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Moses vs. Moses


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Towering over the history of Jewish thought in the medieval age are the two Moseses- the son of Maimon (Rambam), and the son of Nahman (Ramban). In the West they are known as Maimonides and Nahmanides, respectively.

I have introduced Maimonides in a previous post, the one on his views regarding the Trinity. Nahmanides was born in Girona, then part of Christian Spain. He was a mere child when Maimonides passed away, but in his adult years was embroiled in the controversies surrounding the supporters and detractors of Maimonides. He was heavily influenced by Maimonides' thought, but rejected his extreme rationalism and allegorisation of miracles. Here I'll let Josef Stern present one of the differences between their views.

We know what Maimonides thinks is wrong with idolatry. Even if the idolator does not believe that the idols themselves, the artificial icons, have power, he believes that they are images of gods or celestial beings who are worthy of worship because they have power over humans. In fact, however, Maimonides argues, these purported beings are powerless or unreal. Therefore, their worship is based on a false and empty presupposition. What is fundamentally wrong with idolatry, then, is that it is founded on a cognitive error of the highest magnitude (Guide of the Perplexed, I:36:82-83).

For Nahmanides, in contrast, what is wrong with idolatry is not that it is based on a false presupposition about its objects of worship.

Just the opposite: idolatry is forbidden (to Israel) precisely because its objects are real entities and powers.

In his Commentary on Exod. 20, 3, Nahmanides describes an elaborate metaphysical hierarchy, consisting of three classes of celestial beings each of which has dominion over certain peoples and places on earth, ranked in an order of power that also corresponds to the chronological order in which their representative kinds of idolatry historically emerged. The first, highest, and earliest objects of idolatry were the immaterial separate intellects, or angels. Some of these were originally believed to have power over specific nations and were therefore worshipped even when their respective nation recognized that there is a deity superior to them. Israel, however, was absolutely forbidden to worship any of these angels because it is the specially treasured people (segulah) of God who alone has power over them. Were the people of Israel to worship these

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