Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides, was born in Gerona, Spain. He would become the leader of Spanish Jewry. Perhaps the most dramatic event in his life was the Great Debate. It is a watershed in Jewish history.
King James I of Aragon was a very devoted Roman Catholic. In his court was a Jew by the name of Pablo Christiani – whom the Church called Friar Paul – who had converted to Roman Catholicism. He told the king that he was a Hebrew scholar (the king was barely literate) and that he would be able to prove from the Hebrew Bible and Talmud the truth of Christianity and the falsehood of Judaism. Furthermore, he could prove it to the greatest rabbi of the time, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman
The king thought that if he could convince the greatest rabbi of the veracity of Christianity the rest of the Jews would follow and he would have his ticket to heaven, indeed a front row seat.
Not only did he authorize a debate, but in history this debate marked the beginning of a series of debates –lasting some three centuries — in medieval Europe.
This is the only debate that the Jews won…because it was the only debate that was fair. Nachmanides agreed to the debate on the condition that the king grant him permission to speak freely. In those days, no one was allowed to say anything contrary to Christian doctrine. The cardinals and other Church officials said it would be blasphemy. However, the king concluded that it would only be fair if he was able to say what he wanted to say and guaranteed Nachmanides protection no matter what he said. That is why this is the only debate in medieval times that was fair.
The debate took place in Barcelona in 1267 CE the week before Shavout, the Jewish holiday commemorating the day that the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. We have an exact record of the debate kept by Nachmanides himself. Every night after each day’s debate, he wrote down what he said and what Pablo Christiani said.
Nachmanides said some very strong things. He said, for instance, that the Christian founder came into the world as the “Prince of Peace,” but more blood had been spilled by Christians that anybody else in the history of humanity. Their founder came on behalf of the poor, but no one had exploited the poor more than the Church.
There has never been such a combination of intellectual and emotional dismemberment of a person, Pablo Christiani. At its end, the king awarded the victory to Nachmanides and even gave him a donation of 300 gold coins for his academy.
However, the Church could not suffer such a defeat without taking vengeance. Indeed, after this debacle for the Church debates were never again fair. That is why such debates were always disastrous for the Jews and Jews avoided such debates where they could. They learned that being invited to a debate was like being invited to a pogrom.
On that very Shavuos just after the debate, Nachmanides held a sermon in the great synagogue in Barcelona. In it he restated to the Jewish audience the positive side of the debate, i.e. not what is wrong with Christianity but what it meant to be the people of the Torah. The Church claimed that although he had been granted permission to speak freely at the debate, he had no permission to do so at his synagogue. Therefore, his sermon was deemed heresy. From that time on the Church hounded until he was forced to leave Spain.
He was 72 when he left Spain and headed for the Land of Israel. He eventually arrived in the city of Jerusalem, but could not find a quorum of 10 Jews due to the ravages of the Crusades and the Muslims.
He gathered a few Jews from the city of Nablus (biblical Shechem) and Hebron, and brought them back. He then purchased a building in Jerusalem from his personal funds and made it a synagogue, thereby reestablishing the Jewish community in Jerusalem.
That synagogue stood until 1948 when the Arabs blew it up. Today, however, the synagogue of Nachmanides has been rebuilt in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem.
We have letters that he wrote home to his family. He writes about his homesickness for his family: his children and grandchildren. Nevertheless, he thanks God for allowing him to come to the Land of Israel and there to rebuild the community in Jerusalem.