s kabbalah as neither the outpouring of primordial forces nor the poetic depiction of a willful God but rather an esoteric account of the universe utterly different from the philosophers’ that is no less rooted in the basic categories of causality. In Halbertal’s rendering, Maimonides and Nahmanides both contributed to the “'victory of causality’” that undergirds the esoteric Jewish traditions of the Middle Ages (p. 324).

Controversy in Provence over the dissemination of Maimonides’s philosophical writings threatened to tear apart the Jewish community in the 1230s. Halbertal devotes his final chapter to Nahmanides’s attempt to prevent a local conflict from engulfing and polarizing the entire Jewish world. For Nahmanides, “one of the most significant factors leading to the outbreak of this culture war was a breakdown in esoteric discipline,” and so he sought to restore “the firm boundaries of concealment” (p. 320). Halbertal returns here to the theme of Concealment and Revelation (2007). “Esotericism enables the maintenance of communal unity,” Halbertal writes, “even when community members possess mutually exclusive esoteric doctrines that their fellows would judge heretical” (p. 320). We are, of course, again living through a “raging culture war” (Halbertal’s choice of phrase could hardly have been unintentional), and yet Halbertal leaves unspecified how Nahmanides’s “political savvy and outstanding leadership” could be reapplied today (p. 311).


[1] Leo Strauss, letter to Gershom Scholem, 23 Mar. 1959, Hobbes’ politische Wissenschaft und zugehörige Schriften–Briefe, vol. 3 of Gesmmelte Schriften, ed. Heinrich Meier and Wiebke Meier (Stuttgart, 2001), p. 738.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Strauss, letter to Scholem, 11 Aug. 1960, Hobbes’ politische Wissenschaft und zugehörige Schriften–Briefe, p. 740.

[4] See Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York, 2006).