The late seventies: I was not yet twenty, commuting to college between my home in New Jersey and New York City. Trudging each day through the Port Authority bus station, I would regularly be approached by missionaries of varying beliefs, my kippah apparently marking me a worthy target. Politely, I would assure them that I was not interested, but one day curiosity took control and I stopped to engage a young man (a Jew for Jesus) in conversation. After all, I had just returned from a year at Gush where we had a weekly class in “Da Mah Le-hashiv,” responses to missionary arguments, and I, perhaps a bit brashly, felt that I had amassed the knowledge and experience to counter any argument.
And indeed, the conversation went fairly well from my standpoint. The verses from Tanakh that my new friend brought as proof of prophecies fulfilled by Jesus were generally mistranslations, and he did not impress me as a particularly deep thinker. “I see you are more knowledgeable than I am,” he finally said, “but I really would like you to meet my teacher.” Years of yeshiva indoctrination had my imagination spinning with thoughts of cults and kidnapping, but I nonetheless accepted the invitation (with the stipulation that we meet in a very public place). Timothy and I met for coffee at a Howard Johnson’s in Times Square for what turned out to be a fascinating discussion which lasted for four hours. Mainly, I listened. As before, the Biblical verses which he interpreted as indications or predictions made no impression on me, as I could read them in the original Hebrew and place them in their actual context. The miracles that did or did not happen I likewise dismissed, referencing Deuteronomy 13:3-4, “If the sign or portent comes true… do not heed the words of that prophet,” which explicitly disqualifies miracles as a basis for rejecting established Torah precepts.
Though many topics were touched on and the fundamental differences between our faiths explored, there was one particular argument of his that intrigued me. “Salvation through the law is a notion that is inherently flawed,” Timothy contended. “We all agree that no one is without sin, and the Bible clearly states that one who sins is cursed. Therefore, everyone working within that theological system, that is to say, Judaism, is inevitably cursed.” The way to salvation, he continued, is not through commitment to the law, but rather via faith in the one who nullified the curse through his suffering. Leaving aside the difficulties with the alternative proposed by Timothy (its logical inconsistencies, its shirking of personal responsibility, and other problematical moral, religious, and historical consequences), the argument itself interested me. I left the meeting unscathed theologically, but with a deep desire to learn more and research the topic more fully.
Timothy was referring to a doctrine first articulated by Paul known as The Curse of the Law. In a sermon to the Galatians (a pagan community in the Anatolian region of Turkey), Paul says, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law’ ” (Galatians 3:10). Paul is quoting a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tavo, relating to the ceremony of blessings and curses to be recited on Mounts Gerizim and Eval when the Israelites entered the Land of Israel. The last of the twelve curses is a general catch-all coming after a list of very specific transgressions:
The second part of Timothy’s argument, that no one is without sin, also finds expression in the Bible. The author of Ecclesiastes points out what we all know to be true, “For there is not one good man on Earth who does what is best and doesn’t sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). It would appear, then, that sooner or later, the curse in Deuteronomy would be leveled against every single Jew. Rashi does not deny that this is the case. His explanation of the verse is straightforward: “Here (in these words) he included the entire Torah [under a curse], and they took it upon themselves with a curse and an oath.” Other commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, are bothered by this possibility. Thus, they mitigate the scope of the curse somewhat, claiming that it applies only to one who transgresses the specific sins mentioned previously in the curses, who sins in private, or similar limitations.
While these commentators address the troubling conclusion that results from the juxtaposition of these verses, they do not address the Pauline doctrine directly. To find a classical commentator who does directly and clearly respond to this doctrine, we must turn to Ramban (Nahmanides). Among classical Jewish commentators, no one understood Medieval Christian theology and the challenges posed by its proponents to Jews better than he; after all, he himself defended the Jewish position in the famous Disputation of Barcelona in late July 1263. There, in front of King James of Aragon, the apostate Sephardic Jew known as Pablo Christiani attempted to prove the truth of Christianity in a public debate with Ramban, hoping to convert other Spanish Jews and even Ramban himself. In the short-term, the King was deeply impressed by Ramban’s arguments saying memorably, that he had never heard an “unjust cause so nobly defended.” He even paid a public visit to the Jewish synagogue that Friday night as a mark of his respect. Ramban, however, had had deep reservations about participating in the debate to begin with, sensing that no good would come of it, and indeed, that turned out to be the case. Though granted complete freedom to speak without fear of retaliation, he was ultimately forced to flee Spain and in 1267 settled in Israel in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Ramban in his commentary on Deuteronomy 27:26 first quotes Rashi, then gives his own innovative explanation:
In my opinion, this commitment is that one acknowledges the validity of the commandments in his heart and that they are truthful in his view. That he believe that one who fulfills them will benefit and be rewarded, and that he who transgresses them will be punished. And if a person rejects any one of them or deems it permanently annulled, he is under this curse. But if someone transgresses a specific commandment, for example he ate pork or unkosher food out of desire [weakness] or did not fulfill the commandment of sukkah or lulav due to laziness, he is not under this curse.
The verse, Ramban claims, is not talking about the typical sinner who falls short of perfect adherence to the law for any one of a number of reasons such as lack of self-restraint or laziness. Such a person has no doubt transgressed the law and is expected to repent. However, so long as one believes by and large in the overall system, and admits that observing the commandments is the proper thing to do, the curse does not apply to him, even if at times he falters.
Ramban grounds his interpretation in a careful reading of the text:
For the text does not say “he who does not perform (ya’aseh) these words of Torah” but rather it says “he who does not uphold (yakim) these words of Torah to perform them,” along the lines of “The Jews undertook (kiymu) and irrevocably obligated themselves.” And this is a curse directed at the rebels and infidels.
Ramban supports his remarkable explanation by referencing the famous verse from the Book of Esther (9:27), (another Jewish hero who defended her people before a foriegn king) which describes the Jewish people’s spontaneous affirmation of their obligation to the Torah using the same term (k-y-m) as the verse in Deuteronomy. Based on this language, he deflects Paul’s challenge by asserting that a run-of-the-mill sinner is not the object of this curse so long as he accepts the Torah upon himself and feels obligated by it. Indeed, no man on Earth can live up to a level of perfection entirely free from sin, misjudgment, lapse of moral or religious fortitude or downright weakness, or negligence. Those types of faults, however, make one human, not cursed. With Ramban’s (re-)interpretation, Paul’s entire premise crumbles and his assertion that salvation under the law is impossible is rendered invalid.
But with deftness worthy of a master swordsman, Ramban not only parries Paul’s attack, but pivots to rebound the verse – and the curse – back against the Pauline challenger. The curse is not leveled against a normal sinner, but rather it applies to one who rejects the eternal validity of the system, to one who claims that observing the law is no longer capable of “benefiting and rewarding,” i.e. of effecting salvation. Ramban was certainly familiar with Paul’s message to the Galatians and the polemical use of this verse, and it would certainly seem that his term “rebels and infidels” is referring to Christians, or more specifically to Jewish apostates who converted to Christianity. As in the story of Bilaam who came to curse Israel but ended up blessing them, Ramban takes Paul’s doctrine which aimed to curse the Jews and bless their detractors, and transforms that very doctrine into the precise object and focus of that same curse. The curse is not directed at those who try (but sometimes fail) to uphold the Law (namely, the Jews), but rather at those who deny the eternal validity of the Law (i.e., apostates such as Paul and Pablo Christiani).
Ramban ends this piece with a somewhat unusual Aggadic note. The Midrash gives an alternate explanation to the phrase “who does not uphold” in our verse, claiming that these words are directed to the magbihah, the one who literally holds up (mekim) the Torah scroll for the congregation to see at the reading of the Torah portion. They exhort him to fulfill his duty with the utmost attention: special care must be taken as he “…lifts it up and shows the text to the right and left, to the front and back, since it is a Mitzvah for all the men, women, and children to see the text and to bow and say ve-zot ha-Torah, ‘and this is the Torah which Moshe placed before the Children of Israel.’ ”
In light of his interpretation of the verse and its context as part of the Christian polemic it engendered, one wonders if the hagbah tradition took on a deep and poignant significance to the Jews in Medieval Christian Europe. To those outside the synagogue who claimed that the law of Moshe was no longer valid, the devout pointed directly at the ancient text of the Torah scroll, exclaiming and passionately affirming “ve-zot ha-Torah” – this is the Torah, unchanging and binding. That phrase resonates with the words of the ninth of Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith:
II believe with perfect faith that this Torah (zot ha-Torah) is immutable and there shall never be another Torah given by God.
Ramban urges his fellow Jews to cherish the Torah scroll and appreciate every single word it contains. And there is good reason to cherish it. Rather than leading to inevitable despair, adherence to the Law is the eternal path towards physical and spiritual well being, as proclaimed again and again in this week’s Torah portion:
Now, if you obey the Lord your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day… All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect… (Deuteronomy 28:1-2)
By explicitly rejecting Paul’s Curse of the Law, Ramban, echoing the words of the prophet, has in effect, “turned the curse into a blessing” (Nehemiah 13:2), as he reminds us not to despair of our all too human shortcomings, and to embrace the truth of the Torah and its eternal relevance.